Native plants were here before us, but we are just beginning to understand the many reasons to use them in our gardens. We have been a truculent public. Native plants can look "weedy" to a non-expert eye because they aren't always neat, tidy and picture perfect.
But we have seen a spring that was ideal for the native ephemerals. These plants are crucial to every garden: They bloom before leaves have unfurled, so bees and other insects have a place to find food. Once they are pollinated, they quickly produce seed and then, poof, many will disappear. But they are active underground, so it requires some knowledge of where to plant them and what to put them with.
The biggest favourite of all are trilliums and there is a species native to every area of the country. But trilliums need time to adjust and build up all the minute flora they require in the soil. Patience is called for. They will last for decades moving ever so slightly around by ants shifting the seed about.
Maianthemum canadense, known as the Canada mayflower, is a treat. This little ground cover has shiny dark green leaves, a twinkling star-type white bloom and spreads very nicely in a woodland setting. It attracts insects like crazy.
There are many other marvellous spring natives such as hepatica, trout lily, mayapple, bloodroot and the glorious Uvularia grandiflora, which will add a brilliant touch to any garden.
But a recent revelation to me is the plant illustrated here called Amsonia "Blue Ice." It's not an ephemeral, rather it is a cultivated variety of the eastern native plant, Amsonia tabernaemontana, or the bluestar. This splendid plant will cover up spaces left by hibernating ephemerals. I'm crazy about this one and have grown it for decades because it never fails to make a lovely clump topped by pale-blue flowers in June. This new form of the plant is way more dramatic and eye popping. It will fit in with sunny plants as well as those such as shade-loving dogwoods.
Not all native plants are garden-worthy. Take Carex grayi, a grass-like sedge that has what looks like exploding Sputnik space capsules at the ends of long strong stalks. It is an arresting sight. Ah, but beware. This plant will colonize an entire garden in the blink of an eye.
We all love Arisaema triphyllum, the Jack-in-the-pulpit. But, again, be wary: It will spread underground much farther than you can imagine and even pop up in the middle of a hosta.
Responsible garden centres are catering to our need for native plants and I found an excellent collection at John's Garden Centre (see my site), which was locally grown. This is really important to the buyer. If you get plants that were nurtured a thousand miles away, you aren't going to necessarily have a plant hardy to your area. Check out where they originate and add them slowly to the garden in rich, organic soil. And pay attention to their light needs. Most ephemerals come out before the leaves on trees have unfurled, so if it says shade, take that seriously.
It's important to build up ecosystems in the garden and the glories of spring and early summer native plants cannot be overstressed. You can have a bouquet of colours (white, pink, yellow, red, blue) while making a safe place for the beneficial insects that keep the garden thriving.
Go to marjorieharris.com for more plant information and sources.