Native weeds … No, I mean perennials

“Weeds from the side of the road, that’s what they are”.

Well, that’s partially true, but take those weeds into a cultivated garden, and many turn into valuable, sturdy, and beautiful perennials (Ironweed, Vernonia noveboracensis, above). But not all. There are thistles and brambles that we discourage from growing in our gardens, but most of our gardens’ plants grow along roadsides, in open meadows, or in the understory of the forest, at least in one part of the planet or another.

Some native “weeds” that regularly are overlooked in their natural habitat are, in fact, marvelous perennials (Goldenrod, Solidago rugosa, above). They’re growing in ditches and meadows, but left to fend for themselves in poor soils with irregular irrigation, and with competition from rambunctious neighbors (and real weeds) they aren’t able to show their true character. That is, until they’re grown in a nursery pot, fertilized and cut back to encourage fullness, then transplanted into a fertile garden. With a bit of water and care suddenly they’re wonderful perennials, and I’ve got a bunch of them in my garden.

Many native perennials are especially well suited to our hot and humid summers, droughts and deluges, and variably cold winters (Beebalm, Monarda didyma, above). They will tolerate poorly drained clay soils, and some are the sole food or shelter source for specific bugs and butterflies (such as Milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa for the Monarch butterfly). But native perennials are not a cure for all that ails the garden. Despite what you might read, many natives still are eaten by deer and their leaves are munched on by a variety of insects. They’re not resistant. They suffer from fungi and diseases like any other plant, and they must be planted in suitable conditions. A sun loving native cannot be plunged into deep shade and be expected to thrive, or even survive. A wetlands plant can’t be planted in sun baked, dry clay. Just about all the rules for sensible planting apply to natives as well as non-native plants.

I’ve planted a lot of native perennials without even knowing (or caring) that they were native (Blue False Indigo, Baptisia autralis, above). Lots of gardeners have, because they’re just common, everyday good plants that gardeners are successful with, and they look good. Some are mild mannered, and others vigorous with wildness that isn’t easily tamed.

There’s significant room for discussion on what a native plant really is, and I don’t care to take one side or the other. Hybrid crosses are generally denied native status, but some enthusiasts leave a bit of wiggle room for cultivars that are selected for improved characteristics such as longer blooms or more compact growth. The native Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium or Eutrochium, above) is a fine plant, but it towers over most gardens. Perennial growers select seedlings that display more desirable shorter and compact growth, and if they perform well in a garden setting they are propagated in quantity and given a cultivar name. Though naturally occurring, these are often not considered native, though many gardeners are happy to accept them as part of their native gardens.

I don’t care one way or the other (Perennial sunflower, Helianthus, above). I’ve planted bunches of non-native plants in my garden, so I’m not a purist when it comes to natives, and the birds, bees, and butterflies don’t seem to mind whether a perennial is accepted as a native, or not (Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis, below).  

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