I hardly have to think of it: Blue False Indigo, Bee Balm, Butterflyweed, Cardinal Flower, Eastern Coneflower, Garden Phlox, Gayfeather, Thread-Leaf Coreopsis, Goldenrod, and Joe-Pye Weed. All ten are easy to grow and hard to kill–unintentionally, that is: These are polite neighbors in my Northern Virginia garden. But, above all, they bring so much life, joy, and color each season that I really no longer have a need for television. Just look:
1) Blue False Indigo (Baptisia australis): An architecturally stunning plant in any season. No need to buy many: In the third year, my tiny delicate twig turned into a beautiful, tidy, hip-high shrub, without gobbling up too much ground. Long clusters of bluish purple flowers bring bees, butterflies, and humming birds in May. Unlike many spring-blooming natives, False Indigo maintains its crisp green leaves and form through the hottest and driest days of summer, its flowers giving way to arresting black seed pods in summer and fall. Best of all, this is the host plant for skipper butterflies (Wild Indigo Duskywing and Southern Dogface, in my garden)–not the most flashy of lepidoptera, but charming nevertheless. Needs: Sun to partial sun; moist to dry soil (rather unkillable, in my experience).
2) Bee Balm (Monarda didyma): Its crazy-hair blooms always make me smile. They seem to scream, “We are AWAKE, and LOVING IT!” This is another thrifty plant: just buy one, and you’ll have a drift a year or two later. They do spread, but easy to keep in bounds. Fireworks of scarlet blooms attract bees and hummingbirds in June. Related to mint, Bee Balm flowers exude a gentle, herbal aroma. Another common name for Bee Balm is “Wild Bergamot,” because its leaves, when crushed, have a vaguely citrusy smell–similar to bergamot oranges, European botanists thought as they described the New World. Native Americans used dried Bee Balm leaves for teas to treat sore throats and headaches, among many other medicinal purposes (hence another common moniker, “Oswego Tea”). After bloom, sadly, leaves tend to get mildew and deteriorate. I usually cut the most affected plants down to the ground in July, but it’s good to leave some seed pods through the season–birds love them in late summer and fall. This is, certainly, a middle-of-the-border addition. Needs: Sun to partial shade. Prefers moist soil (my patch is thriving in dry part-shade though). Cultivars “Jacob Kline” and “Fireball” are more mildew-resistant and have larger, more dramatic flower heads than the species.
3) Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa): Wonderfully showy in its bright-orange bloom and vigorous even in the driest of soils, this is one of the most useful plants in my garden: Part of the milkweed family, this is the host plant for monarch butterflies and is invariably the most popular nectar source for pollinators in June and early July. I love the seed pods in late summer. They look like bright-green genie lamps that, literally, explode into hundreds of downy parachute-seeds in autumn.
Monarch butterfly larvae rely exclusively on the milkweed family to survive (the bitter milky substance inside the plants is what makes the monarchs poisonous to predators). Lessons on mimicry aside in high school biology, I didn’t know much about monarchs before I began gardening. These butterflies, local to North America, are more than pretty wings: In early fall, a generation of monarchs is born (the Methuselah generation) that travels hundreds of miles from all over the United States to the same small area in Mexico (one day, I would love to visit); the Methuselah butterflies can live up to nine months, instead of the usual 2-5 weeks–they travel south, overwinter, and then head home in spring. Fascinating! The Monarch Watch is trying to help protect these unique butterflies in the United States and Canada. Its Monarch Waystation Program is certainly worth joining, and a great primer for a novice butterfly gardener.
I have two other milkweed varieties in my garden: the Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), a somewhat coarse, self-seeding giant (an annual, that pops up all over the garden each year), with amazing candy-cane-scented flowers, and the Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), a graceful plant that performs beautifully in moist soils.
Butterflyweed needs: Not many, it seems to thrive wherever put, as long as there is some sun. All milkweeds emerge late in spring (as late as May!)–good to know, as you anxiously check for signs of life. In their first summer, my Butterflyweeds and Swamp Milkweeds were infested by aphids, but now I have enough insect predators (ladybugs!) to deal with any infestations before they become visible.
4) Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis): One of the most stunning natives in midsummer, the Cardinal Flower does best in wet soils and bright sun. I may be a bit biased toward Cardinals, admittedly: It was the star in my very first hummingbird sighting. Since that first morning, I see hummingbirds almost every day when the Cardinals are in bloom.
Individual Cardinal plants are short-lived perennials, but they self-seed gently–and you really want them to spread: their blood-red flower stalks are breathtaking in a group (so don’t mulch too much around Cardinals). Because I love the red flowers so much, I have been avoiding the Cardinal Flower’s relative, the Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica)–the two relatives hybridize readily. Apparently, the results are anywhere between pink and purple (beautiful, I am sure).
Needs: Wet soil is preferred but I have several groups surviving tolerably on dryer soils (they are smaller and less showy than their wet-soil counterparts). Best planted in full sun, but, if soils are dryer, plant in part shade.
5) Eastern Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea): This prickly, happy flower is a familiar sight. Growing up in Central Asia, I thought of Echinacea as exotic medicinal tea my grandmother administered for an achy throat. This was the first native plant I bought for my garden in the US and was my introduction to native gardening generally. I love the rough, eager look of it, with down-turned petals, as if the stems are pulling themselves up too quickly, straining to get taller. Its Latin name comes from Greek “echino”, hedgehog, for the bloom’s spiky, rusty center. The flowers light up the garden in July and August. Coneflowers pick up where Butterflyweeds leave off: my Echinacea patches are always buzzing with activity. I rarely deadhead Coneflowers–in late summer and fall, their striking withered blooms become the favorite feasting perches for gold finches and other small birds.
Apart from the regular Echinacea purpurea, there are some lovely varieties: like the Tennessee Coneflower (Echinacea tennesseensis), removed only recently from the endangered list thanks to efforts of The Nature Conservancy. Instead of the usual droopy Echinacea look, petals of the Tennessee Coneflower are cupped, as if reaching up for the sun. This plant is less hardy-looking, more graceful than E. purpurea. I’ve also experimented with some cultivars, more varied in color and many deliciously fragrant. My favorite is the white “Fragrant Angel”–this year, its second, it has been almost as popular among butterflies as its purple relatives.
Needs: Coneflowers are hardy plants, but they do tend to flop in soil that doesn’t drain well. They prefer sun, but tolerate partial shade.
To be continued…. (my next five are Garden Phlox, Gayfeather, Thread-leaf Coreopsis, Goldenrod, and Joe-Pye Weed)
Buying Plants: Nature by Design Nursery and Garden Center, http://nature-by-design.com/, my absolute favorite nursery specializing in native plants (in Alexandria, VA).
Mail-Order: Lazy S’s Farm Nursery, http://www.lazyssfarm.com/, an excellent source of native-plant cultivars and rare and unusual perennials generally.
The Essential Garden Library: Native Plants of the Northeast: A Guide for Gardening and Conservation by Donald J. Leopold (my main go-to encyclopedia of native ferns, grasses, wildflowers, vines, shrubs, and trees, this book is comprehensive and user-friendly). Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants by Douglas W. Tallamy (an excellent argument for incorporating native host plants in suburban gardens). The Secrets of Wildflowers: A Delightful Feast of Little-Known Facts, Folklore, and History by Jack Sanders (the title says it all)