It's chilly and the sky is murky and spitting rain. Hardly a garden tour day.
"I don't know how many people will come with this weather," says Sara Tangren, owner of Chesapeake Native Nursery in Davidsonville.
The nursery, planted on five acres of an old tobacco farm in Anne Arundel County, grows only Maryland and Virginia native plants -- that is, plants that were here before the Europeans arrived in the 1600s.
Clad in jeans and yellow foul-weather jacket, Tangren, a sturdy, 42-year-old woman who holds a doctorate in natural resource sciences, marches down a wood-chipped path, setting out Plexiglas-covered identification sheets. The sheets include luscious color photos of each plant in bloom -- delicate white foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis), bottle-blue Gen-tiana andrewsii, and showy lavender-pink tick trefoil (Desmodium canadense), a lovely shade plant.
After positioning the last sign, Tangren stands and squints across the nursery at her husband, Bill, who is weeding by the native raspberry patch. She then pulls on surgical gloves for some precision weeding herself, while she waits for whoever braves the weather to attend the free public tour. In addition to periodic public tours, she offers tours to groups of environmentalists, plant taxonomists, garden clubs and more.
"The most effective marketing tool I have is the tours," she says, as she extracts weeds from a row of orange coneflowers (Rudbeckia fulgida). "People see the flowers and butterflies. They smell and taste, and hear the natural history behind some of these plants and are fascinated."
Accompanied by their aging springer spaniel, Duchess ("She's my child," Tangren says), the couple commute almost daily from their home in Takoma Park to the rented piece of ground on which the nursery is planted. There, in addition to tending the planted acres, they divide plants to sell to several local nurseries, collect and package seed for distribution to retail garden centers, as well as start the plants she installs in native gardens like those at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. In addition, Tangren lectures and does environmental consulting for developers and the State Highway Administration.
It's backbreaking, and occasionally thankless. For one thing, staving off the invasives among the natives is a constant battle. But Tangren is clearly a woman with a mission. She wants to save Maryland and Virginia's endangered native plants -- vital links in the watershed's environmental health -- in an effort to help restore the area's besieged ecological balance.
"When people come to the Chesapeake watershed, I want it to look and smell and feel distinctive, like its own place," says Tangren. "I love diversity, whether it's social, plant, whatever."
Saw the destruction
Tangren didn't start out interested in plants. She studied geology in college, then went on to get a master's degree in oceanography.
"That's when I got hooked on biology," she says. "I had to identify salt marsh grasses to interpret some info. Each species is correlated with its own specific habitat -- high water, low water."
This introduction to the intimate, worlds-within-worlds life of plants and their place in the environment came just when an explosion of development was decimating many native plant species. Tangren, an environmental consultant, saw some of the destruction firsthand -- highways smothering native purple orchids, and houses planted on land that was once covered with gorgeous Maryland blue lupine (now protected with only 15 known populations left). Developers were happy to let her rescue plants before the bulldozers plowed them under, but Tangren lived in a condominium with no plantable space. Besides, she wanted more than a personal collection.
She wanted to stem the loss and eventually enlarge the native plant supply.
So, in 2001 she started Chesapeake Native Nursery, where she began to produce seed from native ecotypes --plants specific to the Chesapeake region.
"Sara certainly cares about what she's doing, and what she's offering is unique," says Larry Hurley, perennial buyer at Behnke's, which sells Chesapeake Native Nursery plants at their stores in Beltsville, Potomac and Largo. "It's not just seed from native plants, but native ecotypes."
"Ecotype is really important," she says. "An ecotype has adapted over tens of thousands of years to an area's climate, pollinators, diseases and animals."
In other words, while a plant species can be native to the entire Eastern United States, ecotypes of that species have adapted to a specific region, especially its climate extremes. For example, the Maryland ecotype of the New England aster (Symph-iotrichum novae angliae) at Chesapeake Native Nursery thrived through last summer's appalling drought, while the New England aster in a test plot in Beltsville that came from a parent population near Lake Erie nearly bit the dust.
"The Lake Erie ecotype wasn't even a foot tall and had only one flower on it," says Tangren. "But ours, which came from a parent population in Montgomery County, were 4 to 5 feet tall and flowered magnificently. And all they had for water was the morning dew."
It's a delicate dance
Yet, even sturdy native ecotypes are no match for invasives -- non-native plants that can overrun an area. For example, Bradford pear trees have virtually taken over the corridor along Route 50 from the Beltway to Annapolis and have all but eradicated a reforestation project beside the Chesapeake Native Nursery.
"All these different native trees were planted in these tubes, and the Bradfords have killed them," says Tangren. "I can pick out maybe five Virginia pines in about 5 acres."
Because they crowd out native habitat and food supply, invasives also pose a major threat to native wildlife.
"All kinds of birds and insects rely on our early succession meadows [young growth before mature forests grow up]," she says. "I think we're gonna lose them. For example, the olive hairstreak butterfly must have red cedars."
For Tangren, it's about balance, the delicate dance of plants, animals, soil, climate and pollinators, and about education. Which is why she is delighted to see five people pull around the collapsed tobacco barn to take the tour. She's even more tickled when she learns that one, Tim Culver, is a plant taxonomist teaching at the University of Maryland -- a kindred soul with knowledge to share. Enlarging our understanding of natives and their ordained place in the environment is part of the process.
The design of the nursery garden -- concentric circles radiating out from the center like the ripples made by a pebble dropped in a pool -- is a visible expression of Tangren's hopes for expanding both the business and the health of the native ecotype population. At the head of an arched row of butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), a favorite meal for monarch caterpillars, she begins a little natural history lesson. Meanwhile, Culver, creeping through the row, discovers a monarch caterpillar already chowing down on the underside of a leaf.
"Last year, they ate the milkweed to nubs," Tangren says as her guests inspect the caterpillar. "We were afraid that that was it for the milkweed, but they came back like gangbusters," she says, smiling.
"There really is an [overarching] plan at work."
For more information:
Chesapeake Native Nursery
326 Boyd Ave. #2
Tacoma Park, MD 20912
The nursery is in Davidsonville and is open by appointment.
The next public nursery tour is August 23 at 6 p.m.
Sara Tangren's Favorites
Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) -- Tough, beautiful, with lovely seedpods, a host plant for the monarch caterpillar and other butterflies
Narrow Leaf Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium) -- Beautiful almost all year long, and a good nectar plant that draws lots of pollinators
Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis) -- Delicate trumpetlike flowers, green and purple foliage and pretty seeds heads, lovely in the garden
Prickly Pear (Opuntia humifusa) -- Maryland's only native cactus, unique with yellow blooms, rose-colored hips
Spotted Mint (Monarda punctata) -- One of the best nectar plants, looks like a Chinese pagoda with pink tiers and yellow flowers in between
Hyssop Thoroughwort (Eupatorium hyssopifolium) -- A common wildflower that's a beautiful specimen plant in a garden
New England Aster (Symphiotrichum novae angliae) -- Draws all kinds of butterflies, comes in lovely purple and pink
Gray Goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis) -- Draws black and yellow goldenrod beetles, has a huge yellow upright panicle that makes a good foil for shaggy blazing stars (Liatris pitosa), New England aster and others
Butterfly Pea (Clitoria mariana) -- A beautiful blue climber and a favorite with pollinators
Chesapeake Native Nursery seeds or plants are available at:
Behnke Nurseries (three locations)
11300 Baltimore Ave.
Beltsville, MD 20705
(seeds and plants)
9545 River Road
Potomac, MD 20854
700 Watkins Park Drive
Largo, MD 20772
743 W. Central Ave.
Davidsonville, MD 21035
(seeds and plants)
Wild Bird Center of Bowie
8700A Chestnut Ave.
Bowie, MD 20720
www.wildbircenter.com / bowie /