Next in our Guest Garden Writer Series comes a blog on native plants from Kristin Gembara, a certified Master Gardener from Illinois (Zone 4/5). We hope you enjoy her informative article and photos of her garden!
As a Master Gardener, I volunteer at the Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago. This past year, I was asked this question by a curious gardener: “If I want to plant Native, should I get rid of the other plants that are not native?” “Not if they are naturalized and doing well,” I answer. “But how can we grow native plants if there are plants mixed in from other countries?” She asked.
Well, let’s examine the difference in the terms that are used, as we try to understand the benefits of planting native plants.
Knowing the difference between native and non-native plants can be thorny. Do we actually mean native to our continent or our county? Do we mean native to Illinois or to our region? A native plant is a phrase used to describe a plants life in a particular geographic location. Vegetation is considered native if it was present before Europeans settled the area. There is plenty of research on the benefits of planting native, as listed above. Many sustainable nurseries now grow and sell native Illinois/Midwestern plants, and love to teach about the different types of native plants and their benefits. Naturalization is a word in the plant world that people are confusing with “native.” I want to share two examples of naturalization of plants.
The first, are shrubs: Lilacs,Syringa vulgaris and Forsythia,Forsythia intermedia. Both plants were brought to the U.S as ornamentals and do quite well here. Lilacs are originally from the Balkan Peninsula of Southern Europe, and Forsythia is originally from the Far East. They are not native to our region or our continent, but they have not caused problems either. They have naturalized.
My second example is Creeping Charlie, Glechoma hederacea. This plant was also introduced as an ornamental ground cover and has a long history of being used for medicinal purposes. This is the plant that we all, now love to hate. This plant has also been naturalized but is also invasive.
So let’s clarify the term invasive. What makes a plant invasive? According to Mr. Galen Gates, a horticulturist and botanist, who I had the pleasure studying under at College of DuPage, stated, “a plant that upsets by dominating an area is considered invasive.” If you introduce a new species to a setting, and it spreads and damages the surrounding ecosystem, this is invasive. In the case of Lilacs and Forsythia, they behaved themselves after their formal introductions in the18th century. Creeping Charlie became the wild child of ornamentals, which still have folks scratching their heads wondering why it was introduced in the first place. The examples I used of Lilacs / Forsythia and Creeping Charlie have become naturalized, but creeping Charlie has become invasive. Creeping Charlie grows aggressively in places people do not want it and disturbs the ecology with its invasive growth patterns, which in turn, becomes a weed.
Try planting a native Illinois plant or two this spring and see what happens. When thinking about plants for your garden this growing season, don’t just pick a plant because it looks good at the store. Pick a plant that has a job and works with your sustainable beliefs. You don’t have to tear out everything to “go native.” Just make sure that you have the right plants in the right place and you know that there is a purpose to your plantings. In Brookfield Illinois, I look forward to the palette of yellow and lavender that Forsythias and Lilac shrubs share with us, after a long winter sleep. These colors remind us that warmer days are ahead and new growth will flourish. This growth is not just in your outside garden, but in your garden knowledge as well.
White Trillium opens exquisite white blooms up to 5” across in mid-spring. Flowers fade to a pretty pale pink. This woodland wildflower requires patience but is well worth the wait. Seeds produced by the plants and underground roots and will spread slowly into drifts of trillium that look like a white blanket covering the ground. (Trillium grandiflorum)
Virginia Bluebell’s gorgeous flowers start out as lovely, pastel pink buds and open up into vivid, true blue blooms. A perfect addition to part and full-shade woodland gardens, plant Virginia Bluebells to see early spring blooms and frequent visits from pollinators. This native plant increases in size each year and will form a beautiful colony over time with almost no care from the gardener. (Mertensia virginica)
One of springs earliest woodland wildflowers, and always considered one of the most beautiful, native Hepatica is quite common in eastern forests. The blooms vary dramatically in color, and range from white to lavender to (rarely) pink. Growing from 4 to 6" in height, lovely Hepatcia will spread and naturalize over time in most soils with dappled sunlight. (Hepatica acutiloba)
Bloodroot’s unique, cigar-shaped leaves slowly unfurl and open into large, water lily-like foliage. Bearing pristine white flowers with golden-yellow centers, Bloodroot illuminates the garden floor with breathtaking springtime beauty. Happiest with partial shade and moist soils, Bloodroot gets its name from the crimson sap that flows through its roots and stems. (Sanguinaria canadensis)