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Going native with plants

By Kathy Van Mullekom
(Newport News, Va.) Daily Press

It’s good when businesses and gardeners are on the same page. That’s how it is with two professional gardeners and a major furniture store in southeastern Virginia.

They all admire, recommend and use native plants.

“The use of native plants in the landscape is a wonderful low-maintenance option for homeowners,” said Tami Eilers, landscape designer at McDonald Garden Center in Hampton, Va. “In my 20 years-plus in landscape design, I have found that the lowest-maintenance gardens are ones where nature is emulated. Nature did it right the first time.”

Ethan Brent agrees wholeheartedly. Brent, of Northern Neck Garden Grooming in Gloucester, Va., admires the native bottlebrush buckeyes in front of a historic house built in town in the 1920s. He’s admired the plantings since the 1960s, and suspects they go back to the home’s origin.

Bottlebrush buckeye, or Aesculus parviflora, is native to the U.S. – Alabama, Georgia, New Jersey and Pennsylvania but not specifically to Virginia or North Carolina, according to native plant experts. It’s cold hardy in zones 4-8, and bears creamy white panicles of flowers that hummingbirds favor in summer. The deciduous shrub likes sun to part shade and moist soil; it grows 6-10 feet tall in a spreading, mounding habit.

“My love of native plants, in particular, evolved organically for me, sprouting directly from my roots as I grew up in the rural South, both in Georgia and Virginia, an empathetic boy with an inborn eagerness to learn all I possibly could from and about the natural world around me,” said Brent, who studied horticulture in England and Scotland and propagates many of the native plants he uses in landscape projects.

His other favorite native species include:

• Button bush, or Cephalanthus occidentalis, for its unusual spherical flowers. It’s cold hardy to Zone 5, or all of North Carolina. The small shrub is native throughout eastern North America, and is also found from Texas through parts of New Mexico, Arizona and California.

• American strawberry bush, aka heart’s-a-bursting, or Euonymus americanus, for its contrasting warty, bright magenta capsules and orange seeds on delicate slender stalks; foliage turns red in fall. It’s cold hardy to Zone 5.

• Purple passionflower, or Passiflora incarnata, for its exotic fragrance and blossoms and romantic vining habit. It’s cold hardy to Zone 5.

• Dwarf azalea, or Rhododendron atlanticum, for its sweet fragrance and nectar for bees and hummingbirds. It’s a coastal azalea that’s cold hardy to Zone 5.

Many native plants encourage butterflies, moths and pollinating insects, which in turn attract birds, according to Eilers and Brent.

Eilers notes that Douglas Tallamy’s book “Bringing Nature Home” lists some of the most beneficial trees and herbaceous plants for attracting wildlife to the garden: oak, redbud, birch, crabapple, goldenrod, asters, honeysuckle, Joe-pye weed, black-eyed Susans, bee balm and cardinal flower.

“I was most excited about the fact that a single oak tree can support over 534 species of butterflies and moths while providing fabulous nesting spots. This equates to an abundance of food for birds as well as butterflies. Shrubs provide cover for various ‘critters,’ which adds to the entertainment factor as well as adding to the biodiversity of the garden.”

In Eilers’ design world, a home landscape that works in harmony with nature includes oaks and red maples as upper story trees and for fall color, as well as deciduous redbuds, dogwoods, evergreen cedars and American hollies.

Shrubs would include deciduous beautyberry, clethra, native azaleas, winterberry, native blueberries, itea and native viburnums.

For evergreens: yaupon hollies, wax myrtle, inkberries, as well as smaller-growing ferns, native iris, milkweed and bee balm – most are cold hardy in several zones.

“Adding birdfeeders, hummingbird feeders, birdbaths – several because many birds are territorial – as well as rocks that hold rainwater for butterfly paddling and a hammock can change the appeal of a native landscape for any homeowner,” Eilers said.

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