Garden

These are the sunny blooms of False Sunflower, Heliopsis helianthoides Summer Sun. If you can only have one native perennial in your garden this is the one to have. It blooms from June to frost and is loved by bees and butterflies.

I’ve heard people say that they don’t care much for native plants because they lack color. Some don’t have that beautiful color, but many do have color and feed many of our pollinators. I am going to discuss five that I have in my garden.

One of the first to bloom is False Blue Indigo, Baptisia australis, with australis meaning southern. In Southside it blooms late April, early May with a beautiful blue bloom, and anything with small early blooms is good for pollinators. The plant has bluish foliage giving it a special look even when not blooming. The seedpods are black and can be used in floral arrangements. The Wild Indigo Duskywing butterfly uses False Blue Indigo and its sister plant Yellow Wild Indigo, B. tinctoria, as its larval plant meaning that it lays eggs on either of these Baptisia so the caterpillars will have an appropriate food source after emerging. It is native to the Eastern U.S. so these plants are fine with our soils and climate and have minimal to no pest problems, including deer. They like full sun and may get floppy in shade. One trick to know, it has a taproot so hates to be transplanted. Buy small plants and place in the final destination when planting. As its common name suggests False Blue Indigo was used as a blue dye in earlier times.

Coming next into bloom is Blue Star, Amsonia tabernaemontana. As its name suggests, the flowers are blue star shaped. Here it blooms in May. I want to note that another common name is Dogbane, and indeed the milky sap is poisonous if ingested. If you have a dog that likes to chew plants, this won’t be a good choice for you. It is a nectar favorite for butterflies, bees, hummingbird moths and early arriving hummingbirds. It likes full sun but can handle some shade. Once again, it has no serious pest problems, and deer don’t like it. An added plus, the leaves turn golden in the fall.

There are people who hate this next plant, Bee Balm Monarda. Admittedly it has powdery mildew issues, and it is in the mint family so can spread out. To me, that is a plus. I’ve found covering all the soil with plants will cut down on weeds where mulch doesn’t cut it. M. didyma, also known as Oswego Tea, has a red bloom and is a favorite of hummingbirds.

According to Allan Armitage in “Herbaceous Perennial Plants,” “The American botanist John Bartram first collected bee balm near Oswego, New York” and used the leaves to make tea. Bee Balm was grown in colonial gardens for the herbal properties. Legend has it that the Oswego Tribe showed the colonists how to make tea from the leaves during the time of the Boston Tea Party. There are many cultivars that offer different colors, but Armitage warns that they all have powdery mildew issues. M. fistulosa, known as Wild Bergamot, has a rose, purplish bloom and is more mildew resistant.

My all time favorite perennial is False Sunflower, Heliopsis helianthoides Summer Sun, quite a mouthful but just a wonderful perennial. It sports bright yellow flowers and blooms from June to frost. I am not normally a fan of cultivars or nativars, a term credited to Armitage. But the length and quality of bloom make this one worthy. We have an area around an old outhouse that we call The Jungle because frankly that is what it looks like. But every summer I look over there among the variety of weeds, and there is Summer Sun smiling away. We used to enjoy one right in front of where we sit and talk most evenings. We saw it visited by bees and butterflies and sometimes a goldfinch would alight to eat some of the seeds. It wants full sun but isn’t picky about soil. Deadheading on a weekly or biweekly basis will encourage more blooming. But I don’t dare venture into the jungle to deadhead and still that one blooms its head off.

For fall blooms, you can’t beat asters. Their botanical names were so easy but now it is Symphyotrichum, but there is a real chance that it might still be labeled as Aster in catalogs and nurseries. A good one to try is S. novi-angliae, New England Aster. You might have trouble finding the straight species as there are many cultivars. My husband and I watched many monarchs feeding on the nectar last fall. Again, it is a full sun plant and not picky about soil. The bloom is purplish, and it will be blooming end of August until the first hard frost. As with all these plants, they are not deer favorites.

While we are all still practicing social distancing due to COVID-19, and all county buildings are closed to the public, so if you have gardening questions, you can best reach an extension master gardener or extension staff member by sending an email to wmccaleb@vt.edu or ask@ssmga.org. Keep washing your hands and wearing your mask when you go to nurseries to find these wonderful native plants.

Cornell is a Southside Master Gardener with the Virginia Cooperative Extension