Tallgrass Prairie remnant just north of Letellier on east side of PTH 75

Tallgrass Prairie remnant just north of Letellier on east side of PTH 75.

I recently learned the phrase “Native plant” doesn’t mean anything to most residents of the RM of Morris. I was campaigning for election to the RM Council and while talking with people I realized that most of my neighbours do not know there are two kinds of plants growing in communal areas. Well, neither did I until about 10 years ago.

When I became aware of Native plants and started researching them I learned that early settlers of North America made a mistake. They did not keep in check many plants which tagged along in bags of grain and such or were imported for various reasons. Today we are living with the consequence: A host of introduced plants proliferate in highway ditches, along riverbanks, and in unused fields and field edges.

salt marsh caterpillar eating meadow blazingstar

salt marsh caterpillar eating meadow blazingstar flower

By definition, a plant Native to North America is one which grew here prior to European settlement. Plants brought from elsewhere are called introduced, exotic, or alien. A significant difference between the two is Native flora is kept in check by Native fauna while introduced plants are not. For example salt marsh caterpillars eat the flowers of Native meadow blazingstar which slows down the plants’ propagation. No local insects eat the flowers of introduced dandelions.

Scientific classifications aside, I advocated starting a process of succession to bring Native plants back. ‘They make better neighbours’ I said. Native grasses and forbs (flowers) do not encroach on farm fields and, once patches are established, they keep out troublesome plants (called weeds) that no one wants around: dandelion, clovers, creeping thistle, sow thistle, and the like.

Let me elaborate: I live beside a farm field; a variety of Native plants are growing on my side of a 650 foot property line. Not one of them ever shows up on the farmer’s side. During my campaign I spoke with a man who told me about a 40 acre plot of prairie that had never seen the plough before he purchased it. ‘There were no weeds growing in it,’ he said. I have also visited a similar 40 acre patch of virgin prairie north of Stonewall. No weeds there. And, next summer, were you to venture over to the Natural preserves by Gardenton — Prairie Shore and Agassiz Interpretive Trails — you can see for yourself. No weeds (except in the areas which are mowed for parking cars and events).

While my main plank was perceived as advocating for the environment — which is considered by a lot of people to be the enemy of prosperity — I was (and still am) putting forth a practical solution to a pending problem: The Province’s ban on domestic herbicide use comes into effect next year. Perfect lawns in Rosenort and elsewhere are going to be a challenge to maintain.

Another facet of this is the other weed suppression method — mowing — doesn’t work to eradicate weeds. In some cases it actually helps their spread: Dandelion and sow thistle flowers still set seed after being cut from the plant which is then on the ground right where it is not wanted.

It’s worth observing that many States in the U.S. have roadside planting/replanting programs using plants Native to various regions. So does the United States Federal Government. They are doing this for two reasons: Native plants make better neighbours (as I mentioned) and to give regions distinctive looks. People grew tired of places looking the same everywhere in North America because introduced plants had taken over. Replanting to Native is a big deal south of the border.

It’s a numbers game. At present introduced plants outnumber Native plants partly because current practices favour them. Doing things to encourage Native plants instead would at some point tip the scale in their favour. A process of succession will take a couple of generations, to be sure. But, from what I’ve seen, most residents of the RM of Morris plan to stay here.

Robert G Mears

November 2014
(originally published in The Southeast Journal, November 29, 2014)

Comments (2)

  • Alison Balciunas

    I hear what you are saying and I find myself sitting on a fence of who is in charge here. So I want to take it up a scale. The idea that the planet cannot adapt to one of the species living in it's ecosystem is egocentric. I am not speaking of you, just of the idea that WE see everything through a human shaped lens that assumes we are the center and all things must be kept neatly organized and in place around us for our comfort and benefit. And now also for the good of the planet we are damaging. This planet, it's ecosystems and weather are dynamic. Adaptation is integral for life and change is inevitable. I really thing humans need to look outside ourselves and our timelines for what nature is. Humans have been colonizing and altering the earth for nearly as long as we've been here. Other animals do it too, Yellowstone is a good example I am sure you are aware of. Why would plants behave any differrrently? We now know plants communicate and organize in ways we never imagined and I guarantee what we KNOW only scratches the surface of the reality, which I believe is beyond our comprehension. What if plants can affect human behavior through electrical, fungal or other unknown systems. What if they purposefully hitch rides. What if 30 years from now the ONLY plant that can survive in an altered, Manitoba climate, is a purple loosestrife or burdock? What if they are taking action we know nothing about to balance what we cannot see or perceive? What if we stop thinking we need to manipulate the planet for it to survive. Earth does not need us. What if what we measure and catalogue is really just our interpretation of a short period of events part in a longer cycle we cannot identify? What if the planet is connected in ways, many know instinctively, but that science refuses to acknowledge for lack of proof. If theories were dependent on known science, we would have never gotten anywhere. Theories are born from dreamers. I would appreciate your thoughts on this. I am really on a fence over human intervention beyond what we have done. I am not sure we should try and fix anything! I think it is time for us to go on the ride and be the ones who finally adapt instead of alter and conquer. A

  • Robert G Mears

    Thanks for your observations Alison.
    First off, I have said nothing about saving the planet. I do, however, cotton to the indigenous view that we are a part of the whole, that, perhaps because we can do more things than other species, our role is to care for all of it. Kat Anderson's book, Tending the Wild, is an excellent account of this approach.
    I also believe we are responsible, like no other species, for the health of the biosphere. And, I come at the subject of native plants and ecosystems from the perspective of a purist. I am an all or nothing type. So that is my bent. And, there are enough people who, like yourself, plant both. Plus far too many who only plant exotics in their gardens.
    Some time ago a friend said to me that, "The best way to take care of nature is to let nature take care of itself." That is why the tagline on our website is "engaging succession". We are doing what we can to alter the numbers game in favour of the natives. Burning, for example, favours the natives. Mowing favours the exotics. And current human practices so favour the exotics in these parts that for someone to go the other way is ... I don't know ... maybe a fool's errand.

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