Southeast BY CAROL BISHOP MILLER / Huntsville, Alabama, Zone 7
ROUNDING A BEND in a rocky logging road that skirts a northern Alabama mountain creek and finding before us, overflowing the banks and flooding the sandbar in between, a cerulean sea of Virginia bluebells, tossing in the chilly spring breeze. Descending a wooded, limestone hillside pocked with craterlike sinkholes to find ourselves surrounded by the overwhelming sight and collective fragrance of thousands of snowy flowered Trillium flexipes. These are experiences I owe to over two decades of membership in the Huntsville Wildflower Society, a chapter of the Alabama Wildflower Society. It’s heartening to know that almost every state—and certainly every region—in this country has one or more organizations dedicated to the appreciation and preservation of its native plants.
Convivial field trips to off-the-beaten-path locations, and lectures and workshops presented by knowledgeable fellow enthusiasts have long been the staple fare of these groups, but many native plant societies are also placing greater emphasis on public education and activism. As it has become clear that our native plants face an increasingly ominous array of threats—from assertive introduced plant species and an exploding deer population, to mining and development—and as more is learned about the fragile interconnectedness of life on our planet, many of these societies are partnering with land trusts and other conservation groups, landowners, and government agencies to preserve or restore whole ecosystems. Members of the Georgia Native Plant Society do their part by devoting a monthly workday to replacing invasive privet with appropriate native plants on a section of Cobb County’s Heritage Park Trail. Realizing that there may be little left to celebrate in another half century, the 52-year-old North Carolina Wildflower Preservation Society recently launched its Rare Plant Initiative, a multipronged campaign whose theme, “Saving All the Pieces,” is taken from conservationist Aldo Leopold’s observation that the first rule of tinkering is to save all the pieces. By promoting the propagation and landscape use of native plants, and by facilitating cooperation among developers, government officials, researchers, and others, the group hopes to protect their state’s natural beauty and prevent the loss of even one native plant species.
With opportunities for fellowship, freshair adventure, and meaningful work toward preserving our natural heritage, native plant societies offer something for everyone. “We always thought it was so good for us as a family to be together and to share a common interest,” says Dot Threlkeld, who, with her husband Bill, has been active in the Alabama Wildflower Society for 30 years. Noting that her youngest son, Steve, a botanist with our state’s department of conservation and natural resources, was undoubtedly influenced in his career choice by childhood field trips with society members who shared with him their vast knowledge and love of nature, she adds, “We have such good memories of our wild-flower trips. I wish we could get more young families interested. They don’t know what they’re missing!” H
PLACES TO VISIT
The best place I’ve found to view a wide variety of southeastern and Middle Atlantic native plants in action is the North Carolina Botanical Garden at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A series of habitat gardens displays plants native to the state’s three main geographic regions in a relaxed, naturalistic setting. In addition, the Native Perennial/Rare Plants Border showcases the organization’s role as a founding member of the Center for Plant Conservation, and the Carnivorous Plant Collection affords a rare chance to meet these bizarre wetland natives up close. Find out more by visiting their web site (www.unc.edu/depts/ncbg) or by calling 919–962-0522.
To find a native plant society in your area, contact the nearest botanical garden, or refer to William Cullina’s Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines (Houghton Mifflin, 2002) or Jan Midgley’s Southeastern Wildflowers (Crane Hill, 1999), both of which list plant societies in their appendices.
Butterfly weed Asclepias tuberosa
One of our zingiest native wildflowers is butterfly weed (USDA Zones 3–9), found throughout eastern North America and in all but a handful of western states. Magnetic to butterflies and hummingbirds, the flat-topped umbels of yellow to vibrant orange flowers are borne on stiff, one- to three-foot stems thickly cloaked with deep green, narrow leaves—a favored food of monarch and queen caterpillars. It blooms for six weeks or more between May and September, is adaptable to most well-drained, acid-to-neutral soils. Thank goodness it never needs dividing, for the deep, tuberous roots that render it drought tolerant also make it a chore to move. Avoid excess water and heavy mulch. Sources, page 76.