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Aster - Milkweed and Mint

by Christina Ritchie Rogers

August 4,2005

Think of any city, USA. What comes to mind? Sports teams? Buildings and arenas? Public transportation? Smog? Think harder…What about its ecology for civilization?

For me, cities were always the polluted, paved, anti-plant. Growing up in the farmlands of small-town New Jersey (yes, it actually exists!), my association was “Suburbsgreen. City-gross.” My city-wide exposure was limited, and I was happy in the woods. But, having moved to Charlotte, gained perspective, and learned that plants actually do exist in cities, I am now learning the importance of their urban presence.

Charlotte provides for a wealth of native plant species. Many people choose to invite familiars like flowering dogwood, Carolina rhododendron, or verbena into their landscaping projects. Some may seek lobelia or fringed loostrife. Fortunate backyards are graced by the presence of Oak, Hickory, and Evergreen trees. Blackeyed susan, bee balm, and aster are often garden members. Because the aesthetic contributions of hundreds of Charlotte’s native tree, shrub, plant, flower, and grass species are readily apparent, their ecological significance is often overlooked.

Charlotte’s native plant species evolve naturally with the changing biological and physical aspects of the region. They are thus uniquely adapted to the environment. The plants are tolerant of the region’s temperature extremes, use nutrients from the soil effectively, and grow well with the amount of average rainfall. Many provide food and shelter to local animals, beneficial insects, and migratory birds. Some offer protection against invasive, introduced plant species. The benefits of landscaping with native plants in an urban setting are vast, though two are most notable: First, the efficiency with which they are able to thrive minimizes strain on natural resources. Second, landscaping with “locals” maintains the unique character of the natural environment.

Occasionally, Charlotte’s unique urban character collides with its ecological character in a beautiful way. I recommend a visit to the McGill Rose Garden. There lies a stunning example of natural beauty cultivated in the heart of an urban environment. But nearby, a more subtle example sits amid uptown Charlotte. A butterfly garden has emerged on 9th street. The students of Trinity Episcopal School cultivated the garden on the side of the road near the entrance to the school parking lot. It is a naturally thriving, visually pleasing, ecologically sound example of pride in our natural local assets. The garden sprung from little more than a strip of grass next to the sidewalk. With some TLC and maintenance, the garden has become a home for many species of insects, butterflies, spiders, and animals. Birds often pause to rest among the coneflower and milkweed. The occasional stray cat takes shelter and rests while the air above and around is constantly abuzz and aflutter.

Charlotte, as a city, is like that butterfly garden. Though residents lightheartedly note the seeming scarcity of the “native Charlottean,” the natives do exist. They, like the plants, are responsible for sustaining the life and character of the city garden. A collection of aster, milkweed, mint, coneflower, and verbena entices butterflies, and invites migration. Similarly, the unique composition of people in Charlotte, and the culture and history they maintain in their evolving environment, is drawing all sorts of brightly colored beings here.

A butterfly garden can be kept simple attracting just a few butterflies, or it can be quite full, with diverse plants, multiple water sources, and a mix of sunny and shady parts. Cities are very similar. Some remain relatively small, lack diversity of race, ethnicity, or ideas, and seem to be unchanging.

Charlotte is not one of these cities. It is big, and beautiful, and growing. Stated succinctly, the requirements for any successful butterfly garden are food, water, shelter, and a place to lay eggs. The needs for a successful city garden begin with a similar list. But we humans are increasingly more complex. We also want jobs, schools, transportation, worship, entertainment, and healthcare, to name just a few. The increasing number of individuals happily buzzing around the garden of Charlotte indicates the city’s ability to furnish those requests. As our city continues to evolve, we must work to sustain the endearing character of the city as well as the natural character of its ecology.

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