Using native aquatic plants like those in Jens Jensen Park is about more than just creating striking water gardens, though. Growing native species also helps curb the spread of invasive aquatic plants that outcompete native species and upset food webs. Invasive species common in water gardens are already threatening the health of Illinois waterways. For example, the fast-growing Brazilian Elodea—typically sold in aquarium stores and water nurseries under the name “Anacharis”—has been found in several lakes and ponds in Illinois, including in a community not far from Highland Park. Like many invasive plants, this waterweed grows in dense mats that block out sunlight needed by other species and hinders water recreation. And it is nearly impossible to remove once it has been introduced.
Visitors to Jens Jensen Park in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park will notice a change to the landscape this year. The Fountain of the Blue Heron, nestled between the park’s grassy land and thick forestry, has been transformed into a water garden. But this is no ordinary water garden. Like much of the park surrounding it, this garden was built with plants that are native to northeastern Illinois.
The fountain was redesigned by the Park District of Highland Park and the Chicago Botanic Garden, with funding assistance from Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, to give park visitors a closer look at how native aquatic plants like lizard’s tail, water willow, and sweet flag can be used to create beautiful, healthy water gardens.
“Native plantings have gotten a bit of a bad rap,” said Bob Kirschner, director of restoration ecology at the Chicago Botanic Garden. “They are often seen as weedy and unorganized. We wanted to demonstrate how you can use native aquatic plants to achieve the ornamental look many people desire.”
“Once an invasive species has become established, the negative impacts on the environment cannot be fully reversed,” said Greg Hitzroth, an IISG aquatic invasive species outreach specialist. “By growing non-invasive species, gardeners can help prevent a new population of harmful species from taking root in local environments.”
The over one dozen species of aquatic plants at home in Jens Jensen Park will also provide food for birds, insects, and other wildlife. Native plants are especially important for pollinators like bees and butterflies that keep northeastern Illinois’ natural areas flowering.