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Common sense says indigenous plants will thrive better than introduced exotic species

The Pleasures of Native Plants

As a child I spent hours exploring the woods and meadows near my family homes. We lived in three of the four Atlantic provinces (excepting PEI) and so I became familiar with many plants, trees and shrubs growing wild throughout much of the region.

As I grew older and more interested in plants and gardening, I recognized how useful native plants could be in garden settings. I also learned that digging them out of the wild wasn’t the most ecologically responsible¬† way to introduce them to my garden. But at the time, there were few nurseries selling native plants, and I took care to collect plants from areas that were being disturbed by development.

More and more gardeners, both beginning and experienced, are recognizing the value of native plants in their garden schemes. Plants that have been growing in a region for centuries are adapted to the prevailing climatic and soil conditions. Gardeners also recognize that we need to be more concerned about our environment, about disappearing natural habitats and the resulting danger to plants and animals. In a world where more municipalities and communities are recognizing the dangers of indiscriminate pesticide use and opting to go green, native plants require less chemical pampering than their cultured cousins.

Native or Naturalized?

Just because a plant is growing in the wild, don’t automatically assume that it is native. Some plants are so commonly seen that we take for granted that they’ve always been here, when in fact many of them arrived in North America with European explorers and settlers. Some of those immigrant plants found ideal growing conditions without the constraints and competitors they had in their native landscapes. The result is, they grow well here, and sometimes grow too well.

You’ll sometimes hear the terms “native plants” and “naturalized plants” used interchangeably. All plants are native to somewhere, but many species arrive in a new locale, either deliberately introduced by humans or else started by seeds transferred by wind, birds, animals or other means. These settle in, flourish and grow in their new environment, becoming naturalized. It’s hard to keep straight which are truly native, which have become naturalized, and which were purposely introduced. Common naturalized plants include tawny daylily, chicory, butter and eggs, nightshade, tansy, Queen Anne’s lace and even the ubiquitous dandelion.

Nursery Growers and Native Plants

It’s exciting to see so many nurseries and growers are responding to the interest in native plants and propagating species for sale. Some plantsmen have always had an interest, and are equally pleased to see gardeners coming in asking for native species.

Bob Osbourne operates Cornhill Nursery in Corn Hill, New Brunswick, and has been fascinated by native plants for as long as he’s been interested in gardening. He says his interest is partly in reaction to the amount of damage he witnesses to native habitat, as human development and degradation of forests, wetlands, and other unique ecosystems endanger many species of flora and fauna.

“Using native plants is a commitment to help rebuild native plant communities,” he says. “It also helps to maintain animal populations that depend upon those plants for food or shelter.”

Matching Plants to Growing Conditions

For those who enjoy birdwatching or encouraging wildlife in their gardens, the use of native plants can put out a big welcome mat to wild creatures. If you visit a garden that has been given over to native plantings, you’ll find it alive with sound and activity, far different from the “green pavement” of many subdivision gardens.

While it’s true that native plants can be ideally suited to garden sites, you still need to plan before you plant. Gardening is all about deciding what will grow in your site, not necessarily what you want to grow there. No matter what you expect to grow in your gardens, you have to know your soil and climate conditions before you can develop a new planting.

Jane Blackburn has a small nursery near Truro, NS, and offers a nice variety of native plants as well as exotic species and varieties. She has found that some of the burgeoning enthusiasm for native plant gardening comes because people are interested in more natural-looking gardens. She stresses the need to understand your garden site before purchasing native species.

“If you purchase native species that prefer a shaded, woodland type setting, and you plunk them in dry, sandy soil in hot sun, you’re going to be very disappointed in the results,” she says. “The best thing you can do for clues as to what will grow well in your area is to take a look around your own fields and woods to see what is already there.”

How a plant behaves through the year will also influence where and how you use it in a garden setting. Many of our loveliest spring wildflowers, including trilliums, Dutchmen’s breeches, bloodroot and troutlilies, are ephemerals, meaning that they appear in spring, flower, and then go dormant and disappear until the following spring. Without careful planning, you’ll find gaps in your plantings throughout the growing season. But since most gardeners relish the thoughts of learning more about plants, learning about native species is usually a rewarding pastime, as much of a pleasure as the actual gardening.

Be a Responsible Native Plant Gardener

It must be stressed that no-one should ever go into the wild and dig up plants for use in their gardens. Many plant species are becoming more and more stressed by loss of habitat and excessive collecting for sale or use in gardens. Some are even reaching endangered or extirpated status. People may have the best intentions, but too many try digging plants for introducing into an entirely inappropriate condition, or digging them at the wrong time of the year, and in both cases the plants are apt to simply die. Reputable nurseries establish their own collections of plants by taking cuttings or collecting seed, and then propagating these to create more plants.

You may also be tempted to try planting a wildflower seed collection to make a meadow or wildflower garden. As with purchasing actual plants, make sure that the seeds come from your region. Some wildflower mixes contain seeds from nonnative flowers, which may work well in one region but become invasive in other situations. Local companies such as the Halifax Seed Company and Veseys have specially formulated wildflower mixes for our downeast environments.

The Space Invaders: Beware of some over-enthusiastic plants.

Many of the introduced and naturalized plants in our region are for the most part innocuous. Others are termed invasive, because they crowd out native plants and disrupt the habitats of native animals, birds and other creatures. Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) is among the most notorious of invasive plants, although it hasn’t quite as vigorous a foothold here as it has in Central Canada. Originally introduced as a garden perennial and as a nectar plant for beekeepers, it has escaped the garden confines and is found growing rampantly along waterways and in other moist-soil conditions.

You may also find that many native plants perform very well in your newly established gardens—perhaps even too well. In their natural ecosystems, they are in competition and balance with a host of other plants, so don’t get out of hand. When given a fresh, new area to grow in without their competitors, they can take right off. Some spread by underground stems, or rhizomes, and this makes it hard to remove them completely if you decide you don’t care for them. Others, especially biennials and annuals, produce prodigious amounts of seed, and perhaps millions of seedlings to be thinned or removed is not what you want. If you have any concerns about the native plants you’re interested in, consult with a knowledgeable grower.

A Few Native Species to Try...

It’s difficult to recommend a few general plants as indigenous species unique to one province often aren’t found in another. A reputable nursery operator can answer your questions about native plants in your area, and more nurseries are actually devoting whole sections to such species.

A note about the scientific names, which are included here along with common names, of which there are often several. Because common names can mean different plants in different areas or one species can have a multiple of names, it’s a good idea to bring the scientific name of the plant you want along to a nursery.

Native Mountain Ash, roundberry, dogberry (Sorbus americana and Sorbus decora): Lovely foliage with clusters of white flowers in spring, bright red fruits and reddish leaf colour in fall.
Sugar maple (Acer saccharum): Spectacular fall colour and food source for small wild animals.
Red oak (Quercus rubrum): Forms massive specimens that are resistant to wind. Acorns are important food for squirrels.
Larch, hatmatack, tamarack (Larix laricina): a deciduous conifer, the soft green needles of which turn yellow and drop off in the autumn.

Wild Raisin (Viburnum cassinoides): This flowering and fruit producing shrub prefers acid soils, and has terrific colours in autumn.
Red Osier dogwood (Cornus sericea): If you’re looking for good winter colour, consider this shrub, the twigs and stems of which are deep red. Commonly seen along roadsides in thickets.
Serviceberry, shadbush, chuckleberry (Amelanchier species):  The first shrub to flower in the spring, this rose relative has wonderful white flowers followed by edible, deep purple fruit in late summer.
Species roses (Rosa canina, R. rugosa, R. virginiana, and others): Some wild roses are naturalized, others native, all are lovely and hardy, many are fragrant and produce large, edible hips after flowering. R. virginiana’s leaves turn red-purple in fall.

Herbaceous flowering and foliage plants
Ferns: From the stately ostrich fern, Matteucia struthiopteris to the evergreen holly or Christmas fern, Polystichum acrostichoides, there are wonderful ferns for most gardens.
Turtlehead (Chelone glabra): A lovely plant for a damp area or beside a pond, with pink or white flowers in pairs up the stem.
Bunchberry, crackerberry (Cornus canadensis): Good plant for groundcover in woodland gardens, the lowgrowing plant has shining white flowers in spring and orange, bland but edible berries in fall.
Clintonia, Bluebead Lily (Clintonia borealis): A striking woodland plant, with shining foliage and clusters of small yellow, lilylike flowers at the tops of stems in spring, followed by a cluster of blue, inedible berries in late summer.
Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum pubescens): A personal favourite native for shade gardens, with elegant, arching stems of leaves up to 3-4 feet tall and paired, green-tipped white flowers like bells under the leaves.
Joe-Pye Weed, purple boneset (Eupatorium maculatum): A favourite for damp areas, including bogs and pond gardens, this 4-foot tall plant boasts flower heads of deep rose and is beloved by butterflies and bees.

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