It was the lack of butterflies that made Wilmette resident Charlotte Adelman realize there was something wrong with her garden. It was populated by beautiful exotic flowers like Chinese day lilies, but her flora failed to attract any fauna.
“There they sit doing nothing but being visual,” Adelman said. “I noticed where there’s native plants they’ll always have bees buzzing around and they’ll be attracting butterflies, so I started working on the idea of having native plants in my own garden.”
Adelman filled her garden with grasses native to the Prairie State. A retired attorney, Adelman had written a book on the history of the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois in 1992, and her gardening project inspired her to change her literary focus. In 2001, she and her husband Bernard Schwartz published the Prairie Directory of North America, a guide to public places where you can observe the complex ecosystems.
Friends and community members began asking Adelman for lists of what to plant and what not to plant in their own gardens. That gave Adelman and Schwartz the idea to write The Midwestern Native Garden: Native Alternatives to Nonnative Flowers and Plants, but they had a hard time finding an interested publisher.
“At that time, it seemed like an arcane subject that people may not really be interested in,” Adelman said. “Some of the publishers wrote back ‘I love the idea of your book, but they don’t think it will sell.’”
Ohio University Press took a chance on the book, and by the time it was published in September 2011, the topic of native gardening had taken off. The Midwestern Native Garden is already on its second printing.
“I just think people have become more aware of some of the factors that go into having a healthy environment,” Adelman said. “Organizations are becoming more vocal, and I think there are a lot more organizations that are focusing on this.”
“They take care of themselves”
Native gardening is not only about improving aesthetics. It also helps protect populations of native species. The Karner blue butterfly only lays its eggs on lupine flowers. When the plants were dug up and built over, the insect became extinct in Canada and endangered throughout North America. Efforts to revive the populations by bringing back the flowers have proved challenging.
“Our hope is that that’s not going to happen to some of the other butterflies,” Adelman said. “Even the monarch butterfly has to have milkweed in order to reproduce. Hardly anyone plants milkweed in their garden, and yet they’re beautiful. People just don’t know about them.”
Another advantage to keeping a yard filled with local plants is that they belong in this climate, so they’re easy to maintain. You don’t have to replant flowers that die in the winter, and prairie plants roots extend 15 to 20 feet underground to get all the water they need from rain.
“I haven’t watered anything in 20 years,” Adelman said. “They’re there, they grow, they attract butterflies and bees. They take care of themselves.”
Want to learn more about native gardening? Adelman and Schwartz are hosting a series of local discussions and book signings. You can see them at 7 p.m. April 19 at in Winnetka, 10 a.m. April 21 at the and 1:30 p.m. May 23 at the .