Reviving the Prairies of Philadelphia

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There are few better ways to learn plants than by working in a nursery. Assisting with the Schuylkill Center’s annual Native Plant Sale—now in its 17th year—is a truly unique experience for employees and volunteers alike. With over 200 species of native plants being offered to the public annually, even the most experienced botanists and gardeners encounter fascinating plants that they have never seen before. In my work with the sale this year, two plants in particular have caught my eye.

Rattlesnake master and purple coneflower are both wildflowers with wonderful names that are native to southern parts of the now rare eastern prairie ecosystem, landscapes that once existed from the Mississippi River to Pennsylvania, and Florida to New Hampshire. The eastern prairies are relegated to tiny out-of-the-way patches today, but at one time they contained an astonishing diversity of species: asters, orchids, and false indigos. Switchgrass and bluestems. Blazing stars, goldenrods, milkweeds, and mountain mints. Miles of flowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees dotting a savannah humming with life. 

Of course, when we hear the word “prairie,” the first place that comes to mind is the Great Plains of the Midwest. With trees eagerly popping up every place they can in our area, we like to imagine that the native ecosystems of the past here were all woodland and forest. Early accounts of this region, however, reveal a far more nuanced picture. Descriptions abound from the 15th to 18th centuries of broad meadows, savannahs, and grasslands tended with fire by indigenous communities across the Atlantic seaboard. 

Were any prairies present here in Philadelphia? Local Lenape place names, which often encode ancient environmental information, give us a clue: while Wissahickon means “catfish creek” and Wissinoming is “a place where grapes grow,” Southwest Philadelphia’s Kingsessing is the Lenape word for “place where there is a meadow.”

The pre-urban environment of Philadelphia was a diverse, managed mosaic of old growth forests, vast fruit-laden woodlands, and networks of tall prairies—a far cry from the concrete barrens that we see around us today. This is, sadly, all too common across the continent. Eastern prairies have disappeared throughout their range in the face of farming and development. The removal of native people and their millennia-old relationships with the land—particularly, the seasonal controlled burns that held back trees and regenerated the grasslands—have further ensured the decline of these unique meadow ecologies. But despite this familiar story, all is not lost.

What if Philadelphia’s concrete-encased small yards could be transformed into the same diverse landscapes that once existed here—every container garden a pocket prairie, every yard a micro-forest? What if all it took to return biodiversity to a neighborhood is a gardener with a trowel, the right plants, and a little gusto? Just as was the case in the past, it is human care and stewardship that can create and preserve these endangered ecosystems. The dazzling beauty and biodiversity of the eastern prairie can be recreated in any backyard—even if it’s as small as a postage stamp of grass or a few pots on a balcony. With their diminutive size but exuberance of color, scent, and form, prairie and meadow plants can pack a punch in a small garden in a way few others can.

Rattlesnake Master. Photo by Frank Mayfield

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) is one of the most charismatic of these plants. With light powdery blue, tropical-looking foliage and a spray of flower orbs emerging like a constellation, this is a plant that looks far more at home in the Caribbean than in the prairies of the Mid-Atlantic where it has grown for millennia. Its flowers are irresistible to many native pollinators, particularly the same wasps that can help control pests in the rest of your garden. It also grows just as easily in containers as it does in the broad expanse of its original prairie habitat. With its ethereal charm and distinctive name, rattlesnake master is a wildflower that would be at home in any Philadelphia garden, big or small.

And what better to complement it than a patch of one of its prettiest prairie companions, purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)? This wildflower is a treasure to people and pollinators alike. Along with a handful of other Echinacea species, coneflower is foundational to herbal medicine, being widely available for its purported immune-boosting properties. Its color and elegant form in the garden have led to its popularity in native landscaping, and it is available in a wide range of cultivars with unique colors, from eggshell white to green and purple. Its true power, however, is in the life that it brings to the garden. From fritillaries and swallowtails to bumble bees and beetles, watching a blooming coneflower in July is truly a sight to behold. As a late bloomer, it provides rich nectar and pollen at a crucial time for pollinators, when little else is in flower. 

A patch of coneflower and rattlesnake master is a lifeline to your neighborhood’s bees and butterflies every summer. Paired with other now-rare plants that once existed in the long-gone ecosystems of our region, plantings like this can become a foothold for the return of beauty and biodiversity to any neighborhood in this city. 

Working with the amount of acreage we have at the Schuylkill Center is a blessing, but the true future of our city lies in the spirit of stewardship that we all can cultivate in whatever space we have to work with. Bringing biodiversity back to your small patch of this world is a deeply empowering act that pays dividends far beyond what one imagines at the outset. 

I invite you to see what kinds of plants can become a part of the ecosystem that you steward in your space: the Schuylkill Center’s Native Plant Sale offers a wide range of plants for any garden or taste. Rattlesnake master and purple coneflower are easy and lovely to grow, and may just yet inspire you to imagine the lost landscapes that we could enjoy yet again.

 

Max Paschall, Native Plants Assistant

 

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