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Going Native

Crossing the bridge into Maine at dusk last Friday, as the mist inevitably closed in, it was possible to discern that spring has only just arrived in southern Maine. Saturday morning when the daylight penetrated the fog shrouding Pemaquid Point I could see that the daffodils have yet to “peak” and the lady slippers have yet to bloom. Lupines are still a month away.

Admiring the spring flowers in the country gardens along the way to the Cupboard Café which serves the world’s best breakfast sandwiches and the world’s most fantastic sticky buns. I was reminded of the conclusion I draw every spring: Magnolias, Kwanzan cherry trees, and other non-native trees and shrubs look very out of place here, while the natives look quite at home.

I felt a pang of conscience as I considered this. I have been writing about so many non-native plants lately that, to justify myself, I tried to believe that the obverse is true back home and that native trees and shrubs don’t look as comfortable in urban gardens as they do in the country. That, however, is bunk. In reality, most natives look great in Georgetown.

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Gwendolyn van Paasschen
Gwendolyn van Paasschen

Take, for example, amelanchier canadensis, a native from Maine through the Carolinas. It is now at its peak Downeast, but in DC it blooms in early April. Its common names, shadblow or serviceberry, reflect the timing of its blossoms – when the shad runs and when, in the “olden days." the traveling parson could reach remote towns after the snows had melted and the mud had subsided to perform the services of marriage, baptism, and funeral. I love its delicate flowers, which appear just before the bronze tinged foliage emerges, as well as its lovely gold and orange autumn color. In August, birds eat the dark blue berries that their human competitors use in jellies, pies, and pemmican. Emphasizing the important role native plants play in our ecosystem, amelanchiers are a larval food for the red-spotted purple butterfly, which strangely enough, is actually black and blue! These are great specimen trees and there are several cultivars from which to choose.

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Gwendolyn van Paasschen
Gwendolyn van Paasschen

Another excellent tree that is a larval food source for butterflies (this time the sweet blue “spring azure butterfly”) is our own native dogwood, cornus florida. I have never subscribed to the belief that native dogwoods are too susceptible to disease to be reliable – that claim seems a ploy to sell hybrids and Korean dogwoods. Native dogwoods just need to be planted well in moist, rich soil. Ranging from light to dark pink and creamy white, dogwoods are the perfect small-garden tree not only for its spring glory but for its voluptuous red berries in fall which are devoured by birds, its purplish red fall color, and its dark craggy bark which looks dramatic against a frost-tinged backdrop. Amazingly, what we think of as petals are really colored leaves called “bracts” that attract pollinating insects like bees to the tiny yellow flowers at their centers. I love knowing that this American tree was introduced to England in the second decade of the 1700’s.

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Gwendolyn van Paasschen
Gwendolyn van Paasschen

Blooming in late April coincidentally with dogwoods is the redbud, (cercis canadensis), a tree purported to be a favorite of George Washington’s, who had them planted in abundance at Mount Vernon. If you have never seen dogwoods and redbuds blooming simultaneously along the Skyline drive, make your plans for next spring now. It is breathtaking. Redbuds are in the pea family and their little pea-like flowers cling to dark branches before the emergence of leaves. The flowers, ranging from lavender to purple to white depending on the cultivar, are purportedly edible if you like that sort of thing (edible flowers make me squeamish) and are an important nectar source for honey bees while cardinals are among the birds that dine on the seeds. As I toy with the notion of planting a non-native Japanese maple for its dark red foliage, I quickly remind myself that one of my favorite redbud cultivars is “Forest Pansy”. Its leaves are a dark purple-ish red and look stunning all summer long if planted in a good deal of sun -- like Japanese maples, the leaves become greener in shade.

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Gwendolyn van Paasschen
Gwendolyn van Paasschen

Silverbells or snowbells (halisia) are little-known trees that bloom just about the same time as amelanchiers. They are uncommon, perhaps because they are a bit fussy if not planted in part shade and in moist but well-drained acidic soil. They have delicate white flowers, though there are pink-flowering cultivars, which hang pendulously from their branches just as the spring-green foliage emerges. True, the leaves are not very colorful in fall, but the nectar of its beautiful flowers is very important to bees – did you now there are over 700 native species of bees? Interestingly enough, halisias are named for Dr Stephen Hales (1677-1761), the first man to measure blood pressure in horses and sap pressure in trees.

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Gwendolyn van Paasschen
Gwendolyn van Paasschen

And then there is the amazing fringe tree (chionanthus virginicus), which has just finished blooming in Georgetown. This fragrant American native is in the olive family and was used medicinally for a number of ailments ranging from jaundice to dyspepsia. It is a relatively slow growing tree or shrub that leafs out late and has a subtle golden fall color. Like gingko trees and hollies, fringe trees are dioecious (yes, this will be on the exam) which means they are either female or male. While the males tend to have the showier flowers only the females bear the bluish olive-shaped drupes beloved by birds. It is often impossible to know what gender the bushes are when purchased, but if it has drupes, you know it’s a girl. It was surely the fringe tree’s delicate beauty and fragrance that compelled Thomas Jefferson to ask a botanist friend in Philadelphia to send him chionanthus seeds while he was living in Paris in 1786, so he could grow them there. They are notoriously slow growing, though, so it probably took his seedlings years to bloom.

So what is the big deal about native plants? Aside from their beauty, they provide food and shelter for birds, butterflies, and our dwindling populations of bees. They tend to require less watering, fertilizer, and pest control because they are already adapted to our environment, and if they self-sow they are not considered detrimentally invasive like English ivy, Norway maples, and barberry are. I am no purist but there is a lot of sense in using what naturally occurs in our area, especially when it comes to the role native plants play in supporting wildlife. There are many sources of information about using and procuring natives, from books to magazines, and a variety of websites. A great place to start is a Washington State-based website, which has information by state and region on plants and nurseries. Go native!