The Native Plant Project

By Abby Henkel, Communications Director, and Shane Gibson, Environmental Education Director

This article originally appeared in the summer 2018 issue of The Twig, our 24-page member newsletter. To read more from this issue, click here. To become a member and receive The Twig in the mail, become a member.

Jeremy Hogan | Herald-Times
Rhianna Russell removes a native plant before planting it at Templeton Elementary School, Thursday, September 7, 2017 in Bloomington, Ind.

“Life finds a way.”

– Dr. Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park

Dr. Malcolm was referring to dinosaurs in his legendary quote about adaptation, but it applies just as well to the plants and animals that surround us here in southern Indiana. What does “adaptation” mean when it comes to nature? That’s one of the first questions we ask students during our native plant activities in classrooms. After students help build a definition, we sum it up with this: An adaptation is something a plant or animal has or does that helps it to survive.

At any age, the children we work with are remarkably good at coming up with a definition close to this one. By asking them questions, we encourage students to start thinking about the world around them in a new way. The books in the series “Who’s Been Here?” challenge readers to dig deeper when observing their surroundings, by questioning what they see and using logic to deduce an answer that makes sense.

The Native Plant Project is hands-on learning. We discuss plant adaptations of seed protection and dispersal, which gets us to the adaptations that make sure the plant germinates at just the right time. The seeds we use need cold, moist stratification of at least 30 days. This “pretend winter” wakes them up from their dormant state. A grant from the Indiana Native Plant and Wildlife Society (INPAWS) has funded the purchase of the seeds and soil for our Native Plant Project for nearly three years, and we reuse seed trays year after year. To illustrate the different ways plants can adapt to their environment and ensure their species’ longevity, we talk about the seeds from these species:

This graphic comes from the print version of The Twig; click the link at the top of the page to view a PDF of the entire summer 2018 issue

When the seeds grown by the students are ready for transplant, we help them prepare little pots to take home. In 2017, the students at Helmsburg Elementary in Brown County raised enough plants for every 3rd and 4th grader in the school to take several home with leftovers to share with staff at the school. This May, they shared their extra plants at the Beanblossom Farmers’ Market, with the kids themselves running the booth.

Education that is immersive and interdisciplinary can have far-reaching effects. This simple project – growing seeds in the classroom, taking them home, and sharing them with community members – introduces students to the importance of native plants, the complexities ofecosystems, and the importance of philanthropy. All the while, they might think they’re just getting to play in the dirt.

Sycamore also works with schools to incorporate native plants on their campuses. The Duke Energy Foundation and the Brabson Library and Educational Foundation have generously funded the Native Plant Project, enabling us to purchase flowers, grasses, shrubs, planting tools, mulch, and trees.

At Helmsburg Elementary School in Brown County, students counted more than 30 monarch caterpillars on milkweed they had planted in their school garden.

Kids relish the time outdoors as they amend the soil, put down mulch, weed, and plant. Using shovels, rakes, and wheelbarrows brings them joy and excitement. As Lily Albright, Principal at Unionville Elementary, recently wrote to us: “There are cheers, literally, when the words ‘Mr. Gibson is coming today’ are spoken.”

You don’t need to have a large amount of land to build meaningful habitat for native species. In fact, the book “Plant a Pocket of Prairie” by Phyllis Root shows readers how a garden of any size can be home to a world of fascinating critters.

These gardens on school campuses – or in your backyard – can be filled with milkweed for monarch caterpillars (did you catch the article in our last issue of The Twig?), Joe Pye weed for all sorts of pollinators like butterflies and long-tongued bees, and rattlesnake master for wildlife cover and insect food.

If we each plant a pocket of prairie, little by little, together we can create a substantial amount of habitat for our pollinators and other creatures that depend on native plants. This is how Sycamore builds a nature preserve. Beanblossom Bottoms Nature Preserve started out as about 80 acres two decades ago. Today, Sycamore protects and stewards nearly 1,200 acres in the Beanblossom Creek Conservation Area. Now we see bobcats, the endangered Kirtland’s snake, bald eagles, and many types of warblers at this wetland forest teeming with life.


Why Native Plants?

Native pollinators and other wildlife have co-evolved with native plants, building a mutually beneficial relationship that is crucial to the survival of both plants and animals.

Ecosystem Services
Native plants and ecosystems help to clean our air and water, and create healthy soils.

Natural Heritage
Remnant natural areas offer a glimpse into Indiana’s wild past, and what we might attain if we restore some of that habitat.