Spring is here. I know this because the house finches are back, energetically building a nest on our porch light, as they do every year. Grasses and twigs litter the entryway to our house, and even though the birds are making a mess, I am happy to see them.
On a recent warm and sunny Sunday, I discovered two Eastern garter snakes mating in the flower bed. Later that afternoon, I scared a large toad out from under a shrub. By the time I got my camera, he was so well hidden I couldn’t find him for a photo, nor could I identify him as an American toad or a Fowler’s toad. All of these sightings have put a spring in my step, just in time to celebrate April as Ohio Native Plant Month!
In July 2019, Gov. DeWine signed into law House Bill 59 which designates each April as Ohio Native Plant Month “to increase public awareness of Ohio’s native plants and the many benefits they provide to pollinators, Ohio’s economy, and the health of Ohio’s environment.”
According to Richard Gardner, chief botanist for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources – Division of Natural Areas and Preserves, Ohio has 1,842 native plants (as of Jan. 31, 2020), and this includes trees, shrubs, ferns, perennial and annual wildflowers, vines, and grasses. Native species not only provide excellent food, shelter, and nesting sites for wildlife, they also protect our soil from erosion, remove contaminants from our air, absorb stormwater, beautify our surroundings, increase biodiversity, and lessen the effects of harsh, summer sun and winter winds. Native plants are adapted to Ohio’s climate and once established on an appropriate site, require little maintenance, saving time, money and effort.
A fantastic resource is the Ohio Native Plant Month website (www.ohionativeplantmonth.org). The information tab includes an amazing list of plants for gardeners, assembled by Ohio’s former first lady Hope Taft, in partnership with Debra Knapke, adjunct faculty at Columbus State Community College (who is also known as The Garden Sage). While the list does not include all of Ohio’s native plants, it is extensive and includes valuable details such as bloom time, growing conditions, flower color, the various pollinators the plant attracts, and if it is part of the Heritage Garden at the governor’s mansion.
I asked several of my coworkers for their favorite Ohio native plants and why:
• Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris): As a kid, this plant was the earliest, showiest plant in the woods behind my house. I would always pick a bouquet for my mom around Easter. Growing in wet, mucky seeps, this plant stuck out with its bright yellow, happy flowers after a long, drab winter.
• Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllium): I like to keep an eye out for Jack-in-the-Pulpit flowers when hiking because they are hard to spot, so it’s extra satisfying when you see them! They looked so alien to me the first time I saw one as a first grader during a wildflower unit in school.
• Spicebush (Lindera benzoin): It’s easy to identify due to its leaf pattern and smell, it has edible properties, and it’s host to the spicebush swallowtail! I spotted a spicebush swallowtail with campers one day when I was a camp counselor, and those big black spots that look like eyes had us all awestruck.
• Bee balm (genus Monarda): Also known as wild bergamot, this plant is a member of the mint family and has a square stem, which is a cool thing to show kids. I love the fragrance of this plant, reminiscent of Earl Grey tea. Bees are attracted to it as are butterflies, skippers, and moths, including the elusive hummingbird moth. Bee balm’s various colors (white, scarlet, pink, and purple) liven up my flower beds.
Another outstanding online resource can be found at www.nwf.org/nativeplantfinder/. Enter your zip code to discover native plants ranked by the number of butterflies and moths that depend on them as caterpillar host plants. The website is a collaboration among the U.S. Forest Service, National Wildlife Federation, and the University of Delaware, based on research conducted by Dr. Doug Tallamy, professor and chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware.
You can participate in Ohio Native Plant Month by taking inventory of your current landscape to see how well it supports your favorite wildlife species and pollinators throughout the seasons. I feel certain that a new plant or two (or more) is in your future!
Remember, gardening can help us stay active during the COVID-19 crisis. Get outside and develop your green thumb.