Leelanau News and Events

On Memorial Day Weekend, Shop The 2,000+ Native Plants Leelanau’s Wildflower Rescuers Saved From Construction Sites

By Emily Tyra | May 17, 2021

The Leelanau Wildflower Rescue plant sale is back — on the Leland Village Green Friday May 28 and Saturday May 29 — and with it a brigade of wildflower rescuers. They have met three days a week this spring for two-hour-plus digs, to harvest native flowers like trillium and jack-in-the-pulpit before the bulldozers arrive at construction sites.

Or in some cases, right after the bulldozers come through. Leelanau Wildflower Rescue co-chair Ruth Geil is leading a dig now at a future homesite near Suttons Bay, where the driveway through the forest has already been clear-cut. “A lot was lost,” she says, “but luckily they had a slow-down on the build, and the owner got in touch with us.”

The group does a selective harvest of wildflowers, ferns and other native plants. “We take the things that won’t survive. Most of these plants need dappled sunlight, which is gone once the trees are gone,” she says. “Today we only want to go three feet from either side of the roadway, but we’ll also collect wildflowers near any brush piles because those will eventually be taken out by heavy machinery.”

Geil shakes the dirt off the roots of a giant trillium to reveal its bulb, “This trillium could be over twenty years old,” she says.

Joanie Woods, a founding member of Leelanau Wildflower Rescue, explains that this volunteer arm of the Leelanau Conservancy was started in 1999 by Patty Shea, who wanted to do something proactive for the wildflowers that were the casualties of the construction boom that was occurring in Leelanau at that time.

Leelanau is definitely in another boomtime for vacant land sales — with pristine wooded parcels precisely the places where the wildflowers grow. Figures provided by the Northern Great Lakes Realtors for the five-county area show vacant land sales for the first quarter of 2021 easily eclipsed those for each of the last seven years. The sales of vacant parcels more than doubled compared to the first quarter of 2020, at 376 versus last year’s 158.

Woods says property owners knowing that this rescue effort exists before they break ground is more important than ever, with many newcomers and new builds across the county. She adds people might not notice the single flyer the group is able to post at the permit offices in the townships.

Geil says the most direct way for a builder or willing property owner to get the rescue crews to their land is via the Leelanau Conservancy. “Lindy [Kellogg] is the clearing house through the conservancy for us and does all the paperwork to coordinate rescue sites.” Those who would like to save plants on their own property or help as a volunteer, can contact her via email

While Geil leads the team on the Suttons Bay homesite, her Leelanau Wildflower Rescue co-chair Erika Ferguson is with another crew on Eagle Highway, “where a farmer wanted a strip of woods along the road to be used to plant more cherry trees, and we were able to go in first. The biodiversity of native plants there is just amazing.”

Still another dig is happening in Glen Arbor, where a new driveway is going in.

She shares that the rescue group aims to make the wildflower harvest as attractive to a property owner as possible: “If we go before the bulldozer, they can mark it so there is an envelope that we dig and leave some on the edges. If they want, we save and move some for them to replant, too.”

Once collected, native flowers are potted and stored at a conservancy preserve where they receive shade and water until the sale. Leland High School students help with labor and logistics the day of, with ambassadors from the rescue group on hand to share planting tips and how wildflowers are essential to Leelanau’s forest ecosystems. Woods says, “I’m not a green thumb or botanist, but I can identify the plants. I was trained by Patty Shea who started this group 21 years ago.” She says the native wildflowers evolved along with birds, insects and animals, which have a symbiotic relationship with the plants. 

“An interesting fact: Trillium are actually spread by ants,” says Woods. 

Geil adds that those unsure about planting native wildflowers in their own backyards should know they have a built-in brawn in addition to their beauty. “They are hardy. They do need to be planted in the shade, but the great thing is there is nothing you have to do after that…not like most perennials that have to be deadheaded and tended to.”

So how many wildflowers have been saved over the years by the rescuers? Tens of thousands, says volunteer Barry Dove. In 2019 (the 2020 sale was skipped due to the pandemic), they saved and sold 2,082 pots of wildflowers and ferns. The proceeds in 2019 were $25,371, all benefitting the Leelanau Conservancy. Dove also documents the number of pots harvested at each site, allowing the property owner to receive a tax benefit.

“The conservancy uses our proceeds, plus some plants, for the care for the Village Green in Leland,” Dove says.

And the sea of potted wildflowers for sale is a sight to behold, “and quite the photo op,” he says. See for yourself on the Leland Village Green, Friday and Saturday of Memorial Weekend from 9am to 4pm, or when the flowers sell out. 

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