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Courtesy photos
Purple coneflower and the plants below are recommended by the Invasive Plant Species Assessment Working Group.

Don't spread on me

Retailers heed conservationists, shift stock toward non-invasive plants

Carolina allspice
Firepink
Queen of the prairie

By now, many gardeners in northeast Indiana have heard the legend of Purple Loosestrife.

As the story goes, many years ago, a home gardener planted some sterile specimens of loosestrife, known for its spiky purple flowers, in his yard.

But the plants weren’t sterile after all, and they soon jumped the garden gate and invaded the wild, where they clogged waterways, choked native vegetation and made a mess of habitat after habitat.

Thing is, the tale isn’t a legend. It’s pretty much what happened to make purple loosestrife one of the Midwest’s most unwanted plants. Indeed, it’s now illegal to sell or plant it in Indiana.

Such tales have made many home gardeners think twice about what they put in the ground, lest they let loose another loosestrife. Trouble is, finding those “safer” species hasn’t always been easy.

Potential invasives can be found at nearly every big-box store’s garden center, while the alternatives tend to be sold mostly by small, specialty nurseries.

That’s changing this year as Meijer stores in Indiana, Ohio and Michigan cultivate a program with The Nature Conservancy.

The stores are pulling some invasives from their inventory while highlighting non-invasives with special “Plant for a Better Earth” tags indicating those plants are recommended by the conservancy.

“They’re really listening to us in new ways,” says Melissa Soules, a spokeswoman with The Nature Conservancy in Michigan, which helped develop the program. She says it’s the first of its kind, and all Meijer stores will be promoting it April 26.

The conservancy is working on a similar program with Lowe’s in Southern and Southeastern states. A section of Lowes.com is devoted to invasive species and how to control them.

According to Soules, Meijer, which is based in Michigan, last year removed two potentially invasive trees, Lombardy poplar and Norway maple, from its garden centers. This year, Meijer yanked the invasive shrub privet (genus lingustrum) on the recommendation of Midwestern conservationists.

Ellen Jacquart, director of stewardship for The Nature Conservancy in Indianapolis, says privet has become especially problematic in Indiana.

Privet, which looks like green ribbons along Indiana rivers, can be seen in mid- to late April, before native plants have leafed, she says.

The shrub has been enjoyed by gardeners because it’s fast-growing, has no thorns and prunes well into dense hedges, Jacquart says. It also has black berries that attract birds.

But seeds from those berries are easily spread when eaten by birds, and that’s made for the privet problem.

With its ability to grow in almost any moist soil, its voracious need for space and its tendency to form dense thickets, privet leaves little room for native wetland species such as sedges, grasses and ferns. And its early leaf-out crowds out sunlight native spring wildflowers need to thrive.

Trail Creek Fen in LaPorte County, and Butternut Woods in Hamilton County are two Indiana natural areas experiencing invasive overgrowth of privet, Jacquart says. It should not be planted in the Midwest, she says.

As for non-invasives, Meijer will stock 42 species of perennial flowers and 21 species of trees and shrubs. Several cultivars, or strains, of many perennials are being carried.

Not all the non-invasives are native plants, Soules says, and not all are suitable for all areas within the chain’s Midwestern region, which includes Kentucky, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Indiana.

But altogether, 16 percent of Meijer’s inventory will consist of conservancy-recommended species, she says.

Soules acknowledges that by choosing to include annual flowers on its non-invasive list, the chain might be courting controversy among Earth-conscious gardeners. Some shy away from annuals because they typically are not natives and often involve resource-intensive cultivation and transportation methods.

“My response to that is that we’re focusing now on non-invasives, and they are,” says Soules. “We can’t confuse people. … If we can get them to remember just one thing, that’s a step forward.”

Also, Meijer stores may still stock some potential invasives. “Our scientists are always asking us to remove more, but we have to work with growers who grow out many years in advance,” she says.

Included on the list of recommended non-invasive plants are purple coneflower (genus echinacea), Big Blue Stem (a flowering plant that looks much like a tall grass) and white pine and dogwood trees.

Ben Hess, nursery manager for Heartland Restoration Services in Fort Wayne, a mostly wholesale supplier of native plants, says consumers can look beyond Meijer for both non-invasives and native species.

He says local nurseries may have a bigger variety of native plants bred for this area’s climate and soil conditions. Heartland supplies such plants to Neuhouser Nursery and Neuhouser Garden & Gifts in Fort Wayne, and Janet’s Garden Center in Bluffton.

“Since we have a lot of clay soils here, (native) plants coming from Wisconsin or Michigan may not grow well because they have a lot of sandy soils,” Hess says.

Laura Stine, senior landscape designer at Neuhouser, says that nursery has been pruning invasives and stocking up on natives.

It no longer sells most of the plants on a list of plants having invasive potential in Indiana. The list was developed by the Invasive Plant Species Assessment Working Group, a partnership of 22 federal and state government agencies and academic, trade and conservation groups; Jacquart was among its members.

Among the plants no longer carried by Neuhouser are all the invasive perennials listed, plus Norway maple, bush and Japanese honeysuckle, Oriental bittersweet, glossy buckthorn, upright varieties of barberry and privet.

Neuhouser’s this year is carrying 40 to 50 kinds of native trees, shrubs, grasses, perennials and vines, Stine says.

“What we’re very excited about is that we’re getting these seeds from local sources, so they are what we call a local genotype,” she says. “That means over thousands of years their genetics have been born out for this local area.”

With its unassuming blue flowers and shiny dark green leaves that stay close to the ground, it might seem odd that periwinkle has a high profile among invasive plants in Indiana.

But it does. It’s listed in the “Plant with Caution” section on the Invasive Plant Species Assessment Working Group list.

Because it spreads so well, the plant has commonly been used as ground cover, especially around older homes. It was also planted in area parks during the last century.

But Jacquart, an IPSWAG member, says she’s seen it escape into woodlands on former homesteads donated to the conservancy where it grows instead of wildflowers.

That doesn’t make it an evil plant, she stresses. It’s fine if gardeners follow the partnership’s recommendation to plant it only next to concrete or lawn, which will buffer its spread.

Periwinkle is still available at many area garden centers, even those that pay attention to the invasive species issue.

“We still sell it,” Stine says. “But we sell it with the recommendation that people plant it the way it’s recommended to be planted.”

Hess and Stine say they consider the move by Meijer a good step.

“The industry wants to be proactive and responsive to this information (about invasive species),” Stine says. We want to take responsibility and not wait for the government to make a law.”

rsalter@jg.net

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