Arbo Paths: Native plants that are stealing the show

Published 7:00 am Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The distinctive, cigar-shaped buds of the American beech tree (Fagus grandifolia) make it very easy to identify in winter (Photo by Pat Drackett)

The distinctive, cigar-shaped buds of the American beech tree (Fagus grandifolia) make it very easy to identify in winter (Photo by Pat Drackett)

As autumn leaves fall to the ground, and our local landscapes begin the transformation to the more subtle colors of an approaching winter, do you find that certain plants are now catching your eye? In a background of muted tones, where green no longer dominates, native plants that you may never have given a second look may now be calling out to you. Take heed, and make a few notes of what plants are attractive right now. Then, make a point to include these in your plans for additions to your landscape for next year.

Spring is the premier season when most of us develop an irresistible urge to garden, often fueled by glitzy articles in our gardening magazines that feature bountiful bloomers. There’s certainly something in the air on a beautiful spring day, and it’s understandable that we often develop a need for scratching in the dirt, and soon are making a beeline to the garden center for plants and supplies for landscape projects.

The winter months in coastal Mississippi offer a good number of comfortable planting days long before spring officially arrives. Every year in February, the Crosby Arboretum holds an Arbor Day plant sale featuring woody shrubs and trees for planting during this cooler season. Winter is an excellent time for planting, as it allows a long period of time for roots to become established before hot weather returns.

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Perhaps you have noticed the brilliant scarlet fall color of Elliot’s blueberry (Vaccinium elliotii) glowing in the landscape. Many people call this native shrub a “huckleberry”. It is often found along woodland edges. We have a particularly beautiful specimen that is soaking up full sun all day long on our pond bank near the Pinecote Pavilion. Sun promotes the best fall coloration, and this plant ranges to burgundy hues.

Growing to around six to eight feet in height, Elliot’s blueberry has an open, lacy form and delicate green branches that make it an attractive addition to your garden. Tiny bell-shaped blossoms appear in spring, sometimes as early as January, making this blueberry one of the few plants that you will see blooming in the winter months. It is therefore a popular destination for bees and other insects seeking nectar.

Both the American holly and yaupon holly are evergreens, and are sporting red berries right now. They make excellent additions to landscape beds located along a property line, where they will function as a year-round screen. American holly grows taller than yaupon and has much larger leaves and a more formal appearance. It can be used as a stand-alone specimen tree in a lawn area, or as an accent shrub in foundation plantings. While yaupon holly has a more informal, “wild” appearance, it can be pruned to make it much denser and less “lacy” if desired. It is quite attractive as a multi-trunked specimen against a solid wall.

Some plants have thorns or spines that are much more noticeable in winter, such as mayhaw, parsley hawthorn, and southern crabapple, common small trees that flower in the spring. Near the Arboretum Visitor Center, American beech trees are sporting pointed buds that resemble small cigars. Beech leaves remain on the branches throughout the winter months, until emerging leaves push them off. This characteristic makes them easy to identify in the landscape.

Have fun learning trees by their winter characteristics! Pick up a book on winter botany to use as a field guide the next time you take a stroll.

The public is invited to visit to the Arboretum for two special events in December. The first will be a gallery opening this Saturday, December 6, from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m., featuring photography by Brian Anderson of Purvis. Light refreshments will be served. Brian is a self-described amateur photographer who was discovered one day capturing some fabulous images of Crosby Arboretum wildflowers. His work will be on display through the end of February 2015.

Saturday, December 13, from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m we will hold our annual Holiday Open House celebration. Enjoy refreshments and browse our Gift Shop, which features the work of local artisans, several of whom will be displaying their handcrafts that day. Both events are to free to Arboretum members, as well as non-members.

The Arboretum 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: The MSU Extension Service offers an excellent publication called “Native Trees for Mississippi Landscapes” (Extension Publication No. 2330) to guide you in making your selections. Written by former Crosby Arboretum curator Bob Brzuszek, now an Extension Professor with the MSU Department of Landscape Architecture, the publication is available for free download at

By Patricia Drackett