Wildflowers are nothing new – and that is part of their attraction. They are plants that have grown in woods and fields with no help from humans, making the natural outdoors a pleasant (and essential) place for people and other living things to hang out, including insects, birds and mammals.

When wildflowers are placed in a tended garden, they often are called native plants – although some of what people call wildflowers aren’t really native.

Interest in native plants has been growing over the past couple of decades, to the point where, among some of us, anyhow, it almost equals the excitement for new Game of Thrones episodes.

To promote and expand on this blossoming interest in natives, the Garden Club Federation of Maine (GCFM) and McLaughlin Garden in South Paris will hold an all-day wildflower/native plant symposium later this month in South Paris. The event intertwines recent projects of McLaughlin and the garden club.

“The GCFM has a new president and her theme for her two-year term is Plant Maine – Sustainable Home Gardening,” said Harriet Robinson, co-chair of the event.

That new president, Judith Tarbox of Camden, learned that the National Garden Club was offering stipends so state clubs could hold symposia on native plants – so she set the event in motion.


Robinson, who is active in programs at both McLaughlin and the garden club, suggested McLaughlin as a good site, because it has recently received a Project Canopy grant from the state to remove some invasive plants and replace them with natives.

The symposium won’t make anyone an expert in native plants, but it will provide a solid introduction. It will include talks by seven people, tours of two native-plant gardens and a chance to view and learn about an herbarium, an album of pressed flowers that is one way people learned about plants before color photographs were common. Jean Potuchek, a retired sociology professor from East Poland who writes a blog called Jean’s Garden, will discuss the history and uses of an herbarium she has studied that was created by a woman from Oxford in the 1920s.

“One of the things we hope to learn from the herbarium,” Robinson said, “is whether some plants that are now endangered in Maine were once fairly common.”

One of the most important parts of the program, Robinson believes, is a talk on how to propagate native plants, presented by Shawn Jalbert, a native plants consultant based in Alfred.

Robinson said it is difficult to get seed-grown native plants at most garden centers. Jalbert, who is steward of the Harvey Butler Rhododendron Sanctuary in Springvale under sponsorship of the New England Wild Flower Society, will discuss how to grow native plants from seeds.

While some garden centers sell native plants, Robinson said, they often are cultivars rather than seed-grown specimens, and seed-grown specimens offer more diversity in the landscape.


Michael Murphy, a biologist recently retired from the University of Maine Extension who has taught horticulture classes through UMaine and the New England Wild Flower Society, will discuss endangered plants, plants for special habitats and how to identify wildflowers using dichotomous keys. With dichotomous keys, people look at parts of the plant starting with flower color and shape, followed by leaf arrangement and shape, in order to identify the plant.

Lois Berg Stack, also recently retired from the University of Maine where she was an ornamental horticulturist, will speak about designing native plant gardens and fitting native plants into existing landscapes.

Lee Dassler, executive director of the Western Foothills Land Trust in Norway and founding director of McLaughlin Garden, will lecture on the preservation of natural areas and nature trails.

Kristin Perry, McLaughlin Garden horticulturist, will lead a tour of the garden, showing how invasive plants have been replaced with native ones, and explaining how to identify plants.

But because most of the plants at McLaughlin are shady spring bloomers, attendees will have the option of going to Robinson’s garden in Otisfield.

“In late summer, the flowers are mostly in fields and sunlight, and because my property is surrounded by field and has blooms in late summer and early fall, we decided use my own private garden as a second field trip opportunity.”

It sounds like a full day, and I am looking forward to it – and not just because, in full disclosure, my wife, Nancy, is co-chairing the event with Robinson.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at tomatwell@me.com.

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