Flower Hunter (from Window on the Chesapeake)
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Image from Window on the Chesapeake
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Only the fitful month of March could be this ornery. The sky is an unrelenting press of gray, inhospitably spitting a frigid rain. The wind bites like an ill-tempered mutt. Beneath a wide-brimmed hat, armed only with rubber gloves, Sara Tangren is on her hands and knees in the mud. And loving it. With a small trowel, she is prying carefully into the sandy loam, searching with all the enthusiasm of a treasure hunter. “Here we go,” she says, and lifts from the earth a scrawny, pale finger of a root that looks like it wanted to be a carrot but never made it past tuber pre-school. “Butterfly milkweed. You won’t believe how these will grow, and the monarch caterpillars and butterflies love ’em. A dry slope to them is like a day at the spa.”

Treasures indeed are these humble little roots, for they represent all that Sara is trying to achieve in her effort to preserve, protect and propagate wildflowers born and bred of the Chesapeake Bay. At her Chesapeake Native Nursery in Davidsonville, a few miles south of Annapolis, she is doing what few others have done here—growing native wildflowers from the local ecosystem to produce native seed and seedlings.
Cover from Window on the Chesapeake
This story is an excerpt from Window on the Chesapeake by Wendy Mitman Clarke. To order this book, visit the Mariner's Museum.
In the process, she hopes to preserve plants that are as much a part of the Bay’s heritage as crabs and skipjacks—and just as threatened by a changing environment, development, pollution and other pressures. “According to historic literature, a lot of native plants were very common here, and now you can’t find them,” she says. “In the case of wild columbine, we went to the University of Maryland herbarium and wrote down where all those pressed specimens had been collected from the 1930s on. We went back to those sites and they had all been developed.”

Sara defines “native” as plants that were present before Europeans arrived in the 1600s, and she has partnered with the Maryland Department of Agriculture to develop a “source identification program.” That is, the same inspectors who go out and check that farmers are, indeed, growing the seed they say they are, will also examine parent populations of wildflowers that Sara has identified and verify them, ultimately certifying the provenance of her seeds. If a parent population is in no danger, Sara gets permission from the landowner to collect seeds from the flowers to cultivate on the farm. If the bulldozers are fueling up, she gets permission from the developer to rescue as many of the plants as possible….the next step is getting them to grow, and if the two-acre garden in Davidsonville is any indication, she and her part-time employees (along with her husband, Bill) have a green thumb. Designed in a huge circle, with mulched paths shooting from the center like spokes, the nursery is now home to about forty wildflower species, among them the glowing Maryland goldenaster, the exuberant daisy fleabane….the cobalt blue bottle gentian, Maryland’s own indigenous cactus, the prickly pear, the elegant foxglove beardtongue and the charming pink fuzzy bean, which Sara says attracts the most exotic caterpillars in the whole place. “We get to see all the very coolest bugs, all the best bugs,” she says. Her biggest challenge now, she says, is learning how to run a growing business. And still finding time to get her hands dirty.

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