Michigan’s Incredible Deflating Cactus … And Why You Should Swap Your Petunias for Native Plants

By | June 13, 2012


Unsung Michigan native: the Prickly Pear CactusSure, you love all things Michigan: You shop local, you eat local, you sport your Michigan screenprinted t-shirt with lots of Michigander pride. But how “Michigan” is your Michigan backyard? That’s the question—and challenge—being raised by Cheryl English, a Detroit-based master gardener (and master composter) who specializes in Michigan native plants. Turns out, while we may dearly love our familiar tulips and rose bushes, Michigan natives like the rattlesnake master, turtlehead, sneezeweed, and, yes, prickly pear cactus can do a lot more for your garden—and the world around it.

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Detroit master gardener and Michigan native plant guru Cheryl English.

Master gardener and Michigan native plant guru Cheryl English

Found Michigan: So, Cheryl, people seem to have some funny attitudes about native plants—that they’re hard to grow or that they don’t look as nice as, say, the tulips or daffodils that we’re all used to seeing. What do you think about that?

Cheryl: Well, there are two very interesting—sort of competing—agendas that people bring with them into their gardens—and maybe other aspects of their lives—and one of them is novelty. There are people who make a living by talking about what’s new this year in gardening. Now, if you want to put me to sleep, sit me down in a dark room with that presentation, because my eyes are going to glaze over and roll in the back of my head because I don’t really want to hear about the newest petunia or the newest marigold. Really—just shoot me.

FM: [Laughs]

Cheryl: So, novelty’s one thing; the other thing we have, as human beings, is this incredible imperative to control everything. And so we’ve tamed all these typical garden plants and we’ve got them under our thumb and we’ve got them figured out. And we have this idea of what our gardens should look like and that idea goes back partly to where we came from. And the thing is, most often, where our ancestors came from is not where we live. We live here and great-great-great grandpa gardened in Scotland or France or Germany or what have you. It’s the whole, Oh my dad always used to do it this way. And I’m always like, So we’ve learned nothing new since your dad gardened? So people like to have novelty but the drive for novelty has limited parameters. People want something new but they want the newest version of what they already know: They want the latest petunia, but they don’t want something different from the petunia. And the result is we have this list of six to 10 plants that everyone seems to have in their gardens. And none of them are from here. And people don’t really realize the cost that comes with that.

FM: The cost?

Cheryl: Yeah, well, a plant’s value isn’t just in the garden. It’s in the wider environment. The things you do in your garden have ramifications far beyond your fence line. And the thing about native plants is that—first of all—they evolved here. So they evolved to accommodate our climate conditions. And here in Michigan, we have a very extreme climate—we can actually span 100 degrees Fahrenheit in a year. And, you know, that doesn’t happen in Florida. That doesn’t happen in Alaska! And so native plants are designed to deal with that highly variable climate.

The other thing is that they evolved with the kind of soil that we happen to have here. So they don’t require all these chemicals and tending for them to thrive. They do fine without any intervention. They perform because they’re designed to perform. No more “dead-heading” your daylilies to get them to bloom again—that sort of thing. So they’re easier to take care of.

The other thing that’s critical about their role in the environment is that native plants and native insects evolved together. And I know—and this gets back to that control thing—people don’t like things eating their plants. But plants were made to be eaten, and not just by us. So we have to learn how to share. Plants are the only organisms that make their own food; an oak tree, for instance, hangs out there all day and converts sunlight into food. And that oak tree is one of a family of oaks that supports almost 600 species of butterflies and moths—and that’s just one insect classification; that’s not even getting into beetles or flies or bees or wasps or anything. And the thing is: It’s all a network. And if we don’t plant the plants that evolved here, the insects, which are the first tier of animals that convert that plant tissue into protein, they aren’t going to be here any more.

FM: And I’m guessing it snowballs from there.

Cheryl: Exactly. So you have people that are like Well, big whoop, so all the insects are gone. I guess I’ll miss the monarch butterflies—yeah, I’ll kind of miss those—but I won’t really miss the ants or the beetles. But everything feeds on everything else: If you don’t have any insects flying around, it means you don’t have any birds flying around, because the birds are feeding insects to their young—regardless of whether, as adults, the birds are seed eaters like the cardinal or fruit eaters like the cedar waxwing. You know that tomato hornworm that everyone’s like, Get it off my tomato plant? Well, that tomato hornworm is a really damn good breakfast for a baby robin. They’re packed with protein and key nutrients—more key nutrients that an equivalent amount of ground beef. So if you want to have butterflies and moths—you’ve got to have native plants.

FM: But can’t the butterflies find other things to eat?

Cheryl: Well, there are some people in the trade—really knowledgeable, experienced, reputable people—who say: You want to have butterflies? You don’t have to have native plants to have butterflies. A butterfly can nectar on just about anything. But the thing is, they can’t raise their young on those plants. Their young have very specific needs: For example, the monarch butterfly lays its eggs on native milkweed. And those are the only plants that the larvae can feed on successfully. So, actually, the nectaring plants are the least critical because most of the host plants have some nectaring potential. And many native plants have multiple jobs. The cup plant is a great example: It’s a nectar source, but it also serves as a means of cupping water when it rains, and that becomes an important water source for small insects, small birds, and even small amphibians like spring peeper frogs. They are amazingly versatile and, the thing is, just because we don’t recognize the value of them doesn’t mean they’re not without value.

You know, as a professional gardener I always get the question: Can I grow this plant; can I grow that plant? And it’d be nice if we could shift the conversation to: What grows well here? And I’d say, Let me give you a list of 175 plants from my yard that grow well here. And then I’ll give you the other 200 that I don’t have space for. And I think somewhere on that list we can find something that’ll be attractive for your garden. Because here’s the other thing: You plant these plants that don’t really do well here, or you have to work really hard to have them do well, and to me, that’s not a very satisfying experience. Native plants always perform. I’ve never had a bad year with my Eastern columbine or my rattlesnake master, for instance. They take everything in stride.

FM: Rattlesnake master? That’s a plant? These native Michigan plants all have such cool names…

Cheryl: Oh yeah. I have a zoo garden. Not because I intended to have one. I have monkey flower, turtlehead, cardinal flower, fox sedge, pussy toes, horse mint, white snake root, rattlesnake master; and I’m going to be getting some skunk cabbage. But yeah, rattlesnake master is one of my favorites. It’s very architectural, and it’s a really unusual plant. And it was actually used by native people for treatment of rattlesnake bites.

FM: Well, one plant that we wanted to make sure we asked you about is the prickly pear cactus. Is that really native to Michigan?

Cheryl: Oh, the prickly pear! I’m glad you mentioned that. The first winter I had it, I was absolutely terrified because, when fall comes, it just sort of deflates. It just goes prostrate on the ground, and you’re like, Oh my god, it just died! It’s just sort of green and sad-looking all winter—you pray for snow to cover it up because it looks like it’s dead. Just bury the corpse, you know! But come spring, when it starts to warm up, it just resurrects! It picks itself up and sort of re-inflates. It really is quite amazing. And the flowers—they’re typical cactus flowers in that they don’t last even a day. Last year was the first year it flowered for us. And my friend Don, who’s my photographer; when we were trying to photograph the flower, it was like we were trying to make a baby. The flowers last about five or six hours; they open at about 11 or 12 o’clock and by 4 or 5 o’clock they’re done. So it was like, Don, you have to get here between the hours of noon and 4—I’m telling you, it’s like making a baby! We had seven flowers last year. We managed to finally capture the sixth one. But yeah, people are always surprised that we have a native cactus here in Michigan.

FM: So, one last question: Where do you even get native plants; you can’t just go to your average garden center and find these, right?

Cheryl: Right. Well, there’s an organization called the Michigan Native Plant Producers Association. It’s not a very formal organization, it’s a rather loose network of about a dozen growers in the State of Michigan who are propagating native Michigan plants—and in many cases, Michigan genotypes. And what that means is that it’s the Michigan genetic profile for a given species. Because even though a species may be distributed over a wide range, it will have genetic variations within that geographic range. And what’s important about that is that if we come up against a situation like the emerald ash borer or Dutch elm disease, by maintaining that high level of genetic diversity, we actually have a better chance of having a portion of that population that might be resistant to that condition. So trying to grow open-pollinated Michigan genotype plants is really a key thing here. But not everyone who’s growing native plants is a member of that organization and you’ll occasionally see native plants at your locally based small nurseries. The thing is, if we want more of this to happen, the way to do it is to talk to the people running your local nurseries. Say: Hey, do you have any Michigan native plants? That will get the market going, so that these folks can get up to speed and participate in that market as it grows.


Cheryl English is an advanced master gardener and ceramics artist who lives and gardens in Detroit’s East English Village. She offers private group garden tours as well as several free public tours per summer; the next public garden tour is August 18. For more information visit www.blackcatpottery.com.


Ready to dig in and add some Michigan natives to your yard? Find plants—and advice—at a local nursery that specializes in Michigan plants (find a database of these nurseries at the Michigan Native Plant Producers Association). In the meantime, here’s a list of five of Cheryl’s favorites.

Rattlesnake MasterRattlesnake Master

A tough, tall, architectural perennial with blue-green leaves and unique clustering flower heads; can take lots of dry weather. “This is a really unusual plant; the flowers look almost thistle-like. It’s a great conversation starter—people stop and say, ‘What is THAT?’” The root of this plant was used medicinally by Native Americans; one use was to treat rattlesnake bites, hence the plant’s name.

Eastern ColumbineEastern Columbine

A versatile plant, taking some shade and sun; low foliage, with statuesque, slim, elegant flower stems adorned with little bell-like red and yellow flowers loved by hummingbirds. “A little promiscuous” according to Cheryl, as its seeds spread easily. “This is not a bad plant for the middle of the garden bed, but it also can work in the front, because the stems are very tall—but they’re also so delicate and sparse that they act as the garden equivalent of a sheer for your window. You can see things through them.”

Cup PlantCup Plant

A member of the aster family, growing up to 10 feet tall; its name comes from the way its leaves collect rainwater, providing a water source for wildlife. “This plant is a workhorse,” Cheryl says. “Its height makes it a great anchor plant for a big bed. It has a squarish stem and the leaves are in pairs—each pair is at 90 degrees to the pair below, so it’s like a big fountain when it rains: the water just comes down, comes down, comes down. The flowers are beautiful yellow, supporting lots of nectaring insects.”

Northern Blue Flag IrisNorthern Blue Flag Iris

A native iris with deep blue to light purple flowers, enjoying full sun to partial shade. “You could say this plant plays well with others,” Cheryl says. “It tolerates clay soils well, and like all the irises, after it finishes flowering, the foliage looks great. It doesn’t turn ugly on you.”


A sun/light shade plant that blooms repeatedly summer through fall. “What I love about this plant is that the native bees love it,” Cheryl says. “Each little flower lasts one day but there’s a whole cluster of flowers on each stem; it’s an on-going nectar source, a huge contribution to the native insects.”


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Stephen Hulbert on June 30, 2012 at 10:25 am.

I love Cheryl English and I love this article!!! I had the wonderful opportunity of being mentored by Cheryl during the summer of 2009. She is so knowledgeable about native plants and has become such a dear friend. Because of Cheryl I have started to grow more native plants around my yard and the school garden I tend at Wiley Elementary (Utica Community Schools) Utica, MI. Currently at my house I am growing prickly pear cactus, common milkweed, and jack in the pulpit. At the Wiley School garden, we just installed a whole Michigan native plant bed, in the shape of our great state, to teach the students about native plants. In that bed we have eastern columbine, spiderwort, cup plant, butterfly weed, new england aster, bicknell’s sedge, new jersey tea, sand coreopsis, bee balm, switch grass, joe pie weed, little blue stem, and zig zag golden rod. It will be exciting to see the bed grow and mature over the years. Thanks for such a wonderful article and thank you Cheryl for being such a wonderful friend, mentor and teacher and sharing your knowledge with the world.



Deborah M. Hall on July 9, 2012 at 6:50 pm.

I heartily enjoyed Cheryl English’s article recently published in your, can’t do without, publication. I have never made it a habit while designing my own yard or clients to consider native plants as a priority. Now after reading her article and realizing I have been wringing my hands trying to keep all my gardens from suffering the last two Michigan spring and summer seasons she has really made me think twice. I know a smart gardener needs to learn to bend and be able to accept what ever the next season will bring our way I see possibilities in her writings of natives an easier acceptable way of letting parts of the garden take care of themselves. This next month in my own yard I will be starting a native garden and opening my eyes to the facts she has found to be true and delightful. Thank you, Deb Hall I.S.A Certified Arborist, Professional Gardener and owner of Twigz LLC.



Jacoba Briggs-Limbers on September 24, 2012 at 1:49 pm.

Hi. I live in East Lansing, I have some pricky pear cactus that was growing in sandy soil and brought it to my home where there’s more dirt and clay. I bought some cactus soil and built up a little rock garden around them. I’m worried about them not Making it through the winter. Where they lived before the cactus were surrounded by other plants and protected by them and now they are in the open. I’m wondering if I should cover them with straw or something. They are little one has 3 pads. They are so very cute. They are in an area that’s gets full sun all day. Please let me know if I should make any changes for them to live to their full potential I love the plants a lot!


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