Celebrating Earth Day Through Native Plants

Today is the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day. For a half century, April 22 has been a day when we celebrate a connection with our planet and pause to think about how we can be better earth stewards. I would like to state the case for having native plants be central to this stewardship focus.

Earth Day in 1970 mobilized 20 million Americans to unify in support of environmental protection. The energy of this movement led to a greater awareness of and protection for natural elements important to humans, including clean air (Clean Air Act of 1970), clean water (Clean Water Act of 1972) and biological diversity (Endangered Species Act of 1973).

My 50th Anniversary Earth Day Flag – an adapted version of John McConnell’s Earth Day flag adorned with the spring blooming native plants (clockwise from upper left-golden alexander, vernal witch hazel, Missouri evening primrose, and rose verbena).

Native plants and their ecosystems are closely connected to the health of air, water, and biological diversity. Native plants photosynthesize, produce oxygen and sink atmospheric carbon. Native plants buffer streams, hold soil, and filter moving water. Native plants provide food and habitat for wildlife of all kinds. For the more than one billion people that will recognize Earth Day around the world today, celebrating native plants could easily be central to this celebration.

So, to celebrate the 50th Earth Day, I would like to recognize some of the spring-blooming native plants that are hitting their stride in my home landscape right now.

A favorite garden corner with bloomers from left to right including Major Wheeler honeysuckle, roundleaf ragwort, ‘Pink Lanterns’ columbine, shortstem spiderwort, and golden alexander.

Spring blooming wildflowers offer the first signs of hope after a long winter. In late winter/early spring, they bait us with anticipation, even when nighttime temperatures regularly dip below freezing and cold winds are not yet inviting us to be outside. Their root systems receive messages from increasing hours of daylight and higher average temperatures. Their green shoots break dormancy and emerge as if they are responding to cheerful invitations of the robins, repeatedly calling “cheer-up, cheer-a-lee, cheer-ee-o”.

That was the scene in my yard in early March. Fast forward now to mid April through more than a month of pandemic isolation. While I’m captive at home, the need for hope and beauty seems ever greater and the following spring blooming wildflowers are answering the call.

Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense)

Wild ginger.

Wild ginger is a creeping wildflower that creates growing ground cover colonies. The roots of the plant smell like ginger. Their heart-shaped close-to-the-ground leaves may be less than striking, but the hidden flowers of wild ginger (pollinated by beetles, flies and ants) are worth the search.

Wild ginger flower.

Woodland Phlox (Phlox divaricata)

Woodland phlox.

The Greek meaning of the word phlox refers to the intense floral color which is evident once you see woodland phlox in bloom. The plant will form a spreading colony. It does surprisingly well in Kansas if you can find a protected place for it. The fragrant and showy flowers attract butterflies, hummingbird moths, and hummingbirds.

Roundleaf Ragwort (Packera obovata)

Roundleaf ragwort.

Once established, roundleaf ragwort establishes a creeping colony and is one of the earliest bloomers in the spring. Roundleaf ragwort flowers attract butterflies, bees, and bumblebees. With an evergreen leaf throughout all seasons, this species offers year-round interest without being invasive to the detriment of surrounding plants.

Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pennsylvanica)

Pennsylvania sedge.

Pennsylvania sedge is commonly found in the dry to dry-mesic understory of oak-hickory woodlands. It is a nice landscaping choice for a dry, shady yard location in Kansas. While they certainly do resemble grasses in their appearance, sedges, characterized by their triangular stem (“sedges have edges”) are in a family all their own.

Columbine ‘Pink Lanterns’ (Aquilegia canadensis)

Columbine ‘Pink Lanterns’.

Columbine is easy to establish in partial sun to full shade conditions and its flowers attract hummingbirds and bumblebees. The name is in reference to a couple of birds. The genus name Aquilegia is derived from a combination of the Latin word “aquila” (meaning eagle for the five spurs resembling an eagle claw) and the Latin word for “columba” (meaning dove, for five doves nestled together). This pink version of Aquilegia canadensis was actually discovered in Marion County, Kansas by Dyck Arboretum of the Plains!

Spring Bloomers in Your Landscape

Many spring blooming wildflowers are native to woodland understories. Such woodland understories historically would have only been native to Eastern Kansas. Today, urban tree canopies and the north side of fences, garages, and houses all provide great shady habitat to plant spring woodland bloomers like those featured in our FloraKansas plant sale Spring Woodland Kit.

But you certainly don’t need to stop with the species in this kit. See a previous blog post (Spring-Blooming Prairie and Woodland Plants) featuring additional spring bloomers that you might consider for shady or sunny areas.

Celebrate Earth Day with me. Consider participating in the rewarding ritual of native plant gardening and make every day Earth Day.

Shade Plants in Their Natural Habitat

On vacation in early July, some friends and I explored Devil’s Lake State Park, Wisconsin. Rocky and rainy, with lushly forested slopes, it is a very different landscape from my beloved Kansas. While hiking I saw many of my favorite shade plants living in situ, outside the confines of our carefully cultivated gardens. To spot them in their natural habitat is always a thrill!

Devil’s Lake State Park offers well kept hiking trails, rock climbing and water recreation.

Jack-in-the-Pulpit

Jack-in-the-Pulpit was growing along the hiking path ringing the lake. Easy to confuse with poison ivy because of its three leaves, colonies of them grow in part sun locations. In early spring their fluted blooms appear, inconspicuous in yellow and brown. In hot locations they will conserve their energy and go dormant for the summer.

Arisaema triphyllum, Jack-in-the-Pulpit

Ferns

Ferns were growing out of every crag, reaching their delicate fronds upward. Kansas does actually have many of our own native ferns, but they are much harder to find than those in wetter climes. I was really having a hard time keeping up with our hiking group because I was so fascinated by the diversity of ferns around us! I saw christmas ferns, lady ferns and wood ferns all in less than a mile’s walk.

The dots on the underside of the fern frond are spore clusters called ‘sori’.

Coral Berry

I also saw groups of coral berry (Symphoricarpos) growing in the understory, their fruits shining in the dappled light of afternoon. There are lots of cultivars of this plant quite suitable for sunnier locations. They make wonderful bushes for foundation plantings or filler amongst other shrubs.

Luckily you don’t have to go all the way to Wisconsin to see these beauties. All the plants listed in this post will be available at our fall FloraKansas Native Plant Festival fundraiser! Call or email Arboretum staff for more information.