October 27, 2013

Native plants will seed sustainability

Robust, natural beauty starts at home.

By Deirdre Fleming dfleming@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

BOOTHBAY HARBOR — Plant inspiration means many things to horticulturist Justin Nichols: beauty, artistry, color as well as ecological health.

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As Justin Nichols reminds us, black gum trees, which have been around Maine for at least 5,000 years, are more native than plants introduced during Colonial times. So the more black gum trees, the better when it comes to promoting biodiversity.

Photos by Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer

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Winterberries range from Maine to Georgia, and aside from being pretty, they’re indicative of a healthy ecosystem.

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It used to be that having beautiful plants on a property meant sacrificing a healthy ecosystem. But not today, Nichols says. When he teaches his class in native plants at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, it’s a feel-good approach that guides Nichols.

A healthy ecosystem that benefits plants, insects, mammals and birds does not have to deny a landscape of brilliant colors or breathtaking beauty, Nichols said, adding that a healthy ecosystem is inextricably linked to native plants.

“In the past 20 years there has been an increase in experimental native plants. Now native is not boring. That’s the point I want people to take home,” Nichols said as he walked through the Gardens’ Bosarge Family Education Center, which is dedicated to native plants.

“We do both here. We showcase plants from around the world. We don’t shy away from that because this place was founded on artistry. But it’s also ecologically sustainable.”

This month at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, Nichols taught how natural beauty can mean a robust, thriving ecosystem full of native plants. That means more than nuts and berries.

The idea to fill a yard with wild fruit for birds and wildlife is short-sighted, Nichols points out. Some 80 percent of what birds eat are insects, so having native plants that bring in native insects – and lots of them – provides a healthier diet for birds, he said.

“They need protein for their eggshells,” Nichols said. “Without insects you don’t have birds. If you want birds, you need plants.”

But if the number of native plants decrease, native insect biodiversity decreases, and then wildlife also are at a disadvantage. When you take that problem into urban areas that are paved over, it can lead to a lot of struggling critters, Nichols said.

Even if half the people in a massive subdivision planted native bushes and trees to help native insects thrive and feed native birds and mammals, then native wildlife in the area will be ample.

“It creates little islands of connectivity. It’s helpful,” Nichols said. “When you think of what most people have in their yard, it’s a European monoculture of grass. So our insects have not evolved with that. There is no biodiversity.”

At the same time, exotic European flowering plants are celebrated at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens.

“Pretty European plants are not horrible. Gardening is art. Landscape design is creative,” Nichols encouraged as he walked by flowering trees.

But when nurturing a healthy landscape, native flora is mandatory, he said.

As Nichols pointed out a black gum tree, he noted it is more native than plants introduced in Colonial times.

“It’s been here more than 5,000 years,” he said.

Other fruit-bearing flora, like red chokeberry bush, are good for birds such as woodpeckers, orioles and cardinals, as well as insects and mammals.

“They also have a relationship with pollinators,” Nichols said.

Then other trees, such as the American smoke tree, are native to Maine – but not all parts of Maine.

Still, Nichols said a plant that is native to North America is good to plant here; one native to the eastern United States is even better; and one native to Maine, the best.

“When we talk about native plants in class, we talk about East of the Mississippi,” Nichols said.

Deirdre Fleming can be reached at 791-6452 or at:


Twitter: FlemingPph

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Additional Photos

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Eastern Nine Bark. Justin Nichols discussed Maine native plants at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay on Oct. 18.

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St. John’s wort is a perennial plant in Aroostook and Penobscot counties, and has many medicinal uses that make it desirable as well as aesthetic.

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Fringe trees prefer moist soils and are most often found around stream banks and swamp borders, where they attract insects that many birds need for sustenance.

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Winged sumac is well-suited to natural and informal landscapes because it has underground runners that spread to provide cover for birds and wildlife.


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