|The Going Native website through North Carolina State University provides Durham gardeners a great research tool for managing native plants: http://ncsu.edu/goingnative/|
Blazing Star shoots vibrant purple blooms skyward in summer that
turn into striking seed heads in autumn. Photo: GAP Photos/Howard Rice
What a difference half a decade makes. The native plants that characterize the High Line—especially the tall prairie grasses and weedy wildflowers that were growing in this country long before the Pilgrims arrived—are the freshest young things among horticulturists.
Last year, Longwood Gardens, near Philadelphia, more than doubled its Meadow Garden to 86 acres to better showcase its native-plant collections of cardinal flower, ox-eye and wild bergamot, among others. In 2013, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden also expanded its indigenous-plant displays; in 2012, Chanticleer, a public garden surrounding a 100-year-old estate in Wayne, Pa., opened a woodland filled with indigenous phlox, columbine and lady fern.
Despite all this official sanction, to the uninitiated, native plants can seem like the Birkenstocks of botany: sensible but dowdy, with uninteresting leaves and tiny, dull flowers. “A lot of people just categorically reject native plants because they look weedy or messy or wild or aren’t showy enough,” said Andrea DeLong-Amaya, horticulture director of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas.
It doesn’t help that, when it comes to earnestness, native plant evangelists can rival your environmentally conscious cousin who berates you for not having a compost bin. They do have a point, however: Native plants are much better than most imported plants at providing food and shelter for our birds, animals and insects.
So what’s a gardener who wants to be politically correct without sacrificing traditional beauty to do? Gravitate to indigenous plants with a distinctly ornamental side.
The recent $15 million makeover of New York Botanical Garden’s native area, for instance, includes a vast border where handsome American perennials such as bee balm and sunflowers are clustered as if planted in a classic English flower bed, as opposed to a “naturalistic” display. Absent are staples, such as peonies and bearded irises, whose ancestors came from abroad.
Native options that are showier, yet still bear the stamp of approval, include Blazing Star, which shoots vibrant purple blooms skyward in summer that turn into striking seed heads in autumn. “It’s such a great plant,” said Ms. Pettis. And despite the endorsement of native-plant godfather Piet Oudolf, unrelentingly plain grasses such as Prairie Dropseed have been giving way to varieties like Little Bluestem. “It turns an orange-rust color, which is very pretty, [in the fall],” said Ms. DeLong-Amaya.
Such efforts seem to be working. Even Lowe’s is promoting the late-summer native Joe-Pye Weed, which despite its off-putting name, blooms splendidly. “Want perennials? Try native plants,” says the chain’s website.