Growing from the damp forest floor, jack-in-the-pulpit thrives in shade or sun. A woodland perennial native to Maine, this plant produces a distinctive hooded flower, striped with green and brown and sometimes purple. Many Mainers know it by sight.
Pollinated by small flies and gnats, its flower slowly shrivels throughout the summer, making way for a bundle of green berries that ripen into a vibrant red. The berries are then plucked up by wild turkeys and wood thrushes, mice and box turtles.
“Every native plant has at least one creature, if not several creatures, that is dependent on it,” Heather McCargo, founder and executive director of the Wild Seed Project, said.
A Maine-based organization working to return native plants to the landscape, the Wild Seed Project was founded in 2014 by McCargo and has been growing ever since. Jack-in-the-pulpit is just one of the many native plants the nonprofit organization showcases through its website, annual magazine called Wild Seed and online seed sale.
The bottom line of the Wild Seed Project is to conserve biodiversity in Maine through the sowing of wild seeds.
“Native plants are so dynamic,” McCargo said. “Even just adding one native plant to your landscape, you get so much nature with it.”
At her house in Brooksville on June 17, McCargo pointed out the many native Maine plants she uses to produce garden beds full of interesting colors and textures.
“A lot of our garden plants aren’t great pollinators,” she explained, referring to the greenhouse-raised flowers typically seen in Maine gardens — the showy hydrangea and bright rhododendrons, the tall day lilies and countless colors of roses.
Instead of using these flowers, McCargo fills her gardens with native Maine plants, such as jewelweed and marsh marigold, American honeysuckle and wood aster, eastern shooting star and red columbine. Instead of growing a patch of asparagus, she grows a patch of ostrich ferns, commonly known by Maine residents as edible and tasty fiddleheads.
“Native plants are all pollinator plants,” she said. “Even the trees — even the grass is. They all support other creatures.”
Early in the season, several of the woodland plants in her garden were already in full bloom. Big blue irises stretched the petals wide, displaying a wash of yellow, purple and indigo. And Turk’s-cap lilies bent their orange heads in the sun, their spotted petals curled back, tempting bees and butterflies.
“Plants are the base level of the ecosystem, the first autotrophic producer,” McCargo said. “You don’t have the plants, you don’t have the insects. You don’t have the insects, you don’t have the birds and everything else.”
A former head plant propagator for the New England Wild Flower Society, McCargo describes herself as an educator with 30 years of experience in plant propagation, landscaping and conservation. Splitting her time between her home in Portland and her house in Brooksville, she now is devoting most of her time to the Wild Seed Project.
On the organization’s official website, wildseedproject.net, she writes articles about specific gardening topics. And with the help of volunteers, she ethically collects seeds to sell through the website. Running year-round, the seed sale is replenished each November, when McCargo adds the year’s seed crop. At that time, her product list includes about 60 species of plants native to Maine.
“Many of the native species in Maine need a winter cold period,” McCargo said. “So fall is actually the time to sow in Maine.”
On the Wild Seed Project website, people new to gardening can learn the simple steps of propagating native Maine plants. To decide what plants will best grow on their properties, people can read “Plant Profiles,” written by Pamela Johnson, a landscape gardener from Sedgwick who serves as president of the Wild Seed Project.
“I’m trying to turn people into propagators,” McCargo said. “It’s easy, and it’s fun.”
“You don’t have to be a gardener to propagate native plants,” she added. “You don’t need a greenhouse. Outdoor propagation is much more low maintenance, and we don’t want to domesticate these plants anyway. We want to keep them wild.”
Pausing at a patch of milkweed, McCargo explained that the monarch butterfly — a once abundant and iconic creature of summer in Maine — depends on milkweed to survive. This species of butterfly has recently seen a dramatic drop in population, and a lack of milkweed on the landscape of North America has been cited by biologists as a contributing factor.
Maine is home to four native species of milkweed, McCargo said, and the Wild Seed Project collects and sells the seeds of all four.
“These plants need our help,” McCargo said. “I really want more people not being afraid to try and sow some seeds. These plants need more people helping get them back in the world.”
Teaming up with local organizations, such as the Maine Audubon, the Wild Seed Project leads native plant walks and workshops on topics such as seed collection and edible wild plants throughout the state.
To learn more about the Wild Seed Project, shop the seed sale and view the organization’s schedule of events, visit wildseedproject.net.