How Does One Learn About Native Plants?

How does one learn about native plants?

Their names, their habitat?  How tall do they grow?  When do they bloom?In what kind of soil do they grow best–wet, medium, or dry?  Do they grow in Prairie, Savanna, or Wetland?  Do they like sun or shade?

Horlock Hill w: Wild blue Indigo

Pioneering prairie restoration made by St. Charles High School students from  Bob Horlock’s science class.  Cream and Blue Wild indigo (Baptisia leucophaea and B. australis) and Yellow Pimpernell (Taenidia integerrima) are blooming in late May at Horlock Hill.

1.Trek through natural areas–remnants (never plowed) or restored prairies and savannas, with camera, note book and pen or pencil, and a plant ID book.  Take pictures–easy with a Smart Phone, make sketches, note plant features, where it is located, what plants surround it.   (I filled 3 notebooks when I was first learning about prairie and savanna, to which i still refer.  Talk to other people you see there–I met the Director of the  Kane County Forest Preserve at Horlock Hill Prairie one Sunday and he showed me some orchids I never would have found on my own.  Then it got even better and  he then took me to the original dry prairie slope on the other side of the wide path, hidden by a border of Smooth Sumac, which I wouldn’t have found either.

Walking tour of a restored oak savanna led by the owner, a Wild Ones member.  Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia) and Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) dot the matrix of sedges and wild flowers that cover  the ground n May.

walk in Brenda's savanna

2. Join or form a new chapter of Wild Ones, Native Plants, Natural Landscapes.


Wild Ones promotes environmentally sound  landscaping practices to preserve biodiversity through the preservation, restoration, and establishment of native plant communities.  Wild Ones is a not-for-profit environmental, educational, and advocacy organization, active in 12 states,  primarily in the Midwest.  Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin account for 40 out of its 51 chapters.

June and Trish and I started a Wild Ones Chapter in Northern Kane County in 2008  and we now have 90 members.  Bloomington -Normal and West Cook have formed since then and now both have over 70+ members.

Wild Ones winter meetings feature knowledgable speakers or sometimes films, while the warmer months take us on tours of local (and some not so local) native plant gardens of members and natural areas.   They also have plant and seed exchanges and plant sales.

They sometimes put on seminars or have special events with renowned speakers.   Money that they raise goes to help other native plant organizations such as The Conservation Foundation and Chicago Wilderness.

3.  Take classes from knowledgeable teachers at Community Colleges, Nature and Forest Preserves, Park Districts, Arboretums, etc.

CBG wild bergamot

Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Yellow Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), and Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) in bloom at the Chicago Botanic Garden.  Both the Chicago Botanic Garden and Morton Arboretum in the Chicago area hold classes and have knowledgable speakers about native plants at seminars.

Morton Arboretum entrance

Morton Arboretum Visitor Center.  Purple Coneflower peeks through a matrix of Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolis heterolepis).

4.   Volunteer to help steward a remnant (never plowed) natural area.

marsh marigold BSF

Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris) and sedges in Bluff Spring Fen, an Illinois Nature Preserve in my town.

5.  Read informative books:

Kane County Wild Plants and Natural Areas by Dick Young.  This is appropriate to more than just Kane County, Il–it is invaluable to any place in northeastern Illinois and beyond.  It’s illustrated by Nan Mortensen with charming, hand-drawn and colored illustrations, while Dick writes a pithy informative paragraph that describes each plant.  It begins with the common name, then the scientific name, tells us whether the plant is common or uncommon, where it is found, a brief description that gives the size, describes the leaves, then the flower, then the bloom time.  Sounds rather cut and dried, doesn’t it?  It’s anything but.   It’s local–extremely important–and the prose and the hand drawn illustrations are not only accurate and informative, but charming, as well.

A Nature Conservancy book, Tallgrass Prairie Wildflowers is a field guide written by by Doug Ladd.  Doug describes each plant,  gives its Habitat/Range, and frequently makes personal comments, as well.  The stunning colored photographs are by Frank Oberly.

The Sunflower Family in the Upper Midwest: A Photographic Guide to the Asteraceae in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin by Susanne Masi with photographs by Thomas M. Antonio. .  Each species is represented by a stunning photograph on the left side page with Suzanne’s text on the right side page along with two other smaller photos.

Asteraceae is extremely well represented in the Midwest, comprising nearly 10% of the region’s flowering plant species.  Not only does the sunflower family contain sunflowers and asters, and others with daisy shapes, but Boneset, Snakeroot, Joe Pye Weed, and Blazing Stars of all kinds.  A book for scholars and also, for the rest of us.

Gardening with Prairie Plants by Sally Wasowski with photographs by Andy Wasowski  This was the first book out-in 2002- about prairie plants and gardening with them.

Four more books to give you a feel for the prairie and other natural areas in the midwest.

Where the Sky Began; Land of the Tallgrass Prairie by John Madson

A Natural History of the Chicago Region by Joel Greenberg

PrairyErth by William Least Heat-Moon

and above all others:

Siftings by Jens Jensen

A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold

I implore you to read all of the above.

And then there is:

Design Your Natural Midwest Garden

my book

I recently figured out that not many people actually read my book–they just look at the photographs and the designs.  But it’s well worth reading–the introduction consists of Why Native Plants?, What is a Prairie?, Why Plant Native Plants? and Gardening as a Way of Life, all important topics if you want to grow native plants.  If you didn’t read it, was it because you thought it was boring?  Or is the print too small?  I also go on to describe 70+ native prairie, savanna, and wetland plants–forbs, grasses, shrubs, and trees within he context of the design the first time the plant is mentioned.  Perhaps if you weren’t interested in a particular design, you would not have seen the description of a plant you were interested in.  Would it have been better to have a separate section of plant photographs and descriptions?

Why am I so interested in what you think of my book?  I have been writing my blog for the past 5 or 6 years or so, plus I have been working sporadically on 3 more books.  One is my memoir as a child, another is my Midwestern Gardeners’ Manifesto, and the other one is To Everything There is a Season, a journey through the year from Spring–March through February–late winter.   I have decided to concentrate on the last.  I will have a story and photos of gardens or natural areas 52 weeks of the year; an essay about lawns, about rain gardens, about beat the heat;  I will include some interviews and stories about volunteer stewards that take care of our natural areas.  It will take a year to do, at least.  So i want feedback on my other book in order to make this new one better.  Any criticism or compliment you have will be welcomed.

14 Responses to How Does One Learn About Native Plants?

  1. Lisa Mertz February 20, 2015 at 10:47 am #

    Hello, Pat.
    I’ll confess that I have not yet read your book, but I do appreciate receiving your e-mails. I may be able to assist with your efforts to some extent through the Township’s Open Space Program. Among other activities, the Twp’s annual Prairie Fest will be on Sat. Sept. 26 this year. Perhaps you would be interested in having a booth. Let’s stay in touch. Lisa

  2. yvonne Nillissen February 20, 2015 at 12:59 pm #

    About your book. I think it is REALLY important to address weed incursion into the prairie plantings. In spring gardeners have a hard time identifying what sprouts are weeds and what are native plants. Then the weeds take over!
    Also address aggressive prairie plants (like black-eyed susans). There are so many abandoned prairie garden projects I see, and I think Many are due to these factors!
    Thanks for listening!


    • Pat Hill February 22, 2015 at 12:51 pm #

      Thanks for writing! I’ll address weed issues.

    • Steve Windsor February 22, 2015 at 1:34 pm #

      Planting one species together when you only have 3-6 plugs of that species will help identify the interloping weeds in Spring. Having them together will also make the pollinators’ use of time more efficient by keeping all their food on one plate during summer bloom. Then in fall your seed collecting will be simpler – one paper bag in one location without searching down individual plants.

  3. John Schultz February 20, 2015 at 2:19 pm #


    I think you know already that I did more than glance at your pictures and plans. I read it cover to cover (with a highlighter at times). Your book was the introduction to native landscaping I had been looking for. Without it, I don’t know that I would have ever done anything like it.

    I am a lazy gardener and I used your plans and shamelessly adapted them to my yard. It was my “Just add plants!” gardening system. So far, so good. Some things may not work out and I am okay with that. I am a little more nervous about the aggressive plants that I learned about later.

    I know I had criticisms of the book when I was first reading and using it. The only criticisms I remember that still come up are that I wish the compass was included on each design (it was at least nearly cropped off of some), and that the scale of the drawings had been included. Since the designs were probably scaled for inclusion in the book, a typical 1/4″=1′ probably wouldn’t work. It would need to be:
    |———-| = 1′ (or 5′, or 10′)

    I just remembered another: I appreciate the use of common names, but it makes it very hard when trying to order the plants.

    On a positive note: I wish you could come over to my house and take pictures for me. The pictures in your book are far better than any I have taken.

    • Pat Hill February 22, 2015 at 12:59 pm #

      You’re so right, John. I’ll make sure the designs have directional arrows and they are printed to scale. Your gardens are larger than mine. so I don’t think you will have as much of a problem with aggressive plants. And I will be happy to come over and take photos of your gardens.

  4. Jason February 21, 2015 at 9:26 am #

    I think I told you that I have read your book and keep a copy on hand for occasional reference. I am a mostly-natives gardener, as you know. Offhand I don’t think I can offer any criticisms. However, I have been thinking of going back through it and writing a review, which might produce some suggestions. Good luck with the new book!

    • PatHill February 23, 2015 at 12:35 am #

      I’d love to have you write a review, Jason.

  5. John Schultz February 21, 2015 at 9:17 pm #

    I thought of something else that I would have liked more of in your book. The insight into why you placed certain plants in certain places. I understand shade and moisture requirements. I’m speaking more of the aesthetics. Your did it at times, and I found that useful. e.g. When I adapted your design for 1/3 less lawn, the accompanying chapter mentioned that you placed the prairie dropseed around the front steps. When I adapted it for my yard, I made sure to include that detail.

    • Pat Hill February 22, 2015 at 1:24 pm #

      Perhaps you would like a section that divided plants into various shapes such as spires, domes, umbels, plumes, daisies, curtains, edgings. For instance a spire and a dome is a classic combination.

      • John Schultz February 27, 2015 at 10:25 am #

        That sounds interesting. I don’t know how much I would use it. I often don’t know what aesthetic qualities I’m looking for in a situation until I see it. (Remember, I am a self proclaimed “lazy gardener.”)

        Perhaps a section for situational applications such as what might work well anchoring the corner of the house or yard. Plants that look especially nice near the door or a deck. etc.

  6. Kathy Packard May 16, 2015 at 10:08 pm #

    Hi Pat–

    Our chapter of Wild Ones (Illinois Prairie, central Illinois) holds a native plant sale every spring, and I spent several hours with your book, another, and two catalogs, trying to figure out how best to add more natives to my home landscape. Your book was very helpful, but the most frustrating thing that hasn’t been mentioned was trying to figure out what size each design is (a few have it but most don’t) and how many plants of each kind were in a group.

    John mentioned aggressive plants. Has there been something in the blog that I missed? I have been ripping out all my cup plants because they tried to take over my garden, and I wonder if there are others I shouldn’t include.

    Thank you for such an enjoyable and informative blog.

    • PatHill May 17, 2015 at 12:45 am #

      I had no say in the design of my book and was disappointed, as well that the designs weren’t printed to scale as they were drawn. I’m working on a new book now, and will insist that the designs be printed to scale.

      At the time, i didn’t realize how aggressive some plants can be. I agree about the Cup Plant; Rosin Weed, another Silphium is equally so, in my experience. Woodland Sunflowers–all three of them– are extremely aggressive. Aster oblongifolius, a denizon of dry prairie, is my favorite aster; and while well behaved in dry summers, it is overly aggressive in cool wet springs and summers that we have had last year and this. It’s he same problem with Stiff Coreopsis. Maybe a blog would be a good place to expand on this. Plants grow closer together in the prairie and keep each other in check, but in the less dense garden, there can be excess.

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