Arboretum Paths: Natives that shine in your fall garden

Published 9:24 am Wednesday, October 5, 2016

By Pat Drackett, Director, The Crosby Arboretum
MSU Extension Service

On our field walk last Saturday with Heather Sullivan, Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries & Parks, and Troy University biology professor Dr. Wayne Morris, we encountered many native plants that would make nice, low-care selections for the home garden.

Although some of the spectacular late summer blooms in our south pitcher plant bog are fading, such as purple blazing star (Liatris spicata), new ones are replacing them. One species taking the stage is the golden-hued swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius).

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An interesting characteristic of swamp sunflower is its very rough textured leaves. They feel just like a cat’s tongue!

You may have spotted clusters of this native perennial, also called narrow-leaved sunflower, at the base of slopes along our local roadsides. Such low areas collect water and give this carefree native perennial the conditions it favors.

If you like to spend more time looking at your garden than laboring in it, swamp sunflower might be the perfect perennial choice. It will perform superbly in a typical garden bed.

Sunny areas of your yard that stay consistently moist will provide the perfect cultural conditions for swamp sunflower. Although the plant will grow in shadier areas, it may be a bit floppier and require some staking.

Swamp sunflower is deer-resistant and salt tolerant, in addition to being absolutely gorgeous. Cultivars of the plant with different shades of gold or yellow are available, such as ‘Mellow Yellow’, ‘First Light’, and ‘Gold Lace’. Some of the cultivars are said to be better suited to drier soils.

Because it grows to four or five feet, Helianthus is best located in the back of your perennial bed. The flowers will be attractive next to shades of red, purple, or blue, which offer a nice color contrast. Grasses also provide a nice textural contrast with the flat-topped blooms of Helianthus.

Helianthus angustifolius is of special value to native bees, as well as being attractive to birds. It is a member of the Aster family and related to other tough species that are grown for their blooms, such as zinna, dahlia, sunflower, and cosmos. Edible members of the Aster family include lettuce, sunflowers, and artichokes.

Also beginning to form in the Savanna Exhibit are the purple flower clusters of deer’s tongue (Carphephorus odoratissimus). This plant is abundant in the southern portion of our site near the Pitcher Plant Bog.

Deer’s tongue is also known as vanilla plant. At one time there was quite an industry that depended on collecting this species, to use as a flavoring in pipe tobacco. As the leaves wilt and are crushed, they release a vanilla-like odor.

Vanilla plant doesn’t like areas quite as wet as the pitcher plant bog, and occurs on the drier side of the pathway across from the bog. Like swamp sunflower, it is also a member of the Aster family.

The perennial grows in full sun to part shade and naturally occurs in wet flatwoods, growing to three feet or more. It will perform well in average moisture and typical garden soil. Deer’s tongue is attractive to bees, birds, and butterflies.

Carphephorus odoratissimus must have earned one of its common names from the shape of its leaves, which resemble a deer’s tongue. An evergreen rosette of leaves is held throughout the cold winter months.

Remember that there can be many common names for a plant, but only one Latin name.

More information on native plants seen in the Arboretum’s exhibits may be found on our website. On our home page, select the link for the Plant List (orange rectangle) at the bottom right of the page to view species in our collection, hosted by the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. You may also search for “native plants” or by species on the MSU Extension website at

Our Fall Native Plant Sale is Friday and Saturday, October 14 and 15, and will include traditional native trees and shrubs as well as blooming perennials for your pollinator and butterfly garden.

More details on the Fall Sale and our upcoming programs can be found on our website program calendar at

The Crosby Arboretum is located at I-59 Exit 4 and open Wednesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.