Arboretum Paths: Learning to appreciate our native plants

Published 7:00 am Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A little bit of heaven – a stroll among nursery vendors at last week’s native plant conference at Birmingham Botanical Gardens (Photo by Pat Drackett)

A little bit of heaven – a stroll among nursery vendors at last week’s native plant conference at Birmingham Botanical Gardens (Photo by Pat Drackett)

The photo you see this week was taken hundreds of miles away from the Crosby Arboretum. It illustrates a tiny slice of the awe-inspiring clusters of native plants available from specialty nurseries that participated in the Central South Native Plant Conference at Birmingham Botanical Gardens.

Offered every two years by the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, this long-awaited event brought together an abundance of talented speakers focused on native plants and related subjects, such as gardening for butterflies and birds, in the beautiful setting of the City of Birmingham’s celebrated botanical garden.

As with the Crosby Arboretum’s quarterly native plant sales, it was a joy to walk among vendors’ booths displaying a wide selection of trees, shrubs, perennials and grasses. As a particular plant called, I was grateful to have my smartphone handy.

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If you find yourself in a similar situation, there are several online resources you may quickly consult to determine the plant’s potential suitability to your garden. Here are the shortcuts to access them. First, enter the Latin name or common name, and “USDA” to view U.S. range maps. You can zoom into these maps to see county-level data.

For plant information, enter the plant name (Latin if possible) and “NPIN” to access the Native Plants Database at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas. This is an excellent resource with reputable information on a native plant’s preferred light and soil conditions, bloom time, mature size, and more.

Finally, to read condensed information on the plant’s garden usage, add “MOBOT” to the plant name to access the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Plant Finder profiles. Many of the plants native to our area are found on this trustworthy site.

We learned some great new books authored by conference speakers, including Southeast Foraging: 120 Wild and Flavorful Edibles from Angelica to Wild Plums (Timber Press, 2015) by Chris Bennett. The subject of wild edibles is wildly popular, and his book (carried in the Arboretum gift shop) is a treasure as it is specific to our region. Chris passed around samples – a basket of ripe persimmons, wild onions, and Juniper branches (Juniperus virginiana, Eastern Red Cedar). We sniffed citrusy-scented Virginia Pine needles, his favorite pine for culinary use, as he described roasting a chicken stuffed with this plant.

A delightful presentation on butterfly gardening was given by photographer Sara Bright, and Paulette Haywood Ogard, who authored the text forButterflies of Alabama: Glimpses into Their Lives (The University of Alabama Press, 2010). These two collaborators inspired us to add butterfly-attracting plants to our gardens, and to get to know them. The heavy book contains information on about a hundred butterflies, also applicable to Mississippi.

Writer Bill Finch, a co-author of Longleaf, Far as the Eye Can See (University of North Carolina Press, 2012) spoke on the plight of the monarch butterfly, and the critical importance of our region’s little-known and unappreciated milkweeds (Asclepias) that provide critical support for these migratory insects. Landscape architect Thomas Rainer, co-author of a groundbreaking new book, Planting in a Post-Wild World (Timber Press, 2015), outlined how native plants “fit” together in communities, and how these principles can be used to create successful and beautiful landscapes using native species.

Want a book to get lost in this winter? Look for reviews of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood (Milkweed Editions, 2000) by Georgia writer Janisse Ray. It was a joy to hear Janisse speak. She is a true storyteller, using those same words we speak daily, but has mastered weaving them together with inflection and talent into something that stirs one’s soul.

At the conference, many described the virtues of native plants, and the pleasure they bring when used in our landscapes. They can bring back memories of our childhood, and times spent outdoors. Native plants can give us the sense of being “home”, in addition to having practical benefits – being low-maintenance, and suited to our region.

Attend a Winter Birding program on Saturday, November 14 at 10 a.m. Avid birder and author Susan Epps will discuss where to look, what to expect, and how to identify winter birds. Non-members, $5. Call 601-799-2311 to sign up.

The Arboretum is open Wednesdays through Sundays 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).

By Patricia Drackett