JACKSON TOWNSHIP — Bees buzzed, two types of swallowtail butterflies fluttered about and even a monarch slowly opened and closed its wings while perched on a bush’s bow Wednesday in Warren Buckler’s garden.
Buckler, 82, of Jackson Township, said he’s been gardening all his life but took a more serious interest after retiring about 20 years ago.
He became interested in native plants after reading a story in the Vidette Messenger.
“It was about these screwball people who went out and looked for plants,” he said. “And that really sounded like my cup of tea.”
In 1999 or 2000, he took a job removing invasive plants from Shirley Heinze Land Trust properties and learned even more about the indispensable role native plants play in the Region’s ecosystem.
Native plants and Northwest Indiana’s insects, birds and other animals evolved together over thousands of years and have developed a complex defense system against each other, said Steve Sass, president of the Indiana Native Plant and Wildflower Society’s North Chapter.
“Plants are the basis of every terrestrial food chain,” Sass said. “Every form of life that’s above a plant relies on a plant.”
Some insects, such as monarchs, have become highly specialized. For example, milkweed is toxic to most every creature, but monarch caterpillars can eat nothing else, Sass said.
More than 80 percent of leaf-eating insects are considered specialists, and birds rely on insects to feed their young a high-protein diet.
“You may put a sunflower seed feeder out and be able to attract cardinals and chickadees, but they can’t feed that to their young,” Sass said.
Buckler and Nathanael Pilla, project coordinator with Save the Dunes, meandered through Buckler’s garden, stopping to talk at length about each native plant, its role in the ecosystem, its name and more.
Buckler said he’s seen a few more monarchs this year than last summer but has missed several other species of butterflies. With a cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) towering overhead, Buckler said he enjoys watching from a window as goldfinches jiggle the plant’s leave while hunting for its seeds and drinking from cups formed by its leaves and stem.
Nearby, a mostly dead mulitflora rose (Rosa multiflora) towers over Buckler, who says he killed the plant and intends to remove it because it is an invasive species.
“It’s the bane of my existence,” Pilla said.
Land managers look to find and aggressively treat multiflora rose, which forms dense thickets that choke out other native plants and has prickles that can leave anyone who tried to hike through it bloody, he said.
Pilla and Sass said some grass is nice for recreation, but a yard filled with nothing but grass is a missed opportunity.
Pilla spoke of author John Greenlee, who wrote a book titled “The American Meadow Garden: Creating a Natural Alternative to the Traditional Lawn.” In his writings, Greenlee talks about we often don’t remember time spent in the grass as children, but time spent in a prairie — with all its intrigue and mysteriousness — remains with us.
“We can bring this home and be more sustainable,” Pilla said.
For Buckler, the benefit is perhaps a bit more simple.
“The greatest benefit I get out of it is just the pleasure,” he said.