Spring has sprung! Although this winter was pretty average by many accounts, it’s always refreshing to be able to say that it’s finally spring.
Over the last month or so as I’ve anxiously awaited spring’s arrival, when the landscape will explode into a crescendo of green, I find myself pondering the perception of beauty. Is a piece of art beautiful because it’s crafted or painted perfectly, or because of what it represents? Is a person only beautiful if they have flawless skin and perfect bone structure? Or, is there more to it?
Likewise, what makes a plant beautiful? The first thing that comes to most people’s minds is flowers, and rightfully so. It’s tough to not be mesmerized by a profusion of brightly colored blooms, or be lured in by a sweet aroma drifting through the air. When you lay eyes on a hibiscus or dahlia blossom the size of a dinner plate, you won’t soon forget it.
Although a garden loaded with flowers is captivating, I think a deep and full appreciation for plants and nature happens when you look beyond that. It’s about perspective, and the perception of beauty. After all, they say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A blowout penstemon may not grab your attention tucked into a garden overflowing with bright colors, but finding one in the wild would be a glorious occasion for any plant lover, considering it’s an endangered species native to only Nebraska and Colorado.
I think that’s where my new and growing love for native plants has come from: a change in perspective and perception of beauty. Instead of simply valuing a native perennial for what it can offer my senses at the peak of flower, I find myself endeared to it because it’s part of our state’s history. I appreciate the adversity that it has survived to be in my presence at that moment. That little milkweed or coneflower was here, quietly going about its business long before any of us were around. Maybe I’m just becoming a little more nostalgic and seasoned at my ripe old age of 34, but I find myself seeing more beauty in that than I used to.
This year at the Joslyn Art Museum I plan to add over 30 species of perennials to our gardens that are native to Nebraska. Nurseries are always coming out with new varieties and cultivars of plants that bloom longer, smell sweeter, and have more pizazz than last year’s model. That’s great. Almost any plant lover is going to get excited about that, including myself. However, instead going that direction, I want to focus on adding some uncommon and unusual natives to our gardens. To me, doing that seems to embody an element of simplicity and purity that our landscapes can be lacking sometimes, especially here in places like downtown Omaha. Most plants sold commercially nowadays are hybridized, grafted, sterile, cloned, and genetically modified in some way. Some are even patented! Many are also native to other countries and continents. None of those are bad things. Some of my favorite plants are hybrids (which occur naturally all the time) and imports. However, what that means is that natives are becoming less and less common in the average landscape—especially the urban landscape. That can mean less diversity, and fewer sources of food, nectar, and habitat for native birds, pollinators, and other wildlife.
The native plants that I’ll be adding to our gardens will range from drought-tolerant prairie plants like broadleaf milkweed, fir-leaf penstemon, and leadplant, to wetland plants like blazing star, wild bergamot, and blue flag iris. In addition to these plants filling a role as uncommon specimens in the average landscape, adding a valuable element of diversity, they will also provide sources of food, nectar, and habitat to native butterflies, bees, and other pollinators whose numbers are declining. The wetland plants will be a part of a series of rain gardens I plan to build that will collect storm water run-off from our parking lot. Once established, the rain gardens would drastically reduce the amount of water entering the storm sewer from the Joslyn campus. They would also serve to display how a native, wet-mesic landscape can look and function in nature in the state of Nebraska.
One specific genus of native plants that you’ll see a lot more of at the Joslyn Art Museum in 2015 is Asclepias, or milkweed, as it is commonly known. In learning more about native plants recently, I found my attention being drawn to native milkweed. Growing up on the farm, I remember opening the pods in the fall as a kid and watching the seeds fly away. Milkweed has also gotten a lot of press lately because it is a sole food source for monarch butterflies, whose population is estimated to be down as much as 90% in the last 20 years. The monarch’s decline is linked to the decline in native milkweed, which is a result of heavy use of agricultural pesticides over the last few decades.
I’ve been collecting and growing seed since last fall, and this spring I’ll be starting a collection of milkweed native to Nebraska and Iowa. There 22 species that call Nebraska, Iowa, or both, their home. My goal is to have a complete collection of all 22 species. So far I have 17, which you’ll be able to enjoy in our Discovery Garden later this spring once weather is favorable for planting. Several species in the collection are listed by the USDA as threatened or endangered in their native habitat.
At the Joslyn Art Museum we are also entering year 3 of employing a grounds care program that is predominantly organic. The results from the last 2 years have been very encouraging, so it only makes sense to keep heading in that direction. Maintaining our campus naturally not only makes it safer and healthier, but it also allows us to enjoy benefits like reducing our irrigation cost to the lowest point in 5 years. By focusing on creating healthy soil and a nourishing environment for turf, trees, and ornamentals, the landscape naturally functions better and is more vibrant.
Spring is here! The weather is getting warmer, plants are starting to wake from their slumber, and the gardens at the Joslyn Art Museum are begging for you to get outside and come take a stroll.
Landscape Maintenance Technician
Joslyn’s organic lawn care programs supported in part by