Tough native species for your home landscape

Published 10:08 am Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Last week’s column offered some outstanding native plants for you to consider including in your home landscape for the upcoming planting season. Cooler days inspire us to spend more time outdoors, and many of us will start pondering new planting projects.

Is your yard in need of a fall spruce-up before friends and relatives descend upon you for the holidays? Sometimes all a landscape needs is a fresh dusting of mulch and a morning spent creating a well-defined edge to the planting beds.

Native selections can be great replacements for ornamental plants that have become maintenance nightmares or have disappeared entirely. Maybe you have a few new “holes” in your beds that have developed over the hot summer months, following the demise of plants that turned out to be not so dependable. If so, consider using some of the tough, low-maintenance native plants profiled below.

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Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is a native perennial that no wildlife or butterfly garden should be without, having attractive orange or red blooms in midsummer. Monarch caterpillars dine exclusively on this plant. You will enjoy watching the chrysalises turn from green to transparent, and seeing the developing butterflies as they are revealed.

Asclepias grows to around two feet in height, and is virtually trouble free. It is well-behaved in the garden, and will not crowd out its neighbors. Butterfly weed prefers well-drained sandy soils and full sun, but will tolerate a little shade. It is drought tolerant once established. Its green seed pods will burst open in the late summer and fall, releasing silken parachutes into the breeze that carry the seeds to new locations.

Milkweed is found growing in open woods and fields, and along roadsides. Use it in your mixed borders, and naturalistic plantings. You will enjoy watching the many species of butterflies that will feed on the nectar of the blooms.

Another perennial that has been growing in popularity over the past few years is black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia). This native plant is being used increasingly in the region’s commercial landscapes, which are demanding environments for plant material. Rudbeckia is low-maintenance and long-blooming, and ‘Goldsturm’ is one of the most popular selections available in local garden centers. It performs best in full sun to partial shade. The plant tolerates compacted soils and is also drought tolerant. When this perennial is in full bloom, it is a showstopper!

‘Goldsturm’ Rudbeckia is a durable native that is at home in meadow gardens, where it will provide nectar for butterflies and seeds for overwintering birds. Try combining it with native grasses, or with other blooming perennials, especially in purple and blue hues. Use it in “drifts” or groupings. The plants will grow to around two to three feet tall and blooms will last from midsummer to fall. It is not unusual to find garden centers that carry the plant in the spring months already sporting blooms.

The broad, spreading blooms of perennials such as Rudbeckia and purple coneflower (Echinacea) combine beautifully with groups of native grasses such as muhly grass, also known as hair grass, or Gulf muhly. The first time one encounters this plant, it certainly makes an impression. The feathery purple-pink spikes that appear in October will make a strong statement in your landscape. Make a Web search for a photo of this plant and you will soon see why.

Muhly grass grows in dry, sandy sites as well as in wet savannas. It is a great choice for a site with poor soils or a xeriscape garden. Deer seldom bother this plant, and it is also tolerant of seaside locations. Perhaps you have heard of the sweetgrass baskets that are woven in South Carolina, or seen roadside stands selling these baskets on a journey in that region. Muhly grass is used to weave these traditional baskets.

One of the Arboretum’s interpretive signs points out a plant called wahoo (Euonymous americanus) that we knew in East Tennessee as “hearts a bustin’ with love.” Wahoo is a favorite deer browse plant, otherwise known as a deer “ice cream plant.” Also known as strawberry bush, this is one plant whose slender green stems wouldn’t attract a second look until the seeds begin to pop out. Then, the sight of reddish-orange bean-shaped seeds emerging from spiky hot pink seed casings will elicit cries of “hey, come look at this weird plant!”

Wahoo grows to around five feet, and moist but well drained, soil that is rich and slightly acidic. It does best in light, dappled shade, and like most natives, it is delightfully drought tolerant once established.

Make plans to come out to the Arboretum on Friday, November 1, from 11a.m. to noon, to learn about the valuable role of native bees. Dr. Blair Sampson, USDA/ARS Research Entomologist at the Thad Cochran Southern Horticultural Laboratory in Poplarville, will lead an informative discussion on how you can encourage bees and other native pollinators to visit your home garden. Bring a sandwich and make a date with a friend for Friday lunch at the Arboretum.  We often get calls from homeowners with questions about identifying and caring for trees. Bring your questions, and learn about how you can plan and care for trees around your home on Saturday, November 2, from 11 a.m. to noon, with Dr. Jason Gordon, MSU Extension Community Forestry Specialist and Certified Arborist. Jason will discuss the homeowner’s purpose for planting the tree, soil conditions, tree location, species growth and form, and undesirable species traits. Members may attend both programs this week free of charge. The cost for non-members is $5.

For more information or to sign up for a class, call the Arboretum office at (601) 799-2311 or see visit the website at 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).
For further exploration:
Visit the Crosby Arboretum’s Plant Data Base linked from the homepage for more information on the native plants described here.