Daily Press - June 11th, 2009 - By Kathy Van Mullekom
When Phillip Merritt was in the landscape architecture program at the University of Virginia, he became familiar with the works of great designers like the late Frederick Law Olmsted and Jens Jensen.
Instead of bringing in non-native trees and shrubs, the two men were known for their use of native plants to maintain the unique features of a site.
Those lessons, as well as hikes to identify native plants along the Blue Ridge Mountains, stayed with Phillip, now a landscape architect in Williamsburg.
"It was sort of eye-opening to begin to learn the names of all the individual plants that were previously one big green blur," he says. "It's also very satisfying to be able to drive down the highway, catch a glimpse of yellow, and know what it is."
THE SECRET TO USING NATIVE PLANTS IS ...
finding them. While local garden centers and big box stores may have some native species, it's hard to locate a seller if you want to try something a little more unusual.
Keep an eye out for native plant sales through the Virginia Living Museum and the Virginia Native Plant Society. And don't be afraid to try mail-order nurseries; I've tried lots of obscure online nurseries that I'd never heard of before and they almost always send high-quality plants.
Heronswood ( www.heronswood.com), Woodlanders ( www.woodlanders.net) and Plant Delights (www.plantdelights.com) are all good sources, though they are not exclusively native.
FOR SOME GARDENERS, NATIVE PLANTS MAY NOT ...
be showy enough, though there are plenty of species with big blooms. I recently saw a leatherwood bush in bloom for the first time; most people looking at it would be unimpressed with the small yellow flowers but I thought it was pretty cool. Another problem can be defining what a native plant is. Should you only plant something to coastal Virginia or is something native to Georgia OK? Are cultivars or hybrids acceptable? Some people get into fairly intense debates about these kinds of questions and the average gardener may be put off by that.
In my opinion, it's your yard, do what makes you happy. You don't have to plant only 100 percent locally grown native plants to have a beneficial impact on wildlife - although the more natives you use the greater your impact will be and the more songbirds and butterflies you will see.
Doug Tallamy makes a strong argument for using native plants in his book "Bringing Nature Home." He points to songbirds that need the insects that feed on native plants to raise their newly hatched chicks. The seeds and berries that we usually associate with bird food come later in the year, after the chicks are older, so more native plants mean more songbirds.
In my yard I have many exotic shrubs and perennials that I couldn't do without, and some that just happened to come with my house. I think they look just fine mixed with all the natives I have - only the most hard-core plant enthusiasts would be able tell which is which.
I also like to use lots of non-native annuals throughout my yard to provide extra jolts of color - I just avoid plants that I know have a possibility of becoming invasive.
MY FAVORITE NATIVE PLANTS INCLUDE ...
Little Henry sweetspire, or Itea virginica. This is a compact cultivar, three to four feet tall, that often grows on the banks of local streams but it's also suitable for drier locations. It tolerates shade and has long, droopy white flower clusters in spring; plant it in more sun and you get more flowers and a richer red fall color. The plant spreads, forming dense colonies, making it a good choice for filling in an area and stabilizing soil.
Foamflower, or Tiarella. This low perennial has lots of wispy white blooms in spring and when it spreads into a patch it can be really spectacular looking. Plant the perennial in a shady or semi-shady site and provide adequate moisture, especially the first year. Foamflowers in garden centers are often hybridized so purists may want to check the label for exact species information.
Fothergilla. It's a great little shrub for its fluffy white flowers in the spring and its intense, almost neon red, yellow or orange color in fall. The dwarf variety, Fothergilla gardenii, is probably best for residential gardens, growing three to four feet tall. The honey-scented flowers can be very fragrant, but try to buy it while it's in bloom, just to be sure. This plant likes a bit of shade, but can take full sun, and it mixes well with other acid-loving plants like azaleas.
NICE NATIVES TO TRY
Trees: Serviceberry, river birch, sweet bay magnolia, eastern red cedar, maple, fringe tree, bald cypress and American holly.
Shrubs: Oakleaf hydrangea, beautyberry, winterberry, Southern bayberry, inkberry, holly, viburnum, swamp azalea, mountain laurel and Virginia sweetspire.
Spring perennials: Christmas fern, wild bleeding heart, wild columbine, Virginia bluebells, Mayapple, wild geranium, marsh marigold, wild blue phlox, Jamestown lily, golden ragwort, Jacob's ladder and beardtongue.
Summer perennials: Butterfly weed (host plant for monarch butterfly caterpillars), ironweed, Great Blue lobelia, spiderwort, wild bergamot, snakeroot, goatsbeard, Trumpet honeysuckle, coneflower, lanceleaf coreopsis, Joe-pye weed, brown-eyed Sudan, cardinal flower, blue vervain, green-headed coneflower, rose mallow, seashore mallow and summer phlox. American wisteria is native and less invasive than Chinese wisteria.
Fall perennials: Maryland golden aster, sweet goldenrod and boltonia.
For more native plant recommendations, visit the Virginia Native Plant Society at www.vnps.org.