Last week, I wrote about small urban trees and including a wonderful small native tree, the Alternate-leaved Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia). This magnificent plant is not the only one to be much more “beautiful” in an ornamental garden than in its own natural environment. Indeed, in its native deciduous or mixed forest, this dogwood goes practically unnoticed: a slender stem that stretches towards the light, decked out with a few leaves and one or two clusters of flowers (I am barely exaggerating).
There are many of these beautiful plants that grow naturally in the forests and fields of northern North America. They have all the qualities required to fill the flower beds of our gardens. Here are four shrubs from a natural setting that have all it takes to live it up with ornamental plants in the garden.
It is practically impossible to deal with the subject of native plants without first addressing the delicacy of the subject. In many urbanized regions, natural environments are rare and fragile. It would be neither wise nor conceivable to excessively collect plants there. In fact, any collecting should be prohibited there. My best advice is to follow developments in residential neighborhoods and “save” a few plants before the machinery arrives! Also, a few conscientious growers produce native plants or seeds for sale, and garden centers sometimes have a section devoted to native plants.
It is therefore necessary to act with great caution, first in the choice of location and then with the greatest concern for protecting the colonies and the survival of the species. It goes without saying, to stay away from protected areas (nature reserves, nature parks, national parks, etc.) and leave any plant that seems to be the only one of its group (perhaps the last survivor). By the way, as mentioned earlier, the following plants are fairly easy to find on the market.
The Great Good of Native Plants in Flower Beds
Once all the precautions have been taken, you can savor the net benefits of introducing wild plants to flower beds. The first is the boost in favor of biodiversity. In general, native plants are very popular with pollinating insects and they promote the development and survival of many animal species. Adding these plants is also a nice way to help create corridors of natural vegetation and provide native plants with additional microhabitats.
They are also much less susceptible to pests and diseases. Natural selection has already done its work. Hybrids or cultivars are often developed with the aim of improving flowering or creating more compact plants. In these cases, the quality and resistance of these plants are not taken into account.
Incognito, But Resilient
This first shrub is very “trendy”! It is increasingly used in landscaping, as it is both tolerant of temporary flooding and drought. This is why it is one of the stars of vegetated swales and bioretention ponds which are very fashionable in municipalities. Even if it has few decorative features, the bush honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera, UDSA zones 3 to 7) is a fabulous plant. It is a low shrub, at most 3 feet (75 cm) in height. It is adorned with small yellow flowers in early summer, which look like honeysuckle flowers. The rest of the summer, it is a classic green shrub. Then in the fall, the leaves turn burgundy and red. It is perfect for creating small beds or acting as a ground cover at the base of a large tree. More of a partial shade plant, it tolerates both full sun and somewhat denser shade.
Big and Berry
In a sunnier location, bush honeysuckle could easily cohabit with black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa, USDA zones 3 to 8). The chokeberry is a large shrub that can exceed 6 feet in height, although it is easily pruned. Its white bloom in summer gives rise to fruits, the size of blueberries, which turn black when ripe. The edible fruits stain your teeth,and can be a great prank, but are also popular with birds. It too, in the fall, takes on a beautiful bright red color. This chokeberry is a good shrub for full sun or partial shade. It’s interesting as a background plant and can be leaned against a fence, the walls of the house or the side of the garden shed.
Pretty in Pink
A close cousin of raspberries, the Purple flowering raspberry (Rubus odoratus, USDA zones 3 to 8) does not have an invasive character of its relative. It forms a beautiful, very docile bush, which grows slowly from year to year. The most amazing thing about this plant is its flowering: large candy pink flowers. Discovering it on the edge of the forest is always a surprise. Flowering extends over a long summer period. Each correctly pollinated flower will give rise to a beautiful large flattened raspberry. Yes, it is edible, but you’ve definitely eaten tastier raspberries! The beautiful large maple shaped leaves are also very pretty and provide a nice textural contrast. Although it should be a full sun plant, it is still very interesting in partial shade and in the woodland garden. Depending on the richness of the soil, the plant will reach between four and six feet (1.2 and 2.0 meters) in height and a little more in width.
Roll Out the Red Carpet
And finally, a small evergreen ground cover that perhaps needs no introduction. Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, USDA zone 2 to 7) is widely marketed and easy to find. It is a plant that barely exceeds 6 inches (15 cm) in height. The stems crawl on the ground, forming a beautiful carpet of greenery which can cover 3 to 6 feet (one or two meters) of surface. It is a plant that will grow well in moist soil (or covered with a thick layer of mulch), in a semi-sunny location. It should also be planted sheltered from strong winds: evergreen foliage tends to dry out in these conditions.
At the end of spring, you will enjoy a beautiful white bloom followed by beautiful red fruits. Related to cranberries, these fruits surely have something good to offer us, a small detail that I still have to discover about this plant (and still having things to discover is great!). The foliage turns red in the fall. Of course, bearberry makes a good edging plant, especially when it can be planted on rocks or along a low wall. Moreover, in its natural environment, it is a mountain plant and sometimes, it is found beyond the tree line, at high altitude. That says everything about its hardiness.
There are so many other interesting plants, both in the woodland or the open field. It is very difficult to choose which deserve more attention than the others. Native plants offer so many possibilities and there are many, many more to discover. I do hope this selection is worth your while.
While I’m all for native gardening, I think it would be irresponsible to not mention that all four of the shrubs in this article not only attract native butterflies, hummingbirds, and a host of other beneficial insects, they also attract bears! Planting these four shrubs is essentially creating a smorgasbord for bears, it’s extremely important that people understand this and take it seriously as not to create problem bears that will eventually be euthanized.
Natives here are not easy to work with. We use them at work where we have plenty of space. For smaller home gardens, most natives get too big and shrubby, but do not cooperate with pruning. Besides, many are innately combustible.
So glad native gardening is getting a shout out. Native butterflies and hummingbirds amongst other species will suddenly come and hang out in your yard. How amazing is that. The monarch needs it’s milkweed and how critical are all the other local host plants. If you are in the Los Angeles area look up and visit Thomas Payne -it will inspire you Sure wish big box stores would siit up and take notice.
Glad to see this article on native plants. I would love to see more on this topic for all the pollinators. I am in zone 5a and have taken on native gardening as I think it is very important.
Great piece, Julie, thank you, will share with my NS group of 3,000. Maybe promote other fruits that people enjoy such as wild strawberry, service berry, wild blueberry, and raspberries, all of which are native fruits with some human benefits, and support 100s of species.
As a Seed business, forager, & wildcrafter, I’ve been trying to promote native plants for over 20 years. Nice to see others sayong the same.
Bearberry grows everywhere in my ‘hood. The berries are edible but pretty mealy. The leaves are good in tea and do have medicinal benefits. I think you’d have to be pretty hungry to make a meal of bearberry. Our native cranberries & blueberries are just as hardy and much tastier. I’m in zone 2b, I know hardy. 🙂
Hi Julie! Great article. For USDA zones 4 or 5 – 9 you can’t get better than fothergilla (aka witch alder). Don’t know if that range includes parts of Canada. Native to s e US. Blooming now, densely packed with gorgeous white, bottle brush flowers smelling of licorice. Blazing orange in the fall. Robust, no care plant and the deer don’t touch it!!