Back to Eden: Native plant advocates work to return Grand Rapids to its food forest roots

What did the landscape of Grand Rapids look like before the city existed? Local native plant advocates are working to answer this question through their conservation efforts.
What did the landscape of Grand Rapids look like before the city existed? What herbs, flowers, and pollinators flourished there, and how did the area’s human inhabitants interact with them? What plant and insect species have been lost to us since then — and what impact is that having on us now?

These are questions which native plant advocates in Grand Rapids are trying to bring into the limelight through their conservation efforts.

Before the wave of Celtic, Dutch, Polish, Scandanavian, and other European immigrant farmers washed over Michigan in the 19th century, Michigan’s landscape contained a vast diversity of unique ecosystems, many of which were actively cultivated by Native peoples as pharmacies, gardens, and food forests for their daily lives. These ecosystems included not only old growth forests, but also many types of grasslands and wetlands, which together supported a robust and diverse food chain, from plants and insects, to birds of prey and large mammals — including humans.

It’s this diversity of ecosystems which made Michigan’s terrain largely immune to development during the earliest days of European settlement. As narrated by local authors in books such as “Potawatomi Tears and Petticoat Pioneers” and “The Blue-Eyed Chippewa,” Michigan’s notoriously unruly and seemingly endless wetlands were dubbed largely unfarmable until tough Irish, Dutch, Polish, and other immigrants who couldn’t afford land elsewhere applied their grit and ingenuity. Inventive immigrant farmers engineered Michigan’s many wetlands into dry farmland, but not before the easier ecosystems — prairies and savannas —were developed.

Michigan wetlands made the state slow to develop for agriculture.

What is a mixed-cover ecosystem?

While many forests in Michigan have gained the protection of State, Federal, and local parks systems, grasslands and mixed-cover ecosystems have received considerably less attention. Oak savannas and prairies, once prolific across Michigan but now in extremely limited supply, are home to some of the most diverse ecosystems of native plants such as flowers, herbs, shrubs, and grasses — plants which provide food to a finely tuned food chain. Indeed, many insects native to Michigan have evolved to rely on a single plant as their entire food supply. With these prairies and savannas in short supply, the native plants and insects joining the list of endangered species is growing quickly.

The environmental effects of this loss of wild open space impact Michigan residents in direct ways — perhaps in large cities such as Grand Rapids most of all. While most horticultural practices rely on a mix of largely non-native plant species which do not account for the specific soil and micro-climate conditions of the area, large areas of pavement and sidewalk create significant stormwater runoff during heavy rains — water which is not mitigated by the deep, soil solidifying, and water purifying root systems which native plants can provide effectively.

“Native [plants] have very deep roots, which can go down 10, 15, 16 feet deep,” explains Sister Mary Lucille Janowiak, whose work efforts in the Prairie Habitat at the Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids' Marywood Campus are promoting ecojustice through native plants for Grand Rapids residents, organizations, and businesses alike.

“Our stormwater from the highways and parking lots do not get filtered in a filtering plant. They go directly into the Grand River, then into Lake Michigan. So it’s really important — this is a very important service that these native plants serve, in filtering, and also slowing the water. It also cleans the groundwater as it sinks down into our aquifers.”

The issue of mitigating stormwater has been in the city’s eye for some time — the GR Forward Master Plan discusses in detail the need for stormwater mitigation via rain gardens and stepped floodwall barriers to be built into public infrastructure near the Grand River.

But while the city looks towards its long term plans, local Grand Rapids volunteers have been nurturing native plant gardens and ecosystems across the city. River City Wild Ones is the local chapter of an all volunteer-run native plant group which “promotes environmentally sound landscaping practices to preserve biodiversity through the preservation, restoration and establishment of native plant communities.” The local chapter’s perhaps most well-known work is maintenance of the butterfly garden in front of Inner City Christian Federation, by the Green Well and Brewery Vivant.

The garden at the ICCF.Calvin College has also made nurturing native plant ecosystems a priority with its Plaster Creek Watershed, the college’s annual native plant sales, and Grand Rapids’ largest native plant greenhouse. The greenhouse offers drop-in hours on Monday and Friday, and accepts pre-orders. Plaster Creek Stewards are currently raising funds to expand their greenhouse capacity in response to high demand.

Native plant gardens have even worked their way into local parks, such as the native rain garden in Pleasant Park, which is maintained through local neighbors' volunteering. Even Kendall College of Art & Design’s Collaborative Design Department is developing their annual fall “Spark Park” later this September to showcase native plant species.

“This is putting back oxygen into the earth, it’s cleaning the water, it’s helping the diversity of species — it’s addressing so many environmental problems that we have today by planting those plants,” says Sister Janowiak. Mowing, watering, fertilizing, and use of chemicals are all unnecessary for native habitats like the Prairie Habitat at Marywood, because the plants are naturally adapted to the soil and climate.

“If we plant the species that come from other countries, the insects are not adapted to them, and they don’t provide a food source.”

As more and more Grand Rapids residents become accustomed to seeing native plant gardens, and become aware of their benefits for our region (thanks to the efforts of advocates like Janowiak) demand for native plants and native landscaping is increasing. But who is rising to meet that demand — and what barriers stand in the way of our city’s shifting from traditional horticulture to native plant gardening?

Check back next week for part two of "Back to Eden," where reporter Marjorie Steele will explore the supply and demand of native plant services and the powerful partnerships making conservation goals a reality in our communities.

Photos by Marjorie Steele.

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