The use of native plants in landscape design is a growing trend as gardeners and landscapers learn more about sustainability and the important ecological role native plants provide in the environment. But though the concept may finally be gaining momentum, it is not new to landscaping.
Recently, an University of Illinois Extension colleague shared a rare find with me that has shed some light on early-20th-century views about landscaping with native plants. While perusing the sheet music at the Idea Store in Urbana, my colleague Anne Silvis came across a 1915 publication titled “The Prairie Spirit in Landscape Gardening” and immediately snatched it up, given her personal interest in gardening. The 33-page black-and-white booklet was written by Wilhelm Miller from the UI Department of Horticulture’s Division of Landscape Extension.
Anne was gracious enough to share this unique document with me, and I have thoroughly enjoyed reading and taking in all the great history in this publication. The writing and composition, as well as the pictures and captions, are all absolutely fascinating to read and think about in the context of 1915.
It was both refreshing and fascinating to learn that UI horticulturalists have been advocating for the use of native plants since 1915, or even earlier. Miller includes interesting accounts of prior efforts to incorporate native plants into the landscape in Illinois and the Midwest, citing examples in public places as well as private gardens, with some of the oldest accounts dating to the late 1800s.
So the concept of using mostly native plants is not new, and neither are the reasons working against it. Miller identifies problems similar to ones we see today in the selection of plants, such as the fact that the general public has an overwhelming preference for exotic, non-native plants.
In taking “the showiest plants from all foreign lands, as assembled in ordinary nurseries and in the front yards of beginners,” Illinois gardeners of 1915 preferred a list of non-native species that is surprisingly similar to today, including barberries, spireas and panicle hydrange, among others that Miller mentions.
He creates a strong case for “developing the native beauty instead of copying the foreign type,” so that landscaping in Illinois represents the native fauna in an effort to promote awareness of native plants. Miller also talks about the need for restoration, recognizing the historical loss of prairie habitat across our state.
“It will do little to bewail the beauty that has been destroyed in Illinois. Let us save the beauty that is left”, he notes while building his case for planting natives to preserve local native plant diversity, as well.
It is interesting to think about this point in Illinois history in the context of preservation and restoration of prairie. The concept of restoration was actually fairly new to Americans, with far fewer examples of restored or reconstructed native habitats for the public to experience.
Although there were fewer state and county preserves or other sites hosting man-made prairie reconstitutions, there were likely more remnant prairies on the landscape, which Miller references for sourcing local seed or plants.
He also talks about the need for native plantings in park development projects to build community awareness of native fauna and create a truly “Illinois experience” for everyone.
The discussion in this booklet includes an interesting mixture of urban landscaping, rural landscaping, park development and prairie restoration. In today’s context, I often separate the restoration of prairie and other natural areas into a different category than landscaping that includes native plants. I really enjoyed how Miller captured the need to preserve local biodiversity in such a variety of contexts.
Although the idea of gardening with natives is not new, the message to the public on their importance has certainly changed or been refined. Next week, I will take a further look at the booklet to compare and contrast Miller’s 1915 message with our current understanding of natives and their importance. I will also examine the landscape-design principles described in this historic publication, which Miller refers to as the “Prairie Style.”