On Being a Purist

By Lorrie Otto

Trilliums in woods. Photo by Donna VanBuecken, Wild Ones Executive Director.
© 2009, Donna VanBuecken.

Who among us would plant peonies or day lilies in our prairie restorations, yet no one seems to cringe when gardeners put liatris, pale purple cone flowers, and orange milkweed in their formal plantings.

We warn people not to buy bulk wildflower seed mixes from garden centers, pleading with them to read the labels with the non-native species such as dame’s rocket, California poppies, oxeye daisies, Queen Anne’s lace, etc. Three years ago all of the big markets in the Milwaukee area were selling flats of wildflowers with not a single native Midwestern plant in the collection. (When I finally found the man responsible for these sales, and asked him how he identified a wildflower, he answered, “Easy. It is any plant that doesn’t require care.”)

Fifty years ago, the Wisconsin Phenological Society gave me one dozen scilla bulbs. Today one-half acre of that property is a brilliant blue, and now are spreading down the sides of the bordering ravine and on into the woods. Fifty-seven years ago, my daughter’s first grade teacher gave her a purple bell flower she found on the lake bank. In recent years grad students have been hired to pull that creeping European bellwort from the yard.

At about this same time, a neighbor gave a lily-of-the-valley plant to Tricia for her wildflower collection. Now there is a hopelessly tight system of roots that “got ahead of me” before I realized what a threat it was. In the Fairy Chasm woods, the Zedler’s old flower garden has allowed lily-of-the-valley in to the abutting Nature Conservancy woodland where it has pushed out an enormous bead of yellow and maroon wood betony.

Many years ago, I was trying to discourage property owners from planting daffodils in their beautiful woodland acreage along the Milwaukee River. I made a slide from a birthday card which had a “funny” photo of a rabbit with large deer antlers growing out of the top of its head. Up on the slide screen, its incongruity made people laugh. I’d follow this with a clump of yellow lady slippers and another of trilliums growing in a lawn at the base of an elm tree on Oakland Avenue. No one laughed when they saw these lonely precious Wisconsin landscapes. A landscaping sin to match this may well be the introduction of hosta from the Far East into the innocent biota of hepaticas under an oak tree.

Daffodils. © 2009 by Mosscat.

Scientific reasons for companion planting requires another article to describe the importance of symbiosis. However our comfort level will depend upon the experience and education we bring to our delight when reconstructing and healing. For me it is like listening to music on an out-of-tune piano. If you don’t know the song it doesn’t make any difference. However, if you do, then it hurts.

Purists? Yes! Learn from my mistakes. Fifty years ago, I could only flounder. There was no one to help, warn, or advise me. Today, you lucky, lucky, people – you have the WILD ONES!