Growing Concerns 60: Digging in to going wild

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Late Summer!

Adopt from the wild? Sure, but have a care!

Thinking of digging up beauty from the wild? AOK, but think first about the practical and legal angles.


For several years I've wanted to dig up a clump of the purple loosestrife and tiger lilies that grow along the roadsides. When is the best time to relocate these beauties - during blooming or in the fall? - D.J. -

A lot of considerations... First, about moving plants in general and then a few words about digging up wild things, however common they seem.

"Best" is a queer word - best from whose viewpoint? If we could consult the plants they'd surely vote for no move at all. To a busy person, any free minute is best. For those concerned about preventing transplant shock, the period when above-ground parts of the plant are dormant is good, since then the plant doesn't have to support leaves while it's healing its roots.

Following simple guidelines, we've transplanted successfully in every month of the year (yes, even in January, even "difficult" plants, even plants in full bloom). Work when plants are full of water - drench the bed and wait a day, or dig after a rain. Take a wide, deep root ball to disturb the roots as little as possible. Put the plant into its new position right away, at the same depth it was growing before the move, in a spot with the kind of soil and sun that particular species needs. If there must be a waiting period, keep transients cool and moist in the interim. We muddy them into five gallon buckets or trash bags.

About digging from the wild, legal and ethical considerations aside for the moment (see the next Q&A!), be practical. Why disturb natural beauty we all should be able to enjoy when every "wildflower" you can find -everyone - is available for sale, via seed or divisions of plants that had to leave the wild for some really good reason? Granted you won't endanger a threatened species since both the plants you want are European species that have become weeds over here, as opposed to endangered natives: purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) is so weedy that sale of the species is about to be outlawed; tiger lilies are so invasive they should be grown in isolation (we hope you mean grassy-leafed, leafless-flower-stalked Hemerocallis and not the native Lilium species, Michigan lily or wood lily). Still, why not get a cultivated varieties, one selected for big flowers or some other trait we prize?

Please note that since this article was written,
purple losestrife was declared an invasive weed
in many eastern North American areas and
it became illegal to sell or to grow it in a number
of States and Provinces. Since it is still a very visible
"wildflower" we think this topic is viable. However,
we also think you should know that what grows along
roadsides may be not only weedy but illegal.

Because it's free, you say? No such thing: consider the weed roots you'll acquire along with the root ball you pry out of that roadside ditch (provided you have enough strength or dynamite to accomplish that). What appears to be a stand of one wild species, particularly of the two plants in question, is actually a mixed bag of the toughest customers you'll ever meet. We'll almost guarantee your efforts will also net a thug such as Canada thistle, bindweed, quack grass, or scouring rush - every one capable of devouring a flower bed quicker than you can write me to ask "How do I get rid of this stuff?"

Please. Ask around - most gardeners are looking for homes for such fast spreaders. Look for a fall plant exchange. You can probably find a wagon load of either one.


About those legal angles...

I was concerned when I read your advice to D.J. I think people might well get the impression that the only reasons they shouldn't just go dig up whatever they want are that it's a lot of work and they could buy plants, instead. You didn't say anything about the fact that it's not only against the law, it's just plain wrong to dig plants from the wild. Knowing you, I'm hoping this is all just a mistake. Patty Shea, director of wildflower rescue operations, Cranbrook House and Garden Auxiliary

It was a mistake to issue that Q&A without this one. We'll keep trying to get it right! We do not mean to lead people to dig plants out of ditches, woods, or meadows.

We feel strongly about preserving wild flowers, and think digging from the wild is justified only in a few situations, such as the rescue operations you run, called "digs", which we've participated in. There, volunteers dig plants out of the paths of bulldozers. Rescued plants are naturalized on Cranbrook's grounds, toward long term preservation, or sold at Cranbrook's plant sales to help fund the process. My respect for this effort is one reason Janet first became a member of Cranbrook's House and Garden Auxiliary. (Call 248-645-3149 for plant sale information or to become a member.)

Patty, you've worked long and hard on wildflower rescues, so you know perhaps better than anyone that: you must have the property owner's written permission to dig; you can never dig from public land; you must know what species you're digging because many of our natives are protected by law; and special permits are needed even torescueendangered species.

In our answer to D.J., we decided to hit hardest on the practical reasons against digging from the wild - but we never planned to omit reference to the law. What happened was that there is only so much space in that newspaper and we decided our main thrust would be toward the practical reasons to reconsider digging.

We hope this reassures you and makes people stop and think, who weren't prompted before to consider all the angles before digging.


Originally published in two parts, 9/3/94 and 9/10/94










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