Living in one of the oldest and most biodiverse places on earth, it’s easy to take our native plants for granted. Look beyond the showy favorites—rhododendron, mountain laurel, native azaleas, dogwood, and sourwood—and you’ll find beautifully understated plants that create welcoming wildlife habitats and gorgeous gardens.
Why native plants matter
Native plants do much more than look pretty! There are horticultural and environmental reasons to integrate them into your home garden:
“The destruction of natural habitat is the greatest threat to biodiversity worldwide. In fast-growing regions, development often fragments remaining natural habitats into smaller pieces that are less likely to support a range of ecosystem services. As natural areas disappear, residential landscapes become more important sources of nourishment and habitat for the many species needed to support healthy ecosystems.”
N.C. State Extension Gardener Handbook
Take a page from Sherlock Holmes
Investigate the planting location. What does it tell you?
Soil: Is it well-drained or does it hold water? What is the pH? Some of our most showy native plants require specific soil conditions. The Turk’s Cap Lily, for example, likes rich, slightly acidic soil.
Light: How do the intensity and timing of direct sun and shade change throughout the day and during each growing season?
Aspect: Does the garden face north/south/east/west?
Space: Can both the horizontal and vertical space accommodate mature plants? Some grasses and wildflowers grow several feet tall!
Elevation: What is your altitude? Even a few hundred feet in altitude change can make a difference in frost hardiness.
Mimic Mother Nature
Going native means focusing on plant diversity and layering. According to the authors of “Landscaping for Wildlife with Native Plants” (https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/landscaping-for-wildlife-with-native-plants): “Clustering similar types of vegetation allows wildlife easy access to seasonally abundant food sources without excessive movement and increased exposure to predators.” Create layers by planting low-growing plants and shrubs under taller ones. This produces a healthy environment in which birds can nest and feed.
Wildflowers that wow
Wildflowers often come to mind when we think of native plants— for good reason. They attract pollinators and add vibrant color. Reliable choices for our region include: eastern bluestar (Amsonia tabernaemontana), eastern columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), and lanceleaf coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata) for spring; butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), summer phlox (Phlox paniculata), and green-headed coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata) for summer; and Joe-pye weed (Eutrochium fistulosum), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), and New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) for fall.
Instead of planting a cultivated groundcover, consider a native that thrives in shady areas. For color and impact, partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) is hard to beat. In the spring, its small white flowers are a striking contrast against the plant’s vibrant green leaves. In the fall its bright red berries look holiday-inspired. Green and gold (Chrysogonum virginianum) is a popular low-growing groundcover perfect for rock gardens or along a woodland path.
They may not be show-stoppers, but in shade gardens nothing quite compares with a lush stand of ferns. Use cinnamon (Osmunda cinnamomea) and Christmas (Polystichum acrostichoides) ferns, for example, to provide a sturdy backdrop for their more delicate relatives like maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum).
It’s easy to overlook these hardy plants that provide a rich habitat for songbirds, skipper butterflies, and small mammals. But to add height, texture, and delicate color to your garden, grasses provide a low-maintenance option. Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), for example, has pink-tinged flower particles which create a cloud-like effect in mid-summer. Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) develops a blue cast in the summer that turns copper-colored in the fall and lasts through winter.
With so many choices available, making decisions about what is right for your garden can be overwhelming. Fortunately, there are excellent resources for navigating the world of native plants. Purchase your plants from nurseries and gardens that specialize in propagating natives. Not only do plants harvested in the wild rarely survive, the practice of harvesting them degrades the very ecosystems we know and love.
NC Native Plant Society:
Article written by Janet Moore, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer.