Adriana Perez Chicago Tribune
With its branches poking out of a drawstring bag, a potted plum tree accompanied Tristan Shaw to a recent nonprofit luncheon. For the past three years, he has carried a sapling for “emotional support” for dinners, family parties, and even canoeing and camping.
Buddy, Pawpaw, and now Professor Plum – his three wooden companions for the past few years – have been collected as seedlings and grown over the summer. Professor Bloom is scheduled to join his predecessors somewhere in Shaw Square this fall. But what started as an experiment in taking care of oneself during difficult pandemic times quickly became a way to connect with others over a passion deeply rooted in family tradition.
“I noticed that wearing a tree was like breaking a barrier to initiate connection,” Shaw said. “I always want to talk about native plants, the importance of native plants, and the importance of oaks, in particular, as a keystone species. Those are things I definitely want to bring back to people.”
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In 1978, Shaw’s father, Connor, established a plant nursery on 5 acres of land in Mooney, Illinois, a village south of Chicago. Starting at the age of 4, his children would help him collect seeds for his project.
Five years later, Possibility Place Nursery began growing native trees and shrubs exclusively from seeds collected within a 150-mile radius in northern Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa. It has since expanded to more than 55 acres, where nearly 60,000 trees thrive and more than 18,000 trees are planted each year.
“There aren’t a lot of us who grow (plants) that are strictly local and locally collected,” said Kelsay Shaw, Tristan’s brother. “We rely on ourselves. That’s really what sets us apart.”
Billy Hoynes, a landscape architect by training and greenhouse assistant at the nursery, noted that many traditional nurseries use divisions and tissue culture to propagate varieties, or cultivated plants, with certain traits.
“They are very specific about their genes,” Hoynes said. “They want everything to look the same.”
Kelsay Shaw, who works as a botanist and sales consultant at the nursery, stressed the importance of making their plants available in “as much color and variety as possible.”
“People don’t realize exactly what’s available on the plate, especially for native trees,” he said. “They always think it’s wild, it must be like walking through a dirty forest. But it’s not. (There is) variation in native species, especially in things like fall color and leaf shape.”
“You’ll have five of the same thing next to each other, and there’s a slight difference in all of them. Some will be purple, some red, some bright orange, all the same plant,” Kelsay Shaw said. “While a lot of things in the industry, Being that red, if you’re not a fire engine (red)…what’s the point? It’s kind of sad because it doesn’t really give you the variety in your life that you might actually need.
On a Friday morning in late October, at the nursery’s last monthly open house of the year, Cynthia Dearie perused the plants for sale. The Northwest Indiana resident returned for the second year to purchase from Possibility Place for her new home.
She said that although she had been burning bushes at her previous home, once she discovered it was an invasive species, she decided to choose to plant native plants in her new place.
“So it’s really important, in my personal opinion, to plant gardens at a regional level,” she said. “Plants are so fun. I mean, just look at all the fall color.
Kelsay Shaw had a busy morning consulting with various clients during an open house. Between appointments, he wanders around the trees and shrubs on display and answers questions from parents with children, single shoppers and couples.
“That’s the nice thing about our specific customers. We have the hobbyists, the people who don’t know Jack, and then we have the hardcore scholars,” he said. “So we’ve got quite the range. It’s kind of fun. interesting. It’s not like going to Home Depot, where everyone wears the same shoes or drives the same car. We don’t have any of that. This makes it a lot of fun because you hope to help as many people as possible.
Kelsay Shaw said the thing that draws people to the nursery again and again is the different kind of experience it offers its clients.
“It’s like going to a dairy farm and getting milk from a cow instead of going to the grocery store,” he said. “They’ll talk to people who grow plants; they don’t have to rely on second-hand information or signals or the Internet…and that’s a different kind of buying experience.”
Connor Shaw, Tristan and Kelsay’s father, was also walking around the nursery catching up with old clients. “But I’m supposed to be semi-retired,” he said, laughing as he passed through a gate leading into his courtyard, which he calls his “zoo.”
As he sat on a wooden bench, a unique array of colors and textures surrounded him: oak trees, mulberries, redbuds, wild petunias, queen of the prairies, daylilies, asters and much more. The leaves fall gently from the top.
He said that initially it “wasn’t really a smart idea” to focus on native plants, since there wasn’t widespread knowledge of them in the 1980s. But interest finally took off in the 1990s. Now, the nursery grows 120 different species of native trees and shrubs.
“We have a bunch of herbaceous growers for native plants (in Illinois) … but we have very few woody growers for native plants,” Connor Shaw said of other plant nurseries and the horticultural industry. “They will say they have a variety. We have variety in the sense that we have a lot of different species; they will have a lot of different varieties, even though they are the same species.
His focus on native plants is, in a way, a response to a realization that has been troubling Conor Shaw for some time: that people are becoming “less and less” in touch with nature.
“I drive by these houses… and they put in a $50,000 yard, and there’s not a tree in sight,” he said. He pointed to his front yard and garden, where leaves littered the ground and plants were free to roam. “And of course it’s messy. Well, I’ll tell you what, this is 10 degrees colder, and they’ll never be able to sit in their yard, even with a blanket in the shade.”
He said many people don’t like insects and weeds, so they spray their gardens with pesticides and weed killers, which chemical manufacturers have promoted as the easiest solution.
“Are they willing to break away from that and go down that path? I don’t know,” he said.
Kelsay Shaw said Possibility Place has “all the creepy crawlies” like big-eyed beetles, more than 100 species of caterpillars, as well as butterflies and moths.
“I’m not saying we have anything that is endangered or threatened, but we do have species that are showing up here that you wouldn’t expect to see in a nursery,” he said.
He said insect lovers are invited to visit the nursery at night to find moths and other insects.
“We encourage this kind of scientific exploration and curiosity,” he added. “I mean, that kind of sets us apart. We really embrace nature here.”
Tristan Shaw pointed to the little pawpaw, a self-incompatible species that cannot use pollen produced on a particular tree to pollinate the flowers of the same plant. Therefore, pawpaw trees depend on pollinators such as zebra tails to produce fruit.
Tristan Shaw pointed out that when these butterflies fly in from the south, only those that interact with local trees such as the pawpaw are able to notice the interconnectedness and interconnectedness between different elements of nature.
“It’s not just that we’re passionate about plants. We’re passionate about the connections with nature that native plants make,” Tristan Shaw said. “In general, that’s a really big problem in the horticultural industry — they’re not making connections with people.”