By Candice G. Ball
Why bring some biodiversity to your backyard or cabin? Because Big Bluestem, Manitoba’s provincial grass, is beautiful. Because planting milkweed species will help to save the exquisite monarch butterfly whose numbers have hit a record low due to loss of its habitat. Because what’s native to Manitoba will thrive in harsh conditions.
The resurgence of interest in native plants comes as no surprise to John Morgan, an ecologist and owner of Prairie Habitats. He has spent 27 years educating Manitobans about why it makes sense to restore the plants that created our rich soil, nourished Aboriginals and fed the bison herds that once roamed the land.
Unlike the European and Middle-Eastern lawn and garden imports which have few defences against our extreme climate, native species have adapted to Manitoba over thousands of years. Not only will these plants thrive, they encourage wildlife, such as butterflies, pollinating and predatory insects as well as songbirds, to thrive.
Prairie Flora is one of the local businesses that grows and sells native prairie wildflowers and prairie grasses for landscaping. “We collect all the seeds locally and have our own stock gardens with over 90 native species,” says Aimee McDonald, who owns Prairie Flora with her husband Wes.
From native prairie flowers such as the Black-Eyed Susan, Three Flowered Avens, and the Prairie Crocus to native grasses such as Big Bluestem, Canada Wild Rye and Indian Grass,
Prairie Flora has indigenous species you can plant in your own backyard.
“These plants are more resistant to disease, there’s less watering, and you don’t have to use fertilizers,” explains McDonald. “They’re perennials. Once they’re planted, they’ll come back year after year.”
Both McDonald and Morgan are particularly passionate about the milkweed family because of its impact on monarch butterflies. They are the only plants monarchs will lay their eggs on and their caterpillars will eat. The systematic “weeding out” of milkweeds has endangered the monarch’s entire North American population.
During April, the David Suzuki Foundation sold milkweed plants for $5 each through www.davidsuzuki.org/gotmilkweed to Torontonians in an effort to build a butterfly corridor through the heart of Toronto. Closer to home, McDonald has been supporting the campaign by donating proceeds from every milkweed plant purchased to the David Suzuki
Foundation to aid in their efforts to help the monarch butterfly.
“Monarch butterflies find milkweeds like sharks find blood in the ocean,” says Morgan. “Milkweed plants have a wonderful scent, almost like lilacs, and the ability to nourish butterflies, nectar-seeking bees and other insects.”
Even the White House recently created a pollinator garden by adding Swamp and Butterfly Milkweeds to its 1,500-square-feet. So how do you make milkweed a part of your garden or yard? The first step is to select milkweeds that are native to Manitoba. Examples include Swamp, Dwarf and Whorled Milkweeds.
“Swamp Milkweed is a favourite of both monarch butterflies and our customers,” says McDonald. “It’s a beautiful, fragrant cluster of wine-coloured flowers atop a tall branching stem. It is a gorgeous addition to any garden.”
There are no hard-and-fast rules to creating a native prairie garden. If you have a green thumb and an eye for landscaping, you can create a beautiful backdrop of tall prairie wildflowers and grasses along the back fence, in a front yard garden, cottage lot or even in deep containers.
If you’re just introducing native species, Morgan recommends starting small with a clean, weed-free space in full sun. Try a handful of native wildflowers and grasses with a variety of colours and blooming times, planted at a density of about 2-4 per square foot. See how they do in your yard, and gradually add to your planting over time.
Every year Morgan gives native plant and butterfly gardening workshops hosted by Living Prairie Museum at 2795 Ness Avenue. Included are descriptions of dozens of beautiful
Manitoba species, plus tips on how to design, plant and enjoy a native landscape.
There are also a number of native prairie plant sales throughout the spring and summer. Prairie Flora will be selling plants at the Living Prairie Museum in May and June and at their greenhouse in Teulon. Prairie Flora also has shipping and delivery options.