We All Should Vote Yes for the Forest Preserves of Cook County

For Cook County residents, here's an incredibly easy way to help fight climate change and support biodiversity. A slightly different version was published in the   Oak Park Wednesday Journal on October 18, 2022. At the beginning of the 20th century, a group of farsighted people had the novel idea to create the Cook County Forest Preserves system, the first of its kind in the country. It was a daunting task to plan, persuade people, and get laws through the legislature. Only then did the real work begin of purchasing and managing vast acreage, developing public programs, and conserving biodiversity while catering to humans. None of this was easy. Starting with an initial purchase of 500 acres in 1916, today the FPDCC comprises 70,000 acres of natural and recreational areas stretching from Lake-Cook Road south to Steger Road. Consequently, Cook County, home to over 5 million people, can also boast that it’s the most biodiverse county in the state.  In this time of global warming, en

Non-native Plants I Won't Deep Six

Shirley Temple Peony
Usually, I'm singing the praises of native plants, and these days, any plants invited to reside in the yard--besides things like herbs, vegetables and potted annual flowers--are native to the Chicago region. I love native plants: they are exciting in themselves and in how they strengthen ecosystem connections. However, plenty of non-natives stick around, plants that came with the house, or as presents or that I put in long ago when I thought gardens were supposed to be primarily non-native and as English as possible.

Because my general attitude is not to harm living plants if they fit in with the garden ecosystem, I don't entirely sympathize with those who, after their natives-only epiphany, go and rip out all the offending exotics and completely redo the whole garden--it's a little too baby and bathwater for me. Better to evaluate on a case by case basis, and to make substitutions as opportunity occurs. For example, a climbing rose I loved died of rose rosette disease. Naturally I wasn't going to put in another hybrid rose, especially in that spot--but now I'm looking for a place to put a prairie, or Illinois, rose. In late summer or early fall you'll see me smother mulching a little more grass to make room for more native shrubs, forbs and grasses (described here).

Yes, I do draw the line at invasive species, many of which are dangerous to native ecosystems and plant communities--to have bishop's goutweed is to battle it, to see garlic mustard is to pull it out, and buckthorn exists to be chopped. In my garden, gone are some euonymous bushes, and I'm still working (forever) on the goutweed, old-fashioned orange daylilies, lily of the valley and English ivy. Unfortunately, many growers still produce and nurseries still sell all kinds of plants they just plain shouldn't. And don't forget, some natives can also wreak havoc in the garden: no old field goldenrod for me, thank you very much.

Yet there are plenty of non-natives that I'm not such a purist as to take out just 'cuz, though I wouldn't buy them now.

Came with the House
Hostas: along the the north side of the house, between house and walkway. Your grandmother's hostas-- by my estimation, these sturdy creatures are maybe fifty years old. Not so big, plain green leaves, not too showy lilac blooms with a nice scent in summer. Not a tetraploid set of chromosomes among them. Thrive on what I do for them, which is nothing.

Yews: in front of the house--horrors, someone call the landscaping police! Put in some time in the early twentieth century, I think. Many neighbors have taken theirs out, but hey, call me old-fashioned; they stay green, soften the ungainliness of my high front porch--and birds love to sit inside of them in winter. I chop at them from time to time with hand pruners, renewal pruning-style, to keep them in bounds. Sometimes I even them off a tad with hand trimmers (also discussed here).

Spring bulbs: big old-fashioned bright yellow daffodils, little white snowdrops and heavenly blue scilla.

In the Woodland Area
Back when I thought in terms of shade, part shade and sun instead of woodland, savanna and prairie, I put in a Japanese painted fern, some brunnera 'Jack Frost,' no-name astilbe and bleeding hearts. They do just fine among the Virginia waterleaf, virgin's bower, Jacob's ladder, Jack-in-the pulpit, woodland phlox and lady fern that went in when I learned better.

In the Savanna 
The Hicks yew softens an objectionable corner--and the other day I watched some birds retreat into it when a hawk loitered about. And the white peonies, those gorgeous girls growing right next to the clematis 'Gurnsey cream'? They'll live to be a hundred, and I won't cut their lives short. There they flourish, among the purple coneflower, native columbine, obedient plant, New England aster, elm-leafed goldenrod and willow amsonia.

In the Prairie Patch
Which is what I call the sunny, unruly area where insect pollinators hold sway in high summer, where oriental lilies, raspberries, rhubarb, nepeta, oregano, mint and buddleia hold their own against cup plant, vernonia, Joe Pye weed, bee-balm and grasses. Honeybees cluster at the nepeta, bumblebees gravitate to the chives and beebalm and solitary wasps act as though the sweet autumn clematis is just for them. (The buddleia and clematis are potentially invasive in some places, but in my yard they die to the ground, and after being cut down are usually grumpy about re-emerging.)

Just naming these plants in the winter fastness of January brings warm sunny days to mind.

Note: One of the best lists of invasive garden plants and good alternatives is at the Chicago Botanic Garden website here. Also check out the Midwest Invasive Plant Network.

Update, 1/13/11: Just found the the compendious Invasive Plant Atlas of the United States. It's worth having a look. I've also put the link on the sidebar for future reference.

Related Posts:
A Question of Trees
Gardening in Thatcher Woods With Help
Free Plants, Conservation and Reconciliation Ecology
Behold the Inglorious Garlic Mustard
May Has Almost Slipped Away


Anonymous said…
Oh gosh, Adrian, I'm glad the old-fashioned orange daylilies aren't listed in the Invasive Plant Atlas of New England, because I just love them. To me, they go with lilacs and peonies in saying "traditional New England garden." I'm glad to be warned, though, that I should definitely not take any of these to my PA garden (where they are listed as invasive) and I should keep an eye on the woods around my house to make sure these don't start popping up there. -Jean
Thomas Rainer said…
I'm relieved! Like you, I'm in love with native plants--their both exquistite and productive. But I have this big, mushy, soft-spot for several non-natives. I can't help it. Love yews, love daylilies, love peonies. Hate English ivy with a passion, but I get its historic and nostalgic appeal. It's hard to be a purist!

Hi Thomas and Jean-

I think the trick is to--as Jean notes--be aware of what's invasive where you live. Which may change as the climate changes. My neighbor and I only recently discovered the pernicious nature of English ivy, and it is a little sad to pull it, because of its appeal, but neither do we want it to take over our gardens as it was threatening to do.
Don Plummer said…
The orange daylilies are on a watch list in Ohio, I think. That means it's possible they could become invasive. I don't know how much trouble they really are; they seem to avoid natural places and are found mostly in disturbed areas like roadside ditches.
Hi Don,

Some exotics are more dangerous than others, I think, and in different areas, as Jean mentioned. I find watch lists helpful, if only to know what to get upset about and what to keep an eye on.

The past two years in the woods we were pulling a great deal of Dame's Rocket which wasn't a problem previously and used to be sold for wildflower gardens in many nurseries. So you never know. Vigilance, vigilance.
Ellen S said…
Adrian - enjoying your blog, thanks for sharing your musings!

I have been trying to remove the orange ditch lily from a pond side for 6 yrs, it makes it very difficult to grow anything else and that is prime garden real estate for me. Some invasives are only invasive in certain soil conditions, so even if something doesn't behave aggressively in your garden, if its seed is eaten by birds then the plants are capable of spreading into other natural areas far and wide...and that, in my mind, is irresponsible..

I love peonies...I have never planted them personally because I tend to plant mostly native plants to support local wildlife, but my husband loves them and gave me two white peonies for our anniversary, and I have fallen head over heels with their fragrance and the way they turn from light pink to white through their bloom time. The ants REALLY love them, and they are great at improving surrounding soil texture, so the peonies are here to stay :-)

Hi Ellen,
Thanks for stopping by.

I agree with you about soil conditions and being aware of how invasive species travel. That's why I only put in native species now and have removed many non-natives.

Your comment about ditch lilies tallies with Don's comment. In my experience as well they're tough to get rid of.
Benjamin Vogt said…
Four years ago I knew little about plants and gardening, so on the north side, in full shade, did as you did: hostas etc. I almost pulled them out last sumer but my wife urged me not to. I want to. So bad. But maybe I'll save money and leave it. For now. I guess. Maybe.
Hi Bemjamin,
Yes, we change as we learn (someday a post on my gardening mistakes?).

The hostas came with the house, and that narrow strip is completely bound between foundation and concrete walk. They do no harm and it would take so much effort to replace them--better, for the moment, to focus on larger, more plant-hospitable areas.
antigonum cajan said…
You have presented well thoughts ideas, it is difficult to disagree.

Im my context, exotics are so abused, I have become a total purist. From the 15 species found in our residence, ten were eliminated for their
habitual pests.White flies for example.

I usually collect most of what I plant, noticing a steady decrease in all kinds of pests, except snails and slugs, now partially
part of the family.

Great post.
Hi antigonum,

Thanks for stopping by. Good point about increasing the ecological balance and reducing pests by planting natives.