Great Oaks from Little Acorns Grow

| General, National News

We did it! Wild Ones: Native Plants, Natural Landscapes is now over 10,000 members strong!

By Loris Damerow, President Wild Ones Board of Directors

You are one of the 10,000 who recognize that native plants are essential for a healthy planet. You are one of 10,000 who take action to contribute to nature’s renewal. Chances are, you are one who has watched a bird find lunch in the bark of a tree, or has looked twice at a splash of blue to determine the flower. Perhaps you have always known that we are inextricably linked to nature and that good stewardship is a saving grace. You are part of the natural landscape movement.   

But the alarm bells are ringing. Earth is likely to cross a critical threshold for global warming within the next decade. Oceanic fluctuations, severe weather and biodiversity loss are all happening at an alarming rate. There has been an estimated 60% decline in the populations of North American mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians, since 1970. Over one million species are projected to go extinct in the next fifty years if we do not set aside enough habitat to protect them.   

Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, and many other environmentalists have tried to get our attention. Carson’s book, Silent Spring (1962), helped fuel the many legislative acts of the 1970s that brought some protection to the environment. Wisconsin Senator, Gaylord Nelson, founded Earth Day in April of 1970, which set a reference point for the 20th century environmental movement.   

How did Wild Ones come to be a national non-profit organization, educating by means of a chapter-based model about the importance of native plant communities?   

In 1977, nine people attended a workshop that was offered by the Schlitz Audubon Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, promoting the concept of landscaping with native plants. These ideas had grown from the tenants of Frederick Law Olmstead and furthered by ecologically-minded landscape architects like Darrel Morrison. From this meeting, a regional organization, with a mission to promote biodiversity and environmentally sound landscape practices was formed. In 1990, Wild Ones Natural Landscapers Ltd., known as, “Wild Ones: Native Plants, Natural Landscapes”, was incorporated, and in 1995, Wild Ones received 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status in the state of Wisconsin.   

Three years later, the 18 Wild Ones chapters which had started in the heartland, required additional organizing and in 1998, Donna VanBuecken became the first Wild Ones Executive Director. At that time, there were 2,356 members, many of whom were called to action by the work of Lorrie Otto, the Wisconsin environmentalist who was a vocal proponent of biodiversity. Lorrie Otto was instrumental in achieving a ban on DDT in the United States and is considered the founding inspiration for Wild Ones.   

In 2007, Doug Tallamy, entomologist and ecologist, published Bringing Nature Home, a book that highlighted the dramatic loss of habitat across the U.S. Tallamy advocated for bridging some of that loss by creating habitat in home and garden landscapes. His research on the specific ways that birds and insects interact and depend on co-evolved native plants was ground-breaking. In the last two decades, more experts, like Heather Holm, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Neil Diboll, and Larry Weaner, have stepped in to deepen our understanding of the value of native plants and teach us how to re-think and re-make our home environments for ecological service.   

New information and mission partnerships helped Wild Ones to reach a benchmark in 2015 when the Wild Ones membership roster surpassed 4,000! At that time, there were 50 chapters across the U.S. promoting the value of native plants and advocating for natural landscapes in their communities.  

In 2020, COVID drove the general population to hunker down at home. Many people turned to the outdoors for a connection to nature, relaxation and stress relief. With reports of clearer skies, cleaner waters, and wildlife returning to urban areas, many people became more conscious of the importance of preserving and restoring natural habitats. People sought reliable information on how to engage with and support the environment sustainably. Wild Ones met this interest with a series of webinars featuring native plant lists and printable garden layouts designed for different geographic regions. Wild Ones community-oriented approach and emphasis on local chapters and events (adapted to virtual formats), offered a sense of belonging and shared purpose during a time of widespread disconnection. These unique circumstances translated into a significant growth in membership as more individuals sought to actively contribute to a healthier future. 

Opportunities for moving the needle towards environmentally sound landscape practices have been growing. In the February 2022 issue of Forbes magazine, an article title read, “The Big Shift to Native Plants and What It Means for Your Business.” Collaboration with industry partners was identified as a crucial component in changing the look and function of the American landscape. Wild Ones has a role to play in making sure that people have access to native plants which are right for their region and that services are available for maintaining and sustaining natural landscapes. By fostering collaboration, emphasizing education, and steadfastly advocating for the intrinsic value of natural landscapes, Wild Ones is at the forefront of a movement. A movement that envisions a future where natural landscapes are not exceptions but the norm. 

In 2023, the national staff increased to nine, facilitating expanded communication and support to chapters. Wild Ones took a hard look at its organizational identity in order to focus on opportunities for greater mission impact. It was clear that the curiosity and enthusiasm of native plant newcomers was finding a productive home nesting alongside the knowledge and experience of established members. The membership model of working together locally was expanding chapters further from the Midwest epicenter, connecting more people with native plants for a healthy environment. Impact became more visible as the organization refined methods for highlighting chapter activities and success.   

Now, in April of 2024, Wild Ones is 10,000 members strong! There are 89 Wild Ones chapters in 35 states- that’s two thirds of the U.S.! There are 32 newly-sprouting Seedlings putting down roots in new communities. Together, we are advocating for more native plants for pollinators, more milkweeds for monarchs, more bird-bites for fledglings than ever before. Members are bringing nature into their own surroundings and providing even more know-how on building habitat, reducing lawns, mitigating climate change, and designing for beauty and biodiversity.   

Finding earth stewardship in every neighborhood provides an alternative to environmental despair. With 10,000 strong, Wild Ones is moving toward the vision of native plants and natural landscapes thriving in every community. 10,000 members have felt the quicken need to make a difference and discovered the satisfaction of tending the earth with nature in mind. 

Maybe you have known this wisdom all along, or maybe the imperative for native plants is new news, or maybe you just like purple coneflowers. Each one of us can salvage a little corner of our landscape. Together we can sow an environmental garment of repair.   

This year, a Wild Ones member approached me with acorns spilling from her out-stretched hands. There was urgency in her voice. “Will you take these? Will you plant them?… I need you to do this, please, NOW!” I took them from her and put them in the ground. In my mind I could see the future, a canopy of green- the vision where 10,000 oaks stood tall, their roots intertwined in a silent, steadfast network of growth and resilience.