Falling Water, Thriving Plants

by | Oct 1, 2020 | Landscapes, Native Plants

Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater and surrounding plants and trees

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. PHOTO Christopher Little, courtesy of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy

Visitors approach almost reverently. Conversations die down; voices are lowered. They are here to see Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic residence in Mill Run, Pennsylvania. Some look straight ahead, ignoring the graceful cinnamon ferns (Osmunda cinnamomea) or abundant white-pink rhododendrons (Rhododendron maximum) of early summer. Others take a second to smile at pink lady’s slipper orchids (Cypripedium acaule) or trilliums as they pass.

A wide gravel path flows from the Visitor Center, flanked by lush, sun-spotted woodlands with eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), red maple (Acer rubrum), oak and hickory trees (Quercus spp. and Carya spp., respectively). Then, almost like a mirage, Fallingwater appears. The cantilevered dwelling, designed in 1935 and certainly one of the most famous houses in America, was built for the Edgar J. Kaufmann family of Pittsburgh as a nature retreat. Its architecture mimics the horizontal rock ledges of Bear Run stream over which the house is built. Fallingwater looms large — and, as Wright would say, “organically” — rising from the earth.

The home’s natural surroundings are as important as its massive concrete terraces. But since its donation to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy in 1963, Fallingwater’s caretakers have been challenged by what that environment should look like. At stake is not just the future of the landscape around Fallingwater, but the 5,100-acre Bear Run Nature Reserve surrounding the house. Mingled within the native plants of southwestern Pennsylvania are aggressive invasives.

Walking paths wind near the house and within the lush reserve. Depending upon the season and time of day, it can be shady, cool or humid. It all looks like paradise – and mostly is. It’s possible, however, to spot wayward garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) tucked behind native plantainleaf sedge (Carex plantaginea) or see remnants of aggressive English ivy (Hedera helix) spreading across the ground. But don’t blame Wright.

Fallingwater horticulturalist Ann Talarek said the architect had very little to do with the landscape design. Topographical maps indicate only what key trees Wright believed should remain during construction. But the Kaufmanns, like many at the time, considered exotics to be fashionable and planted periwinkle (Vinca minor), burning bush (Euonymus alatus) and what Talarek considers the worst invasive on site: Japanese wisteria (Wisteria floribunda ‘Alba’). “We hand pick all the pods off and burn them,” says Talarek of the wisteria.

This year Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum) is a main target, along with wisteria that will be cut out of trees and thistle that pops up in the parking lot, brought in with mulched materials. Plants will be burned (including “truckloads,” per Talarek, of garlic mustard) in recessed pits.

Volunteers helping to control invasive species have gotten creative: One Thanksgiving, they made a cranberry relish from the edible fruit of Japanese silverberry (Elaeagnus umbellata), sweetened with honey. But it is an ongoing battle.

A rosy sunrise and restored native prairie at Muirhead Farmhouse

A rosy sunrise highlights the beauty of restored native prairie at Muirhead Farmhouse, where wildflowers attract pollinators, birds and humans. PHOTO Sara Montgomery-Porter, courtesy of Forest Preserve District of Kane County

Talarek, who has worked at the site since 2007, says prior attempts at controlling invasives had mostly been sporadic. “Now we have a master plan that emphasizes cyclical maintenance,” she explains, noting that other Frank Lloyd Wright sites “have adopted our formula” — an encouraging trend. Muirhead Farmhouse in Illinois, for instance, is restoring farmland to native prairie with an emphasis on showy, pollinator-attracting forbs such as black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta).

At Fallingwater, plants reflecting the home’s historical integrity and the original wishes of the Kaufmanns are not ignored. Bouquets of cut lilies, one of Liliane Kaufmann’s favorite flowers, are displayed inside the house but not grown on the property. Elsewhere, including the reserve’s wildflower meadows and woodlands, natives such as wild ginger (Asarum canadense), with its beautiful heart-shaped leaves, are sown to replace invasives. Other native wildflowers at the property and reserve include wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata), goldenrod (Solidago spp.), purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) and Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica).

From a popular viewing point across Bear Run stream, Fallingwater looks like it will survive to see its 100-year mark. But it is easy to envision what could happen if invasive plants gone wild have their way. The famed dwelling would resemble a crumbling temple belonging to an ancient, extinct civilization. It’s enough to make you volunteer for a garlic mustard pull.

Jill Sell is a freelance journalist, essayist and poet, specializing in the environment and nature. Sell is the co-founder of Three Women in the Words, a nonprofit arts collaboration; contributing writer with Great Lakes Publishing; and a columnist for the Akron Beacon Journal, Ohio’s largest daily newspaper. She was named Best Freelance Writer in Ohio by The Press Club of Cleveland five times.