With its branches poking out of a drawstring bag, a potted plum tree accompanied Tristan Shaw to a recent nonprofit luncheon. For the last three years, he has carried a sapling for “emotional support” out to dinner, family parties and even canoeing and camping.

Buddy, Pawpaw and now Professor Plum — his three woody companions of the last few years — were collected as seedlings and grown during the summer. Professor Plum is destined to join his predecessors somewhere in Shaw’s yard this fall. But what began as an experiment to take care of himself during stressful pandemic times soon became a way to connect with others about a passion deeply rooted in family tradition.

“I noticed wearing a tree kind of broke down a barrier to start a communication,” Shaw said. “I always want to talk about native plants, the importance of native plants, the importance of, especially, oak trees being keystone species. Those are things I definitely want to bring home to people.”

In 1978 Shaw’s father, Connor, founded a plant nursery on 5 acres of land in Monee, a village south of Chicago. Starting as young as 4 years old, his sons would help him collect seeds for the business.

Five years later, Possibility Place Nursery began growing exclusively native trees and shrubs from seeds collected within a 150-mile radius in northern Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa. It has since expanded to over 55 acres, where nearly 60,000 trees thrive and over 18,000 are planted each year.

“There’s not too many of us out there that grow strictly native, locally collected (plants),” said Kelsay Shaw, Tristan’s brother. “We rely on ourselves. That’s really what sets us apart.”

Bailey Hoines, a landscape architect by training and a greenhouse assistant at the nursery, noted that a lot of conventional nurseries use divisions and tissue culture for propagating cultivars, or cultivated plants, with certain traits.

“They’re very specific with their genes,” Hoines said. “They want everything to look the same.”

Kelsay Shaw, who works as a botanist and sales consultant at the nursery, emphasized the importance of making their plants available in “as much color and as much variety as possible.”

“People don’t realize exactly what’s available on the palette, especially for native trees,” he said. “They always think it’s wild, it’s got to be like walking into a dingy forest. But it’s not the case. (There’s) variation in native species, especially in things like fall color and leaf shape.

“You’ll have five of the same thing sitting next to each other and there’s a subtle difference in all of them. Some of them will be a purple, some of them will be a red, some will be a bright orange, and it’s all the same plant,” Kelsay Shaw said. “Whereas a lot of stuff in the industry, it’s got to be this color red, if it’s not fire engine(red) …what good is it? 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 Deery perused the plants on sale. The northwest Indiana resident was back for a second year buying from Possibility Place for her new home.

Though she had burning bushes at her previous house, she said, once she found out they were an invasive species she decided to opt for growing native plants at her new place.

“So it’s really important, in my personal opinion, to garden regionally,” she said. “The plants are a lot of fun. I mean, just look at all the fall color.”

Kelsay Shaw had a busy morning consulting for different clients during the open house. In between appointments, he walked around the displayed trees and shrubs and answered questions from parents with kids, lone shoppers and couples.

“That’s the nice thing about our particular clientele. We get the hobbyists, so people who don’t know jack, and then you have the hardcore scientists,” he said. “So we get quite the range. It’s kind of fun. Interesting. It’s not like going to Home Depot, where everybody’s got the same shoes or is driving the same car. We have none of that. And it makes it very gratifying because you’re hopefully helping as many people as you can.”

Something that brings people to the nursery time and time again, Kelsay Shaw said, is the different kind of experience it offers its customers.

“It’s like going to a dairy farm and getting milk from the cow rather than going to the grocery store,” he said. “They’re going to talk to the people that are growing the plants; they don’t have to rely on secondhand information or signs or the internet … That’s a different kind of buying experience.”

Connor Shaw, Tristan and Kelsay’s father, also walked around the nursery to catch up with old clients. “But I’m supposedly semiretired,” he said with a chuckle, walking past a gate to his yard, which he calls a “menagerie.”

As he sat on a wooden bench, a unique assortment of colors and textures surrounded him: oaks, elderberry, redbuds, wild petunias, queen-of-the-prairie, day lilies, asters and so much more. Leaves fall gently from above.

At first it “wasn’t a real smart idea” to focus on native plants, he said, given that there was no widespread knowledge about them in the 1980s. But interest eventually took off in the 1990s. Now, the nursery grows 120 different species of native trees and shrubs.

“We have a bunch of herbaceous growers of native plants (in Illinois) … But we have very few woody growers of native plants,” Connor Shaw said of other plant nurseries and the horticultural industry. “They’d say they have variety. We have variety in the sense that we have lots of different species; they would have lots of different cultivars, even though they’re of the same species.”

His focus on native plants is, in a way, a response to a realization that has concerned Connor Shaw for a while: that people are becoming “less and less” in touch with nature.

“I drive by these houses … and they put in a $50,000 patio, and there’s not a tree in sight,” he said. He gestured at his front yard and his garden, where leaves are scattered on the ground and plants are given free roam. “And of course it’s messy. Well, I’ll tell you what, this is 10 degrees cooler, and they’re never going to be able to sit on their patio, even with a shade on.”

He said many people also don’t like bugs and weeds so they spray their gardens with harmful pesticides and herbicides, which chemical manufacturing companies have promoted as the easiest solution.

“So, are they willing to break away from that and come this way? I don’t know,” he said.

Kelsay Shaw said Possibility Place has “all the creepy-crawlies” such as eyed elater click beetles, over 100 species of caterpillars, as well as butterflies and moths.

“I wouldn’t say we have anything endangered or threatened, but we do have species that show up here that you wouldn’t expect to see in a nursery,” he said.

Bug enthusiasts are welcome to set up a visit to the nursery at night to find moths and other insects, he said.

“We encourage that kind of scientific exploration and curiosity,” he added. “I mean, that kind of stuff sets us apart. We really do embrace nature around here.”

Tristan Shaw pointed at a young pawpaw, a species that is self-incompatible and cannot use pollen produced on a given tree to pollinate flowers of the same plant. So pawpaw trees rely on pollinators like zebra swallowtails to produce fruit.

When these butterflies fly up from the South, Tristan Shaw pointed out, only those that interact with native trees like the pawpaw are able to notice the interdependence and connectedness of 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. “At large, that’s a really big problem in the horticultural industry — they’re not making connections for people.”

Tristam Shaw's passion for plum trees launched a mission to raise and celebrate native plants in the US. Pia Bayer/dpaTristam Shaw's passion for plum trees launched a mission to raise and celebrate native plants in the US. Pia Bayer/dpaTristam Shaw’s passion for plum trees launched a mission to raise and celebrate native plants in the US. Pia Bayer/dpa

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