Native plants are struggling across the country. In Chicago, for instance, land-use change has altered or destroyed a significant share of these habitats, says Rachel Goad, the manager of the Plants of Concern program at the Chicago Botanic Garden. At one point, she says, Illinois was 60 percent tall grass prairie; today, less than 0.01 percent of that ecosystem remains. That means that there’s not much space for prairie species, and invasive ones encroach on them, too.
Maintaining existing open space isn’t necessarily a cure-all, either. “Sometimes you preserve kind of a postage stamp that’s surrounded on all sides by roads, parking lots, and housing developments, and it can change the way water moves through the site, and the nutrients really considerably,” says Goad.
In response to these threats, cities across the U.S. are launching campaigns designed to nurture native plants. Last month, the Washington, D.C., Department of Energy & Environment debuted an initiative to hand out 8,000 packets of native seeds, each containing enough to cover about 50 square feet. At subway stations throughout the District, commuters could grab a seed mixture including native wildflowers such as wild senna, purple coneflower, and butterfly milkweed. Julia Robey Christian, the public information officer for the DOEE, tells CityLab that this effort sprung out of the District’s focus on rehabilitating local meadows. The giveaway, she says, aims to “raise public awareness of the importance of pollinators and meadow habitat in the District and to provide opportunities for residents to engage with our surrounding natural environment.”
How do people respond to the threats posed by invasive species? That’s the question that the Human Dimensions Research Unit—a cohort within the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University—aims to clarify. The team collects information about perceptions and behaviors surrounding management of natural resources. Last year, they circulated surveys around New York state. On those surveys, home gardeners indicated that they were willing to tweak their behaviors to look out for native plants: More than 53 percent of respondents said they’d be “very willing” to change their behavior if they learned they were contributing to spreading invasive species; less than 1 percent wouldn’t entertain the idea. More than half of the subjects had already combated invasive species in their own gardens, and nearly one-third researched plants prior to planting with an eye towards replacing invasive species with native or noninvasive ones.
Still, only about 30 percent of gardeners said they were very concerned about invasive species. Bruce Lauber, a senior research associate in the HRDU and co-author of the report, speculates that this discrepancy might have something to do with ideas about what constitutes the “wild” world. “When you’re involved in an activity on your property (like gardening) you may not expect to be in a ‘natural’ habitat in the same way that you would if you were off fishing in a lake or stream or camping in the woods,” he tells CityLab.