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The Midwest Native Plant Primer

Alan Branhagen is a well-known expert on native plants in Minnesota. Jim Lakin reviews Branhagen’s “Primer” on why you should consider planting natives in your yard. Once you are convinced, learn which plants to grow.

Reviewed by Jim Lakin, M.D., Master Gardener

The Midwest Native Plant Primer

So many plant guides, trying to be encyclopedic, become as engaging as a phone book.  Alan Branhagen’s latest addition to the literature of Midwestern botany happily avoids this pitfall.  A native of Decorah, Iowa and current Director of Operations at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, Alan is passionate about the plants he describes.  In this concise yet informative sourcebook Alan deftly describes 225 plants for an earth-friendly garden.  This is a timely addition to our reference library as we become increasingly aware of the vital importance of native plants to the support of our complex and interwoven ecosystem.  A well-considered introduction discusses plants native to the heartland of North America.  As we Minnesotans well know,

“No place else on earth has such an extreme continental climate, yet ours is a region filled with plants of every size in every hue…Native plants are important because they sustain all life in this landscape.  Many animals, mainly insects, through millennia of adaptations and evolution are viscerally linked to a specific plant.”

He discusses the various subregions of this vast and varied land, enabling us to understand the diversity of environment that must be kept in mind in selecting native plants.  The mantra “the right plant in the right place” holds very true for natives.  Other considerations include “who are you planting for...birds, insects, humans?  The answer will influence the plant to select.  The aesthetics of the garden may come into play for the Homo sapiens.   For birds or insects, that may not be the prime criteria.  But each species may have quite stringent requirements for the right plant species to provide the food and/or shelter for survival.  For example, wild grapes act as host for the Pandora Sphinx caterpillar.  This fellow in turn provides protein rich food for young birds.  Absent the plant, the web of life is broken.

Alan discusses designing with native plants, considering various styles—prairie, woodland, water, rock or edible gardens—along with a few words on maintenance.  One thing about maintenance of native plants: they’ve been getting along just fine without humans for millennia.  So, in a properly constructed native landscape maintenance should be minimal relative to our more formal gardens of exotic cultivars.

Finally, the author provides a listing of the 225 most desirable native perennials for the various micro-climates discussed.  Plants are listed in order of common names, a plus if you are not a Latin scholar.  For easier reference they are subdivided into trees, shrubs, groundcovers and vines.  The book itself is lavishly illustrated with a plethora of photos by the author and other photographers.  Once again Timber Press produces a handsome volume that will grace the gardener’s library as a valuable and engaging reference.


* Branhagen, A.  The Midwest Native Plant Primer, Timber Press, Portland Oregon, 2021, 253 pages.

Photo credit: Book jacket (1)

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