Aggressive and invasive plants are rampant in the United States, where people from across the planet have come with various spores and saplings. From the scourge of Tennessee, Kudzu, to simple European mint; forests, roadsides and gardens are having their natural life decimated by plantlife with no natural checks or balances in the local ecosystem. While many are content to discuss our place as stewards of the land, few are aware of the practices readily available for the average person to take action for it. Even the most vocal advocates regarding our planet's health take part in its slow ravage—landscaping their property with beautiful but foreign plantlife.
“Native plants are part of the entire circle of life,” states John Manion, Outreach and Education Coordinator at Overhill Gardens in the Eastern Tennessee mountains. “If one component of that circle is missing, it can have dire ramifications for everything in it.” On the smallest and most direct level, birds depend on insects, which depend on plants, which depend on the microorganisms in our soil, which depend on the droppings of birds. It’s plain fact to acknowledge that what we plant in our lawns will affect the entirety of our local ecosystems.
Manion has watched over the years as the concept of native plant landscaping has gone from a counterculture of people in “tie-dye dresses with flowers in their hair” to a more broadly accepted practice. He credits entomologist Douglas W. Tallamy with the necessary spelling it out the general public needed by writing the book, Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife With Native Plants in 2009.
“I find it phenomenal the impact that book had,” says Manion. The book illustrated in simple terms how native plants are part of the circle of life, while offering easy ways for readers to take part in contributing to all of it. Over the last fourteen years, more and more people have accepted this reality and brought native landscaping into the mainstream. “There’s nothing outrageous about it!” declares Manion.
Unfortunately, there are many who don’t consider this at all when maintaining a neat, HOA-approved property, and even bad advice from those who are trying to be considerate. Manion mentions that on a native plants Facebook group he had joined, some members assert that early spring dandelions must be left alone, as they are an extremely important early food for local bees. While dandelions are pretty and plentiful, they actually don’t really have the proteins that bees need—they will first extract pollen from trees, only turning to dandelions when absolutely nothing else is available.
Many will insist that moths and their caterpillars must be removed or wiped out for a healthy garden, and this is also a dangerous untruth. “The number one food for songbirds when they are first born is moth caterpillars,” explains Manion. It’s important to be well educated on the subject before you take action. “So many things have gone extinct because of our mishandling,” he states.
A shocking example of the government mishandling land management, he says, was in the Smokey Bear campaign—the most successful public relations campaign ever run by the federal government. While Smokey taught us all to prevent and stop any instance of forest fires, we have since learned that burning is a crucial part of maintaining the ecosystem. Today, thankfully, control burns are very common.
On the other side of the fence are those who are concerned with the aesthetic of their property over the health of their land. One common mistake made may come as a surprise: raking leaves in the fall. The age-old tradition of keeping a “clean” lawn is actually hyper detrimental to local wildlife. Not only do dead leaves decompose and feed our soil, but throughout the season they will host fungi and insects that provide a very important food source for birds. Much of the ecosystem operates in ways that we don’t even see, and the bird feeders in our leaves are just one simple example of that.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
“If this interests you, you don’t have to go all out and start this enormous native plant garden,” Manions tells. “You can start small.” Basically, you don’t need to run through your lawn researching every plant and weed and ripping things out of the ground—native plant stewardship can start with one or three plants that you’d like to see around. The other great boon to your landscape will be that because native plants “know what to do” in native terrain, they are fairly low maintenance.
“It’s a misnomer to say they don’t need any care,” expounds Manion. “But they need less care, because they are adapted to our ecosystem.” In other words, there wouldn’t be any need to run sprinklers every day and buy pounds of fertilizer, but a bit of attention and watering every so often is necessary for any plant. For the least amount of work possible, simply do research into what plants would be happiest on your specific property. Whether it is wet, dry, sunny, shady, full of clay or very acidic, there are native plants that will thrive in your yard.
“Everyone wants a pollinator garden,” laughs Manion, who says while cultivating one is a great thing to do, it’s also a relatively small step. When planting any garden, take into account which plants are local—these will be the most beneficial for local pollinators. There are a number of simple replacements for common garden herbs and flowers that will make your wildlife happy and healthy. One example that surprised me was Mountain Mint, a wild growing and native mint plant with an extremely pleasant floral fragrance that won’t spread as aggressively as the more popular European counterpart. I was given one to take home and am looking forward to the beautiful and useful ground cover that won’t destroy everything else in its vicinity.
Another ground covering plant that will make pollinators happy are River Oats—an ornamental grass that makes drooping flowers. While not all of them produce large amounts of fruit, the Southeast is also home to a number of species of blueberry, which every pollinator in your area will adore. Our local bees, Manion explains, are rather underloved because they don’t produce honey. Planting some native blueberries just for them will give you a beautiful floral shrub while promoting their continued existence. For extra fruit for everyone, get yourself a Paw Paw tree: it’s America’s largest edible fruit. For a full-fledged oasis in your yard, it’s important to collect a mixture of trees, shrubs, vines, and perennials. If you only prefer a big, open lawn, native grasses are the perfect option. Manion recommends replacing foreign grasses with the local bluestem or Cherokee sedge.
TEARING DOWN THE GREEN SCREEN
Overhill Gardens is home to (arguably) the largest native plant nursery in the entire Southeastern United States. Home to over one thousand species of native plants, they also offer education programs and landscaping services. Nearly every plant they grow is propagated on site via seeds or cuttings. It’s also a family business: in 1999 Avi Askey bought the property, and invited to it his Pennsylvanian landscaper parents, followed by his brother. The entire family continues to work in the nursery to this day. I was fortunate to have some interaction with Askey’s mother, Eileen, and her 14 year old sweetheart beagle named Ollie. Ollie became fast friends with my own dog (who Manion invited to come along with me) and Eileen helped me to navigate the massive property of greenhouses, planters, and bogs. It was clear through every interaction at the nursery that the entire family was as knowledgeable as they were down-to-earth. As Eileen tipped a three gallon witch hazel shrub on its side in my hatchback some soil spilled across the interior. She asked plainly, “Is this upsetting to you?” and we both cracked up laughing.
Manion came on board for education and outreach just last spring. He has done his share of careers—from mortician to trauma nurse to native plant curator—before ending up in the mountains. When he found his passion for plant life, Manion returned to school to get a bachelor’s degree in plant science, interned at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, Scotland, and completed a master’s program with a full scholarship at Cornell University in New York. Today, he is one of seven regular employees at Overhill (most of whom are the Askey family) and says they “always need help.” His job as of late has been to create and operate educational programs and workshops for those who want to know more about our native plants and their history, doing what he calls “tearing down the green screen.”
There are a number of our native plants that have fantastic tales that surround them; even some that most make a point to tear apart immediately. Pokeberry, for example—the fast growing, toxic purple berry that grows in tall drooping clusters across the South—was used to write the Declaration of Independence. Bloodroot, which emits a dark orange or red sap when broken, was used by Native Americans as dye and face paint and recently discovered to have the potential to cause “extreme tissue destruction” by the American Garden Society. Manion has his own personal history with the large-leafed Mayapple plant. When he worked as a nurse in the Air Force, a particular compound was used to kill the cells surrounding plantar’s warts that grew into the feet of soldiers. Only much later did he realize that the compound used then was made from a chemical in the Mayapple, which has the ability to stop cellular growth and kill unwanted growth. Fairly recently, it’s been studied in the treatment of cancer.
In the hopes of helping people to see not an amorphous cover of green, but the stories and intrigue around each species, Manion is leading talks at the Botanical Gardens at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Overhill is also about to host their second “PawPawPalooza,” where visitors can learn about propagating and raising their own Paw Paw trees in a full day class. Events are regularly posted on the Overhill Gardens Facebook page.