North Carolina Natives for your Garden
There are a lot of reasons why incorporating native plants into your garden can be rewarding. In recent years the expansion of housing developments and suburbs has taken a toll on wildlife and the native flora. While there is nothing wrong with planting some of the beautiful ornamentals originating from other parts of the world, adding some North Carolina plants can make a difference in helping local wildlife. But while there is a lot written about the importance of native plants to local wildlife, and we believe this to be of utmost importance, we want to discuss something less talked about - the feeling plants give to a sense of place.
When describing nature and gardens, people sometimes speak of genius loci, that is, the “spirit of a place.” The particular types of plants used in a garden can instantly bring to mind a locale. Japanese Maples and sculpted evergreens create a minimalist Asian aesthetic; Lavender and Lilacs reminisce of the French countryside, while towering conifers and ferns may remind you of the forests of the Pacific Northwest. But what is the genius loci of North Carolina? Most people, when questioned, might think of Crape Myrtles and Azaleas as being essential to creating the feel of our state (or at least the Piedmont). Yet both plants actually hail from Asia. And as more and more of our green spaces disappear into subdivisions, we begin to forget what North Carolina actually looks like. We become disconnected from the land that sustains us.
Incorporating natives into your landscape doesn’t mean it has to be messy. For example, combining native shrubs with non-native evergreens, such as boxwoods, can create a structural frame around wilder forms. The dark greens of conifers and other evergreens create a wonderful contrast behind some of the brilliantly fall colored native shrubs. Don’t be afraid of plants losing their leaves in the winter. Most of our native plants are deciduous. Watching plants go through dormancy, spring blossoming, and fall color connects us to our roots and the seasons, and in effect, the Earth. If this sounds a little too hippie new-age for your taste (perhaps it is), we urge you to go into our native woods and sit for a little while under a tree, simply observing nature. We promise you will feel more connected to the place where you live when you leave.
Here are some of our favorite NC native trees and shrubs we think make spectacular garden plants.
Red Maple (Acer rubrum) – Red Maple is a common street tree in North Carolina, with fiery red fall color. It makes an excellent shade tree for a larger yard. Look for cultivars such as ‘Brandywine,’ ‘Red Sunset,’ or ‘October Glory.’
Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) – This small tree is covered in showy red flowers in early spring and are beloved by hummingbirds. It thrives in moist to wet soils in part shade to shade. Leaves typically drop at the end of summer; in the home garden place it where it will be noticed in spring more than in fall.
River Birch (Betula nigra) – Excellent for wetter areas with poor drainage, River Birch has a graceful, wispy form and beautiful bark that exfoliates with age. The most common cultivars in this area are ‘Heritage’ and ‘Dura-Heat.’
Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) – Hornbeam is a spectacular but underused native tree with gorgeous fall color. Cultivars such as ‘Firespire’ have an upright, slender form, perfect for smaller yards.
Fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus) – This beautiful flowering tree is covered in cream-white flowers that look like tassels in spring. The most common cultivar of Fringetree in this area is ‘Spring Fleecing.’ Chinese Fringetree (Chionanthus retusus) is also available but is not native.
Dogwood (Cornus florida) – The dogwood is our state tree. In spring white flowers cover the still-bare branches and later ripen to bright red berries that the birds enjoy. Cultivars like ‘Cherokee Princess’ (white-flowering) or ‘Cherokee Brave’ (pink-flowering) have heavier blooms than the species, and rust-red fall color.
Redbud (Cercis canadensis) – Redbud blooms just after the Dogwood in spring, with magenta-purple flowers along bare branches. Afterward, heart-shaped leaves appear. There are many exciting cultivars of this species that are great for adding color to your landscape. ‘Rising Sun’ emerges yellow-orange, maturing to lime green. ‘Forest Pansy’ and ‘Merlot’ have purple foliage, while ‘Whitewater’ is variegated white and green. ‘Ruby Falls’ and ‘Lavender Twist’ are excellent weeping specimens.
Hawthorn (Cratageus viridis) – Don’t be afraid of the thorns on this striking tree. The bright red berries in fall (which the birds love) make up for it. Look for the cultivar ‘Winter King.’
American Holly (Ilex opaca) – This evergreen naturally thrives in wet soil, but grows just fine in moist, well-drained garden soil as well. Birds love the berries. It makes an excellent screening plant or as an alternative anchor to the corner of a house, rather than a Hybrid Holly or Arborvitae. ‘Maryland Dwarf’ is a unique low growing cultivar that only reaches 3 feet tall but up to 10 feet white.
Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) – Eastern Red Cedar is a tall, upright evergreen with purple-blue cones that appear like berries. Bark is reddish and naturally peeling. Use the cultivar ‘Brodie’ as a tall but narrow hedge plant, similarly to how you would use Emerald Arborvitae.
Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora, Magnolia virginiana) – Our native Magnolias are evergreen. M. grandiflora (Southern Magnolia) has dark green leaves that are fuzzy brown underneath, and M. virginiana (Sweetbay Magnolia) has shiny green leaves that are silver underneath. Both have fragrant white flowers in summer. Southern Magnolia can get very large, so smaller cultivars such as ‘Little Gem’ and ‘Teddy Bear’ are popular. Both still reach 20-25 feet tall and 10-15 feet wide, but are dwarf in comparison. Sweetbay Magnolia is slightly smaller, typically reaching 12-20 feet tall and wide.
Oak (Quercus spp.) - There are several native Oak species in the Piedmont, including White Oak (Quercus alba), Northern Red Oak (Q. rubra var rubra), Pin Oak (Q. palustris) and Willow Oak (Q. phellos), among others.
Black Gum / Black Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) – This native tree naturally grows in wetlands and alluvial streams and is an excellent choice for wetter parts of a landscape. If you keep bees, Tupelo is a must; the flowers are an important source of pollen and the honey from it is prized. You’ll be rewarded in autumn, too, with brilliant red fall color. Birds love the dark berry-like fruits. Several cultivars are commonly available, including ‘Green Gable,’ and ‘Wildfire.’ An interesting contorted form called ‘Zydeco Twist’ makes an excellent architectural specimen.
Sourwood (Oxydendron arboretum) – Like Tupelo, Sourwood honey is also highly sought after. They are a bit difficult to grow in the home landscape, but with proper siting and care they are a rewarding tree. Flowers bloom in midsummer, and fall color is fiery red. Sourwood is related to blueberries and azaleas and likewise needs acidic soil. It is also a forest tree and will burn in too much sun, so make sure you plant it under the canopy of larger trees where it will receive about 4 hours of direct sun. Do not plant under this tree, as it does not handle competition well.
Sassafras (Sassafras albinum) – Young Sassafras roots were the original flavoring for root beer, and the Native Americans used them for medicinal purposes. Sassafras has unique foliage, with leaves appearing in three different shapes on the same tree (ovate, mitten-shaped, and three-lobed). It has showy yellow flowers in spring, and beautiful orange-yellow fall color. Berries ripen in September and are a favorite food source for birds and mammals.
Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) – This multistemmed shrub has brilliant red fall color, and plentiful red berries beloved by birds in autumn. The tart berries are sometimes used in preserves. The cultivar ‘Brilliantissima’ has heavy white flowering in spring and more abundant berries in fall than the species.
Beautyberry (Callicarpa Americana) – This unique shrub is noted for its bright purple berries in fall, which are preceded by small lavender-pink flowers. The berries persist after the leaves have fallen, but are loved by birds so may not last through the winter. The cultivar ‘Lactea’ produces white berries.
Carolina Allspice / Sweet Betsy (Calycanthus florida) – Known for its interesting strawberry-scented flowers, Sweet Betsy grows into a large, suckering shrub with deep green foliage. The flowers are deep red-maroon in color, appearing in mid Spring. Fall color is yellow, persisting long into autumn.
Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia) – This shrub puts on a gorgeous display in mid to late-summer when it is covered with sweetly fragrant white blooms, which attract butterflies and bees. An excellent choice for shady gardens where flowers are desired. Several cultivars are available including ‘Sixteen Candles’ (white blooming), ‘Ruby Spice’ (pink-blooming), and ‘Hummingbird’ (white blooming with a compact habit).
Fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii) – White flowers appear in spring on bare branches, and are followed by soft green to blue-green leaves in summer and a bright kaleidoscope of yellow, orange and red in fall. ‘Mount Airy’ is the most common cultivar, but ‘Blue Shadow’ is quickly becoming extremely popular for its particularly lush blue-green foliage.
Smooth Leaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) – Although more common in the Mountains, Smooth Leaf Hydrangea occurs occasionally in the Piedmont. White flowers bloom in May-July, with scattered blooming continuing into early fall. Cultivars have larger flowers than the species, most notably ‘Annabelle’ and ‘Incrediball.’
Inkberry (Ilex glabra) – One of our few native evergreen shrubs, Inkberry thrives in moist to wet soil, in sun to shade. Black berry-like drupes ripen in early fall, when both male and female plants are present for pollination. Native Americans used to leaves to brew tea, and so the plant is sometimes called Appalachian Tea. Although the species can grow 5 to 8 feet tall, cultivars are noted for more compact growth. For many years ‘Shamrock’ was known to be the most compact, maxing out at about 3 feet tall and wide, but a new cultivar called ‘Gem Box’ is now available and is being marketed as an alternative to boxwood, due to its super-dwarf habit and responsiveness to pruning.
Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) – Like many other hollies, both male and female plants are required for berry production. In fall, female plants are covered in bright red berries that are a favorite of birds. A general rule of thumb is one male plant for every 6 – 10 female plants. Make sure you plant male and female cultivars that work together, such as ‘Apollo’ (male) or ‘Southern Gentleman’ (male) with ‘Sparkleberry’ (female) or ‘Winter Red’ (female); or ‘Jim Dandy’ (male) with ‘Red Sprite’ (female.)
Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica) – A wonderful addition to the shade garden, Virginia Sweetspire shines in early summer when it is covered in fragrant white flowers that are attractive to bees and butterflies. Branches and arching and graceful, and fall color is a gorgeous orange-red. The most common cultivars available are ‘Henry’s Garnet’ and its off-shoot, ‘Little Henry,’ which is more compact.
Piedmont Azalea (Rhododendron canascens) – This large deciduous azalea is native to moist woodlands and stream edges. In spring, pale pink flowers adorn the bare branches, attracting butterflies, bees and hummingbirds. ‘Camellia’s Blush’ is a wonderful cultivar with soft pink, fragrant flowers. Good drainage is essential for deciduous azaleas, as they do not like wet feet.
Blueberry (Vaccinium spp.) – There are several blueberries native to North Carolina, and all though more common in the mountains, occasionally occur in the Piedmont as well. Not only are blueberries edible but they have striking ornamental value. Leaves linger long into the fall, turning brilliant red.
Viburnum (Viburnum spp.) Two of our favorite native Viburnums are Viburnum nudum and Viburnum dentatum. Both have blue-black berries in fall that are loved by birds, preceded by white flowers in spring. ‘Brandywine,’ a cultivar of V. nudum, has beautiful berry production. In summer the berries appear pink, slowly ripening to blue-black, so that the clusters appear multicolored during the month of September. Fall color is a stunning deep maroon-red.