Sunday, February 6, 2011

That's Native?

Native plants can be strikingly beautiful.  The pink and yellow lady’s slipper orchids that are native to Georgia’s woodlands never fail to amaze those that see them for the first time.  These delicately fashioned flowers with the fanciful common name seem “too pretty” to be native – I know that’s what people are thinking!  Yes, we have native orchids; these are just one of many genera of orchids in the Southeastern United States.

Cypripedium acaule

This week I want to showcase some of the most beautiful and unusual native plants that you can find in Georgia.  These are plants that I have experience with – there are many more beautiful plants than these, of course – and you are welcome to post in the comments if you’d like to mention your favorite beautiful native plant.

Trout lily (Erythronium umbilicatum) is a favorite early spring wildflower.  I expect to see the first few leaves poking out of the ground in the next week or two. Their speckled, waxy leaves do indeed look like little fish on the ground.  Appearing shortly thereafter will be Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) whose pure white flowers contrast nicely with its blue-green textured leaves.  Nick the root and you will understand the reason behind the common name.

Erythronium umbilicatum
Sanguinaria canadensis

Trillium grandiflorum

Twenty two species of Trillium are found in Georgia.  The name describes how are plant parts are arranged in threes: 3 leaves, 3 sepals, and 3 petals.  Despite their relatively short season, these and many of the spring ephemeral wildflowers are much sought-after.  Spring wildflower hikes in the mountains showcase these delicate beauties against the brown shades of last year’s dried leaves.

When I moved to Georgia, I would drive country roads from my house to work.  The first spring, I noticed a low-growing plant that was covered in bright pink blooms in many yards, often stretching for many feet across the sunny area of the yard.  Sometimes you would see various shades of purple or white, but it was mostly pink.  I eventually learned that this is Phlox subulata, or creeping phlox, a native plant in Georgia.  Many folks call it “thrift”, and it is readily available in nurseries in the spring in gallon sized pots.  When it is not blooming, it is an evergreen groundcover.

Phlox subulata


Spider lily (Hymenocallis caroliniana) blooms in the summer and grows naturally in moist areas.  The stout bulb produces strap-like leaves and a flower stalk that has 5 or 6 flowers. My plant was rescued from a development site in Canton, GA and has produced several babies from seeds.  Other species can be found in the Southeastern US, and almost identical forms grow in the Caribbean as well.

Hymenocallis caroliniana

Lilium michauxii

The native lilies (Lilium spp.) are also quite showy.  This rescued Carolina Lily (Lilium michauxii) looks like something I got in a florist shop, doesn't it?  That can't be native ....

Passiflora is a genus of vines that is found throughout the world.  Purple passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) and its meek cousin yellow passionflower (P. lutea) are both found in the metro Atlanta area.  The common name “maypop” references the fruit.  Both vines can be a bit aggressive, but they are the host plant of the Gulf Fritillary butterfly and so are a favorite for butterfly gardening.

Passiflora incarnata
Photo courtesy of

Gulf Fritillary caterpillar
Photo courtesy of

Striking plants are not just limited to herbaceous plants; there are a number of very attractive native shrubs and trees.  Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) is a rather ordinary looking plant until it flowers.  The flowers are quite unusual in shape and form.  They are also used by bees to make honey.  Use this plant in moist, sunny areas, especially on the edges of ponds.

Cephalanthus occidentalis
Photo courtesy of Howard T. Odum Center for Wetlands

Two plants that gain a lot of attention in the fall are Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) and “Hearts a Bustin’” (Euonymus americanus). The bright fall berries of these plants provide a welcome burst of color as summer flowers are fading. Beautyberry prefers full sun with average moisture while Hearts a Bustin’ is tolerant of dry shade.

Callicarpa americana

Euonymus americanus

While trees are some of my favorite plants, I have to admit that they are often limited to a single showy aspect: flowers, attractive foliage, or good fall color.  A popular ornamental tree that some folks don’t realize is native is Southern Magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora.  One of two native evergreen magnolias, it’s a southern garden favorite right along side the non-native Camellia.  The creamy, fragrant large blooms provide long lasting beauty and the glossy green leaves have been a favorite for floral decorations.  Cultivars like ‘Little Gem’ are more appropriate for small gardens.  Normally a coastal plant, M. grandiflora can spread into wooded areas in the Piedmont area; this undesirable habit can be controlled by removing the seed pods.

Magnolia grandiflora 'Little Gem'

Grancy greybeard, or Chionanthus virginicus, is another old fashioned favorite that is regaining favor among new gardeners.  Also called Fringetree, this large shrub/small tree provides an attractive mid-spring focal point in a sunny garden.  At last year’s plant sale, a mature specimen in the park where the sale was held prompted requests for it all day.  We plan to stock more of it this year.

Chionanthus virginicus

A summer blooming tree is always appreciated, and Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) is one of them.  Another common name is Lily of the Valley tree, an obvious comparison to the drooping flower panicles.  As for the other common name, apparently the leaves are sour if you chew them.  I have no personal experience to validate that!  The fall foliage of this tree is reason enough to plant it – the vibrant hues of pink, orange and red provide electric highlights to woodland edges wherever it is found.  Tolerant of dry shade, this tree is a good addition to almost any garden.

Ok, now what did I miss?  What native plant surprises your friends (or you) into saying "That's native?" ....

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