Going Native! Great native plants for the Carolina garden

  • January 26, 2012

Generally, the term native plant refers to any plant that was present in North America before the time of European settlement.  For the purposes of this article, however, we will focus on North Carolina natives, particularly ones that do well here in the Piedmont.

Ailanthus moth on Ironweed

Ailanthus moth on Ironweed

The use of native plants in the garden setting can provide numerous benefits to the gardener, the landscape, and the environment as a whole.  Plants that are found naturally in this area are well adapted to our soil and climate and, once established on the appropriate site, require less maintenance.  This is excellent news for the gardener…fewer disease and insect problems mean less diagnosing, spraying, and stressing and more time enjoying the great outdoors.  Your garden appears lush, colorful, and diverse without too much fuss.  And the environment benefits because native plants provide food and shelter for local wildlife, they do not require the heavy use of toxic chemicals in order to flourish, and they do not become invasive as some non-native plant species (can you say kudzu?).



Native Magnolia in Linville Gorge

Native Magnolia in Linville Gorge

Our climate and soil conditions here in the Carolina Piedmont pose some special challenges to the gardener, but nothing that cannot be overcome!  Our soil here is heavy clay, requiring significant amendment with soil conditioner (aged pine bark fines), compost, and/or manure to break up the clay and allow water to drain from the roots of the plant.  Trees and shrubs should be planted “high,” meaning a portion of the root ball should remain above the planting hole to allow for settling and improve drainage.  Our summer climate is hot and humid, a major stressor for new plantings.  Consequently, the best time to plant most material is late autumn or early spring, which gives the roots time to become established before the serious summer heat.  Our humid summers also tend to encourage the development of fungal diseases, so try to keep in mind the concept of air circulation when planting.  Don’t overcrowd your plantings and try to thin out some of the center branches when doing your seasonal pruning.  Ok, now that we’ve covered the basics…



Native honeysuckle is a hummingbird magnet!

There are a myriad of outstanding native plants suitable for the Piedmont, but for the purposes of time and space, I will only cover some of my very favorites.  As far as trees go, you just can’t go wrong with a River Birch (Betula nigra), with its beautiful pale exfoliating bark and multi-stemmed branch structure.   For the quintessential southern tree try the Teddy Bear Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora ‘Southern Charm’) for its medium stature, lovely fragrant white blooms, and beautiful evergreen foliage.  The Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) is another fragrant beauty that is the perfect medium tree for a moist spot in the yard.  For something a little more unusual, a dwarf Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum ‘Peve Minaret’) is a lovely example of a deciduous conifer (produces cones but loses its needles in winter) with a narrow upright habit and great yellow fall color.  For spectacular lavender-pink spring blooms, plant a Weeping Redbud (Cercis canadensis ‘Covey’) as a specimen tree or focal point in your garden.  And for winter interest, try Witch Hazel (Hammamelis virginicus) which brightens the winter landscape with its multitudes of yellow blooms.



Calycanthus flowers smell like Juicyfruit gum!

One of my favorite shrubs is the Southern Wax Myrtle (Myrica cerifera), with its fragrant evergreen leaves and attractive silvery-blue berries (which are a temptation to many of our small feathered friends).  Wax Myrtles make excellent screening plants or can be easily pruned to any shape as a large foundation planting.  For a wonderful fragrance in late spring to early summer, plant a Carolina Sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus)—the blossoms are redolent of Juicy Fruit gum!  For something to climb a trellis or cover a fence, try Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), which, unlike its Asian counterpart, is not invasive and boasts tubular coral blooms that seem to be custom designed for hummingbirds.  For a shadier site you might try an Annabelle Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens), with its huge mopheads of wonderful greenish flowers that open and fade to white in late spring.



annabelle+hydrangeaAs far as perennials go, I am what might be considered an avid collector (a.k.a. perennial freak).  To begin, no native garden can be without Purple Coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea).  These magenta-pink beauties bloom from early summer to late fall and attract birds and butterflies galore—and their strong stems make them excellent candidates for cut flower arrangements.  Another favorite of mine is the fiery orange Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), which gets it name not only because it attracts adult butterflies, but because it is the host plant for Monarch Butterfly larvae.  If you want a perennial with some height, the stately Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium fistulosum) is the way to go.  This robust plant can easily reach 6-8 feet, boasts large clusters of pink flowers, and is an important pollen and nectar plant.  A stand of Joe Pye Weed in full bloom is truly a sight to behold.  For a burst of golden yellow in the garden, try the aptly named Green & Gold (Chrysogonum virginianum), which is a tough and quick-spreading groundcover for a sunny location.  Finally, if you need something for a shadier site, try the lovely Crested Iris (Iris cristata), which has delicate lavender blossoms in spring and makes an excellent addition to a wooded natural area.


Tiger Swallowtail enjoying Joe Pye Weed

Tiger Swallowtail enjoying Joe Pye Weed

As you can see, there is no shortage of outstanding choices when it comes to native plants.  Choose the planting site carefully, considering factors like sun exposure and moisture levels.  Keep in mind that no plant, native or not, will thrive if planted under the wrong conditions.  Proper watering and fertilizing techniques are also of paramount importance—ask your local nursery staff about specific care instructions for your native plant purchases.  And then just sit back and enjoy your beautiful low maintenance garden, with the knowledge that you are doing your small part to help the environment and the planet.





For more information on native plants in North Carolina: