It all starts with green plants. They are the direct beneficiaries of the sun's benevolent and life-giving rays, magically, silently divining sugars from light energy in a process known as photosynthesis. Without this organic alchemy wondrously taking place every hour of every day around the earth, virtually nothing else would exist. The food chain or web or however you defined it in school, wholly depends upon step number one: the presence of green plants.
Over the millennia, multi-celled organisms have evolved to utilize vegetation of various types, sometimes in a general fashion, sometimes very specifically. Most grasshoppers, for instance, don't seem to care what exactly they are eating so long as it's green. Monarch butterfly caterpillars, on the other hand, require plants of the Asclepias (milkweed) genus in order to eat and maintain life.
With this idea as a backdrop, I've been an advocate of planting native materials as much as practical in our home landscapes for as long as I can remember. A quick (but by no means comprehensive) survey of my own backyard rings up species such as swamp milkweed (A. incarnata), bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), joe-pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum), dogwood (Cornus sp.), touch-me-not or jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), lead plant (Amorpha canescens), prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), and many others.
Allow me to lay out a case for going native. First, it's cheaper and I'm a penny-pinching gardener, just ask my wife. Not only do exotic plant materials typically cost more from the outset, but they often require the added expense of more water and a higher level of pest control.
Also, as previously mentioned, native plant communities have established long standing relationships with native fauna. Thus, everything from insects to bats to birds to who-knows-what, benefits when we plant natural materials in our landscapes.
Finally, it's fun. I can't even count how many wild plants I've tried growing over the years. Some have been abject failures; others have turned out be wonderful additions to our plant beds.
Local retail nurseries appear to be stocking more and more indigenous material every year. Prairie grasses, in particular, seem to be catching on. There's even a local company--Prairie Restorations Inc.--based in Princeton, Minn., but with a field office just east of Moorhead, specializing in designing and installing native plant communities.
Even better than buying materials, however, is collecting them yourself (did I mention the penny-pinching thing?). Plant ecologists will tell you the closer you are to your source, the more locally adapted your plants will be.
Some idea of what seeds you are collecting is nice so a field guide or some other means of plant identification is handy. On the other hand, there is adventure waiting for those willing to just "sow and see." In either case, expect the occasional puzzled look accompanied by "What is that and where did you get it?" from garden viewers.
For a few years, I've grown a perennial most North Dakotans would consider a ditch weed (in fact, that's where I collected the seeds), called cow parsnip (Heracleum maximum). It's a gigantic tropical looking beast with umbels of six-foot tall white flowers. Nothing in my yard evokes more positive comments than that particular "weed" when it's blooming.
Rules vary widely when it comes to collecting plant materials. A ditch along a state highway is probably fine but our national parks, for instance, allow the taking of absolutely nothing. Always ask the appropriate authority before removing any plants or seeds.
I queried Bryan Stotts, District Ranger, about collecting on the Sheyenne National Grassland recently. Anything commercial requires a permit, he told me, and the endangered western prairie fringed orchid is off limits too. "But if you want to collect bluestem seed by hand, that's not a problem," said Stotts. "The big things are no commercial and no digging."
I'm not naïve enough to believe I can replicate entire plant communities on my tiny suburban lot. And I doubt I will ever host a rare Dakota Skipper (Hesperia dakotae) butterfly at my place, a species, says Stotts, closely associated with little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) grass. Still, the modest amount of wild flora growing in the yard keeps me one iota closer to one of the richest diversified biomes on the planet, our native grassland. That's a good thing.