Arboretum Paths: October’s glorious native perennials

Published 12:49 pm Wednesday, October 9, 2013

How would you like a low-maintenance perennial bed guaranteed to burst into bloom each fall?  If you want to see an example of the beauty that can develop with a “hands off” approach, just take a drive along our local roads to experience the exquisite diversity of blooming perennials and grasses lining the banks and ditches this time of year.

On a recent trip to the coast, I traveled Highway 43 east from Picayune and discovered that the stretch of road between here and Kiln is currently akin to an art gallery. Autumn flowers of purple and gold are intermingled with tufts of native grasses beginning to bolt upward.

Cheery yellow blooms of narrow-leaf sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius) are currently gracing the Arboretum’s meadows. This plant is also common in roadside ditches or along the edges of a pond. It is carefree in your wildflower garden, and will spread freely in the bed. Although Helianthus will reach heights of six feet, it is typically found growing around four feet tall.

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Accompanying a group on a field walk a few weeks ago into our pitcher plant bog, I noticed that the grasses here will soon be experiencing an explosion of growth. Following this unfurling, the Savanna Exhibit will be completely transformed into a sea of waving grasses. Photographs in our archives taken in late fall from the edge of the bog show school groups walking the boardwalk, and barely discernible through the tall grasses.

Other grasses that will dominate the Savanna are panic grass (Panicum virgatum), also called switchgrass, Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans), and sugarcane plumegrass (Saccharum giganteum). Grasses provide seed that is an important food source for ground-nesting birds, and provide cover for wildlife. They are also important larval host plants for species of skipper butterflies, the butterflies frequently seen “skipping” across the perennials in the wet meadow landscape.

Near the Pinecote Pavilion we have noticed clusters of goldenrod (Solidago spp.) beginning to fill in an open area. The yellow flower clusters juxtaposed against the Pavilion makes for quite a photograph. I marvel at the pictures in our archives of the Pavilion when it was brand new and resting in a sea of grasses, prior to the forest growing up around it.

The loss of several pine trees during Hurricane Katrina created several bare areas adjacent to the Pavilion. These have been slowly filling in. Even though invasive plant species at times sought to find a foothold in this area, they were continually eliminated by the grounds crew. We are pleased with the look that this year has brought, because we know that in a few more years, we may have an entirely different arrangement of species.

Clusters of pitcher plants in our bog are going through their fall show. Some of the pitcher-shaped hollow leaves have developed a rusty appearance, while other clusters may sport brand new leaves, a condition more characteristic of spring.

Vanilla plant (Carphephorus odoratissimus) is currently displaying purple blooms in our Savanna Exhibit, particularly in our South Bog which is known as the pitcher plant bog. If you are heading south on the trail that parallels Ridge Road and turn westward on the way to the pitcher plant bog (heading toward the boardwalk), you will find vanilla plant growing along the north side of the trail under a group of longleaf pine.

This plant earned its name from the odor of it leaves. While this odor is not discernible when fresh, once the leaves are picked and beginning to wilt the fragrance becomes evident. Historically, the leaves were important to the pipe tobacco industry, as they were once used as an additive that yielded a characteristic vanilla aroma.

Vanilla plant will perform in your home wildflower garden if it is kept evenly moist, as it prefers habitats such as those found in the Arboretum’s wet pine savanna. Place it in the rear of your garden so that its bloom spikes will tower over the plants in the front of the bed.

While purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is not found growing in our exhibits, it has been planted into our Children’s Garden. It is a popular native perennial for wildflower gardens and breeding programs have developed an incredibly wide variety of cultivars of all sizes and colors. Nine species of Echinacea are native to the United States.

Coneflowers are excellent choices for Southern gardens because they like hot and sunny, humid conditions. Although they are drought tolerant and will grow in poor soils, they will perform better in your garden if you provide them with a rich, well-drained soil. The flowers provide a nectar source for a variety of insects, and are a food source for songbirds, who will feast on its seeds. If you leave the spent blooms on your plants in the fall, you might be treated to a visit from a goldfinch or two.

Visit the Mississippi State University Extension Service website at to view or download a stunning 8-page color publication by Dr. Gary Bachman called “Purple Coneflowers for the Mississippi Gardener.” In this booklet, Dr. Bachman covers coneflower cultivation, propagation, and their landscape uses. The publication describes not only the native coneflower species but the incredible color range of cultivars that have been created.

Come walk among the blooms in the Arboretum’s Savanna Exhibit on Saturday, October 12, and then join certified yoga instructor James Sones on the Pinecote Pavilion for a gentle yoga class from 1to 2 p.m., followed by a short meditation sitting. The program is free for members and $5 for non-members $5.

For more information or to sign up for the class, call the Arboretum office at (601) 799-2311. The garden is open Wednesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and located in Picayune, off I-59 Exit 4, at 370 Ridge Road (south of Walmart and adjacent to I-59).