Native plants are sometimes a mystery to me because they behave in ways I don’t always understand. I think part of the reason for their mystery is we never fully studied our original prairie, savannas and other natural areas before their removal. Also, I think we still don’t understand or will ever be able to explain all of nature’s genius. In this article I present some clues and some mysteries of native plant gardening regarding how plants behave in wet weather and droughts that I have experienced.
Why does my native plant garden look or grow differently every year , every month or even every day sometimes?
In 2011, through the process of photosynthesis, many native plants had more energy to grow taller, bloom more and spread due to the excess rainfall in our area.The year 2011 was the second wettest year in the Chicago-land area on record. Do you remember our severe 2005 summer drought? In 2005, many native plants grew much shorter, some foliage turned brown and crispy, and other plants bloomed very little or did not bloom at all. Most established native plants survived this drought and did just fine in subsequent years. I planted my rain garden in 2004, the year before the drought, and my 1 year old Lobelia siphilitica plants never came up in 2005, so I thought they perished. But to my surprise, they eventually sprouted and bloomed during wetter years, including 2011. During times of drought, plants will conserve energy due to the lack of rainfall, and instead of spending energy on new growth or flowers, they reserve their limited energy for their roots systems and critical plant processes.
You may have also noticed in July 2011 when conditions where dry during the first two-thirds of the month, and temperatures and humidity peaked, some of your woodland plants (ex. May Apples, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Woodland Geraniums, etc.) turned brown or went dormant. I also felt like going dormant sometimes during July’s high heat and humidity. Going dormant is a survival strategy for some plants when conditions are extreme. You may give them a little extra water to help them along if they are new plants, but if they are well established, you may want to let them go through this natural process. You can cut some of the brown foliage back if desired. They will likely reappear next season happy and healthy. This is different from ephemeral plants (Dutchman Breeches, Spring Beauties, Shooting Stars) which go dormant every year regardless of the weather.
Native plants have gone through many periods of wet and drought, hot and cold, snow and no snow, and everything in between, for over 10,000 years, so there is a high probability your plants will continue to survive for many years to come despite our weather extremes. Weather changes daily, monthly, yearly and so do our native plants. The mystery still remains which native plants will survive and how this will affect the many species of wildlife that depend on them if rapid global warming continues.