Native plant activist and anti-invasive crusader
Story by Kristi Hendricks
Helen Hamilton has been a native plant activist for years. At 85, she’s still energetically carrying forth the message of the importance of native plants to the ecosystem – giving talks, writing for publications, and collecting samples of native plants.
You can hear her love for native plants and her dedication to their protection and cultivation with every phrase. Originally from Ohio, she has lived much of her adult life in Williamsburg, where she taught high school biology for 30 years. But she says that her early interest in plants likely stemmed from weeding her grandmother’s garden.
Much of Hamilton’s specific plant research grew out of her extensive volunteer work, and later employment, with the National Park Service.
So what is it that makes native plants so special? As Hamilton easily transitions back to a teaching role, she explains how plants are at the bottom of the food pyramid. They are the ecological basis upon which life depends. Insects, in large part responsible for pollination activity, gravitate more readily to native plants and often use only native plants as hosts on which to lay their eggs. Native insects and birds gravitate toward plants with which they have co-evolved. Hamilton refers to the works of Dr. Douglas Tallamy, saying, “A plant that has fed nothing has not done its job” of passing energy through the food system.
Hamilton frequently gives talks on topics ranging from urban mosses, plants without petals, to the unique habitats of Virginia watersheds. With a twinkle in her green eyes, she talks about inserting humor into each of her presentations. References to plant sex, she says, always seem to wake up an audience.
Her short hair, dyed spring green, reinforces her message. Although her hair has seen many different hues, Hamilton describes how she always comes back to green. She originally dyed to look like a stem for a pumpkin costume. Her tinted hair has become her trademark, making people smile and feel good about going green. She even plans to sport a head of green hair at her granddaughter’s wedding ceremony later this year.
Straying from what people typically believe about low-maintenance gardening, Hamilton clarifies that native plants aren’t for the lazy gardeners. You’ve got to control them like others, she says. Using native plants in the landscape is preferable to nursing turf, emphasizing how lawns are unnecessary, resource-intensive, and create ecological deserts. She recommends options such as “freedom lawns,” weedier landscapes that feed insects and hold the soil in place.
Hamilton authored the book Ferns & Mosses of Virginia’s Coastal Plain (2016) and co-authored a wildflower book with Gustavus W. Hall, Wildflowers and Grasses of Virginia’s Coastal Plain (2013).
Not only are her own publications packed with remarkably up-close photos to aid in plant identification, several of Hamilton’s photos can be seen in Native Plants for Southeast Virginia.
Much of Hamilton’s specific plant research grew out of her extensive volunteer work, and later employment, with the National Park Service as a plant technician following her retirement from teaching in public schools. She’s also proud of the accomplishments she achieved while serving as president of the John Clayton Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society (VNPS) and with the start-up of the Williamsburg Botanical Garden.
What does she consider the biggest challenges for native plants today? Hamilton quickly responds that the horticulture industry promotes hybrids, which may or may not support native insects. These plants are often merely decorative and prone to disease. Cultivars are promoted as “pest-free” because no insects feed on them.
A personal vendetta is stopping invasive plants. She suggests rolling up the English ivy (Hedera helix) to discover the ferns and mosses. She also says to pull up, rather than spray, Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum) wherever you find this aggressive invasive taking hold. In large areas of growth, stiltgrass, aka packing grass, can be controlled by frequent mowing before the plants set seed.
Helen’s Favorite Native Plants
Perennial: Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
Tree: Fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus)
Shrub: Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)
Vine: Coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens)
Grass: Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)
Fern: Maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum)
Moss: Common fern moss (Thuidium delicatulum)