Looking at the lineup of speakers for plant related conferences and trade shows this year, I’m pleased to see such a high percentage covering gardening that supports our environment and wildlife. Sustainable landscaping really has become mainstream, and native plants are getting the attention they deserve.
I advocate incorporating natives into your garden not out of some nostalgic ideal but simply because they are great plants. I hope we’re finally getting past the outdated notion that all native plants are weedy or invasive. The fact is, if you look at all the different plant awards around the country, you’ll see that many – if not most – of the winners are either native plants or their cultivars. It makes sense: Plants that have evolved to survive and thrive in a particular area will naturally be great garden performers. Here are just a few that I’d hate to be without.
1. Actaea racemosa
Most of us know this next plant as Cimicifuga but the name has recently changed to Actaea racemosa. (In fact, all plants in the genus Cimicifuga have been transferred to the genus Actaea.) Bugbane, as it is commonly called, is native to eastern North America from southern Ontario to central Georgia and west to Missouri and Arkansas. It is considered endangered in Illinois and Massachusetts.
Colorful milkweed or butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is native in 41 of the lower 48 states. It is a butterfly magnet, playing host to declining populations of Monarchs.
Photo courtesy of American Beauties Native Plants unless otherwise noted
What’s not to love about this statuesque beauty? It’s nonaggressive, noninvasive, deer-resistant and blooms in the shade in mid-summer. Actaea is both shade- and drought-tolerant, but it will perform best in evenly moist soil. The large, Astilbe-like foliage makes it excellent for massing in naturalistic designs. Having said that, I often use just one in smaller areas as a specimen plant. Most of the foliage is near the base of the plant, so despite its impressive height, it remains see-through and doesn’t need staking.
Silvery white, thistle-like flowers of rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifollium) top the nearly 6-foot- tall native plant. Blue-green basal foliage resembles the native yucca.
The tall, slim flower wands can reach 5 to 6 feet tall. The tiny, creamy white blossoms make a big impact and are an excellent source of nectar and pollen. When butterflies brush against the blossoms, they move pollen from one flower to another, thus encouraging fertilization and seed that will feed the birds and ensure future generations.
2. Asclepias tuberosa
Also known as butterfly weed, milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) is native in 41 of the lower 48 United States. That is an incredibly large range and attests to its versatility. Here at our home in the mid-Atlantic region, we grow it in our meadow, in a hot, dry, gravel garden and in the perennial border where it is a well-behaved addition with spectacular, bright orange blossoms. It flowers for weeks on end in mid-summer.
As the name suggests this plant is a butterfly magnet – and who wouldn’t want more butterflies in the garden? In fact, milkweeds are the host plant for Monarch butterflies. Their entire lifecycle, from caterpillars to adults, revolves around these plants. Some research indicates that monarch populations are declining, making it even more imperative to be planting Asclepias in public and private gardens. It looks beautiful planted with other native prairie plants like Echinacea, Heliopsis and Solidago. And, it’s a natural with grasses like Panicum and Schizachyrium. My favorite selection is A. tuberosa ‘Hello Yellow’. It blooms with bright, golden yellow flowers starting in early June. I’ve even had success getting it to bloom a second time by deadheading the first flush of flowers.
3. Eryngium yuccifolium
Commonly called rattlesnake master, Eryngium yuccifolium is a dramatic accent plant. It is found in moist and dry soils in open woods, fields and tall grass prairies from southern Minnesota to Texas and from Nebraska to Virginia. The name Eryngium comes from the Greek word for “prickly plant,” and yuccifolium obviously comes from the fact that the foliage resembles yucca leaves. Native Americans are said to have used the roots as an antidote for rattlesnake bites.
This stunner can grow up to 6 feet tall with bluish green basal foliage topped with thistle-like silvery flowers that smell a bit like honey. The flowers bloom in mid-summer but remain effective into fall, and I occasionally use them in dried flower arrangements.
I think this plant looks best planted as a single specimen or in a small group of three. It works well to combine the ridged form of this plant with softer textures of Muhlenbergia, Amsonia and Symphyotrichum. Whatever you combine this with, it will definitely draw attention.
Eryngium serves as the host plant for Eastern Black Swallowtails and provides nectar for a variety of butterflies.
In bloom, prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) displays a virtual cloud of soft pink that seems to hover above the slender foliage.
4. Sporobolus heterolepis
Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) is my favorite grass, native or not. Chanticleer Gardens in Wayne, Penn., has large stand of prairie dropseed and one very early morning with the mist still in the air, I saw the field in bloom. It looked like a soft pink cloud had settled on the grass, and it took my breath away. The blossoms have a spicy, coriander scent that fills the air far and wide. Even when it isn’t in bloom the arching, fine-textured blades move like waves in the slightest breeze. It’s mesmerizing to watch.
Sporobolus is native to dry, open grasslands from Massachusetts west to Montana, south to New Mexico and east to North Carolina. It’s a tough plant that’s easy to grow and at home in nearly every garden situation. The nectar attracts bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. Later, the copious amount of seed produced feeds the birds, and the plant itself offers them shelter.
‘Tara’ is a dwarf selection of prairie dropseed. It tends to be more upright and less arching than the species. The orange-red fall color is an extra bonus.
Last but certainly not least is Vernonia or ironweed. I know that the 7-foot-tall Vernonia noveboracensis is a little too much of a good thing for some people. Personally, I love it and it looks fabulous in our small meadow along with Silphium and other prairie giants. However, if you have less space to work with, plant the compact version, Vernonia lettermannii.
Drought- and heat-tolerant Vernonia-also known as ironweed-boasts bright purple flowers when many other perennials are past their peak.
‘Iron Butterfly’ is a great selection that reaches about 3 feet in height. For me, it’s all about the late summer color. When most of the other perennials are a bit past their peak, ironweed shines with its bright purple flowers. It really extends the season of interest in your border.
The attractive foliage looks much like Amsonia hubrechtii. This really is a low maintenance plant that will attract butterflies like crazy. It’s called ironweed for the rusty color of its spent blooms and its overall strength. It’s native to Arkansas and Oklahoma where it is found in rocky soils, so it goes without saying that this drought- and heat-tolerant. It looks great planted with Solidago, Helenium and Rudbeckia, to name but a few.
I love these plants because they are tough and they are beautiful. To be perfectly honest, I don’t have the time or inclination to grow plants that are fussy or need a lot of extra attention. What I do make time for is enjoying all the wildlife these plants bring to our home. People who come to stay always comment on how much bird song there is in the morning. And, right now I can see seven butterflies out of my window. I do occasionally take issue with the groundhog that eats my flowers, but frankly, we have enough to share.
6. And a tree to grow on
It’s hard to resist native perennials, but let’s not leave out an exceptional native tree. Allegheny serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis) has always been one of my favorites because of its graceful form and three-season interest. Native to Eastern North America, this small tree (15 to 30 feet tall) is found in open woods and moist meadows across zones 4 to 8. Each spring the tree is covered with delicate white flowers that have a mild fragrance and provide nectar for bees and butterflies. Its foliage is an occasional host to the larvae of viceroy, striped hairstreak and Canadian tiger swallowtail butterflies.
Fruits of Allegheny serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis) attract cardinals, waxwings, hairy woodpeckers, thrushes, catbirds, orioles and robins.
Photo courtesy of John Ruter, University of Georgia; Bugwood.org
By mid-summer the violet berries mature to deep purple. They taste so good I almost hate to share them with the birds. The delicious fruit attracts cardinals, waxwings, hairy woodpeckers, thrushes, catbirds, orioles and robins. As the days grow cooler, the leaves begin their transformation into brilliant shades of orange, yellow and red. Smooth gray bark and open branching form a lovely winter silhouette. Amelanchier is easy to grow and widely adaptable to most garden situations in full sun or light shade. It will grow faster in moist soil but is quite drought tolerant once established.