Gardening with native plants is an important step towards sustainable landscaping, in part because native plants use fewer resources than non-native plants. Over thousands of years, native plants have adapted to not only tolerate but thrive in typical regional growing conditions. When sited and planted correctly, native plants do not require much, if any, additional fungicides, insecticides, fertilizers or water.
Native plants are also a fundamental ingredient for any gardener interested in promoting bio-diversity or who simply hopes to attract local wildlife such as butterflies and birds to their garden.
Gardening with local native plants is essential to providing a regional identity to a designed landscape and anchoring a house to its natural surroundings. By selecting regional native plants, you are also helping to maintain and preserve the natural beauty of your local landscape.
So what exactly is a native plant? A broadly accepted definition is that a plant is considered native to a certain area or habitat when it occurs naturally without human intervention. Plants native to North America are species found in North America prior to the arrival of Columbus and the subsequent settlement of the continent by Europeans. Plants can also be considered native to a specific region (for example, New England) or a specific state (let’s say, Connecticut). Native plants include both woody plants (trees, shrubs, and vines) and non-woody herbaceous plants (perennials, ferns, grasses). The plants highlighted here are either native specifically to Connecticut or to the New England region.
The debate between the value of pure native species and cultivars of natives is an ongoing, and often heated, one. World renowned horticulturist Dr. Allan Armitage coined the word ‘nativar’ to describe a cultivar and/or hybrid of a native species. I think he summed it up best when he said “they should rule the garden”.
Do nativars retain all the same positive qualities of the original native species, especially when using natives to support local wildlife? Are nativars ‘native enough’? As you’ll see below, I have referenced specific cultivars when I feel their use is appropriate from a garden design perspective. It is up to the gardener to decide whether or not to use the native species or nativar in their garden. Personally, I feel the use of either one is a win-win situation for both the garden and the gardener.
Because native plants are regularly used in restoration or reclamation projects, many gardeners associate them with a wild or unkempt look. But native plants can be used in any designed landscape whether it is formal, informal or something in between. When using native plants, please remember to purchase local nursery propagated and grown plants and never remove native plants from the wild. Also keep in mind that it is perfectly acceptable to mix native and non-native plants in your garden.
Here is a partial list of Connecticut native trees and shrubs that can be easily incorporated into a variety of gardens, regardless of your personal gardening style:
American Holly (Ilex opaca): An upright, pyramidal shrub growing to approximately 15 – 30’ tall in full sun to partial shade. American Holly is a stately evergreen with red berries lasting through the winter. The species can be sensitive to leaf spots and insects and requires a spot protected from winter winds. Cultivars such as ‘Jersey Princess’ and ‘Paterson’ seem to show more resistance to pests. American holly is considered deer resistant.
Inkberry (Ilex glabra): Inkberry is a small evergreen shrub which tolerates a wide range of soil and light conditions. It has shiny, narrow leaves and a compact, dense shape with black fruit. It is a less formal option to Boxwood in foundation plantings. Cultivars such as ‘Compacta’ or ‘Shamrock’ have a more refined look and feel than the species. I have been growing Inkberry for years in my garden and the deer never even take a nip of it.
Low Bush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium): Blueberry bushes are a terrific multi-season addition to any garden. White, bell-shaped flowers appear in clusters in the spring before the shiny green leaves develop. Delicious berries cloak this shrub in summer and, of course, are edible if you can get to them before the birds do. Leaves turn a brilliant red in the fall and the tips of the stems have a light reddish- pink color in the winter. Blueberries like acidic soil and do not tolerate any alkalinity. For optimal performance, plant low bush blueberry in full sun. Blueberries are considered deer resistant.
Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis): An early-flowering woodland native often grown as a large multi-trunked shrub. Serviceberries tolerate a wide range of soil and light conditions and are a true multi-season plant with white flowers in the spring, small, edible berries in the summer, brilliant fall foliage and interesting bark for winter interest. While the species can be prone to some insect damage, it is typically cosmetic only. Serviceberry is not considered reliably deer resistant.
Smoothleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens): Our native hydrangea may not be as colorful or showy as its mop-headed cousins but it is still deserving of a place in any garden. White blooms appear in June and look fresh through the fall. This shrub can be treated like a perennial and cut back to the ground in late fall or late winter. Since it flowers on new wood, smoothleaf hydrangea typically does not suffer from winter bud damage that can plaque some other hydrangeas. The more manicured look of cultivars such as ‘Annabelle’ and ‘Grandiflora’ appeal to many gardeners. While smoothleaf hydrangea is not considered reliably deer resistant, it is never bothered by the deer in my garden.
Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia): The fragrant white bottle brush-like flowers of this medium-sized shrub make it a butterfly and bee magnet. Summersweet prefers full to part sun and average soil and flowers well even in partial shade. ‘Ruby Spice’ is a pink-flowered cultivar while ‘Hummingbird’ is a smaller-sized cultivar with white flowers. Summersweet is considered to be deer resistant.
Common Witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana): A small to medium vase-shaped tree with pale yellow spider-like flowers which bloom in the fall. Leaves turn yellow to pale orange in autumn and fall just as the flowers appear. Branches are often spreading and crooked and make an interesting winter focal point. Common witchhazel tolerates sun and shade and a variety of soil conditions although it performs best in moist soil. Common witchhazel is not considered deer resistant.
Do you have a favorite native tree and/or shrub that is thriving in your garden? If so, please feel free to leave a comment since I’d love to hear it.