As most gardeners have heard time and time again, always put the right plant in the right place. Native plants are often the right plant. This helps us garden sustainably so we have no need of irrigation, fertilization and pesticides.
What is a wildflower – a flower of an uncultivated variety or a flower growing freely without human intervention. The difference between a wildflower and a weed is strictly your perception.
A native plant is defined as a plant that was here when the colonists came, one that exists in a given region through non-human introduction or a plant that occurs naturally in the place where it evolved. A native plant differs from a naturalized plant because these plants are non-native plants that are capable of surviving and reproducing without human intervention for an indefinite period. They generally do not spread away from the place of their introduction and aren’t usually a significant problem to native ecosystems. Those orange ditch daylilies, Hemerocallis fulva, that appear in late May and early June are a good example.
When these naturalized plants start to spread and survive in new areas, they are considered invasive plants. They infest natural ecosystems including forests, riparian areas and meadows. Plants that get berries or heavily seed that the birds are so happy to spread are the biggest culprits. English ivy, Privet, Russian Olive and Nadina are common problems in Southside.
One reason to incorporate native plants in your landscape is that they are adapted to our red clay soils, our humid, sticky and sometimes drought prone summers and who knows what kind of winters, but natives survive easier than introduced plants. They have natural disease and pest resistance. Natives attract beneficial insects that help to control pest insect populations. Birds and butterflies use their nectar, seed heads and berries for food. Best of all, native plants are a colorful addition to the landscape and you will be helping the environment. Some purists feel that we should only plant natives but I prefer to focus on diversity in the landscape. But be forewarned, most of these plants are going to be happy so give them plenty of room or keep them contained. A fun aspect about researching native plants is learning their uses by native peoples. Please note that Virginia Cooperative Extension does not recommend any of the following historical uses by earlier native peoples.
An example of a native plant for a shady situation is Viola pedata, Bird’s Foot Violet. It
blooms in spring and is best in full or afternoon shade. Its leaf indeed does look like a bird’s foot. Good drainage is a must, and it likes gritty soil so works well in containers filled with a cactus type potting soil. Native Americans used leaves as poultice for headaches, infusions for dysentery, blood building, colds and coughs and as spring tonic. A poultice of roots was used for boils and an infusion sprayed up the nose for catarrh (buildup of mucus). The Cherokee would soak corn seeds in a root infusion for insect control.
Asarum shuttleworthii, Shuttleworth’s Ginger is a lovely ground cover. It has aromatic evergreen foliage with white venation. It is my experience that it will back down to competing plants so don’t crowd it. The European settlers, having to do without things commonly found in England such as true ginger, Zingiber officinale, found a substitute in the rhizomes of the plant that they dubbed wild or Indian ginger although I wouldn’t suggest you dig up the roots for stir fry. The plant contains Aristolochic acid, which is a carciogen especially of the urinary tract and can cause total kidney failure. It can be found in over the counter dietary supplements used to suppress hunger. In 2000 the FDA issued a warning for consumers to discontinue use of herbal products that contain aristolochic acid.
A part sun plant is Chelone lyonii, Pink Turtlehead. It likes part shade and will bloom in full shade. Its pink flowers look like a turtle’s head as its common name suggests and it is the larval plant for the Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly. Don’t despair if you see a caterpillar devouring the leaves – this is totally natural and the plant will recover. The Cherokee would cook the leaves until tender for a vegetable.
Columbine is a common spring plant in the garden. If you purchased a purple one and after a few years you notice it is now a pinky orange, the plant has reverted to the straight or native species Aquilegia canadensis, Wild Columbine. It likes part shade and tends to be short lived so let it go to seed. The Cherokee used infusions for flux, heart trouble and kidney function. Columbine was used as a wash for poison ivy and itches. A compound was used to detect bewitchment.
False Sunflower, Heliopsis helianthoides, is a favorite of mine. I normally don’t recommend cultivars but ‘Summer Sun’ works best for Southside. The plant starts to bloom in June and will bloom all summer with deadheading. This should take about 5 minutes a week. Leave some seed heads for the Goldfinches. Place in full sun with well-drained soil. It is a very drought tolerant plant but gets upset with wet feet. The bright flowers look lovely in flower arrangements. The Cherokee used a decoction of dried root as a stimulant. Roots were used for lung problems.
An early spring bloomer is Baptisia australis, False Blue Indigo. Early bloomers are important nectar plants for beneficial insects. It has beautiful bluish foliage. Plant in full sun because it will get floppy in part shade. It has taproot so plant it where you want it. It doesn’t like to be replanted. It was used for vomiting, inflammation and toothaches. Also, it was used to make a blue dye. The seed pods are attractive in flower arrangements.
A bog plant is Equisetum hyemale, Scouring Rush or Horsetail. This is the first bog plant to have leaves. It can be planted in full sun or part shade. It can be very invasive so must have a barrier. I have mine planted in a pot which sits in a 5-gallon bucket. It needs to be full of water most of the time. Do not plant Horsetail anywhere you will have horses or cattle as it is poisonous. Hope you never try to plant any near a farm pond or streams leading in or out as it is very hard to control along banks of any waterway. Infusions were taken for constipation and kidneys. The dark bands contain silica so it was used as sandpaper and to scour pots. Kids used the stems for whistles and fluid from stem was used to kill weeds.