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Native Plants for Shade and Savanna Conditions

 
Wednesday, February 28
at First United Methodist Church, 212 S. Park St., downtown Kalamazoo.
Socializing at 6:30; program promptly at 7.

by Tom Small:

“When Nancy and I presented a Wild Ones program on plants for shade in January 2007, we offered a slide show that was basically an illustrated and annotated listing of “woodland wildflowers.” I’ve learned a lot and thought a lot in the 11 years since that program, and what I hope to offer for Wild Ones this February will include such a listing but also delve more deeply and offer a much broader range of possibilities.

Part of what I want to suggest is that “plants for shade” is far too limiting a concept for what we need to know and the practice we need to follow in the “natural landscaping” of our urban-suburban environments.

As our friend Kim Chapman points out, up until fairly recently ecologists assumed that southwest Michigan, historically, was either heavily wooded or virtually treeless wherever they found remnant species of “prairie plants.” But in fact, intermediate “part-shade” levels of light predominated across southern Michigan’s ecosystems, with only limited areas of dense-shade forest, and full sun mostly in scattered, quite small prairies—either wet or dry.

We now know that the predominant ecosystem on the dry, flat-to-rolling landscapes of southwest lower Michigan was savanna, especially oak savanna or “oak openings,” where clumps and scatterings of Black and White Oak trees thrived side by side with a rich mixture of grasses, sedges, wildflowers, shrubs, and understory trees.

Neither Prairie Nor Forest

Most of the urban and suburban landscapes where we live lend themselves pretty well to establishing some approximations of these historic savannas. So mostly what we want for our plantings are neither strictly prairie nor strictly forest plants but ones that thrive under or at least tolerate a broad range of conditions, from forest edge and woodland to prairie “openings,” from part-sun to part-shade, from dry to moist.

Another way of characterizing the wide range of “shade-plant” possibilities is in terms of “edges,” which, as Darke and Tallamy emphasize in The Living Landscape, are “a defining element of suburban residential landscapes.” Almost every feature in a suburban yard is an edge, between soil and pavement or structure, between turf and garden bed, between shady and sunny, between wet and dry, between your yard and the neighbor’s. I’ll try to suggest how we can both recognize the limitations and exploit the diverse possibilities of “edge environment.”

Intermediate Communities

I’ll draw on my experience and observation and on my reading to suggest what plants are best suited to these kinds of “intermediate” communities, where ecosystems intersect and overlap. My illustrations will largely come from our own yard, which approximates the light and shade conditions of savanna (tree canopy cover 5% to 50%) and woodland (50 to 75%).

I’ll touch on the possibilities for “layering” of savanna plants, from tall canopy trees, understory trees, and shrubs, down to the forbs, grasses, ferns, and sedges, so that in our gardens we take full advantage of both horizontal and vertical edges, where sometimes surprising transitions and juxtapositions occur.

Finally, since we’re dealing not just with “plants for shade” but complex, everchanging plant communities, I’ll touch on the emerging recognition of what some are now calling the “wood-wide web,” the wondrous networks of communication and mutual aid within and between plant species, fungi, microbes, and invertebrates. And that probably requires a word or two about restoration of the soil as an essential part of a savanna/woodland planting.

Does all this sound like a lot for 50 minutes? A bit too much like roller skating through the Louvre? Well, we’ll have to see how it comes out. Stand by.”

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Tom Small is co-founder of the Kalamazoo Area Chapter of Wild Ones and coauthor, with his deceased wife Nancy, of Using Native Plants to Restore Community. He’s a past board member of the Wildflower Association of Michigan, a member of the WMU Faculty Climate Change Working Group, and former clerk of the steering committee for Quaker Earthcare Witness (QEW), the Quaker environmental organization for the Americas. His recent publications include the pamphlets “Talking About Climate Change: A Call for Dialogue” and “Contemplative Action in the Time of Climate Change,” for QEW, and “A Garden Ethic for a Living Landscape,” in Wild Ones Journal. Wednesday, February 28, at First United Methodist Church, 212 S. Park St., downtown Kalamazoo. Socializing at 6:30; program promptly at 7.