Odes to Our Favorite Native Plants

For our March 2012 Washington Gardener Reader Contest, Washington Gardener Magazine asked readers to submit emails naming their favorite native plants in a drawing for six Trillium cuneatum plants from Sunshine Farm & Gardens (http://www.sunfarm.com/).
We have chosen our winner at random from among the many contest entries and she is: Katie Dott of Towson, MD.

Congratulations, Katie! The six Trillium plants are on their way to you shortly. Despite their exotic, magical, mystical appearance, most Trilliums are quite easy to grow and Trillium cuneatum is no exception. Trillium cuneatum is native to 11 Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern states. Here’s a plant that you will instantly fall in love with as its deep burgundy flowers bloom for an extremely long period of time in early to mid Spring. With the most exciting marbled foliage and with no two plants alike, their silvery leaves electrically light up even the shadiest of gardens.
Sunshine Farm & Gardens is the brainchild of Barry Glick. In the past 32 years they’ve managed to amass a diverse collection of well over 10,000 different, hardy to zone 5 perennials, bulbs, trees, and shrubs from every corner of the Earth on their 60-acre mountain top at 3,000 feet in beautiful Greenbrier County WV.

Favorite native plant choices singled out by our contest entrants included: Coneflower, Dogwood, Trilliums, Bottlebrush Buckeye, Serviceberry, Virginia Bluebell, Bloodroot, Paw Paw, Bee Balm, May Apples, Twinleaf, Franklinia tree, Baptisia, Virginia Sweetspire, and Mahogany Fawn Lily (Erythronium revolutum).
Three of our entrants decided to go beyond just naming the plant and giving a quick reason. They wrote wonderful odes to their favorite natives, so I decided to share them below:

I would be a cupplant if I were a native plant in this region.

I have had cupplants growing in my back garden for about 9 years now, they are floppy, sloppy and a bit shabby sometimes but they are the most generous of all plants in the garden. They bloom from July through the first frost and many different pollinators frequent them. Unlike other plants in my yard which seem to be favored by one pollinator or another, one type of bee or another type of fly. I love when goldfinches visit the blooms and then fly off as I come into my driveway, it looks like a chunk of the yellow flowers with dark brown stems has broken off and flown up to perch on the telephone wire. Many birds come to my yard to eat the seeds.

But my favorite feature of the plant is the little cups of water at the stem of each leaf. A huge diverse community of beings depend on those little water sources, as far as I can tell. Dozens of different types of insects and a few birds visit my stand of cupplants and drink from those tiny reservoirs, especially during the height of a DC August. One year, an enormous emerald green June bug took up residence and, like a mini Mussilini it took over. It would do a large circle around the whole stand of 25 plants at head level a few times a day, patrolling way out over my neighbor's trashcans and back over a chunk of my driveway. Big and beautiful, it was a thug. It would challenge all the larger things that approached the stand, including me, and, when not busy being a bullying pest, would sit on a favorite leaf with its head in one of the cups. Then, suddenly, one day, it was gone. Maybe it took on something more of a thug than it was. I missed it.

Anyway, I love cupplant because it supports a huge community with divergent needs. A stand of cupplants is like a little green city, and being a city girl, I love that.

~ Ellen McBarnette of Washington, DC

My native plant is Amsonia hubrichtii. It has beautiful, fine texture and moves beautifully in the breeze. It's large enough to function as a shrub in the garden, but I don't have to worry about damage from shovelled snow piled on it, since it's a herbaceous perennial. The pale blue flowers aren't showstoppers, but on the plus side, they don't weigh down the plant and go with any other color. Its season to shine is the fall, when it turns bright gold. I've had people pull into my driveway and say, "What is that plant?" Like a peony, it's a large plant that takes a few seasons to hit its stride, but is well worth the wait. Mine is about 5-7 years old and is about 4' x 4'. It requires absolutely no attention from me during the summer--no deadheading, pruning, or pinching, and very little watering. I understand it can be cut down (in late spring, maybe?) so its ultimate height is shorter. I've never had any pest or disease problems with it. It looks stunning in big groups, and to my mind, is a great substitute if you've seen a few too many masses of grasses. It doesn't have the winter interest of a tall grass, however. It's one of my very favorite plants.

~ Lucy Goszkowski, Annapolis, MD

My native plant -- how to choose?

I would say Spigelia marilandica -- who can resist the ruby red and yellow throats of this thing that grows so beautifully without any hybrid machinations? Certainly not the hummingbirds.

Perhaps, no, I am Sanguinaria canadensis, one of the first woodland harbingers of spring. It's like our own personal variety of snowdrops -- yes, winter is coming to an end.

But, really, acknowledging that I like to have my toes in the sand during the summer, I'm really probably Asclepias tuberosa, with my tiny little orange lanterns lighting up the summer hours. And, I'm useful for helping people understand that yes, it's okay, and yes, it's desirable for larvae to eat your garden plants--especially it's monarch butterfly babies doing the munching.

But you know what? Maybe I'm overthinking my identity here; maybe herbaceous perennials are over-rated. Maybe I'm really more like Illicium floridanum -- I look like a rhododendron with my broad evergreen leaves, but rub me and I smell like a freshly made gin-and-tonic. Too bad my little white flowers aren't as nice-smelling; "fishy" doesn't sound like the best description.

I know! Rhapidophyllum hystrix! That's definitely me! I'm totally tropical, but I'm tough as nails -- you can find me growing strong even in Montreal winters. No, really. I'm not a palmetto, and I won't die off.

Perhaps I'm really the kind of person who is better suited for a longer-term relationship. I'll give you flowers and fruit, but only if the birds don't get it before you do. Amelanchier canadensis, that's me; I'm bigger and more beautiful than blueberries and just as tasty.

No. Bigger. I've got much more of a statement to make. I'm definitely Liriodendron tulipifera, towering tall and uninhibited over the forest, but still showering everyone below with my fantastical flowers. You'll definitely spot me growing ramrod straight even with plenty of neighbors around.

My native plant is anything that stops and makes me think, gives me an excuse to tell other people about it so they, too, can stop and think. We are absolutely stewards of the lands we inhabit, and though there is a place in the garden for the showy and exotic, far more things depend on our willingness to make way for the humble and local. I'm the spring ephemeral, the understory shrub, the open woodland canopy and the grasses and sedges in between. I'm a part of the natural world, and the natural world is part of me.

Happy Spring, Washington Gardener Magazine!

~ Michelle Donahue


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