Going Native with the Wild Ones

IMG_1067By Will Stahl

In the beginning here was prairie, or technically “savannah,” a prairie dotted with tough burr oak trees, evolved to survive the fires that swept across the land. When the white settlers arrived from the East, that’s what they found across most of southern Wisconsin.

It’s almost all gone now, replaced by housing surrounded by turf grass, roofs and parking lots of commercial space, farmland dedicated to a small variety of highly bred non-native crops, and “natural areas,” which are rapidly reverting to woodland, as prairie will when deprived of fire. The unpaved areas of these environments are often infested with non-native invasives such as buckthorn and garlic mustard.

By the 1970’s some people had come to recognize that what we take to be the normal landscape is actually an impoverished environment, supporting little of the native wildlife that had once flourished here.

In 1977 nine people met at the Schlitz Audubon Center in Milwaukee and planted the seeds of an organization first known as Wild Ones Natural Landscapers. In the years since it has become a national organization with 50 local chapters in 13 states.

Though its roots were in Milwaukee, the national headquarters of the organization is now on Butte de Morts Beach Road on the west side of Little Lake Butte de Morts in an attractive former dwelling surrounded by 16 acres of land managed in accordance wi5t6h their vision of reviving the native environment to the benefit of the insects, animals and birds that once lived here in vast numbers. They used funds contributed by members and friends plus some from the Nelson Stewardship fund and the Fox River/Green Bay Natural Resources Trustee Council to purchase land once occupied by the Stroebe family in the mid nineteenth century (hence the name of nearby Stroebe Island) and more recently owned by the Guckenburg family. One of the former Guckenberg homes has become the headquarters building.

The facility is now known as the WILD Center (Wild Ones Institute of Learning and Development), and it contains one of the few remaining functional marshes on the Fox River system.

It also has space for Wild Ones to create areas that demonstrate the varieties of natural landscapes and gardens that can be developed in different local environments. At the same time it preserves the marshland and riverside woodland. In the long-term plan for the development of the property, Phase I is almost finished with the establishment of four rain gardens, a pollinator garden, a wet savannah prairie and a nesting grounds for turtles.

In a discussion with Jamie Fuerst, the marketing director for Wild Ones, she told me that their current emphasis is on improving habitat for monarch butterflies, a once common species, now becoming scarce because the only plant it can live on, milkweed, is being pushed out by development and the increased use of herbicides due to herbicide-resistant

GMO crops that allow widespread application of glyphosate (Roundup). Their “Milkweed for Monarchs” program is distributing milkweed seed to anyone who is willing to plant it.

They have fought to rid their property of invasives such as wild parsnip (a nasty plant that causes skin blistering), buckthorn and garlic mustard. Fuerst told me that four years ago they did a bird survey of their land and found only a few species. Last year at least 50 species of birds were found, as well as many more butterflies.

When I first heard about Wild Ones, some years ago, I thought it an interesting, if quirky

concept for landscaping. Even though Pansies Garden Center, which I worked for some years ago, was carrying a variety of native plants, I wasn’t convinced to make a big change in my landscaping. After being exposed to Wild Ones ideas, I am less inclined to disregard native plantings. To see why, read “Seeing Green” for this month.

As the pictures that accompany this article demonstrate, native plants can provide just an attractive a garden as the ornamentals we have long been sold, many of which came from Europe or Asia. We have overlooked the great beauty of plants that were already here.

For more information:, or 

Postal address:

Wild Ones

PO Box 1274

Appleton, WI  54912-1274

Street address:

2285 Butte does Morts Beach Rodad

Neenah, WI  54956

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