Margaret S. Hamilton
Summer in Cincinnati represents weeks of heat and humidity under a blazing midwestern sun, punctuated by violent thunderstorms. And this year, a bumper crop of chigger mites.Tired of spending my days draped over the air conditioning vent, when I discovered that the Shaker Trace Seed Nursery, part of the Hamilton County Parks system, would hold their annual open house on August fourth, I was up for the adventure. Coated with bug spray, sunscreen, and armed with water bottles and sunhats, we headed for the Miami Whitewater Forest near the Indiana line.
Once upon a time, prairie wildflowers grew in southern Ohio meadows and forests. In 1992, the Hamilton County Parks Department purchased a six-hundred-acre farm in the large Miami Whitewater Forest to use as a propagation site for the native flower and grass genotypes that used to grow wild in the area. Indigenous bird species—lark sparrows, marsh hawks, and short-eared owls—would benefit, as would bees and butterflies.
In anticipation of the seed farm, in the fall of 1991, volunteers spread over a hundred-mile radius gathered seeds from native species. Shaker Trace Nursery opened the following spring, when the first 43,000 seedlings, which had been propagated involunteer greenhouses all over the county, were hand-planted. Those original plants still produce seeds, which are harvested every year.
The nursery relies on a large number of volunteers. Seeds of more than two hundred plants are sown into flats in the late fall and are periodically put outside to “stratify” (freeze and thaw) as they would in the wild. The sprouts are raised in a greenhouse all winter and then in the spring, six to ten thousand seedlings are planted in the nursery’s prepared 140 beds. Volunteers keep the beds weeded all summer. Prairie flowers have deep root systems and no need for additional irrigation. In early fall, the flowers are cut, sorted and dried before the seeds are harvested in an old barn on the property. The harvested seeds are stored in a temperature and humidity-controlled environment, until they are dispersed as needed to the many parks in the Hamilton County system. The seeds for purple coneflowers, Joe Pye weed, compass plants, varieties of milkweed, liatris, ironweed and many other plants are genetically acclimated to the Hamilton County climate and yellow clay soil.
drying seed heads
I have an Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus in an overgrown perennial bed in my yard. My neighbors periodically ask for the “satellite” offshoots. I was astonished to learn that the cactus is native to this area. It is propagated by seeds and cuttings. I weed around it and otherwise keep at a respectful distance.
In addition to beds of prairie and woodland wildflowers, Shaker Trace has fish ponds lined with bentonite, a natural clay. The farm raises hybrid bluegills, which are a cross between green sunfish and northern bluegills, from fingerlings, and then harvest the half-pound fish for children’s activities in a nearby lake. We watched the water churn as the bluegills swarmed for food pellets. They are bred to bite anything.
The red-tailed hawks soared overhead and barn swallows flitted in and out of the barns. Bees and butterflies swarmed the flower beds. The disease-resistant wildflower meadows in county parks are successful in choking out invasive species. I wish more residential gardens had Queen Anne’s lace, goldenrod, and milkweed. In my gardens, I keep “volunteers” until I can identify them. Ragweed doesn’t make the cut. Milkweed is toxic to dogs, so I moved it out of the backyard.
Readers and writers, have you visited a wildflower meadow or do you have wildflowers in your garden?
Joe Pye Weed