I am sitting in Portland’s Congress Square Park with native plant horticulturalist Heather McCargo.

Though the park looks attractive – with thriving Pee Gee hydrangeas, rhododendrons and shasta daisies, McCargo sees something else: None of these plants is native, and none supports the native ecosystem.

McCargo, 56, is on a mission to bring more native plants to Maine landscapes. After a long and distinguished career in horticulture, including a stint as head plant propagator for the Massachusetts-based New England Wild Flower Society, she founded the nonprofit Wild Seed Project two years ago. The new organization, which is based in Blue Hill, is intended to raise awareness of the importance of native plants, to teach Mainers how to grow them and to sell native seeds.

Her former employer, the New England Wild Flower Society, mostly works in Massachusetts, and The Josselyn Botanical Society of Maine is aimed at professional botanists, making the Wild Seed Project unique.

Native plants are needed to support all of the animals, birds and insects that evolved alongside them, McCargo and other experts say. The project’s website explains its objectives in more detail:

“Wild landscapes in Maine are rapidly being developed and as a result native plant populations are diminishing. This loss of wild plant species has a ripple effect on biodiversity and ecosystem health. Native plants have an evolutionary history with insects and other fauna and are the foundation for a healthy, ecologically diverse environment. When native plants are absent from a landscape, so are many other creatures.”


But sitting in the park surrounded by non-native plants, McCargo doesn’t despair. “The thing that makes me hopeful is that more people now know that there is something wrong,” McCargo says. “They are getting the message that we need more native plants.”

But it’s more complicated than that. Even within that select getting-the-message group, many people aren’t growing the natives that are best for the environment, she says. Native plants sold in nurseries are often cultivars, sometimes called nativars, selected for their unusual look and then cloned so that all the descendant plants look exactly the same, she explained.

For example, almost all of the hydrangeas being sold, including natives, are grown as clones at massive nurseries in the Midwest, McCargo said.

While those cloned cultivars are an improvement over non-natives, they are not ideal.

“Only seed-grown natives provide the genetic diversity that is necessary to improve our ecosystem,” McCargo said.

The project’s website, wildseedproject.net, features articles by McCargo and others, lists of talks and tours promoting native plants in Maine and about 60 varieties of seed on sale. The nonprofit also plans to print one magazine a year, as McCargo believes organizations need a physical presence. The 2016/2017 edition, “The Change Issue,” includes articles by such well-known garden writers as Doug Tallamy and Ted Elliman.


The Wild Seed Project sells seeds to earn needed income. But the primary purpose is to get these genetically diverse plants growing and blossoming in cities and towns throughout Maine, McCargo said.

The nonprofit, which so far has one part-time employee, a few contract employees and 150 members, takes exacting care of the seeds it sells. The seeds are sustainably and locally harvested from gardens of native plants, not from cultivars. They are then stored correctly so they will be viable when the purchaser gets them.

The life of seeds is short; many seeds sold in garden-supply stores are no longer viable because they have been kept too long in improper conditions – for instance waiting on a seed rack in a hot salesroom.

McCargo stores the seeds according to the conditions they need, sending them to customers when it’s time to plant them. Usually, that’s fall, a timeline that mimics the natural world. Seeds typically mature on plants in the fall and then reach the soil, whether dropped straight down, blown by the wind or eaten by birds and scattered in bird poop.

Seeds from the Wild Seed Project should be planted outdoors, in pots or in prepared garden beds, so they get the same fall moisture and freezing temperatures that they would in nature. The website includes detailed information on propagation.

McCargo is doing such propagation herself these days. She recently moved from Brooksville to Portland, where she is in the process of “rewilding” her own property.

If you are wondering, as I did, why McCargo is tackling a new nonprofit startup after a distinguished career, she has a quick answer.

“My role model is Jimmy Carter,” she said. “He’s done his best work since he was 55.”

TOM ATWELL is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at: tomatwell@me.com.

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