In the heart of Willistown lies a Garden of Eden: over an acre of native wildflowers blankets a gentle slope in front of the Trust’s office on Providence Road. It provides a living example of how homeowners can help support nature in their yards.
The first seeds for our wildflower meadow were planted in 2008, and since then around 800 flower plugs were carefully tucked into the soil each spring by elementary school children who learned about the myriad benefits of these native plants— from supporting the insects that drive food webs to minimizing water usage. Year after year we watch the cradle of green grass morph into a field of countless perennials awaiting their turn for inflorescence throughout the summer.
Last year I kept a photo journal of the spellbinding symphony of life the meadow supports during its prime flowering months of July and August.
In July, the red milkweed beetles wiggled their black antennae against the common milkweed as a few tiger-striped monarch caterpillars happily munched away at the toxic leaves. Honeybees and nectar-loving wasps buzzed peacefully around the velvety mountain mint in such masses as to make the plant seem like it had a pulse. Hummingbird clearwing moths probed the charming purple sprays of the wild bergamot, and clumsy bumblebees clung to the elegant ivory candelabras of Culver’s root. Swallowtail butterflies became fluttering fixtures on the delicate clusters of lilac blooms produced by the garden phlox—seemingly every pollinator’s most cherished cocktail. On a lucky day even a battered monarch butterfly danced with hope among the Joe-Pye weed, its torn wings a symbol of the trials that this threatened species can overcome if we only provide it with more sanctuaries like this.
In August the meadow takes on a golden hue as the brilliant yellow of the native sunflowers is augmented by goldenrod species. Contrasting splashes of deep purples from the ironweed and vervain create a blissful palette in which at least ten species of butterflies can be counted at once. Birds also abound in this kaleidoscope of colors: kingbirds and bluebirds hunt for insects, as goldfinches bounce up and down on the long stems of the cup plant, chattering to each other while feasting on the seeds of the spent blooms. I watched a young house wren take shelter among the stems of the pokeweed, where he made his first babbling attempts at his father’s spirited song.
This is life at its finest. There are few natural landscapes where you can be surrounded so closely by so much visible life that is not in any hurry to evade you. A cathartic place like this has the power to free us of loneliness, sadness, and worry by igniting our fascination. Your eye catches sight of a butterfly and the mind follows; such involuntary attention is the opposite of what our daily tasks demand and is exactly what promotes clear-headedness, calm, focus, and happiness.
Not only are native wildflower meadows elixirs to human health, they also promote ecological health and act as unsurpassed nurseries for biodiversity. Imagine having all these benefits right at your back door.
There are over 48 million acres of largely biologically barren lawn in the U.S, and we lose 1.5 million acres of land to development each year. Our lawns do not have to be monocultures of grass; by choosing native plants for at least half of our properties our yards could actually begin to rebuild the ecological food webs that are breaking down as a result of loss of habitat and pesticides. By incorporating patches of native plants in your yard you can provide habitat for countless insect and bird species, including beneficial predators that keep pest insects in check naturally.
Studies show that native wildflowers are also an answer to feeding the world’s growing population; the diversity of birds and insects in strips of wildflowers next to agricultural fields reduces or eliminates the need for pesticides and significantly increases crop yields, thanks to pollinating services. Even in the dormancy of winter, unmown native wildflowers and grasses provide essential seed sources and shelter for birds.
There is a wonderful quote, “Leave room in your garden for fairies to dance.” I remember reflecting in the wildflower meadow that summer and marveling at two monarch butterflies that seemed to be curious about me as they glided past and fluttered back to me in a teasing manner. With iconic species like this on the brink of becoming like fabled garden sprites to our children, it is hard to justify not doing everything we can to heal nature. What a gift it is to learn that your yard actually has the power to make a big difference.
The Trust invites you to check out our website or call for information on creating your own wildflower paradise. You are welcome to visit our wildflower meadow at the office (925 Providence Road, Newtown Square). Its peak months are July and August, but you’ll be rewarded with new joys any month you go. Wildflower strips are also incorporated along the farm fields at Rushton Farm. Common Milkweed is spectacular at all of our preserves for a brief window in mid-June.
Ready to join the movement?
Here is our curated list of great sources to get you started learning about, buying, and planting natives:
Which Native Plants to Buy for What Purpose
- National Wildlife Federation: Native Plant Finder (Allows you to search by zipcode for plants that support the highest numbers of butterflies and moths to feed birds and other wildlife)
- National Audubon Society: Plants for Birds (A great place to learn about native plants and their importance, and a guide to make your yard bird-friendly)
- Cornell Lab of Ornithology: The Best Plants and Trees to Plant for Birds Starter List
Where to Buy Native Plants Locally
- PA DCNR Where to Buy Native Plants (Gives you an extensive list in PA)
- Redbud Native Plant Nursery (our favorite!) Media, PA
- Mostardi Nursery (4033 W. Chester Pike, Newtown Square, PA 19073)
- Yellow Springs Native Plant Nursery 1165 Yellow Springs Road, Chester Springs, PA 19425
Online Native Plant Marketplaces
- North Creek Nurseries (wholesale only but great for researching plants)
Summer Reading List
- Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy
- The Living Landscape by Doug Tallamy and Rick Darke
- Nature’s Best Hope by Doug Tallamy
- Noah’s Garden by Sara Stein
- The Backyard Parables by Margaret Roach