Native Plants in Growing Demand

May 5, 2016

A patch of wild geranium and woodland spiderwort blooms at the Missouri Wildflowers Nursery in Brazito.
Credit Sebastian Martinez / KBIA

Native plants are having a a boom year, thanks in large part to a butterfly.

The sharp decline in monarch butterfly numbers in the winter of 2014 led to headlines about the destruction of their habitat in the U.S.

It sparked a national movement to plant milkweeds: the family of plants monarchs rely on to lay their eggs and feed upon as caterpillars. 

The surge in demand for milkweeds has spilled over into other native wildflowers, and it’s something Merv Wallace, owner of the Missouri Wildflowers Nursery in Brazito, has noticed in a big way.

"First quarter, we recently did the report and we were up 42 percent over last year," Wallace said. "Plant sales are mostly in March and March was twice as much as last year," he explained.

Wallace started the nursery more than 30 years ago, but this is already shaping up to be his best year in business. 

"From 2008 until 2013 we were sort of in a stair step on a big climb, and now it’s started back up again."

On any given day, you can find customers wandering the rows of columbine, irises and dozens of other native wildflowers Wallace sells, occasionally mobbed by Wallace and his employee’s dogs, who roam the property.

A lot of the wildflowers Wallace sells aren’t ones you’re liable to see on roadsides around town. A lot of them have been displaced by dead nettle, honeysuckle, red clover and the countless other invasive species that have taken root in the state.

Marcus Wallace, Merv's son, pulls an order for shipping from one of the nursery's greenhouses.
Credit Sebastian Martinez / KBIA

Or, in the case of the milkweeds that feed the monarchs, they’ve been eliminated by weed-killers and destructive mowing practices.

The monarch population has bounced back this year, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reporting a 255% increase from last winter. But Wallace chalks it up to more than monarchs.

"This is all brought about by Douglas Tallamy’s message that we can make a difference by planting in our back yards," Wallace said.

Doug Tallamy is a writer and entomologist at the University of Delaware whose book “Bringing Nature Home” argues the destruction of habitat has left wildlife in the U.S. in isolated pockets or “islands” of habitat. He says this makes them more vulnerable to extinction.

Plants often serve as the foundation of ecosystems, feeding insects and prey species which then feed predators and so on. Most of the exotic ornamental plants: daylilies, rose bushes, and so on don’t contribute to native ecosystems because they didn’t evolve alongside native wildlife.

So Tallamy proposes incorporating native plants in landscaping and gardens as a way of recovering habitat.

Columbine in bloom in front of Allen Hall at Lincoln University in Jefferson City.
Credit Sebastian Martinez / KBIA

It’s a message Dr. Nadia Navarette-Tindall, Lincoln University’s native plants specialist, has been trying to get out there for years.

"We offer seminars, we offer workshops, we organize conferences, we have a field day," Navarette-Tindall said.

Lincoln University features extensive native plantings around Allen Hall, where Navarette-Tindall works. She said the wildflowers, "can be beautiful. And people can choose from a variety, thousands that we have in Missouri." Importantly, she added, "They are not weedy like people think."

Navarette-Tindall was quick to point out native plants don’t just look pretty and feed insects or birds, they can feed people too. 

"With the native plants program we’re promoting lots of the native edible plants. We’re talking about growing them as crops," she explained. Navarette-Tindall works with farmers to help them capitalize on the opportunities afforded by the demand for local food, and even organizes an annual recipe tasting called "Dining Wild" to showcase native edibles. 

Fully restoring native habitats to what they were before they were destroyed by development is impossible, and planting natives can only go so far. But Navarette-Tindall has hope.

"You need to be hopeful, because otherwise you just stop doing things."