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Health, Science & Environment

Bring on the bees: How native plants benefit local wildlife

Plant seedlings with bright green leaves are lined up on tables in a greenhouse.
Jean-Marie Papoi
Ideastream Public Media
The nursery on site at The Wilderness Center in Wilmot is full of plants native to Ohio. "All of these were grown from seed here," said Daniel Volk, director of conservation. "They're collected here, grown here, maintained here and sold here."

Gardening season is officially underway in Northeast Ohio, and there’s no shortage of colorful plants at local greenhouses. One option gaining popularity is native plants.

In Ohio alone, there are around 2,000 species of native plants. But what does being native actually mean, and why is it important?

Nancy Linz's interest in horticulture began around the time she was learning to walk, spending time next to her mother in the gardens. Now, she's a native plant conservationist in Cincinnati and president of Ohio Native Plant Month.

“It’s been, for me, a lifelong journey,” Linz said. “I started going out in the ‘70s and ‘80s learning about ornamental plants and, over time, began to really understand more about native plants and why they’re so critical today to the health of our ecosystems.”

By definition, Linz said, native plants are those that have evolved over thousands of years in a specific geographic region alongside local flora and fauna without human intervention.

Ohio has many types of native habitats, including prairies, woodlands and wetlands, each with its own diverse ecosystem.

“These plants survive in those areas with their local soils, the water, the amount of rain, the light exposure, the temperatures, the growing conditions,” Linz said. “Why are they so important? They provide food and shelter to wildlife.”

Many plants, many benefits

“Native plants are the base of the food chain,” said Judy Barnhart, president of the Native Plant Society of Northeastern Ohio. “A lot of insects and birds rely on them.”

A group examines wildflowers along a path while out in nature.
Stephanie Jansky
Judy Barnhart, right, has been with the Native Plant Society of Northeastern Ohio since its founding in 1982. The group offers walks through local parks to track wildflower growth during spring.

Not only do native plants produce nectar and pollen for butterflies and honeybees, but the foliage is also a valuable food source for other wildlife.

And, Barnhart explains, once local wildlife adapts to plants that are in their immediate environment, there’s no going back to other varieties.

“Birds and insects evolved with those plants, and they just can’t switch to non-native plants,” she said.

Linz compares a yard to a grocery store.

“For every native critter out there, there’s sort of a menu for them of their preferred plants,” Linz explained. “When you really start to look at some of these very specialized webs of life, it becomes a very complicated but very interesting, delicate, intricate system.”

Starting a native garden

The Wilderness Center in Wilmot is a community resource that preserves local habitats and offers educational programming around nature and conservation.

On site, a greenhouse is filled with growing seedlings ranging from flowering plants to prairie grasses, all native to Ohio.

“We’ve got about 80 species of native plants in here,” said Daniel Volk, director of conservation at the center.

He points to sprouts of orange coneflower, royal catchfly, shooting star and sweet Joe Pye weed.

“This year was actually the first year that we've ever grown from seed that was collected here on site by staff and volunteers,” Volk said. “The entire process, from seed up until giving them away to their new homes, everything was done here on site.”

Three nature enthusiasts stand in front of a building housing a nature center.
Jean-Marie Papoi
Ideastream Public Media
Daniel Volk, left, Mike Hensley and Laura Firestone field many questions from the community about building a native plant habitat.

The staff can offer guidance to gardeners looking to add a selection of native plants to their home habitat by building bundles based on what someone may be looking to attract to their yard.

“People love things like birds and butterflies and all the beautiful things in nature,” said Mike Hensley, director of education. “If we bring these native plants into our yard, we can bring those things too.”

Seedlings planted in dirt line the walls of a greenhouse.
Jean-Marie Papoi
Ideastream Public Media
Seedlings of purple coneflower line a table in the native plant nursery at The Wilderness Center. Coneflowers are a popular choice of native plant because of their bright colors and ability to attract birds, bees and butterflies.

Laura Firestone, director of development for The Wilderness Center, was first attracted to native plant gardening to bring birds, bees and butterflies to her yard.

“I see my backyard as a little habitat restoration, a lily pad, so to speak, that they can kind of hop on as they go from place to place,” Firestone said.

She suggests purple coneflowers as a good starting point for any garden.

“You can add that in with pretty much anything you have, and it’s probably going to perform pretty well for you,” Firestone said.

Hensley adds that for those just getting started with gardening or introducing native plants to a home landscape, patience is key.

“You’re going to make mistakes,” he said. “To be a better gardener, you have to be willing to learn.”

From the garden to the legislature

When Nancy Linz was studying horticulture in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, she can recall one subject that was missing from the curriculum.

“When I reflect now and look back on that time, it amazes me that I don’t remember the words ‘native plants’ being mentioned, ever,” Linz said. “Never by a professor, never by another student. It just wasn’t a thing back then.”

So, what changed?

According to Linz, people now have an overall awareness of the environment that they didn’t have back then.

In 2018, Linz was contacted by former Ohio First Lady Hope Taft, an avid gardener and champion of native plants, with an idea to get legislation passed in the state to set aside a day or week per year in recognition of native plants.

What resulted on July 18, 2019, was a new law designating April as Ohio Native Plant Month.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine signs papers at a desk.
Office of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine signs House Bill 59 into law on July 18, 2019, designating April as Ohio Native Plant Month. Nancy Linz, far right, stands next to former First Lady of Ohio, Hope Taft.

“When Gov. DeWine signed this bill into law, it made Ohio the first state in the country to have a law supporting native plants for an entire month,” Linz said. “So it really put Ohio on the map as leading this initiative, which was awesome.”

And she didn’t stop with Ohio. After success at the state level, Linz worked with then-Ohio Sen. Rob Portman to take Native Plant Month national. Portman was the lead co-sponsor of a Senate resolution that was approved with bi-partisan support, making April 2021 the first National Native Plant Month.

Education and awareness have come a long way since Linz first started her studies, as evidenced by the ever-expanding list of native plant growers and sellers throughout the state she maintains on her website.

“It's growing, and it is growing quickly,” Linz said. “I think we have a lot of people that are starting to get on the bandwagon and starting to realize that, ‘Wait a minute, I can make a difference.’”

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Jean-Marie Papoi is a digital producer for the arts & culture team at Ideastream Public Media.