MARQUETTE - In the midst of what might be the umpteenth polar vortex in the area, future native plants got their start Thursday.
The annual Hiawatha National Forest Greenhouse project, which uses volunteers to seed thousands of wildflowers and grasses that will be planted on HNF land later in the year, got underway Thursday at the greenhouse, located at 1030 Wright St.
Sue Rabitaille again is coordinating the program and said the program has a lot of ecological value.
Tracey Hamilton of Marquette plants seedlings at the Hiawatha National Forest greenhouse. Seedlings nurtured at the greenhouse will be transplanted on HNF land starting in June. (Journal photo by Christie Bleck)
"It's really preserving the native genotypes," Rabitaille said.
Seed gathered from the HNF, Rabitaille explained, is used to grow new plants. During the initial stages of the program, soil is mixed and put into flats. Seed then is planted in each cell.
Flats are kept in the greenhouse and watered until they can be transplanted outside.
The wildflowers and grasses, Rabitaille said, are expected to be transplanted from June through August on HNF land, which includes Grand Island, and several sites in the eastern Upper Peninsula.
Peninsula Point also is to receive milkweed, Rabitaille said, because the site contains openings for migrating monarch butterflies, whose caterpillars feast exclusively on the plant.
Invasive plant species have been a major environmental problem in Michigan and the rest of the United States, and planting natives might be one way to fight that alien scourge.
"In a way, it does combat invasive species, because if you're disturbing the site and putting native species in right away, you're not giving the invasive species a chance to establish," Rabitaille said.
Native plants also provide food for native wildlife, she said.
Not only do insects and other animals benefit from grasses and wildflowers such as wild bergamot and pearly everlasting, people can incorporate native plants in their landscapes because they adapt well to the conditions.
This adaptation makes them lower maintenance for people who don't want to spend a lot of time fertilizing (which Rabitaille said she doesn't want to do anyway).
"That's the nice thing about native plants," she said. "You don't have to amend the soils."
Rabitaille said the goal for the greenhouse program this year is to nurture 17,700 plugs (plants in cells) and get them in the ground. More than 33,000 plugs were planted in 2013, Rabitaille said, but because of decreased funding, fewer can be planted this year.
The greenhouse native plant program, according to Rabitaille, is funded through grants from many sources.
The Thursday volunteer session focused on seeding grasses such as sweetgrass, beachgrass and bottlebrush grass.
There was a reason the grasses were first on the planting list.
"They come up real quick," Rabitaille noted, "but you want the grasses to have a really strong root system."
Volunteers are crucial to the program's success. Rabitaille said students from Marquette Township's North Star Academy recently put the soil in the flats and started seeding Canada wild rye.
Tracey Hamilton of Marquette is in her fourth year of volunteering.
Why does she return year after year?
"Because I enjoy the outdoors," Hamilton said. "I just love to keep it vital."
However, she acknowledged volunteering at the greenhouse also gives her a chance to be around people.
"I'd rather do this than office work," Hamilton said.
Volunteer sessions, including potluck lunches, are scheduled for 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. March 13, March 27 and April 17.
To learn more about volunteering, call 387-2512 ext. 20.