Landscaping with wildflowers makes sense

Planting trillium, lady's slipper, or Solomon's seal right in your own back yard? It seems improper somehow, a contradiction in terms. Yet many home gardeners are discovering that wildflowers have some distinct advantages over typical garden flowers. And to those with a conservationist bent, growing native plants is an ideal way to protect local naturalresources while helping to preserve an irreplaceable national heritage.

The key to success lies in plant selection, according to Annie Paulson, resource botanist at the National Wildflower Research Center near Austin, Texas. Where they're at home they'll flourish.

``Plants are naturally adapted to their native environment including climate, rainfall, and soil type,'' she says. Indigenous species take hold more readily and bloom more beautifully than plants common to another region.

Natural adaptation is also why gardening with wild plants is less expensive than the European style, which uses longtime cultivated species. Less time and money will be spent on replacement planting since, once established, indigenous species can tolerate extremes in temperature and rainfall.

Natives are also more resistent to pests and diseases that attack their foreign-born counterparts, and thus require little specialized treatment.

There are other savings as well. With wildflowers, fertilization is not only unnecessary but undesirable. ``Some natives don't know how to metabolize extra doses of fertilizers, becoming leggy and blooming poorly,'' Ms. Paulson says. Nor is there a need for routine watering, a factor of increasing importance to conservationsists who recognize how resource-consuming traditional gardening is.

According to Paulson, some cities report that 50 percent of their water consumed in the summer is for landscaping.

Wildflowers do tend to be somewhat more expensive to buy, however, because the large-scale propagation of native plants by commercial nurseries is relatively new.

This initial cost can be offset by combining mature plants with seeds, which are less expensive.

To stretch your investment, the Center recommends a mix of perennials with self-seeding annuals and biennials.

Another strategy is to combine a small number of native species with already established cultivars, since they adapt just as well to formal garden designs as naturalistic settings.

Don't be tempted to save on the initial cost by digging your own inthe wild. Many plants are protected by law; even if not, you may be depleting those varieties scarce in your area. What's more, this practice is rarely successful.

``There are many species,'' says Paulson, ``where the percent of survivability from digging is very, very low.''

Besides, merely moving a plant from one location to another negates an important benefit of gardening with wildflowers, that of actually increasing native populations by cultivation.

While growing native plants in established gardens can greatly contribute to overall preservation efforts, it is particularly crucial in new communities.

According to Paulson, the number one cause of plant extinction is habitat destruction, and a major cause of habitat destruction is development.

``If residents of newly developed areas re-landscape with species that were there to begin with, it would leave our heritage intact and maintain the genetic diversity essential to thriving plant communities,'' she says.

Don't be deterred by the myth that wildflowers are tricky to grow.

``Some natives are easier than others, but as a class it's not more difficult to garden with native species than with cultivated plants,'' Paulson asserts.

May or early June is an ideal time for planting wildflower seeds in northern areas of the country, while in southern regions it's best to wait until fall. Mature plants should be put in the ground when they are dormant.

To learn more about gardening with native plants, shrubs, trees, and grasses, including reputable suppliers of species appropriate to your area, write to: Clearinghouse, National Wildflower Research Center, 2600 FM 973 North, Austin, TX 78725. A self-addressed, business-size envelope with a 56-cent stamp is requested.

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