Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Tough, But Lovely: Native Plants

Prairie dock in all its lusciousness!
There has been much discussion of native plants around the water cooler recently.  As gardeners, many times we have a love-hate relationship.  We love that our native plants are tough and drought tolerant, but sometimes they are just too aggressive. Cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) is magnificent - six or so feet tall, straight stems, bright green leaves, yellow daisy flowers.  Its leaves cup around the stems collecting rain for the birds and insects and goldfinches gorge on its seeds.  However, it will take over a regular garden bed.  One of its cousins, prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) will stay put and produce huge leathery leaves that follow the sun.  It's got a big tap root, too.

So, how do we encourage folks to plant more natives and yet avoid the stigma of weeds?  Native plants feed more birds and more insects (especially butterflies) than foreign cultivars.  Our prairie plants tend to be large, but you will get season-long flowers if you mix them.  Our woodland wildflowers are stunning, but fleeting.  There are few things more lovely than a hillside covered in spring wildflowers. 

Perhaps we need to not only educate ourselves and our neighbors, but elevate our native plants to their rightful place in designs.  How odd is it that Europeans have cherished and cultivated our native plants for centuries, but only recently has purple coneflower taken the stage?  Our Chicago area natives offer some of the most stunning fall colors, too.

Seek out natives at your local garden center.  If more folks ask for them, more retailers will carry them.  Also, investigate The Morton Arboretum, Chicago Botanic Garden, forest preserves, and other natural areas to see them up close and personal.  When planted in the right place, our natives are magnificent garden plants.

What an elegant collection of natives! 
This garden is butterfly heaven

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