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Intersection - What's Blooming with Missouri Native Plants?

Sara Shahriari

On this week's Intersection, the focus is on native plants and our environment – with a special emphasis on the relationship between milkweed and monarch butterflies. Host Sara Shahriari explores efforts to preserve and create native plant habitats in our own backyards, and beyond. Our guests are Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch, Carol Davit of the Missouri Prairie Foundation, Pete Millier of the Mizzou Botanic Garden and Mervin Wallace of Missouri Wildflowers Nursery. 

As part of our show, KBIA's Kara Tabor sat down with Mervin Wallace of Missouri Wildflowers Nursery to chat about the environmental and consumer interest in native plants. 

What’s the importance of cultivating and preserving these native plants for the environment here in Missouri?

All of the native wildlife—wild animals, insect, whatever—need native plants. The documentation is there that there’s hardly anything eating the exotic plants compared to the native plants. The numbers are way down. Having holes in your leaves is a good thing! That means you’ve got interaction with the environment if you have plants that are doing that, and you’re not going to see that with exotic plants very much, compared to the native ones. 

What are some of the most popular native plants that you have here?

In terms of the ones people are buying right now, it’s got to be the milkweeds. Everyone wants them because of the monarch butterflies. The milkweeds are essential for the monarch’s reproduction. The caterpillars just eat milkweeds or the vines that are related to the milkweeds. So everyone’s after that right now. And of course, we can’t produce enough. People are buying the nectar plants. You need nectar plants all through the season for the butterflies, monarchs and pollinators in general. Most people are aware that the pollinator numbers are way down.

Have you seen an increase in demand for native plants?

In 2014, our gross was 31 percent higher than 2013. The first half of this year, our gross was 20 percent higher than last year. It’s just skyrocketed very recently.

What are some of the other popular native plants?

The echinacea, which is coneflower—there’s four species of those in Missouri. Blazing stars. These are all plants that produce a lot of nectar that butterflies and bees use. Any of the asters, but New England asters are very popular and we sell a lot of them. It’s in bloom when the monarchs migrate, and that’s a selling point.

When customers come in and are looking for particular plants, what kinds of benefits are they looking for?

Unlike going to a regular lawn and garden center, which ours isn’t, the customers are thinking about birds or butterflies or something about the habitat they’re doing. Some of them just want to plant a prairie garden, for example, and enjoy everything that comes along with it. They’re not thinking about how pretty this plant is necessarily, in many cases, although many of the plants that are native are very attractive. An important thing they need to consider is the bloom times because you’re growing perennials and they all a different bloom period. So it’s important to plan to plant more than one species, as opposed to planting the annals you get at a box store or a place like that.

What kind of feedback do you get from customers after they’ve bought and planted?

The most common comment we get has to do with the interaction of the plants with the birds or the butterflies that they see using them, hummingbirds in particular. They also comment about how the plants survive as a native plant better than the plants that are exotic. They may also comment that they increase more from seed than the exotics do, which can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your situation. 

What’s your favorite part of growing and selling native plants?

My favorite part is going out and harvesting the seed out of prairies and just looking out there and paying attention to what’s happening in the prairies, and analyzing in my head why it’s happening this year the way it’s happening versus the way last year and all of the activities that have caused certain things to happen, like good flowering or bad flowering.  

Interview has been edited for length and clarity

To hear the rest of our interviews, listen to our entire show. 

Intersection is produced by CatyEisterhold and Daniela Vidal. Our community outreach team is Kara Tabor and Hellen Tian. 

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