Invasive species the subject of conference

MARQUETTE – Phragmites (those exotic plumed grasses seen in wetlands) and spotted knapweed (the pink flowers with delicate foliage) might look nice in the local landscape, but they can wreak havoc on the ecosystem.

Alien plant species was the focus of the Fourth Annual Northern Great Lakes Invasive Species Conference held Wednesday and Thursday at the Masonic Center in Marquette.

It attracted dozens of professionals from places such as Michigan Technological University, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Van Riper State Park and the Alger County Conservation District.

Natural resources pros have ideas on how to control alien species crowding out native ones, but what can an individual do to help the plants that originally grew in Michigan and truly belong here?

“If people get the word out, people really do care about these plants and what they can do for them,” said Vern Stephens, owner and operator of Designs By Nature, based in Laingsburg.

Stephens was one of several speakers who gave presentations during the conference.

Stephens said more homeowners are planting natives around their residences, but acknowledged there’s a right way and a wrong way to help bring back the native community.

Flower seeds need stratification, which means keeping them cold first, followed by a warm period, he said. Without this process, it can be difficult to nurture germination.

Grasses, on the other hand, don’t need stratification. He suggested planting grasses first, then applying herbicide to eliminate weeds and finishing with planting wildflowers in the fall.

“And so it makes it just more successful,” he said.

Grasses also provide cover for wildlife, he said, as well as winter thermal protection.

Soil type and the amount of sunlight an area receives also should be considered – and a little bit of scientific knowledge to avoid buying non-native cultivars (variations of the native plant) doesn’t hurt.

“The only way to know what you’re getting is the scientific name,” Stephens said.

It’s also important to buy Michigan seed, he stressed, because it “can take what Michigan throws at it.”

“The cheap seed from Arizona and Texas always seem to find their way to Michigan, and it doesn’t work,” Stephens said.

Two companies that sell Midwest-native seed include Prairie Moon Nursery in Minnesota and Prairie Nursery in Wisconsin.

It might not be a bad idea for homeowners to emulate prairies. Stephens said when a prairie becomes wet, it can absorb seven inches of water per hour. A lawn, on the other hand, can absorb much less.

Another way for a native plant restorer to be spared a lot of grief is to set a timeline and perform a site analysis before undertaking a project. This means moving existing vegetation such as the extremely invasive spotted knapweed through burning, cultivating or applying herbicide.

“If we don’t clean these up before we plant,” Stephens said, “we’re going to deal with them forever.”

The mantra “location, location, location” is another thing to remember when starting a native plant garden. The shadier north side of a home, for example, will allow only some species to thrive.

“Don’t expect to grow things that are warm and fuzzy on the north side of the house,” Stephens said.

Good choices for the north side include jack-in-the-pulpit, wild ginger and wild geranium, he said, while a butterfly garden full of sun-loving plants, on the other hand, will grow well on the south side.

“Mountain mint is one of the best pollinators we’ve got,” Verns noted, “because of the number of little, tiny florets it gets on top.”

The low-growing grass little bluestem would be a good choice for some areas located in communities with ordinances regulating plant growth, he said.

Another benefit to growing natives, according to Stephens, is they are so well adapted to local conditions a homeowner doesn’t have to apply compost. In fact, he said compost would stimulate unwanted plant competition

Katie Grzesiak of the Northwest Michigan Invasive Species Network and a graduate of Northern Michigan University talked about her group’s “Go Beyond Beauty” program to remove invasive plants from local nurseries’ and landscapers’ inventories and to promote native plants in the garden.

Grzesiak said invasives are easier to control when they’re few in number. When they’re abundant like phragmites, that’s when problems occur. So, being proactive helps.

“Phragmites, of course, came through naturally through ballast,” Grzesiak said. “Autumn olive, they came through us. They thought it was going to be a really good idea.”

According to the Michigan Natural Features Inventory, autumn olive, native to Asia, was planted to provide food and cover for wildlife. Not surprisingly, it now has the potential to displace native species.

Native trillium, though, has the potential provide economic benefits, Grzesiak said, because tourists travel north to see this aesthetic woodland flower.

She said of the Go Beyond Beauty program, “We’re trying to keep the ornamentals from spreading. We just didn’t want people planting them.”

To aid this effort, Grzesiak said the program emphasizes removing high-priority invasives, such as Japanese barberry, from inventories. Another focus is fostering the selling of native plants in nurseries and having staff trained in invasive plants.

In the network’s first year, Grzesiak said, eight nurseries and seven landscapers have joined the program.

Darcy Rutkowski, executive director of the Upper Peninsula Resource Conservation and Development Council, said a species like phragmites, found in wetlands, has more potential to cause economic and ecological damage than a species like common tansy, mostly found on roadsides.

“What most people have to do,” Rutkowski said, “is to prioritize and pick their battles.”

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.