Native plants add special ambiance to gardens

Native plants add special ambiance to gardens

by C.L. Fornari

I laughed when my husband wanted to save the wild chokecherry tree that was growing in a future flowerbed. He transplanted it anyway, and it turns out that he was wise to do so.

According to Bill Cullina, plant and garden curator at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay, Maine, and author of several books on native plants, oaks and cherries are the two plants that are most important to wildlife.

If I want to encourage birds and other animals in my yard, that wild cherry is important.

My initial disregard of that small Prunus virginiana isn't unusual. Native plants are the Rodney Dangerfields of the garden - they get no respect. When designing a landscape, many turn to imported exotics even though it's smart to include plants indigenous to the Northeast.

"There are at least three reasons people should care about native plants," Cullina says. "The first is the adaptability thing. Native plants have been fine tuned though evolution to differences in climate, rainfall, soil and the seasons."

In addition to being adapted to the Northeast's regional conditions, native plants provide a special ambiance. Local distinction is disappearing as newer architecture appears more similar, along with the most common of landscape plants that aren't natives.

"Plants have a lot to do with regional character," Cullina says, highlighting another reason to consider native plants. "Think of sugar maples in Vermont or the beach grass of Cape Cod."

Cullina also stresses the importance of native plants from an ecological view - the circle of life, if you please.

"A species that has been around for a long time has many other sorts that feed on it," he says. Birds, rabbits, honeybees, butterflies and ants are just a few of the creatures that depend on the chokecherry that I nearly sacrificed.

Given the importance of indigenous plants, why aren't people using them more? These plants don't tend to get us excited because those that have the highest ecological value aren't necessarily the sexiest ones.

In addition, people aren't familiar with how indigenous plants look or perform in the garden, with many assuming they'll look weedy.

In truth, the way plants are placed and tended has more to do with the appearance of the garden, whether those plants are indigenous or not. Groupings or swaths of natives can complement and enhance any property.

"Just because a plant is wild doesn't mean it can't be beautiful," Cullina says. "You can have a lovely landscape and still increase the biodiversity on your property."

Thanks to my research on the value of native plants, I have expanded plans for the garden. I'll include larger groups of natives such as spicebush (Lindera benzoin), New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) and summersweet (Clethera alnifolia) to name a few.

And of course, I'll be tending my husband's transplanted chokecherry.

C.L. Fornari is a writer, gardening expert, professional speaker and radio host who is dedicated to getting you into the garden. The Osterville, Mass., resident is a member of the Perennial Plant Association, American Plant Propagators Society, National Speakers Association and Garden Writers of America.


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