When I read on the Maine Audubon Society website that the organization had started selling non-Maine plants, I was surprised.
I was sure the environment mainstay hadn’t given up on its commitment to the plants that Maine’s birds, insects, and other species need to survive. But I wondered what caused the change.
The added non-natives are good plants. One of them, Liatris scariosa or the northern flaming star, is native to York County but not the rest of the state, by the standards used by Audubon. Audubon had therefore previously excluded him from the sale of plants.
Eric Topper, explaining the change, said some birds, insects and other animals, as well as some plants, have extended their historical range, mainly north and east as the climate has warmed. So why wouldn’t Audubon sell plants whose historical range is somewhat south and west of Maine.
The change was not an instant decision.
“Since we’ve been in the world of native plant restoration six or seven years now, we’ve struggled to define our definition of native plants,” Topper said in a telephone interview.
When sales began, Maine Audubon opted for the list, also used by state officials, called BONAP, the Biota of North America program, which has long studied native plants. Audubon also consulted with state officials, and if the state thought a factory shouldn’t be on the list, it was removed, Topper said.
Over the years, with real life experience, those in charge have started to question boundaries. Audubon staff have noticed how much hummingbirds love Monarda didyma, with the common names scarlet bee balm or red bergamot.
While working in greenhouses to water the plants, bumblebees (which are native) cover and worship Liatris spicata.
So, Audubon added these plants, which are not strictly native according to the definition she chose to use, because of their enormous benefits to birds and other wildlife that Maine Audubon’s mission is to protect.
Topper said his organization did not make the decision without outside help. He received help from Dan Jaffe, now a horticulturist at the Norcross Wildlife Foundation in Massachusetts, who co-authored the book “Native Plants for New England Gardens” while with the Native Plant Trust.
In addition to Liatris spicata, Monarda didyma, and Liatris scariosa, other non-native plants added to Audubon are Echinacea purpurea or purple coneflower, and Coreopsis lanceolata or lanceleaf coreopsis – both native to the northeastern United States but not Maine.
Buyers seem to have agreed with Audubon’s choice. Scarlet Bee Balm, Spearleaf Coreopsis, and Purple Echinacea are already sold out for this year.
Topper encourages people to research these species – not cultivars of those species, which would have a brand name with single quotes at the end – at local nurseries, and plant them.
Topper said the sales could help with the migration, but that was not the group’s intention. He thinks the species got to Maine anyway, because people love them and planted them in their gardens.
One thing Topper said towards the end of our interview surprised me. Despite Maine Audubon’s emphasis on native species, he realizes that non-natives also have a great advantage in wildlife. He had just spent a week in the heart of nature, places where the forest has taken over from abandoned farms. Apple trees – native to Kazakhstan – in these woods still thrive and are a huge boon to wildlife, he said, giving just one example.
By the way, the Maine Audubon plant sale has gone well this year, and although three of the new introductions have sold out, there are still many good native plants in stock.
And he says, and I agree, that September and early October are great times to plant shrubs and perennials in Maine. Plus, buying them will help Audubon staff.
“We don’t want to take care of these plants in the winter,” he said.