Sunday, March 26, 2023

Native Plants for Sale in Regular Stores


You can find native plants for sale in regular stores if you know how to recognize them. All you really need is a scientific name and a smartphone to identify them. I have often said both of those statements. This week I decided to see if they are still valid statements. I visited 4 places in my area to get a sense of what stock is out there: a large nursery that specializes in shrubs and trees (Buck Jones Nursery); a large all-purpose nursery (Pike); Home Depot; and Lowe’s.

The best of the 4 places was Buck Jones. I found a good selection of native shrubs and trees. It is consistently one of the only places that I have found mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) in the spring, plus sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus), Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica), summersweet (Clethra alnifolia), oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), Florida hobblebush (Agarista populifolia), blueberry (Vaccinium), Rhododendron and native azaleas, and even buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis).  They also have a small selection of perennials (lots of Phlox this time of year), but the native ferns selection is poor (one species only but none of the other places had even one). Many of these are cultivars associated with a dwarf form for smaller landscapes. The following photos are from Buck Jones.

Pike Nursery has native plants to be found, like Buck Jones, tucked among the much bigger selection of non-native plants. They have a better selection of native perennials than Buck Jones (plus two native grasses and even one native annual, Salvia coccinea), but they are all cultivars and many are hybrids. I could not find native Juniper virginiana here (or anywhere), but they had weeping forms of white pine (Pinus strobus) and Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis). A real surprise was finding something as unusual as Magnolia acuminata 'Yellow Bird' in bloom there.

I was disappointed that when I said I was looking for native plants, the Pike employee showed me a Vitex agnus-castus. I said that is not native, and he replied that “Plants that have been here a while are considered native.” I immediately replied that is absolutely not true! To his credit, he asked what is considered to be the proper definition of nativity after I said that. The following photos are from Pike.

I was especially disappointed with Home Depot and Lowe’s. Their tree and shrub selection has almost exclusively gone to non-native selections, perhaps because they are buying from a list that features few natives. I feel like they have changed for the worse over the last 10 years. At both places, much of their inventory is the ‘Southern Living’ collection, an ill-named suite of plants that has nothing to do with Southern ecosystems. Where they once carried the evergreen Ilex vomitoria ‘Nana’ for foundation plantings, now Home Depot only has Japanese holly (Ilex crenata); Lowe’s did have a few Ilex vomitoria among the sea of I. crenata. The following photos are from Home Depot.

The following photos are from Lowes.

At best, these big box stores offer a seasonal selection of perennials that include a few native species: Phlox, black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia), Coreopsis, as well as shrubs like blueberries (Vaccinium), and evergreen Rhododendron and  native trees like red maple (Acer rubrum), flowering dogwood (Benthamidia florida, formerly Cornus florida), and redbud (Cercis canadensis is the native redbud). Vines may include Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) and native wisteria (Wisteria frutescens ‘Amethyst Falls’). Many of their plants are cultivars or hybrids.  

A word about recognizing hybrids (examples below): If the name on the tag has an ‘x’ in the middle then it’s a hybrid (Rhododendron x aromi ‘Tipsey Tangerine’ – note it is wrong to call this a native azalea as its genes include more than just native ones). If the name on the tag lists only the genus name (Paparazzi Jagger Phlox), it is most likely a hybrid. If the name of the tag includes both genus and species (Cephalanthus occidentalis 'Bailoptics') then it is a selection of a species (in this case, for dwarf form).

The downsides of shopping in big box stores include: seasonal inventory (once spring stock is gone at Home Depot and Lowe’s, they move onto summer color); the potential that plants are raised with pesticides (Home Depot is good about labeling for that); poor signage (‘native’ is usually not indicated or the name provided may be insufficient to do research); and employees are there for stocking not plant knowledge.

Please know that I absolutely recommend that you first shop at dedicated native plant nurseries. They offer a reliable and dedicated selection of native plants year-round, many grown without pesticides, and are run by families who are dedicated to the cause of native ecosystems. 

If those nurseries are not available to you, these other stores may be your only option. I would encourage you to get to know the staff, ask them to order specific plants that you want, and get the selection improved by demand for more native choices. Education is key and some people just don’t know; tell them why having native plants in their selection matters. These places do stock invasive plants: English ivy, privet, nandina, mahonia, butterfly bush. Ask them to consider reducing their stock of known problem plants and adding native plants (and signage) instead. Change won’t happen without our input.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

March 2023 Moment in Nature

This post is a bit of a follow-up to last week's crazy spring post. Folks all over the internet were worried about the temperature dips we had last week. There were several nights when the temperature went below 32 just before sunrise. Native plant enthusiasts know that native plants are well-adapted to a little spring fluctuation.

So I didn't obsess over the forecast and watched as my budding blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) opened into full bloom this week without any issue. This large shrub/small tree is one of my favorite plants to recommend for small spaces where it provides much value to the local ecosystem and much beauty for the homeowner (it has fabulous fall color too). It has a nice upright form that doubles as a small tree.

Viburnum prunifolium this week

More low temps are coming this week so we get to watch and learn some more. It all depends on how long the blooms/leaves have been unfurled (have they hardened off), how low the temperatures go, and how many hours the temps are below freezing.

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Whose Spring Is This?


It’s been a crazy spring even before it’s officially spring. Georgians are used to having some early flowers in February, particularly in South Georgia and especially true for some of our spring ephemerals that depend on sunlight in deciduous forests. This February went too far!

I’ve been watching on Facebook the reports of blooms from around the state (plant groups are a great place to see what others are finding) and the woody blooms (trees and shrubs) have been particularly startling. Most people agree that some blooms are 3-4 weeks ahead of usual.

In my own yard, the blooms of Chickasaw plum and blueberries are about 3 weeks ahead of previous years. I wondered if the native bees would wake up in time and yes, they have. The azaleas appear to be on their normal schedule (still in bud) but the blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) is two weeks early.

While my azaleas are ‘normal,’ a friend just 10 minutes south of me sent me photos of his Piedmont azalea (Rhododendron canescens) in full bloom the last week of FEBRUARY. Normally mine bloom the first of April. I’ve seen reports of blooming serviceberry (Amelanchier sp.) in Atlanta while my plants are just barely opening their first buds. My previous photos showed serviceberry blooming the 3rd week of March.

A friend found her first Eastern tiger swallowtail the last week of February. I saw two myself this week. Those are early as well.

Tiger swallowtails love native azaleas like this Piedmont one (R. canescens)

Columnist Margaret Renkl posted in the New York Times (link to the article here) this week about “The Beautiful and Terrifying Arrival of an Early Spring.” She shared some of her early blooms in Nashville: “Everywhere spring was unfurling its annual magnificence weeks ahead of the norm, even the recent norm. Last year I found the first spring beauty in our yard on March 10. This year it was Feb. 16. Last year the first buds on our redbud showed up on March 24. This year it was Feb. 23. Same story with the early buttercups: Last year they bloomed on March 23. This year it was Feb. 25.”

Two concerns with early blooms are the insect aspect as I mentioned (will early flowers get pollinated?) and the fear of late freeze damage. In the time I’ve lived here, we’ve had snow (12 inches!) on March 13 (1993) and a late freeze in early April 2007 that severely damaged fruit crops. That freeze introduced many of us to the concept that trees and shrubs can sprout new leaves from dormant buds. All my woody plants recovered and sprouted new leaves eventually.

In addition to the concern about insect pollination is the potential decline in wind pollination; both of which leads to reduced fruits. I saw only one oak blooming; without others blooming, will it get sufficient pollination? Plants that rely on cross pollination (blueberries, paw paws) need at least two plants blooming at the same time; with this weird spring, will that happen? We’ll have to wait and see across all these factors how pollination fared this year. Everything has a ripple effect: reduced pollination equals reduced populations of critters (small mammals and birds) that rely on those fruits and nuts and the critters (larger birds, larger mammals) that rely on those critters. Reduced fruits also mean fewer new plants as well.

It’s too soon to say this is the new normal. This year might just be an odd one and spring will return to its usual schedule next year. For now, it’s sufficient to say this is not our usual spring. We’ll have to see what comes of it.

Sunday, March 5, 2023

Cutting Back


It’s that time of year when warm temperatures and spring growth inspire us to cut back or tidy up the perennial and annual plant stems that we deliberately let remain over winter. We left them there so that overwintering insects could finish out their lifecycle (or be eaten by winter birds, whichever). Need a refresher? Read my blog entry from March 2017.

This year, as I eyed the jungle of dried stems, I found yet another reason to support having those old stems. I spied a small blob of bright green: a young green tree frog (the Georgia State Amphibian) was clinging to a dead fern frond. As I looked more in that area, I found 3 more frogs doing exactly the same thing

Clearly the thick growth felt like a safe place to them. Each evening they would disappear, emerging the next day in the sunshine, sometimes clinging to a different stem. I’ve had tadpoles growing in a container on the driveway nearby for several years in a row. I wonder if these little guys came from there. I can’t wait to grow some more this year!

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Can Insects Adapt to Non-Native Plants?


This is a question often posed to native plant enthusiasts: is it possible that over time Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) will come to use imported plants as their host plants? It’s a hopeful question for gardeners who like non-native plants, but it’s also a question that scientists are interested in answering in case native host plants decline or disappear.

It’s the subject of a paper just recently published [Specialist Herbivore Performance on Introduced Plants During Native Host Decline] that examined ash (Fraxinus) relatives in the olive family (Oleaceae) that are already here as ornamentals: privet (Ligustrum), Forsythia, and lilac (Syringa). With the decline of ash species due to the emerald ash borer (EAB), it’s a very real possibility that moths and butterflies that use it as a host plant may need to find an alternative host. There is some usage of these plants already by specific insects. The question the paper posed to answer was how productive of a host plant could they be (would the larvae survive to adulthood on these plants or would the plants be ecological traps?).  

Green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica)
I appreciate that such research is available to the public. Also included are all of their references, of course, and those are interesting as well. I had no idea, for example, that 5 species of Lepidoptera are considered extinct because of the dramatic decline in American chestnut trees (Castanea dentata) (reference: Wagner, D. L., and R. G. van Driesche.2010. Threats posed to rare or endangered insects by invasions of nonnative species. Annu. Rev. Entomol. 55: 547–568.) Certainly that makes sense and it could foretell the fate of some ash-dependent insects.

The results of this study were mixed. Yes, the studied moths did lay eggs on the non-native plants to some degree Yes, some insects did develop into caterpillars and lived to pupate (form a cocoon). A quote from the paper:

“We found the nonnative host plants provided varied support for larval survival to pupation, with biomass and growth rate affected differently by both plant and insect identity. Nearly all caterpillars reared on one alternative host, European privet, exhibited distinct malformations of the wing buds at pupation. Given caterpillar presence on privet in the field, privet may constitute an ecological trap (i.e., when female moths select a sub-optimal host, offspring survival and fitness are reduced).”

The article is a fascinating read and it contains many interesting references to other studies (like the note about chestnut-dependent insects) as well as mentioning that they were able to use some iNaturalist observations in their research (go, citizen scientists!).

What can we do about EAB? Learn to recognize the emerald ash borer and signs of affected trees so that you can recognize if you have it (and report it to iNaturalist). It is in Georgia. Look for D-shaped beetle exit holes in ash trees and wilting foliage. Don't move firewood as that can contribute to the spread.


If you want to take a chance on native members of the olive family, plant ash tree species native to your area. In Georgia, that is primarily green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) and white ash (Fraxinus americana). Other members include fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus) and American olive (Cartrema americana).

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Native Edible Plants in Georgia


Chickasaw plum fruit (Prunus angustifolia)

The interest in growing native plants and growing edible plants has a happy intersection point when you can grow both at the same time. I think the poster plant for this movement is blueberry (Vaccinium), a sun-loving native shrub that is widely cultivated for its fruit. With an open, sunny area that gets 5-6 hours of sun and has room for two bushes, almost anyone can grow this delicious fruit.

Blueberry fruit in my yard

I’ve written several blog posts about native edibles but they were not comprehensive. Someone suggested a straight list of plants to consider so here goes:


  • Blueberries (Vaccinium sp.) – full sun shrub, need two or more that are not identical. Read more here.
  • Huckleberries (Gaylussacia) – part sun shrub, better fruit set with two or more.
  • Raspberries and blackberries (Rubus) – full sun prickly shrub that suckers, better fruit set with two or more. Watch out for non-native species.
  • Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) – groundcover plant in full sun to part shade.
  • Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) – full sun large shrub that prefers good moisture.
  • Plums (Prunus) – full to part sun large shrub or small tree.
  • Paw Paw (Asimina triloba) – part sun tree that suckers, need two more that are not identical.
  • Hawthorn, especially mayhaw (Crataegus aestivalis) – full to part sun tree.
  • Serviceberry (Amelanchier) – full sun tree.
  • Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) – part sun tree.
  • Crabapple (Malus angustifolia) – full sun tree.
  • Red mulberry (Morus rubra) – full to part sun tree.
  • Grapes (Vitis sp. and Muscadinia rotundifolia) – vines that may need to be managed to stay compact or on specific structures.
  • Viburnum – native shrub species in full or part shade, research carefully which ones are best.
  • Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) – full sun shrub with fruits that can be used for jams/jellies.
  • Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) – large full to part sun shrub with edible fruits.
  • Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia humifusa) – prickly perennial with edible fruits.


Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia humifusa)


  • Hickory (Carya spp. except for bitternut  hickory) – large trees with sweet nuts.
  • Pecan (Carya illinoinensis) – large tree with sweet nuts.
  • Oaks (Quercus) – large trees with nuts that can be used for flour and other products. More ideas here.
  • Walnut and butternut (Juglans) – large trees with edible nuts.
  • American hazelnut (Corylus americana) – small tree or large suckering shrub.
  • Chestnut (Castanea) – native trees that can produce nuts when not affected by blight.


American hazelnut (Corylus americana)


  • Beebalm and wild bergamot (Monarda) – full sun and part shade herbs with aromatic foliage for herbal tea.
  • Onion (Allium canadense and cernuum) – herb used like chives (bulb is not large)
  • Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum) – full sun herb with aromatic foliage.
  • Violet (Viola sororia) – wildflower with edible flowers.


Common violet (Viola sororia)

Assorted edible roots/tubers 

  • Groundnut (Apios americana)
  • Sunchoke (Helianthus tuberosus)
  • Wild sweet potato (Ipomoea pandurata)

Groundnut (Apios americana)

This is by no means a comprehensive list but rather a collection of some of the most common native plants when it comes to human consumption. Be sure to leave some food for the animals! 

Here are a few useful links that I came across while researching this post:

Edible Plants in North Georgia

Stalking the South's Wild Edibles

What to Forage for Food in Georgia

Sunday, February 12, 2023

February 2023 Moment in Nature

It's been a busy few months for us and I'm glad it's been winter so that I could focus on my inside tasks. One of them has been moving a parent into assisted living and preparing to sell their home. This week was the last of the furniture leaving the house, and while I was there I spotted this blooming Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) on an arbor that they built about 20 years ago.

As we leave our residences to move onto the next stage of our lives, some of what we did often remains behind. I hope this cheerful (and early blooming) native vine will persist for the next owner. When it comes to plants, let's leave a legacy of some native plants in our landscapes to inspire the next caretakers.

For now, these blooms are a memory of a chapter closing in our lives; this #momentinnature encourages us to take the time to remember it.