Cultivating New Jersey's native wildflowers

Mischelle Ahmed tends to plants in her front yard, which is covered with cultivated species. Her Earth First Native Plant Nursery sells plants grown on her three-acre property in Egg Harbor Township.
Mischelle Ahmed tends to plants in her front yard, which is covered with cultivated species. Her Earth First Native Plant Nursery sells plants grown on her three-acre property in Egg Harbor Township. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 02, 2014

Mischelle "Raven" Ahmed's first love was named Chimaphila maculata.

Ahmed was 10 and walking on a trail near her Absecon home when she came upon the delicate little wildflower, more commonly known as spotted wintergreen.

"They were different," she says, noting the species' distinctive striped leaves and pearly flowers. "They weren't something you saw in a garden."

That's less true these days, thanks in part to Ahmed and other advocates of native wildflowers. As the environmental benefits of the plants are more widely publicized, their popularity grows. And as someone who grew up surrounded by woods and fields, I understand the fascination of the evocative beauty of wildflowers.

A half-century later, I can still summon memories of the pungent, summery scent of what we called Indian paintbrush.

Ahmed, 50, is showing me around the three verdant acres of her Egg Harbor Township, N.J., property. She's self-taught, with a committed gardener's tan that's matched in depth by a bounty of information. She knows hundreds of wildflower species, their needs, preferences, personalities, intimately.

"I was growing wildflowers from seeds - I'm a seed propagator - and around 2007 somebody said, 'Why don't you put them up on eBay?' " says Ahmed, who works full time as a receiving clerk. "I actually sold some. I couldn't believe it."

The following year, she founded her company, Earth First Native Plant Nursery (earthfirstnatives.com). "I couldn't make a living off it yet, but it's growing," says Ahmed. "The potential is definitely there."

Many of the plants she sells are grown from seeds she harvests from plants native to the Pine Barrens, and elsewhere in South Jersey and the Mid-Atlantic region.

With names such as Liatris spicata (blazing star), Solidago sempervirens (seaside goldenrod), and Oenthera fruticosa (sundrops), her wares possess an almost romantic aura.

But the appeal goes beyond the aesthetic. Development is eliminating countless acres of habitats in South Jersey, often replacing them with lawns and landscapes mostly composed of nonnative ornamental plants.

Meanwhile, as some commercial bee colonies collapse for unknown reasons, wild bees, butterflies, and other pollinating insects - as well as birds - become more essential to food crop production.

Many pollinators depend on particular native wildflowers to feed upon, notes Drexel University assistant professor Daniel Duran.

"I grew up near Atlantic City, and when I drive around now I don't see species from this part of the world in people's yards," says Duran, who teaches a class called Native Plants and Sustainability.

The public became more generally aware of wildflowers in the 1960s, with Lady Bird Johnson's highway-beautification campaigns. More recently, Bringing Nature Home (Timber Press), by University of Delaware professor Douglas Tallamy, publicized the ecological benefits.

"Every day, there's less nature and [more] buildings, lawns, paving," Tallamy tells me. "We need these plants for our ecosystem to function. Native plants do it better."

They also "help maintain a sense of place" in an increasingly generic landscape, says Kathy Salisbury, president of the Native Plant Society of New Jersey. "Native plants help you know where you are."

At Ahmed's place, woods that might seem merely attractive to a casual visitor reveal surprises when she's the guide.

"Here's a late bloomer," she says, stopping and kneeling beside a plant I never would have noticed. "A dwarf crested iris."

I tell her I love the notion of pausing, looking closer, and finding an unexpected treasure.

"A weed by definition is a plant growing where someone doesn't want it," Ahmed says. "But every plant on this planet has a place somewhere. A place where it's meant to be."


kriordan@phillynews.com

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