Wildflower farm gives Michigan beautiful blooms

Plants are natives that thrived in area

By Kathleen Lavey
Lansing State Journal

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Waves of big bluestem glass ripple in the breeze, about 5 feet tall, some bearing tiny, dangling flowers.

Higher yet, the brilliant yellow blossoms of prairie dock nod along 6-foot stems with rough, pale-green leaves.

Closer to the ground, the small, colorful asters wink from spiky foliage, just beginning their blooming season.

The plants growing in fields at the Michigan Wildflower Farm near Portland, northwest of Lansing, are natives that thrived in the state before the landscape was clogged with imports. They’re likely to thrive well into the future, and they provide homes and food for the state’s native animals.

“Versus mowed grass, it helps us reduce our carbon footprint, uses less energy and less water to maintain,” said Mark Sargent, private lands program manager for the wildlife division of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Sargent said incentive programs help people who plan to convert 10 or more acres of erodible or less productive farmland into native prairie. Other programs promote various types of native landscapes including savanna, or prairies with scattered trees; barrens, or sandy areas with pines, and wetland fens.

“Some native species can be used for shade, windbreaks, buffer strips to attract different species of butterflies,” he said. “More and more of the plant nurseries are providing native plants and identifying them. We’re seeing so many commercial enterprises and landscapers and growers looking at native landscapes as an alternative.”

At the Michigan Wildflower Farm, Esther Durnwald grows many native flowers — and then harvests their seeds to sell so others can create native landscapes.

Her customers range from people who are tired of mowing to federal and state governments, which scatter native seed along highways and in parks.

“It’s such a positive business to be in,” Durnwald said. “The people that call you, they want to plant wildflowers. So nobody is ever in a bad mood.”

Planting a native landscape makes sense for those who want a lower-maintenance landscape. Well-established native plantings can resist drought — and weather rough winters.

“Michigan plants are acclimated to Michigan’s conditions, and they tend to be very tough and resilient,” Durnwald said. “Black-eyed Susan from a southern state may look the same, but typically, over time, these plants won’t do as well here.”

There’s another reason to go native, too, Durnwald says.

“It’s part of our region’s, or Michigan’s, heritage,” she said. “The vegetation here looks different than Texas or California or anywhere else. It makes Michigan, Michigan. We have all our incredible water, lakes, rivers, streams. Why not celebrate what we have here?”

Durnwald and her husband, Bill, bought the Michigan Wildflower Farm in 1996 from its founders, Elin and Harry Doehne, who converted a U-pick strawberry farm into wildflower seed production in the late 1980s.

She has a forestry degree from Michigan Technological University and was looking for a way to work but stay home with their children. The wildflower farm seemed like a good fit. She apprenticed with the Doehnes before taking over in 1996.

The first seed harvest at the farm is in early June; asters come last in late October.

“We’re checking daily or every other day for what is ripe and ready” throughout the season, Durnwald said.

Most of the seeds are hand-harvested. Some are as large as beans; others are finer than flour with a million seeds in an ounce.

Mostly, Durnwald sells seeds as mixes with 20 to 30 types of plants included, so that an area seeded with them can bloom from spring to fall. Growing a native landscape from seeds takes patience, she says.

“The first year, you will see four to six species,” she said. “That’s really slow. There will be more the second year, and by year three, you will be seeing everything.”