Enchanted by the Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) that grew naturally on our wooded lot, I made a romantic, essentially arbitrary, decision 15 years ago that a section of our front yard would be exclusively “native.” My concept of the term encompassed all of the plants I’d encountered growing up in North Carolina and while traveling in the Southeast.
Alongside the naturally occurring Hearts-a-bustin’ (Euonymus americanus), I planted a beautiful ‘Florida’ Flame Azalea (Rhododendron austrinum). Both are Southeastern natives. But while Hearts-a-bustin’ can be found from New York to Texas and most states in between, ‘Florida’ Flame Azaleas are limited to a few counties in Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi.
Luckily for me, both shrubs are well suited to dry, acidic soils and light shade—the conditions in my front yard. I sought out a Grandfather Graybeard (Chionanthus virginicus), also known as fringe tree for its distinctive flowers. Adaptable to sun or shade, this small tree can be found in all parts of our state, but is underused in gardens.
Most homeowners plant natives because they want something that will do well in their yards. I’m not surprised when Triangle newcomers ask if the azaleas, gardenias, and camellias so common here are native. These Asian shrubs are widely used because they thrive in our climate and soils. In fact, if we used the same native criteria for plants that we use for humans, we would consider them so. After all, camellias first put down roots at Middleton Plantation, South Carolina, in 1786.
My going native grew out of a desire to maintain a connection with my rural childhood and to preserve a sense of place as development altered the landscape. The thought that my garden could be of some greater benefit grew after I read Sara Stein’s book “Noah’s Garden.”
An author of gardening and children’s science books, Stein saw her garden as an ecosystem. She advocated moving away from the typical suburban landscapes of lawn with a few non-native foundation plants toward more natural landscapes that mimic meadows, hedgerows, and woodlands. Stein’s goal was to welcome back the insects, birds, and other animals that had inhabited her suburban New York property before development. She described the gardener’s reward for encouraging species diversity as freedom from the need to constantly intervene in a healthy ecosystem.
I’ve watched the variety of species increase in my garden as we have planted more natives and worked to eliminate invasive plants. Removing Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) from a natural area led to the return of Pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia). American Lady butterflies, who rely on Pussytoes as their host plant, are now regulars in our garden. Pussy-toes’ rounded, gray-green leaves form an evergreen, drought-tolerant groundcover at the end of our driveway. An annual shearing to remove the spent blooms is the only maintenance ever required.
Going native hasn’t forced me to banish well-behaved and useful exotic plants such as camellias or daffodils from my garden, although I avoid problem species such as non-native honeysuckle and wisteria. Whenever possible, I add plants native to the Southeast because I know they are of the greatest benefit to their co-evolved species, the birds and insects who share and enliven my garden.
Want to learn more about gardening with native plants? Check out these resources.
- The United States Department of Agriculture provides a database of plants native to and naturalized in the U.S. (plants.usda.gov)
- The North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill offers resources on native plants. (ncbg.unc.edu)
- The North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service offers advice for native landscaping. (ncsu.edu/goingnative)
Dale Batchelor is the founder of Gardener by Nature LLC, a company offering garden consultation, design, management services, and gardening classes. Her display garden, co-created with her husband, John L. Thomas, is a certified National Wildlife Federation Backyard Habitat and a native plant habitat recognized by the North Carolina Native Plant Society.