13 Mar 7 Underrated Northeast Natives
Zachary Turck, Horticultural Therapist & Instructor
If you’ve been involved in any conversations around the subjects of environmental conservation, eco-friendly gardening, sustainable gardening, or the like– you’ve probably heard the buzz about native plants. You might have even heard stories of people ripping out plants they’ve had in the landscape for years to replace with native species. Maybe you think to yourself, ‘Aren’t I doing enough for the environment by using this organic fertilizer? Why should I care about native plants? And won’t that limit my selection?’
Native plants are indeed better for the environment, but I won’t tell you to extradite your non-natives. What I am going to tell you about here are seven plants native to the eastern US—plants that are ornamentally second to none and profoundly more valuable for their ecosystem and our living environment than those we commonly refer to for our ornamental landscapes. Remember now—this is simply a sampler from the long menu of great native plants. Come down to our garden center, I’ll show you even more!
Image by Fritz Flohr Reynolds via Flickr
A flowering herbaceous annual, identifiable by its delicate yellow, white, or yellow/white flower and burr-covered seed pod in the fall that hitchhikes on the backs of small animals and anything else it can grab hold of. Bidens flowers have a common name of ‘swamp marigold,’ though many consider them a closer resemblance to Coreopsis (also a native of our area!). Particular varieties to look for are Bidens ‘aristosa’ (pictured) and ‘coronata’. Bidens prefer a light exposure of part sun/part shade, with a soil that stays moist to wet. At full maturity in late summer they can stretch up to 5 or 6 feet tall.
2. AGASTACHE (Hyssop, Hummingbird mint)
Image by Zachary Turck
A flowering herbaceous perennial that grows up to 4′ in full sun to part shade, decked with an array of desirable qualities: wonderfully aromatic foliage reminiscent of root beer floats, a profuse flower display in the summer–“Agastache” is Greek for ‘many spikes’, and a knack for drawing some great pollinators, including hummingbirds (as the common name suggests) and honey bees. The tubular flowers appear in dense spikes rising above the foliage in midsummer until fall, typically in shades of purple and blue. There are also varieties with white, yellow, orange, and red flowers. The flowers and foliage have a history of being used for medicinal and culinary purposes, as if the ornamental and environmental benefits weren’t enough! What a gift this plant is.
3. SIBBALDIOPSIS TRIDENTATA (Potentilla tridentata, Shrubby-fivefingers)
Image via Wikimedia commons
This ground covering perennial has my favorite common name of all the plants on this list: “Shrubby-fivefingers”. That’s not why he’s one of the chosen seven on this list though— this native grows in full sun and in between rocks with glossy green foliage that turns a vibrant red in the fall, while also providing clusters of beautifully delicate white flowers through the summer. Great for rock gardens and crevices.
4. PANICUM VIRGATUM (Switchgrass)
Image by Matt Lavin via Flickr
A clump forming native grass grown for its ornamental texture and flowering panicles. This grass’s versatility allows it to thrive in a variety of conditions— it can grow in full sun or part shade, can tolerate drought as well as standing water, and can adapt to a variety of soil conditions. Switchgrass’s flower plume can shoot up to six feet, beginning in mid-summer. The leaves often become tinged with purple and can take on a lovely red-yellow color in autumn. The seeds of the grass provide a food source for songbirds, and the old straw is perfect for the construction of bird nests.
5. PHYSALIS VIRGINIANA (Ground cherry, Husk-tomato)
Image by Dave Powell via Wikimedia commons
Though soy farmers may call it invasive, the Ground cherry is a tasty native with ornamental and medicinal benefits. It closely resembles the Tomatillo or the Chinese lantern, as it encapsulates its smaller-than-cherry-tomato sized fruit in a paper husk, giving the appearance of a tiny lantern. The fruits add a unique flavor to a variety of cuisines, and are also used with a sweetener to make several dessert dishes. Physalis likes full sun to part shade and can tolerate poor soil conditions.
6. AMELANCHIER CANADENSIS (Eastern Serviceberry)
Image by Stephen A Gregory
One of the first native blooms to appear in the spring are the flowers of the Serviceberry. In the spring, this shrub from the Rose family bears fragrant white flowers with sweet nectar that attracts butterflies and all kinds of pollinators. The flowers eventually give way to red, then purple-blue fruits that taste a bit like blueberries, which the robins and bluebirds flock to. The berry is also approaching super-fruit status due to its high volume of antioxidants. Fall leaf color is a striking yellow-orange.
7. OXYDENDRUM ARBOREUM (Sourwood, Sorrel Tree, Lilly of the Valley Tree)
Image by uwbotanicgardens via Flickr
This is a real hidden gem– The Sourwood is a native tree with gorgeous form, as if it were a life size bonsai. Airy, cream clusters of flowers that recall Lilly of the Valley adorn it in late summer; then glossy, scarlet-tinged foliage turns to a brilliant red in autumn. This is a low maintenance tree that can tolerate drought and part shade. The Sourwood’s nectar is especially tasty to honey bees, and Sourwood honey is highly esteemed for its rich, distinct aroma and flavor. “Most honey is made by bees. But sourwood is made by bees and angels.” -Carson Brewer, conservationist and writer.
I hope at least one of these 7 inspired you to go ahead and do some native planting. Would you be interested in learning more about gardening with native plants? Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll gladly provide you information on upcoming gardening workshops.