Two blocks south of Crown Candy Kitchen in Old North St. Louis, on the corner of Warren and 14th, is an unassuming green square lot with a lamp post in the center. Curving towards the pole is a row of sunflower plants that are just beginning to leaf.
Seed Louie, a scarecrow, sits atop the pole with gardening gloves, a matted pink wig, dirty brown beard and denim overalls; he is holding a Route 66 tin sign. He was originally called Farmer John before taking a Roman candle to the back of his head and bursting into flames. The authors took it out and apologized. Since his PVC skeleton was still intact, Sunflower volunteers rebuilt him and renamed him Seed Louie.
“Both times he looked eerily like me,” says Richard Reilly, energy programs manager for the Missouri Botanical Garden EarthWays Center, which leads the project. “But [Seed] is so beat up now that I think the resemblance is minimal.
The flowers, Seed Louie and Reilly are part of the Tournesol+ project, a group that develops and beautifies vacant urban land with sunflowers and winter wheat. Originally, part of the idea was to see if sunflowers could extract contaminants from the soil on land that once housed industrial buildings, although the plants were not found to be the most efficient for this task.
Efforts like Project Sunflower+ that use native plants to reverse damage or replace invasive species have the power to make the St. Louis area a more robust ecosystem that can adapt to climate change. The environmental stakes are high, and this is just one of many efforts in the St. Louis area that use native species in this way. When it comes to native plants, St. Louis is ahead of the curve, and it’s not just about community projects.
Environmental advocate Doug Tallamy called St. Louis a leader in green landscaping thanks to initiatives like the Tournesol+ project, but also the stewardship of regular St. Louisians who choose to plant their gardens and their community lands with native species.
“People are excited about it,” says Jean Ponzi, green resources manager at Missouri Botanical Gardens. “It’s something that individuals can do, which really makes a difference.”
The Tournesol+ project involves transforming vacant urban land into a temporary and sustainable home for insects, flowers, birds and humans. Created by Reilly and Don Koster of the University of Washington, it had its first planting in 2013 on the parcel of Warren and 14th, on which the Missouri Botanical holds a garden lease.
Sunflowers are “cultivars” of a native Missouri sunflower (Helianthus annuus), which comes from common birdseed. Cultivar means man-made, but at the back of the plot this year the project has two rows of native Missouri sunflowers, courtesy of Shaw Nature Reserve.
Reilly explained that the project is looking at other options, such as native grasses, “but those can take four to five years to mature.” Sunflowers are annuals, which means they are planted and come out of the ground according to their inherited genetic instructions – no need to create a large root network or bide their time.
The aim of the project is to invest as little as possible in the land in order to obtain the best return. “If you’re growing food, it’s about ten times more work than what we’re doing here,” Reilly says. At the Sunflower Project, “essentially we provide a place of relaxation, a beautification project. These things push and attract bees like crazy.
Birds too – cardinals and house finches fly all over the square green plot. The blackbirds hunt through the bees that pollinate the clover.
Those responsible for the project believe that buildings, houses or shops should be built on this land. The “embodied energy” it takes to redevelop sites like Warren and 14th requires considerably less investment and ecological disruption than new infrastructure. Streets, gas, electricity and sewers already exist in the Old North.
“Especially on the north side,” Reilly said, “where there’s more than enough vacant land to keep a lot of it green and redevelop a whole bunch of it too. And if redevelopment happens in places like this- here rather than at the edge of the cornfields, we’re all going to be a little better off.
Every year, the world loses insects. In Germany, there has been a loss of about 75% of insect biomass over the past 26 years. It’s just as bad in North America, especially in the Midwest. Although the decline appears to be leveling off, the Midwest is estimated to be losing about 4% of its bugs per year, reports the Associated Press.
Native plants provide a home for native insects. Take, for example, the dramatic drop in the monarch butterfly population. Monarchs have evolved to only host their caterpillars on milkweed (milkweed) plants, which are native to Missouri, meaning they’ve been here a long, long time. Long enough that the monarch butterflies didn’t see the humans coming and put all their evolutionary fleas on the milkweed. Meanwhile, our human urbanization, monoculture, herbicides and invasive species have decimated milkweed.
In 2014, former St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay signed into law the “Milkweeds for Monarchs” program, and not far from the Sunflower + Project, a thriving butterfly garden on St. Louis Avenue.
“For some people,” Ponzi pointed out, “an experience of the natural world is not comfortable from the start.” Biodiversity does not mean wall-to-wall butterflies and bees. The decline in biomass includes spiders, slime larvae and the dreaded summer mosquito.
But there is a lot to know about the little vampire. There are 35 hundred unique species of mosquitoes in the world. “Most of them have nothing to do with humans,” Ponzi pointed out. Only a few species bite and only females.
The vast majority of mosquitoes live on animals, fish or other insect larvae, and many other creatures in turn eat them, making these little parasites a major link in the ecological food web.
“Bug spray kills bugs. Period,” Ponzi says. “They don’t tell the difference.” When the city or county of St. Louis fogs up neighborhoods to crack down on mosquitoes, they’re just shooting down mature adults Fogging does not interfere with germination and St. Louis County uses no chemicals that stay on for very long.
Unfortunately, store-bought pesticides and extermination services that promise bug-free lawns for 30 days spray chemicals that stick around, indiscriminately eliminating entire levels of the insect food chain.
For Ponzi and environmental thinkers like EO Wilson, the relationship between insects and pollinators is a love affair. As gardeners, “we can be part of this romance,” she said. “Native plants are the most powerful matchmakers we can incorporate into our landscapes.” Biodiversity is synonymous with richness, color and liveliness. “It’s also essential for ecological health, which includes human health. And it’s fun! You don’t have to suffer,” Ponzi said. “Go to your local garden center, and they’ll have native plants.”
About 70% of the plants on a plot of land should be native, Ponzi and Tallamy agree.
“When you think of a monoculture,” Reilly says, “you think, okay, we have this big grove and it’s full of just one tree. Right? If something bad happens to one, it happens to all. Instead of having the kind of resilience you would get with a diverse grove – that’s the kind of stuff I think is pretty important.