First Native Plant Fair yields food for thought

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Hundreds of people showed up Saturday at the Native Plant Fair at the Eureka Springs Community Center to purchase a wide variety of native plants from four vendors, visit educational booths and listen to experts explain the importance of native plants in home and public gardens to provide food for hummingbirds, butterflies, bees and other pollinators. Many participants appeared delighted to be able to find native plant species that can be hard to find at most nurseries.

The fair was put on to encourage people to plant more native flowers, trees, shrubs, herbs, ferns and grasses that naturally occur in the wild, as opposed to plants sold in the commercial nursery trade that originate in other areas of the world and are not good sources of food for local wildlife. Plants not from this area can become invasive.

“We’re all very happy with how the event unfolded,” Christ Fischer, one of the organizer, said. “The speakers and other participants expressed that the event was really inspiring, and many attendees asked to be notified of next year’s event info. The Farmers’ Market food truck had a record day. So, I think the event worked nicely for the market, as well.

“It looked like a good balance of locals and visitors, but the talks seemed to have mostly attract out of towners. Our registration and sign-in indicates plenty of folks from Harrison, Bentonville, Springdale, Rogers, Fayetteville, etc., and a small contingent from St. Louis.”

Steven Foster, an herb consultant, nature photographer, senior author of three Peterson Field Guides and more than a dozen other books, started the workshop portion of the Native Plant Fair by talking about wealth of botanical diversity in this part of the world. He said there are 2,715 species of vascular plants in Arkansas, with about 500 of those considered medicinally valuable.

One of his favorite native plants is Echinacea, and five of the nine species of echinacea occur in Arkansas. Foster wild collected echinacea seed in 1986 in the Ozarks that was provided to growers in Ukraine. The large amount of echinacea, a plant that enhances the immune system, now grown in Ukraine can be traced to the seed from the Ozarks originally collected by Foster.

Native plants are endangered by the large number of non-native invasive species that have been introduced in the U.S. such as honeysuckle, English ivy, kudzu and vinca. But even some beautiful native species have to be treated with caution. Foster said passionflower is one of the most beautiful native flowers.

“It sits there for years and then explodes and tries to strangle everything in your garden,” he said.

Foster discussed some native plants that were used in the past to treat illnesses. Large amounts of sassafras bark were used in the Old World to treat syphilis, and tulip poplar and dogwood barks were used to treat malaria.

Scott Woodbury, manager of the Whitmire Wildflower Garden at Shaw Nature Reserve in Missouri, spoke about the importance of native plants to birds. Birds need 300 caterpillars per day to feed one chick, and 3,000 to feed a whole nest. Caterpillars are not found on non-native species.

Woodbury pointed to domestic cultivars of coneflower and wild hydrangea as examples. These are more showy, but don’t provide the benefits of wildlife. He referred to one such commercial cultivar of coneflower as “outrageous.”

Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home, has estimated that there are 40 million acres of turf grass in the U.S., which is more than all national parks combined. When people replace their lawns with native plants, the result can be not only beneficial for many types of wildlife, but also very beautiful.

“You can sell your lawnmower and create a more diverse landscape,” he said.

But prevailing attitudes in many areas of the countries are still in favor of turf and foundation plantings. There were groans of dismay from the audience when Woodbury showed a photo of a yard filled with native plants that was sold to new owners who ripped out all the diversity to put in a lawn and a few foundation plantings. Woodbury said grass can have a place as a frame or border, for example.

If people don’t want to go completely native, they can start with a few flowerbeds.

“There is nothing wrong with starting small with a bed or two to see what you are capable of,” he said.

Native plantings are also gaining favor in some areas because they take less water and require less maintenance. Some golf courses are using prairie style plantings so they don’t have to mow all the time. Woodbury warned that native plant beds do take maintenance or they can be overcome with weeds.

“Not everyone is willing or able to put in the sweat equity needed, but it does make a difference,” he said.

Theo Whitsell, a botanist and ecologist at the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, talked about this area of the country having some of the most botanical diversity in the country.

“Biodiversity is not evenly distributed,” Whitsell said. “We have some hot spots in the region, but we are fortunate to be where we are.”

Examples he gave are of glades and of upland karst sinkhole ponds are unusually botanically diverse, and contain some plants normally found only hundreds of miles away.

Much has been lost to development. There were 1.2 million acres of natural prairies in this area of the country prior to European colonization.

“Almost all of that is gone,” Whitsell said. “We are trying hard to preserve rare remnants that are left. These healthy remnants are especially biologically diverse.”

Fischer said that Whitsell wants to advance a proposal to further survey the flora at Lake Leatherwood City Park, as well as work with Berryville Parks to look at sensitive areas.

“We’re wanting to interface with Shaw Nature Preserve and the Ozark Regional Land Trust, etc., to identify some of the local glades Theo mentioned, and begin to draw attention to conserving sensitive flora currently at risk,” Fischer said. “So, there are some ripple effects from the Native Plant Fair already.”

The Native Plant Fair was sponsored by the Eureka Springs Pollinator Alliance, Northwest Arkansas Master Naturalists, and the Eureka Springs Parks & Recreation Commission. The Nature Conservancy provided refreshments.

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