Learn how to plant natives with Chris Benda

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Many years ago a homeowner might have said, "I don't want nature in my back yard, let it live somewhere else, out there in the woods or the prairies." However, today it is a different story states University of Illinois Extension Horticulture Educator, Kelly Allsup.

"In reality, somewhere else does not exist anymore, because most of the woods and prairies are gone. For the natural world to survive, we must allow native plants and animals to occur in our yards and gardens," says Chris Benda, a botanist, and president of the Illinois Native Plant Society.

His job in Illinois for three years was to find new natural areas in the southern part of Illinois. Now, he travels across Illinois, documenting rare plants, photographing nature and giving public programs. He is an accomplished photographer. He is also the keynote speaker for this year's University of Illinois Extension McLean County Master Gardeners' Home, Lawn and Garden Day on Saturday, March 4, where he will present a program titled "Illinois Wildflowers for the Home Garden." Chris will discuss the importance of using native plants in the home landscape and will focus on showy and easy-to-grow wildflowers native to Illinois.

By the end of Benda's graduate work, he had identified 1,000 native flowers in the Lake County Forest Preserves he was studying. He took pictures. He used some of his favorite books ("Illinois Wildflowers," "Vascular Flora of Illinois," "Newcomb's Wildflower Guide of Eastern United States") to identify his discoveries. He had developed such a deep connection that he pursued it as a career. Today, he wonders around in nature looking for treasures and loves every minute of it.

His favorite spring ephemeral wildflower is bloodroot because it comes up early and he thinks the architectural quality of the leaves is as beautiful as the fleeting white flowers. Chris loves native ferns and encourages shade gardeners to explore these stunning plants more. He promotes the use of native shrubs like black haw (Viburnum), red buckeye, and spicebush. Native plants are vital to attract insects that sustain birds, and everyone loves birds.

Black haw Viburnum is a multi-stemmed shrub that grows up to 15 feet and is covered in white flowers in the spring that soon turns into blue-black drupes that are gorgeous in the fall when backlit by red and purple fall foliage. Red buckeye is a spreading shrub grown in partial shade with showy red "bottle brushesque" flowers that appear in April and May and attract hummingbirds. Spicebush grows up to 12 feet with small aromatic blooms in spring that turn into bright red berries in the fall.

If you would like to see Chris's presentation and learn more about native plants, please register to attend the Home, Lawn and Garden Day at Central Catholic High School in Bloomington. To register, go to go.illinois.edu/HLGD or call the McLean County Extension office at (309) 663-8306. Photos by Missouri Botanical Garden.