Friday, April 30, 2010

Native Ground Covers

When it comes to landscaping around the home, many people seem to be more comfortable with a single carpet-like planting – grass, vinca, or pachysandra. This is more comforting, easier to ‘read’ and may be a representation of nature ‘controlled’.  In the natural world the ground cover layer is more likely to be a mix of species. Each species occupies a preferred niche in both time and space. Hayscented fern is one of the few species that I’ve seen that can really appears to dominate a space, but that was in a recently cleared forest. On closer examination other species were present at ground level. With time a more diverse community will develop.

In designing a ground cover planting with native species you should draw on a palette of low-growing plants that can work together and are appropriate to the site conditions. While the following list is not exhaustive, these are some of the natives that I have grown around my home that work well as ground covers.



Black Huckleberry, Gaylassacia baccata, is and evergreen woody subshrub that is found in upland woods and handles a range of soil moistures, wet to dry, and sun exposures light shade to full sun. It grows 1-2’ tall and twice as wide. I was impressed by the glossy green (and a few bright red) leaves in February. The flowers develop slowly through the spring and are just now opening. I’m looking forward to larger plants so that I can see these colorful flowers without bending over so much. Although slow growing, I have been able to grow this plant in a variety of difficult locations. This plant is becoming more available in the retail trade. Other huckleberries, preferring moister conditions, are also available.


3-Toothed Cinquefoil, Sibbaldiopsis tridentata, (formerly of the genus Potentilla) is another tough plant for tough conditions. I’ve seen this growing at the top of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. I’ve had a good experience growing this plant in a variety of challenging locations, such as on the edge of yew bushes. With a little protection it is evergreen through the winter and it produces clusters of white flowers in summer. While it can form a dense mat, it is not so thick as to exclude other plant from growing with it.


Bearberry, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi , grows under what would be considered very harsh conditions, but is must have very well drained soil to survive. While I’ve encountered it growing out of cracks in boulders on a hiking trail, I haven’t had much luck with this plant on my ‘typical’ residential site (too moisture retentive, my guess); therefore no photos, either.


Barren Strawberry, Waldsteinia fraganoidies, formes a fairly dense evergreen mat with good weed suppressive character. It produces yellow flowers in early spring (now in New England), but the fruit is inedible. In the photo it is growing with sensitive fern and Mayapple.  This native can be found at some nurseries, but its cousin, Siberian Barren Strawberry, Waldsteinia ternata, is much more available and is often sold under the same common name.



Hairy Alumroot, Heuchera villosa, has been a very effective ground cover for me in partly sunny locations. The collection shown here was grown from seed which produced a mixture of green and purple leaf forms. The leaves cast enough shade to control weed growth from below. Later in the summer it produces small white flowers on long racemes, but these are not particularly showy compared to many of the Heuchera cultivars.



Some other native plants that I have been trying around my home, which can be used in a ground cover mix, include Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens), Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), Canada Mayflower (Maianthemum canadense) and Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) and a variety of ferns. There are many more native species that can be used as ground covers. Just take a walk in the woods to see what’s growing there. What other natives have you used as ground covers?

For more information on native groundcovers, check out this article from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.  Also, check out my follow-up post Native Ground Covers - Part 2.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Rebirth-- Spring in New England

I had a wonderful visit to St. John, USVI, with all of its lush vegetation and quiet beaches, but you can’t beat coming back to springtime in New England. After 5+ months of grayness, color has popped out everywhere. All that new foliage is fresh and green and many of the trees and shrubs are blooming. As Laurrie commented in a recent blog post ‘The Thrill is Gone’ . We in zone 5 and below have to wait longer than many – but experiencing the rebirth first hand sure beats looking a pictures.

Here’s a look at some of the native plants that are coming out around my house in the past few days.


The common blue violet, which I used to battle against until I learned that it was a native species, was popping up through my unmown lawn. Eastern columbine is about to bloom. This one is the result of self seeding. I also caught this sweetfern in bloom with the small red female flower below the male catkins.  This little flower is really easy to miss.



In my ‘woodland’ garden there are a number of perennials returning. This garden is under a Norway Maple, so it is hardly a natural environment for these plants, but the ones that grow here are tough competitors.



Best results go to the Wild Bleeding Heart, which is actually expanding its bounds. Lowbush blueberry is blooming well this year. The Twinleaf and Bellwort have been coming back for 3-4 years now, with some indication that they are beginning to spread. Last year I was fortunate to capture the Twinleaf in bloom. The intense white flowers only last a day, but the foliage alone can carry the show.  There are also a variety of native ferns putting up their fiddleheads.



Coming soon are the huckleberry and barren strawberry. I’ll get to those later.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Native Plants...USVI

I’ve been on vacation on St. John, USVI for relaxing and snorkeling as well as appreciating the botanical differences from the chilly Northeast.



All around the island you see what are house plants at home growing in their full glory. Many of these are imported from other tropical areas around the world. Plants like Plumbago, Codiaeum variegatum (Croton) and Bougainvillea appear in many of the landscapes around the villas. You can’t deny that these look fantastic.


While driving around the island, I was surprised and delighted to find a small native plant garden. This little garden shows a variety of landscape suitable plants that may already be growing naturally on a property and encourages owners and developers to preserve them. The sponsors for this garden include local community groups and the Island Resources Foundation. This organization supports environmental preservation in the USVI and Caribbean. Their mission statement is:
To protect and enhance the environments of small islands, especially those in tropical areas, and to assist islanders in the pursuit of development options that preserve the special qualities of island life.

Some examples of the plants in the native plant garden include Yellow Prickle, Mastic, and Philodendron gigantica.





Monday, April 5, 2010

Adlumia fungosa!!!


Adlumia fungosa, if pronounced ad-LOO’mee-uh” fun”-GOE’suh, may sound like an incantation from the Harry Potter series. Instead, it is fast growing biennial vine native to the Northeastern United States. It is also known by many common names, such as Climbing Fumitory, Allegheny Vine and Mountain Fringe Vine. The genus Adlumia is named for John Adlum a 19th century American Horticulturalist and fungosa means spongy in Latin, may refer to the consistency of the faded bloom which persists long after its peak. 

The flowers form clusters of white to pale pink bells from June to September, similar to those of its cousin, bleeding heart (Dicentra). As the flowers age, they take on an antique sepia shade. The seed ripens throughout the season, with September being the best time to harvest the small, shiny black seeds. Jane Loudon recommended this plant for the English flower garden in her ‘Ladies Companion’ (1865). I was fortunate to get both some second year plants from the New England Wildflower Society this last year, as well as seed from Summer Hill Seeds. This should help me to develop a continuous supply of first and second year plants and I am looking forward their continuing presence in my garden.


Its fern-like gray-green foliage is typical of other members of the Fumariaceae, like the Dicentra and Corydalis.  In early spring it is difficult to distinguish this vine from Wild Bleeding Heart and Squirrel Corn (D. eximia and D. canadensis).  The vine forms a rosette, growing to about 8” the first year and in the second year takes off to form an 8-10’ clamoring vine.  Its structure is rather delicate and it requires the support of strings or a trellis, on which the thin leaf stems intertwine, to grow vertically. The plants prefer partial shade in average, well drained soil. Too much sun will damage this vine. The first time I tried this plant in my garden, one poorly supported plant was irreparably twisted and killed by a strong wind.
The reported native habitats are moist coves, rocky woods, ledges, alluvial slopes, and thickets with a range from Virginia, north to Quebec and Manitoba. In Massachusetts it is listed as a threatened species where it is native to the western half of the state (west from Worcester County).

Recently, fellow plant blogger Alice Joyce wrote a article featuring this vine in the March/April 2010 edition of American Gardener (link-on-line access for AHS members only). Also, more information and some fine photos can be found in a post from Kathy Purdy in Cold Climate Gardening (August 2009).