Natives are the Rock Stars of the Plant Kingdom

by Dave on September 3, 2009

by Eric Wahl, RLA, ASLA

from Coastal Sussex Weekly, September 3, 2009

In previous articles dealing with landscaping, we mostly discussed “green” solutions in a conceptual and general format.  One of those concepts was utilizing a native plant palette.  Since native plants are acclimated to our region and have been for centuries, using them in your garden almost guarantees a successful landscape.  This week we are going to talk about some specific plants that can be enjoyed in your yard for years on end.  In addition, I encourage you to visit the Delaware Native Plant Society found online at and consider going to the annual native plant sale held the first Saturday in November.

Trees.  The workhorses of the plant community, they provide shelter, food, beauty, and a little thing called oxygen.   They also have provided our nation and the world over with an invaluable resource of building material and fuel.  Indeed, where would we be without them?   Here are a few natives to consider when planning your landscape:

Acer rubrum, the Red Maple, can be found throughout our region and is well suited to our soils and performs extremely well in wet environments.  Their average rate of growth is medium to fast and they provide an astounding display of color during the fall months.  In the spring, groupings of red maples are easy to spot – their swollen buds appear as a reddish mist above the branches, just before the leaves unfurl.

Chamaecyparis thyoides, or Atlantic White Cedar, is a great choice for a native evergreen that likes wet habitats.  Perfect for a landscape buffer, especially around wet areas, these trees grow at a medium rate – about 25 feet in 20 years.  Sometimes they are hard to find at the nurseries, but the atlantic white cedar is becoming more popular as the use of native plants in our landscapes continues to gain momentum.

Ilex Opaca, the American Holly, is Delaware’s State Tree and a valuable forest native.  Occurring throughout Delaware as an understory tree in our forests, they provide shelter, food, and abundant beauty in our native landscapes.  A slow grower, the straight species of American holly is rarely sold in nurseries.  Instead, there are numerous cultivars found throughout the region and are more often better suited to our gardens.  American hollies require both a male and female plant in order to produce berries, so make sure you have a male holly somewhat nearby.

Quercus phellos, the Willow Oak (my favorite oak) is a superb shade tree with a finer texture and better form than other oaks.  The leaves resemble those of the willow tree and the acorns are somewhat smaller than most oaks.  They grow at a medium rate and like moist but well-drained soils.  However, willow oaks can adapt to almost any soil type which is why they make a great choice for street trees.

Ornamental Trees.  The trees we love to see and smell when their flowers emerge and display their brilliance.  Native ornamental trees are under appreciated and have been overshadowed by their non-native counterparts in our area.  However, our natives can be just as beautiful and enduring and are quite important to our local wildlife.

Amelanchier arborea, Downy Serviceberry, is a perfect addition to a garden, especially for those who enjoy bird watching as their fruit is devoured by them.  However, the berries are also quite tasty to humans and from what I have read, make a delicious pie that can compete with blueberry pie.  They can be found in a wide range of soil types and their form in the winter months is rather elegant.  In addition, downy serviceberries are considered salt spray tolerant, so they can be a great addition to the coastal garden.

Magnolia virginiana, the Sweetbay Magnolia, is an understory tree that does well in wet, swampy areas unlike other magnolias.  An excellent patio or specimen plant, the flowers provide a sweet fragrance in the air.  Sweetbay magnolias are graceful, small trees that are underutilized in the gardener’s landscape.   They can even tolerate shade.

Shrubs.  Shrubs are the backbone of our home landscapes.  They provide structure, form, color, habitat, aroma – virtually every sense can be excited by them.  The list of native shrubs is exhaustive, but a few of my favorites follow:

Clethra alnifolia, Summersweet, is a gorgeous addition to the garden.  It provides sweet smelling flowers in the summer and tolerates shade and wet areas.  It even can tolerate some flooding by slightly brackish water.  Summersweet is a tremendous resource to wildlife and is virtually pest and disease free.

Hamamelis virginiana, Witchhazel, is known for its sweet aroma that occurs in the fall months and permeates the air along with its display of yellow fall foliage.  Witchhazel can be a rather large shrub, so its location in the garden should be artfully planned to reap both its benefits of color and scent.  Does well is both sunny and shady areas, but avoid extremely dry conditions.

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Ilex verticallata, Winterberry, is one of my favorite all-time shrubs. It can grow rather large, but smaller cultivars exist for tighter spaces.  The berries produced on winterberry are an explosion of color in the autumn and winter months and can last sometimes until January.  This display is even more intensified if an evergreen backdrop is provided in the landscape.  Native to swampy areas, it does extremely well in wet conditions and can even tolerate wet feet.  A must have in the native garden.

Perennials.  Just like the shrubs, the list of native perennials is far-reaching.  They are a glorious part of the garden, providing color and fragrance from spring until harvest time.

Coreopsis verticillata, Threadleaf Tickseed, is my absolute favorite perennial.  Drought tolerant and durable, it provides abundant color in the summer landscape.  Its threadlike foliage and dainty flowers make me smile every time I see them, especially in mass.  A perfect plant choice for the low-maintenance garden.

Heuchera villosa, Coral Bells, is another spectacular plant.  Better known for their foliage, these plants produce small bell like flowers on tall stems that climb above their large, beautiful leaves.  They come in a range of colors and shapes and can provide excellent texture in the shade garden.

Rudbeckia fulgida, Black-eyed Susan, continues to provide beautiful displays year after year.  Their yellow bursts of flowers throughout the summer months make the garden glow with excitement.  New cultivars are arriving every year with many colors and sizes to choose from.  Another low-maintenance perennial that should have a place in every sunny border.

As mentioned earlier, the above lists highlight just a few of the many native plants that adorn our regional landscape.  Multiple resources exist to help the home owner gain knowledge and purchase our native flora throughout Delaware – books, local nurseries, the internet, even your local landscape architect (wink, wink).   So go out and enjoy all that our native landscapes have to offer and help protect our most precious resource.

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