Chapel Hill resident educates community on native plant species

By Anna Connors 

Jerilyn Maclean arranges dozens of native plants on a folding table outside Woods Charter School in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In front, she props handwritten signs with the name of each plant and how to care for it. When someone stops by her table, she explains how native plants changed her life. She hopes she might convince them to buy one.

Maclean didn’t know her passion would touch the lives of hundreds of her neighbors in two short years.

“Jerilyn has changed my life,” said Kathleen Southworth, a neighbor of Maclean. “Nature is coming back to my yard. And it’s all because of her.”

Maclean is the founder of the Briar Chapel Native Plant Club, a neighborhood organization with more than 500 members. Every Saturday morning between March and June, she sells plants in the parking lot of Woods Charter. 

Almost every other day of the week, she can be found gardening in her yard and in the park behind her house, offering advice to neighbors, fighting for change in her neighborhood’s landscaping practices and giving talks about native plants. Maclean is on a mission to prevent the extinction of native species — one plant at a time. 

Gardening was not always the focus of Maclean’s life. In her hometown of Napa, California, she began her career in accounting. 

But in 2014, with four kids between the ages of 5 and 11, Maclean was diagnosed with a chronic illness. The doctor’s prognosis was bleak. Her illness was incurable.

Maclean’s garden became her escape. Outdoors, with her hands and feet caked in dirt, she felt at home.

The more she planted, the more her backyard filled with life. Hummingbirds began to feed on the coral honeysuckle by her back fence. Monarch caterpillars crawled up stems of milkweed. Snakes slithered through blankets of woodland phlox. Bees buzzed around blossoms of coneflower.

“If you plant, wildlife will come,” Maclean said. “Every plant makes a difference.”

Maclean began posting images of her yard in neighborhood forums like Nextdoor. And her neighbors began to notice.

In the fall of 2021, Amy Coughlin, Maclean’s neighbor and owner of Breakaway Cafe, asked Maclean if she wanted to sell her plants outside Breakaway. Those plant sales helped spread the word about Maclean’s business.

“She got a lot of attention, and she had a lot of opportunities to promote the importance of native plant sales,” Coughlin said. “Customers and patrons really, really liked it.” 

Soon, Maclean had customers driving in from Cary, Apex and High Point to buy her plants. Not everyone, however, was happy about Maclean’s burgeoning business. 

The Briar Chapel Homeowners Association protested Maclean’s unruly yard — saying her wild greenery was too messy. A tenant next to Breakaway Cafe complained to the complex’s landlord about Maclean’s Saturday plant sales, forcing her to move her sales elsewhere. When Maclean asked her HOA if she could hold her sale in Briar Chapel, they refused.

Maclean didn’t give up. 

Briar Chapel is a suburban sprawl of 2,000 identical row houses. It prides itself on green grass and perfectly pruned trees. The manicured look comes with a price.

Maclean said the Briar Chapel HOA spends $150,000 per year on pine needles alone, which are used to cover empty garden beds surrounding non-native trees. Sod, the neighborhood’s grass of choice, requires constant watering in the summer. Hired landscapers blow leaves on the medians and sidewalks three times a week.

“They want an old-fashioned, colonial look,” Maclean said. “Even if it means the extinction of our butterflies, bees, birds, moths, fireflies, amphibians.”

Nearly one million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction, some within decades, according to a 2019 report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

With estimates of private land ownership in the United States as high as 78%, Maclean says the onus falls on private landowners to make a difference.

The American fascination with manicured lawns dates back to the 1600s. A New York Times video “The Great American Lawn” explains that, as European farm animals ate through native grasses, foreign seeds were imported to replace native grasses. Green lawns became a symbol of wealth and status — a symbol that continues today.

Maclean said the American ideal of a manicured lawn needs to change.

“Five years ago, there were butterflies all over my yard every day,” Maclean said. “And now I see fewer and fewer, even with all the food that’s available to them. Do people care about that? How much do you care? Do you care more about having your four little round shrubs and your sod? Or do you care more about the future of the planet, for your children and grandchildren?”

Maclean’s yard is small, no more than 1,000 square feet. Every inch is covered with native plants. Bee balm, golden alexander and coreopsis — now dormant for the winter — run along her front sidewalk. On either side of her house crawl tangles of mountain mint and goldenrod. In the back, framed by a white fence, lies a patchwork of potted plants, their leaves only just starting to peek through the soil. Come spring, Maclean’s yard will be teeming with life.

On a cold day in early February, Maclean walks through her garden, pulling out the occasional weed and admiring the baby leaves of her plants poking through the soil. Spring is on its way, Maclean said, and this year will be her biggest year yet. She’s ordered 1,400 milkweed plants from a local nursery, fronting the cost out of her personal bank account. Her backyard is brimming with hundreds more potted plants she’s cultivated over the winter in preparation for her spring sales.

In the last two years, Maclean has sold more than 5,000 native plants, she estimated. She’s given away hundreds more to those who can’t afford them.

Soon, Maclean plans to announce her newest initiative: the Briar Chapel Pollinator Pledge. She hopes to commit 10% of the neighborhood — 250 houses — to planting community gardens of native plants.

The difference she’s made is tangible, her neighbors said.

“What Jerilyn has done is educate so many neighbors like me who had the same mission and goals, we just didn’t know how to get there,” said Rhonda Jones, Maclean’s neighbor and member of the Briar Chapel Native Plant Club. “I probably have a hundred different species now… that I’ve bought from [Jerilyn]. I haven’t been back to a garden center in two years. And I see my little plot of land flourishing.” 

But Maclean doesn’t know how much longer she’ll be able to keep selling her plants. With four kids and her aging mother all living in Maclean’s house, the bills are piling up — and her plants can’t always pay them.

“I have a grand idea in my head,” Maclean said, her eyes glassy as she gazed toward the community garden behind her house. “But I don’t know how to get there.”

Maclean’s dream is to find an investor to back her work. If someone could fund salaries for a team of three to five people, Maclean said her team could give talks about native plants and work with local organizations to help them develop plans to make their land more sustainable.

“If we could report on what we’re doing around the Triangle, we’d have HOAs calling us and asking us to help save on their maintenance costs, help with runoff and erosion and help bring butterflies and bees and birds back to neighborhoods,” Maclean said.

“Plant by plant, yard by yard,” Maclean tells people. “They won’t go extinct unless we let them.”

Edited by Anna Neil and Noah Monroe