A small group of volunteers gathered Saturday outside of the Athens Community Center with a mission to create a mini-prairie populated by native plants, right next to East State Street.

This new prairie is located next to the Wistendahl Native Plant Garden, and will continue its progress through the growing season. The mission of both patches of plants is the same, volunteers said: to educate the public on Ohio native plants and about the importance of preserving this part of our state and local heritage.

Frank Porter, the leader of the Wistendahl Garden volunteer group, said Saturday that roughly 1% of Ohio’s landmass was covered in prairie when the state was settled in the late 1700s. Now, it’s about “1% of (that) 1%,” Porter said.

“It’s an opportunity to show people what a prairie would have looked like at that particular time,” he added.

More than that, the new prairie is meant to inspire people to get interested in adding native plants to their own property. The benefits are significant, Porter said. First off, a lot of Ohio’s native plants are endangered because of construction projects and forest timbering. The Wistendahl Garden alone contains 20-25 rare native plants that are endangered, Porter said.

Second off, native plants don’t require fertilizers, pesticides or watering, and, if arranged like the Wistendahl Garden or the new prairie, require minimal weeding.

“You get up in the morning with a cup of a coffee and take a walk through the garden,” Porter said. “If you happen to see a weed, you pull it. You’re not out there beating yourself silly with a hoe.”

And finally, native plants are a magnet for wildlife. The Wistendahl Garden, for example, is a watch site for monarch butterflies. That’s because of the native milkweed plants it contains (which monarch butterflies need because their leaves are eaten by the monarchs’ caterpillars when they hatch), volunteer Connie Davidson explained.

The Wistendahl Garden group meets once a week on Tuesdays, sometimes to do maintenance on the garden, or other times to go on trips to see native plants in the wild. Anyone interested in helping to volunteer or to learn more about native plants can contact Porter at porterbrooknative@yahoo.com.

The Wistendahl Garden and now the prairie are largely meant to educate the public on these plants, Porter said, although they also attract local insects and animals. He said he sees these gardens and the Community Center as a “gateway” to Ohio’s native plants, with plenty of pamphlets and informational brochures at the Community Center to direct people to nearby state parks and trails where they can see the plants themselves.

But also the Wistendahl Garden was planted to honor the memory of Warren Wistendahl, a professor of botany at Ohio University, as well as Jean Wistendahl, a trained botanist who worked at OU’s Bartley Herbarium. (The two were married.) They were each local mavens of Ohio native plants, and spent much of their time working to preserve that heritage.

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