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Martha Bishop Ferguson grows milkweed plants which are popular with monarch butterflies.

Keeping native

Area plant life acclimated to climate, grow best

Photos by Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
The sign points the way to the greenhouse where Ferguson, owner of Riverview Nursery, grows native Indiana plants. The business is in its first year of operation.

Martha Bishop Ferguson is standing next to a potting bench in a grow shed outside her home near Spencerville, talking about her plants.

There’s blue flag iris, which “doesn’t mind getting its feet wet,” she says, and will grow even in standing water in area ponds and lakes. Nearby stand several pots of Helenium autumnale, usually called sneezeweed. “It’s unfortunately named,” she laments. Its pretty yellow flowers don’t provoke allergies, she says; its name comes because pioneer people used its dried leaves in snuff.

Then there’s a sturdy swamp rose mallow. It’s not a rose, Ferguson says – it’s actually a member of the hibiscus family, and its showy pink blooms bear a striking resemblance to hibiscus flowers seen in the tropics. But this hibiscus is native to Indiana.

“The first time I saw one I was canoeing on Cedar Creek, and coming around a bend there was a whole stand of them. I almost fell out of the canoe,” she says.

An advanced master gardener and master naturalist, Ferguson knows plants intimately, especially ones that grow wild in the Fort Wayne area. Now, she’s hoping to pass on that knowledge – and the plants themselves – to area gardeners who share her enthusiasm for truly native species.

Ferguson is in her first year of a retail business selling native plants with genotypes specific to northeast Indiana. That means the plants are already adapted to this region’s soils, climate and weather patterns.

Such plants, she says, have a better chance of succeeding in area gardens and require little maintenance. They also serve the needs of area wildlife.

But such plants also can be hard to find. Ferguson gets her plants as starts from a Fort Wayne wholesaler, Heartland Restoration Services, a company that’s been doing the painstaking work of gathering and germinating seeds from the region’s wild plants for several years.

Eric Ummel, Heartland’s director, says she’s the only local retailer of the company’s products; most of its seeds and starts go to government and large-scale commercial projects.

Ferguson says native genotype plants are different from ones typically labeled as natives at garden centers. Those plants, she says, don’t necessarily grow wild here – they’re bred from plants native to anywhere in North America.

“Let’s use coneflowers as an example. Their native range is quite extensive, basically east of the Rockies,” she says. “The soils, the weather, the time of bloom and the fauna that use them are considerably different in southern Tennessee than in Indiana or in Minnesota. But if you do a local genotype, those plants are genetically adapted to northeast Indiana.”

Many so-called natives have been intensively bred to bring out certain desirable characteristics, but the breeding has sometimes sacrificed beneficial functions, she says.

For example, coneflowers lately have been bred to achieve red, white and yellow flowers as well as their native purple, and some even have double or triple flowers, Ferguson says. But the plants are sterile, which means they don’t produce the seeds needed by birds.

“I call ’em frou-frou plants,” she says. “They’ve lost their function in the environment.”

Ferguson does not have a shop but sells her plants at special events and area farmers markets, including Mondays from 4 to 7 p.m. at Salomon Farm at 817 W. Dupont Road and from 2 to 7 p.m. Tuesdays at Riverside Grden Park Farmer Market in Leo-Cedarville

She divides her inventory into two main classes – wetland and rain garden plants and upland plants appropriate for gardens or prairie restoration. Plants generally sell for between $4 and $10.

Her fledgling business got a boost, she says, from current programs to encourage residents to plant rain gardens as a means of river pollution control. About 40 percent of the 30 species she sells work in rain gardens, which keep run-off water out of storm sewers. She also has put together a rain-garden kit that will cover about 50 square feet.

She says she’s been working with city officials to fill demand for rain-garden species. When Neuhouser’s garden centers in Fort Wayne went out of business last year, she says, the area lost a main supplier of rain-garden plants.

Ferguson, who worked for a local insurance company for many years, says she got interested in wild plants as a child living in the country.

Her interest grew when, as a master gardener, she began helping with native-plant gardens at the Gene Stratton-Porter homestead in Rome City. The writer, she says, was also an avid protector of natives, collecting thousands in advance of wetlands development.

When assembling her inventory, Ferguson says, she tried to choose plants with good landscape qualities as well as usefulness to bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and songbirds.

Other important characteristics were fragrance, herbal properties, bloom time, foliage appeal and the ability to provide a gardener with cut flowers or interesting fall or winter features.

Ferguson says she likes to take time to talk to her customers about how they and the plants can meet each other’s needs – native genotype plants do have to be sited properly to thrive, she says.

In other words, don’t plant that blue flag iris up close to the house in dry, sandy subsoil left over from construction.

“You meet their needs,” she says of native genotype plants, “and they’ll meet yours.”