Baffling Experiences with Native Plants

Baffling Experiences with Native Plants

I have good, mesic prairie soil on my property.  My Sears bungalow was built in 1927 and the topsoil was saved and put back on the ground when the house was built, unlike nowadays.

I should be able to grow any native plant that is found in nature in mesic soil in our temperature zone, right?

Well, not exactly.

Some plants just do not thrive in my gardens and I don’t understand why.

Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), for instance.  Anyone can grow Wild Bergamot.  Swink & Wilhelm say in Plants of the Chicago Region that it is a common plant with a wide range of habitats and associations.

It grew along my west side sidewalk in 2008-2009, but then disappeared.

Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium) is another plant that is difficult for me to grow.  It is a frequent species of remnant prairies, according to Swink & Wilhelm. I have planted and replanted it several times.  It will grow for a few years, and then, one spring, it  simply doesn’t return.

The button blossoms of Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium) combine beautifully with the daisies of False Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides) and the spires of Culver’s Root (Veronicastrum virginicum) in 2009.  Ever optimistic, I planted 12 new 1 quart plants last spring–we’ll see if they grow

I have 3 surviving White Wild Indigo (Baptisia leucantha) out of at least a dozen that I have planted.

But here, in Geneva River Park

and in the Sears complex in Hoffman Estates, they were planted by seed and are thriving.

Cream Wild Indigo (Baptisia leucophaea), primarily a plant of mesic prairie, say Swink & Wilhelm, does not thrive for me either.  I only have two plants out of at least a dozen that I have planted.

Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida)  grows well in some parts of my gardens, but has failed in other areas.

This clump was magnificent for several years, but it didn’t come back last year.

Cynthia or False Dandelion (Krigia biflora) appeared in my garden many years ago, evidently growing from a seed dropped in a pot of a different plant.  Delighted, I bought and planted more plugs and had a thriving colony for quite some time.  It re-seeded itself for many years, but this summer there was only 1 plant.  The last photo I have is 2010.  Unfortunately, it’s no longer listed at the nursery where I buy all my plants, but, hopefully, it will be available by mail order.

 May 2007

 Wild Blue Phlox (Phlox divaricata) never lasts for more than a season–are my gardens too sunny, too dry?  This is terribly disappointing–it’s one of my very favorite plants.

I replaced it every spring for years, but I have finally given up on it

I discussed this with Jerry Wilhelm and he reminded me of genius loci or the “spirit of place.”   Every square meter of land in the world is unique to the world and has its own spirit, Jerry explained.  It’s not only unique in its physical qualities, but also its spiritual qualities–its atmosphere, its character, its impression, its perception, intangible, but real–things we can’t see or touch or hear, but  we feel.  Feelings that we may only register unconsciously, but, nevertheless, affect us.

Genius loci is  a term used in Architecture and Landscape Architecture. The designer must be sensitive to the unique qualities of place and enhance them, rather than destroy them.

Famous Landscape Architect, Russell Page said:

Somewhere in a spoiled or incomplete or even plain ugly garden lurks the genius loci.

Here are a couple of quotes from Alexander Pope:

Alexander Pope, in Epistle IV (1731) of his Moral Essays, addressed to Lord Burlington, states in his Argument that, ‘instanced in architecture and gardening,… all must be adapted to the genius of the place, and… beauties not forced into it, but resulting from it’.

And from the same source:

Consult the genius of the place in all;
That tells the waters or to rise, or fall;
Or helps th’ ambitious hill the heav’ns to scale,
Or scoops in circling theatres the vale;
Calls in the country, catches opening glades,
Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,
Now breaks, or now directs, th’ intending lines;
Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs.

I don’t fertilize, deadhead or, after the first couple of years, I don’t water.  I burn every spring (protecting new plants). It seems like  I’m willing to let my prairie and savanna gardens do what they want to do–see my essays on “serendipity”– but only up to a point.  I’m intent on forcing plants into my gardens that don’t want to be there.

This essay took a different turn from that which I started from–from self-righteous indignation to embracing what my plants are telling me.



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