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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5 Responses to Baffling Experiences with Native Plants

  1. Suzanne Massion January 20, 2013 at 8:25 pm #

    Pat, your treatise and thoughts on the genius loci were a real revelation to me. I’ve had a couple of rattlesnake master plants show up in the prairie for several years. Didn’t plant them or even gather seeds; just left them alone and gave thanks every year I see them again. Same thing with creamy gentian that arrived about 5 years ago. It keeps coming back, but seed gathering has not, for me, produced any more elsewhere on our property. I liked your complete turn about at the end of your essay. No matter what our gardening wishes are, we probably all need to get more in touch with the genius loci.

  2. Charles Allen January 20, 2013 at 8:53 pm #

    I wonder if some of the disappearance of plant species is linked to succession. I have done some prairie restorations her in sw Louisiana and have seen the changes thru the years as some species disappear over time and reappear if I disturb the area and start succession all over again.

  3. chris darbo January 21, 2013 at 7:49 am #


  4. Yvonne Nillissen January 21, 2013 at 7:54 am #

    Thank you so much for this articule. I always assume that it is something I have done wrong when plants predicted to thrive; don’t. Especially as these are sometimes plants I recommend to friends and clients. It happens to the best of us!
    Now if only my very locally adapted creeping charlie could be a little less comfortable in its genius loci.

  5. Ed Collins January 21, 2013 at 10:23 am #

    After working in this field for nearly 30 years I no longer question the concept of land being not only complex biologically but alive spiritually, sentient if you will. Imagine an ecological awareness that permeates all of creation and speaks in a language that humanity once could converse in fluently. A language that we have not only forgotten the syntex and accent of, but one which we have increasingly drowned out with extrenal noise and internal mental clutter.

    Now imagine a human being whose inner soul still harkens to a different time, when such communiction was the rule of the world and not the exception. A human being whose ears would willing listen but has had no elder, no mentor, to teach that ancient language.

    How would you communicate if you were the ecological sentience of the genus loci? Would you provide visual clues and puzzling events that your human connection could not overlook? Would you utilize that innate curiousity to draw that person into a deep and increasingly compelling form of intraspecies communication?

    I have come to believe we are in a dialogue with landscape and the subtle clues it provides us, beauty, inspiration, curiousity, are hallmarks of the natural world reaching out to that wild piece of our soul that steadfastly refuses to be domesticated.

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