Gardening with Native Plants

It’s a good time of year to be installing plants in the garden, especially shrubs and trees, so on a recent Saturday I dragged Steve along on a field trip to Herring Run Nursery in Baltimore.

Native plant gardening is becoming a little more popular every year, as people learn more about the benefits of natives and the detriments of alien invasives. The benefits are obvious once you think about it: natives are adapted to the environment so need less watering, fertilizing, soil amending, deadheading, and pruning; are generally pest-resistant, so pesticides aren’t needed, or if they are attacked by pests, they aren’t destroyed; are good hosts for butterflies; provide food for wildlife.

But establishing a native plant garden isn’t easy.



Is Spigelia marilandica native enough? Despite the specific epithet, this plant does not occur naturally in Maryland. But it is found nearby. Kind of.


First, good luck finding a supplier of quality plants if you’re just a homeowner. Many native plant nurseries are “too the trade only”. Some of them will open one or two times a season on a weekend for retail sales, which is great but you have to wait for those days. Or you can go to a native plant fundraiser sale, a type of event that’s becoming more popular, but wow can those things be a zoo. I remember getting to one half an hour before opening and was something like 20th in line, and everyone in front of me had carts or wheelbarrows.

I do almost all my own gardening, so I bristle at the thought of going through a garden designer or landscaper to get material. Not to mention I have a low opinion of most landscaping contractors, but that’s a rant for another time.

Another issue is finding genuine native plants, by which I mean species, not cultivars. We humans have been practicing genetic engineering for about as long as we’ve been human (the argument’s been made that our practice of genetic engineering is one of the things that made us human). Find a tasty plant in the wild? Cultivate it, watch for improvements in succeeding generations: better flavor, faster ripening, longer fruiting time, larger yields per plant, larger fruits, better disease resistance, ease of handling and transport, more appetizing color, pleasing aroma, and on and on. Then selectively breed the plants that show the desirable traits, et voila! the cultivar is much improved over the species.

We do it with ornamentals as well as food plants. Double-flowering, longer blooming, more perfumed or not as stinky, different colors, dwarf or strongly upright forms… almost every plant in your garden is a cultivar (“cultivated variety”) of a naturally occurring species, if not a hybrid (inter-species cross breed).

Guess what? Many of the “native” plants in the nursery trade are cultivars, too.  Want a species joe-pye weed? Good luck finding Eutrochium maculatum. You probably can’t. What you can find is Eutrochium maculatum ‘Gateway’ -a cultivar*.

So what’s the big deal?, you wonder. What’s wrong with longer bloom time or improved disease resistance? Gardens are fantasies of nature anyway, right?

Yes, but. The problem is that sometimes – not all the times – the native fauna you hope to attract will not recognize your cultivar as a desired plant, so they won’t be attracted to it. Or maybe they will recognize the plant, but the cultivar’s structure (eg. double-flower) makes it impossible for pollinators to get to the nectar. Or the cultivar is sterile and doesn’t produce seed for birds to eat. So if you’re planting natives to attract the birds and the bees and the butterflies, do some research, and whenever possible, buy the species instead of a cultivar.

Then there’s the problem of defining “native”.  About 20 years ago I was with a Master Gardener group that was planting a demonstration xeriscape in a public space. One of the MGs had chosen Gaura lindheimeri for the garden.

“Is that a native?” I asked.

“Of course it is!” she replied.

“But it’s not a Maryland native. It’s a midwestern plant.”

“Close enough”.

In a way, she was right. This species is a good choice for a xeriscape: it’s a North American native with no aggressive or invasive tendencies. And back then there’s no way you could have filled a garden with Piedmont ornamentals, unless you poached them. Nobody was growing them commercially.

Besides, many of our native Piedmont species are not particularly showy. Or they have short blooming periods, like twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla), which is very showy but blooms for five days at the most. You have to be a real botanerd to appreciate some of these plants.



Scutellaria ovata: in Maryland, there are only records for it in Washington County. Is it native enough for my Montgomery County garden?



So it all comes down to two things: how narrowly you want to define “native”, and what you want from your garden. If you’re planting to benefit the local fauna, choose species over cultivars whenever possible, but you can probably choose species from a wider geographical range then your local physiographic province. It doesn’t hurt and may benefit wildlife to put a Coastal Plains species in a Blue Ridge garden, if it will grow there.

My intention is to have a specimen garden, a mini-showcase of native species whose beauty is under-appreciated, so for me it’s important to find plants that aren’t cultivars.

Which brings me back to Herring Run Nursery.

I went with low hopes, but was ecstatic to find that they offered a large selection of healthy-looking actual species, though the joe-pye weed was ‘Gateway’. I left with fringetree, Carolina silverbell, scrub pine, witch hazel, spicebush, beautyberry, and about 25 different summer and autumn blooming perennials.

Now it’s possible that some of these are cultivars and just weren’t labeled as such, and not everything was perfect, but still I am really pleased to have discovered Herring Run Nursery. Please visit the website linked to above and read about Blue Water Baltimore’s mission.

interesting reading:
“From Nursery to Nature: Are native cultivars as valuable to pollinators as native species?” by Annie S. White.

*fair warning – this is the only example that’s coming to mind; as far as I know ‘Gateway’ isn’t actually a problem cultivar

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