When Alan Branhagen was giving a talk on why people should cultivate native plants, he drew inspiration from Dr. Seuss.
“They grew without irrigation, they grew without hoes, they grew without fertilization, pesticides, or Lowe’s,” he said.
It was a clever, succinct way of describing some of the many benefits of growing plants native to Minnesota — “natives,” as they are called by enthusiasts — in your own gardens and landscape. Natives also play an integral role in the web of life by providing food for bees, birds and butterflies, he said.
Branhagen, a naturalist specializing in botany and birds, is a renowned expert and author of “Native Plants of the Midwest: A Comprehensive Guide to the Best 500 Species for the Garden” (Timber Press, $39.95). The thick guidebook gives detailed profiles of trees, shrubs, vines, perennials, ground cover, bulbs and annuals, steps to composing an eco-friendly landscape, as well as maintenance and care tips.
We chatted with Branhagen, who’s also the director of operations at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, on misconceptions about natives, his gardens and his top 10 native plants.
Q: Why did you write this expansive native plant guide?
A: It was a two-year labor of love. I’ve always been fascinated with native plants from the first time I saw Dutchman’s breeches on a walk at a park. My mother pointed out that each flower looked like little pants. But I didn’t want this book to be a rehash of what’s already out there. It’s written from my personal experience of actually growing most of the plants.
Q: What kind of gardens do you have?
A: I have 2 ½ acres of land in Chaska. I removed the invasive buckthorn and ripped out daylilies, and I couldn’t believe all the woodland wildflowers coming up — it’s a wonderful carpet of trout lilies, Dutchman’s breeches and bloodroot. I’m restoring the native woodland and adding native shrubs, trees and wildflowers. I’ve planted native birch and red twig dogwood in the front for winter color and texture.
Q: Why should gardeners choose native plants?
A: Natives are important to the web of life and healthy ecosystems and there are many ways they affect beneficial insects and birds. We have declines in pollinators and songbirds, and native plans provide food for them.
If we plant more white oak and woodland trees, migrating songbirds will land here to snap up beneficial insects to refuel for the next leg of the journey.
Native plants were here long before us without irrigation, fertilizers and pesticides. They’re low-maintenance for gardeners, can thrive even during droughts and survive extremes of heat and cold. Plus they reduce carbon dioxide in the air for a more healthy atmosphere.
Q: But what about the perception that they look messy, weedy and out of control?
A: Native gardens are an acquired taste but it’s becoming more accepted. Even ornamental grasses are more common in landscapes — unfortunately, the popular Karl Foerster is not native. Gardeners are starting to understand natural landscaping. But some people can’t let go of the perfect green lawn, little trimmed shrubs and trees shaped like globes. Native landscaping can visually be a rougher texture — but can still look tidy. In the book, I suggest planting companions to keep them under control.
Q: What are some other reasons gardeners resist natives?
A: We are still in love with the exotic. I’m not a purist — garden with what you love — but I hope people are more environmentally conscious and choose more natives. Even I have a couple of lilac bushes from Eastern Europe, but they still give nectar for butterflies. Peonies are a classic nonnative plant popular in Minnesota but not good for pollinators. I planted peonies in honor of my late mom last year — then I planted natives around them.
Q: What are your top five favorite perennials?
A: Any of the wild indigos, which come in every color and are deep-rooted and tough. I have all the Midwestern species in my yard. I love masses of wild geraniums and pale purple coneflowers. Rattlesnake master has a scary name but beautiful spiny, white, spherical flowers on tall sticks. I love prairie smoke — the seeds are beautiful silky fluff that are so cool and nice for bumblebees.
Q: I was surprised to see there’s even a native delphinium. What are some other “unexpected” natives?
A: Rose mallow looks like tropical hibiscus, the annual American basketflower is like the bachelor’s button on steroids and I plant it from seed. There’s the Annabelle hydrangea shrub, but it’s not good for pollinators.
Q: If I was going to add one native plant to my landscape this summer, what should I pick?
A: A white or bur oak tree — they have the most benefit to the web of life with acorns and beneficial insects, and they feed songbirds and wildlife. They give you great shade and will last for future generations. Oak is the national tree.
Q: How did you pick the best 500 species for the book?
A: It’s written for gardeners, so I chose what translates well into the garden and landscapes. I broke it down in sections from “Shade Trees” to “Annuals and Biennials.”
Q: Is there a growing movement for going native?
A: Environmental awareness is definitely increasing — even Bachman’s sells a lot of natives. Every time you buy a native plant, you help drive the market for them. But colorful annuals and traditional perennials are still the top sellers.
Q: Why did you refer to the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden as “sacred ground”?
A: She was such a pioneer in the Midwest and it’s such a special place. I’m so glad the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board carried it on. It has woodlands, prairies and wetlands and the full gamut of what you can grow. It’s just spectacular.
Q: Had you ever been to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum before you landed the job of director of operations last year?
A: I’ve been coming to the arboretum for 40 years for its incredible plant collections. I grew up in Decorah, Iowa, just south of the border, and it was the closest place for a kid to travel to who was so into nature and plants. My parents let me drive there as soon as I got my license.