A Working Native Plant Library

by Bob Oertel

You could call Calvin Ernst a librarian, but his stock in trade is not historical books or publications. Rather, it is what some folks might incorrectly call "weeds", but he calls them correctly "native plants". "Nature herself," he explains, "scattered these plants everywhere. They are survivors, having toughed it out and adapted themselves to natural conditions over many years."

Calvin can best be labeled both a "librarian" and a "collector". "We're developing a living library of plants native to the Middle Atlantic and East Coast states and making their seeds available to customers, if they want them," he says, as we visited the Ernst Conservation Seeds headquarters.

His ever-growing collection of more than 250 species of native plants can be found growing in many locations somewhere on the 1,500 acre farm in Meadville, Pennsylvania, close to Lake Erie. Each species is growing in the same type of environment (flat or sloping, wet or dry, shady or open space, sandy or other soil type) in which it naturally grows.

"I work on the concept that we want to preserve the truly native wild ecotypes for this region. When we find a different native plant, we will not develop new varieties but rather produce seed and plants to faithfully maintain the specific ecotype. We try to produce good quality seed that will survive here from species that will be widely sought after and used in our region of the U.S."

Calvin's father, Ted, once said about different varieties when they first started their seed business in 1962, "If we don't have 'em on the wagon, we can't sell 'em."

Seeds for Conservation Uses

Calvin first whet his appetite for what has become a lifetime love of plants when, at the age of 10, he started growing pine tree seedlings as a 4-H forestry project. Four years later, at 14, he received a state nursery license and began selling rooted hydrangeas and rhododendron. Upon graduation from Penn State with a degree in agronomy, Calvin convinced his Dad they needed to produce and sell Penngift crownvetch. The 10-acre planting, made in 1962, still survives.

Demand for crown vetch for control of erosion, especially on roadbanks and mine spoils, pushed their production at one time to over 500 acres. Today, decreasing demand has lowered their acreage to about 300.

When the Ernsts decided to add newer plant species for their conservation customers, they started producing seeds from four plants tested and released to nurserymen by the USDA Plant Materials Center at Big Flat, New York. These species included Tioga deertongue, Lathco flatpea, Shelter switchgrass and Niagara bluestem.

Tioga deertongue, a native warm-season bunch grass, is excellent for revegetating acid mine spoils and as ground cover for erodible sandy areas, such as road and ditch banks and gravel pits.

Lathco flatpea is ideal for logging roads and utility rights-of-way where it is desired to restrict the invasion of woody growth. It is also used for erosion control on road banks, dams, gravel pits, surface mine spoils and industrial waste sites.

Niagara big bluestem is a native, warm-season and long-lived perennial grass used for erosion control on sand and gravel pits, mine spoils and roadsides. Having excellent drought resistance, it is used in critical area seedings where cool season species cannot tolerate the high temperatures or coarse soils. The bluestem is excellent forage for livestock and cover for wildlife.

Shelter is a variety of switchgrass used to stabilize strip mine spoils, sand dunes, dikes and other critical areas. It can also be used for low windbreak plantings in truck crop fields.

Switchgrass, a native warm season perennial grass that grows to about 5 feet tall, is an excellent wildlife plant providing year-round cover and food. An 'alleopathic' phenomenon prevents other plants from germinating under the switchgrass. This provides open space and runways as well as protection for ground birds.

Upland nesting ducks, turkeys, quail, grouse and pheasants take advantage of the switchgrass cover for their first broods in early spring. Following this period, farmers then can harvest excellent switchgrass hay, making cuttings in early July and September when the grass is about 2 to 3 feet tall.

Native Plants Becoming More Popular

When the Ernsts recently changed the name of their seed business from Ernst Crownvetch Farms to Ernst Conservation Seeds, it reflected their growing diversity in seed production. "We want to be in tune with the definite national swing towards the growing emphasis on the use of native plants, wildflowers, and plant and seeds for wetlands," says Calvin.

"Today, conservation plants are used for more than just erosion control. Extra attention is given to beautification, wildlife habitat, wetland remediation and restoration, as well as the new bioengineering technology." Calvin points to the virtual moratorium by the Federal Highway Administration on the use of non-native plants for erosion control on highways. "This means we must find native plants that can not only protect the roadsides, but also make them more attractive."

But how does one find more native plants that land use customers are beginning to demand? And that Calvin can add to his living library? One way is to attend conferences such as one recently held by the Society of Wetland Scientists, according to Calvin. "While there, I found out that Purple top lovegrass is a warm season native grass while the regular weeping lovegrass comes from South Africa.

"Another way to learn about more native plants is to walk around, talk a lot and look and listen," he says. To back up his philosophy, Calvin recalls how a customer from Iowa described a plant he called Virginia wild rye. This plant is grazed by wildlife in the spring and provides them food and cover. It loves moist woods, meadows and riverbanks. "When I listened to his description, I suddenly realized that this good native plant was growing right here in a nearby valley practically under my nose. Mistakingly, I had called it a wild rye and overlooked its usefulness. How wrong I was! As a result, we started gathering seed and now sell several thousand pounds every year," Calvin said.

"Until a few years ago, I thought big and little bluestem were native only to the prairies of the West and Midwest. But, to my surprise, I found them growing wild right here in Pennsylvania. So, today, we sell these bluestems because they are natives of this eastern region."

Then, with a sly little grin, Calvin re-emphasizes, "That's what I mean when I say in this business you have to move around, talk a lot and look and listen."

As Calvin and I roamed his fields, we saw in many places, what to my untrained eye, were only wild and woolly weeds. I told him so when asked what I thought the plants were.

"Ah, but Bob, you don't realize that these are valuable native plants and are a crop for me," he patiently tried to explain. "Some will add beauty, others will furnish wildlife food and habitat and others will stop erosion. And believe me, folks will order these seeds once they realize we have them for sale."

With my new growing appreciation of the value of these native plants, we stopped at one more small field near the Ernst homestead. "Now, what do you see here," asked an expectant Calvin, checking, I felt sure, how well I had learned my lesson.

As I looked out over the mass of rank growing plants, I answered confidently, "Looks to me like a crop of valuable native plants about ready for the seed harvest."

Satisfied with my answer, but sensing I needed a bit more educating, Calvin ticked off some of the species. "Out there is Smooth goldenrod, Heath aster, New England aster, Tick sunflower, Rice cutgrass, Butterfly milkweed, Joe pye weed, white and blue vervain, Canadian and Wrinkle-leaf goldenrod, just to name a few."

This article can be found in its entirety in the Jan/Feb '97 issue of Land and Water.

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Monday, November 13, 2000 - http://www.landandwater.com/features/vol41no1/vol41no1_2.html