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Native Plants
Don’t get mad, go natural
Native plants are used to dealing with our weather, pests and other woes

By George Weigel, Pennsylvanian Certified Horticulturist (PCH)

One thing all gardeners seem to have in common is that no one has decent growing conditions.

It’s always too hot, too dry, too wet, too shady, too much clay, too many rocks, etc. etc. No wonder it sometimes feels like it takes a Herculean effort to get anything to grow.

Yet look around the woods and meadows, and it appears that Mother Nature doesn’t suffer the toils and troubles that we do.

Mother (Nature) knows best
Bill Cullina thinks that’s because Mother Nature is a much better plant selector than most home gardeners. Cullina, a plant scientist and director of the New England Wild Flower Society Nurseries, believes we could save ourselves a lot of work and frustration by copying what nature does in similar spots in our yards.

"There’s always some limiting factor in nature that allows some species to out-compete others,” Cullina said at a Native Plants in the Landscape conference at Millersville University. It may be the deep shade of a dense forest. It may be periodic flooding along a stream bank. Or it may be the brutal heat of an open meadow.

In nature, only plants that can cope with those challenges end up surviving there.

Cullina’s suggestion is that before planting, we ought to assess the limiting factors in our yards and then choose plants that grow in that same kind of environment in nature.

"You don’t have to exactly recreate natural plant communities,” says Cullina. "In suburbs, there’s a lot of pressure to be neat and to grow the things other people have. What I’m saying is that you can draw information from native plant communities to make ecologically appropriate plant choices.”

Example: Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) is a mid-sized native shrub that gets gray fruits and tolerates everything from sandy soil to heavy clay. In nature, it tends to grow in dense colonies, especially in the salty soils near seashores. In a home setting, bayberry might make a great hedge plant in the poor soil along a road where salt spray from winter road de-icing would hinder many other plants.

"Think about things that grow in areas that are less than perfect and then transpose them into the cultivated landscape,” Cullina says.

Ignoring that is what often gets us into trouble, especially with less adaptable species such as azaleas, mountain laurels and American dogwoods. Those are all plants best suited for the acidic, humusy soil and dappled sunlight found along forest edges and understories. When you take those kinds of plants and cram them in the alkaline clay of our often drought-ridden, full-sun yards, it’s practically a death sentence.

It’s also much easier to select plants that match the existing conditions than to try and change the conditions to support a plant that doesn’t happen to like the setting you’ve got. That doesn’t mean native plants in native-like sites will never get a bug problem or suffer when it doesn’t rain for four straight months. But it is pretty likely that the natives will grow through the problem and live to see better days ahead.

Mimicking nature has two other important benefits.

One is that native plants in landscape settings ensure food and shelter for birds, butterflies and other wildlife. That’s important because natural plant communities are dwindling as we bulldoze more and more land to make way for strip malls and housing developments.

Second, by planting more of the plants that occur naturally in own areas, we retain our own unique horticultural identity.

"Native species provide the antidote to the ‘malling of America,’” Cullina says. "Plants give a sense of regionality even more than the architecture or culture of an area. If you get away from that, you end up having the same five landscape plants showing up all over America.”

Natural beauty
Expect to experience a bit of culture shock if you go from suburbia’s neatly trimmed evergreen boxes to the more unfettered look of nature.

Rick Darke, author of The American Woodland Garden and former curator of plants at Longwood Gardens in Chester County, says our eyes have been trained to admire the "sanitized” look of dead-headed flowers and trimmed boxwoods.

"Our native landscape is deciduous woodland, but stark (housing) developments are what we know,” he says. "Things have been clipped into submission in our gardens. If we’re going to invite native plants into our landscape, we have to shift our eye.”

Part of that, he says, is learning to appreciate the more subtle beauty of plants — the leaf textures, the shadows, the forms.

"It’s not all about flowers,” Darke says. "We put too much focus on what’s in bloom.” Whatever you do, resist the urge to just go out and dig up plants growing in spots similar to yours. That’s called "stealing,” not "transplanting.”

Even on your own land, research before moving. Some wild plants do not transplant well or require special handling. The last thing you want to do is kill off a rare pink lady’s slipper by trying to move it next to your patio.

In other words, look to Mother Nature for plant advice. Just don’t fool with her.

(insert image here)

Columbine (Acquilegia canadensis)

Some good native perennials and woody plants for Pennsylvania gardens

For dry, sunny spots
Adam's needle (Yucca filamentosa)
American smokebush (Cotinus obovatus)
Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica)
Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)
Beardtongue (Penstemon)
Blackeyed susan (Rudbeckia fulgida)
Blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium)
Blue star (Amsonia montana)
Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Canby paxistima (Paxistima canbyi)
Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana)
Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana)
False indigo (Baptisia australis)
Garden phlox (Phlox paniculata)
Goldenrod (Solidago)
Hawthorn (Crataegus)
Juniper (Juniperus)
Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)
Low-bush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium)
Oaks (most) (Quercus)
Moss pinks (Phlox subulata)
New England aster (Aster novae-angliae)
New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus)
Northern whitecedar (Thuja occidentalis)
Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius)
Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
Red switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)
Serviceberry (Amelanchier species)
Shrubby cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa)
St. Johnswort (Hypericum frondosum)
Sumac (Rhus species)
Tickseed (Coreopsis)
Virginia rose (Rosa virginiana)

For wet, sunny spots
American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana)
Baldcypress (Taxodium distichum)
Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica)
Beebalm (Monarda)
Blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica)
Blazing star (Liatris spicata)
Blueflag iris (Iris versicolor)
Boltonia (Boltonia asteroides)
Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)
Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
Chokeberry (Aronia)
Cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea)
Cranberry viburnum (Viburnum opulus)
Dwarf fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenia)
Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)
False Solomon's seal (Smilacina)
Fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus)
Green ash (Fraxinus pensylvanica)
High-bush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum)
Inkberry holly (Ilex glabra)
Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium)
Larch (Larix laricina)
Meadow rue (Thalictrum pubescens)
Nannyberry (Viburnum lentago)
Red maple (Acer rubrum)
Red switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)
River birch (Betula nigra)
Rose mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos)
Royal fern (Osmunda regalis)
Smooth witherod (Viburnum nudum)
Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia)
Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
Swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius)
Sweetflag (Acorus calamus)
Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua)
Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica)
Willow (Salix)
Winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata)

For dry, shady spots

American smoketree (Cotinus obovatus)
Barren strawberry (Waldsteinia fragaroides)
Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica)
Beaked filbert (Corylus cornuta)
Bush honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera)
Canada anemone (Anemone canadensis)
Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)
Coralbells (Heuchera americana)
Creeping wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens)
False Solomon's seal (Smilacina stellata)
Gold-star (Chrysogonum virginianum)
Gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa)
Hardy geranium (Geranium maculatum)
Low shadbush (Amelanchier stolonifera)
Mapleleaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium)
Smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens)
Sumac (Rhus species)
Teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens)
Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)
Wood aster (Aster divaricatus)

For wet, shady spots
American snowbell (Styrax americanus)
Black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa)
Blueflag (Iris versicolor)
Cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea)
Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)
Creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera)
Crested wood fern (Dryopteris cristata)
Culver's root (Veronicastrum virginicum)
Foamflower (Tiarella)
Fringeleaf bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia)
Goats beard (Aruncus dioicus)
High-bush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum)
Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum)
Jacob's ladder (Polemonium)
Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris)
Northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium)
Royal fern (Osmunda regalis)
Red-osier dogwood (Cornus sericea)
Smooth witherod (Viburnum nudum)
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia)
Swamp azalea (Rhododendron viscosum)
Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana)
Turtlehead (Chelone glabra)
Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica)
Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)
Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)

Sources: Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve, Audubon Pennsylvania, Bill Cullina, Native Plants of the Northeast by Donald J. Leopold (Timber Press, 2005)

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