When my wife and I bought a house 12 years ago with a sizeable backyard, I decided to clear out everything that was there except a few trees and start fresh, using only native plants, that is, plants that were living in this part of the country, under similar sun, soil and moisture conditions, before the arrival of Europeans. Why do such a thing? Well, there are lots of reasons people garden and landscape with natives, but for me the important point was that these plants have evolved together with the other native plants, animals and microorganisms in this climate and this geology to form highly interdependent communities. Non-native plant and animal species introduced by humans sometimes disrupt these sensitive ecosystems, which gradually developed over millenia, by outcompeting the natives, creating monocultures (stands of a single plant) or bringing diseases or pests with no native predators. Also, native landscapes, once established, are generally low maintenance: if you choose native plants that are adapted to the conditions on your property and occur naturally in similar conditions, you shouldn’t have to add water, fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides or anything else – nature will supply the necessary ingredients.
So I did a lot of research – in books, but also in local wild areas, field guide in hand, and created a list of plants that might have formed a community in conditions similar to our backyard – a gradually sloping hillside with low to moderate sun, moderately acidic soil and not too much moisture, an environment very similar to a “woodland edge” or “open woods” in the wild. I then located native plant nurseries, such as the New England Wild Flower Society’s Garden in the Woods in Framingham, MA, and Tripple Brook Farm in Western Massachusetts, that sold the natives I was looking for and began to create my native paradise. It has now been nine years since the first plants went into the ground.
The project is not without its challenges. Despite my research, some native plants could not survive in my backyard. Also, while I was thrilled to discover some native “volunteers” arrive, many more volunteers were non-native plants, of the most aggressive and obnoxious sort, and eradicating them is a daunting struggle. But I’d like this post to be a celebration of the native plants that grew, and many of which still grow, in the small parcel of land of which we are the stewards.
[NOTE: There are so many plants and pictures that I’ve decided to divide this into two posts. The first is for trees, shrubs and vines and the second (click here) is for everything else. CLICK ON PHOTOS TO ENLARGE.]
White Oak (Quercus alba)
The dominant forest type in our section of Massachusetts is the oak-hickory, with forests dominated by a variety of oak and hickory species. (Prior to the blight that killed mature American Chestnut trees, the dominant species were oaks and chestnuts. Chestnut saplings still sprout from the roots of their parents, but only live for a few years.) Oaks provide food to many animals – not just acorns for squirrels and others (such as pre-European natives), but the leaves are food for the caterpillars of dozens of moth and butterfly species, and the insects that live in and on the bark and leaves are food for woodpeckers, warblers and other birds. Oaks provide nesting sites for birds and shade from the sun. Plus, as oak leaves decompose, their high acid content (and that of the underlying bedrock) contribute to low pH soils, which means the plants that evolved in an oak forest often prefer (or require) acidic conditions. So imagine my excitement at finding out that two of the trees already living in our backyard when we arrived in 2001 were white oaks. Each fall they drop heaps of natural compost onto our native plant landscape.
Wild Black Cherry (Prunus serotina)
When I was clearing out the backyard, which had grown wild for years, I left a twin pair of wild black cherry trees. Although this native tree is not a component of the mature oak-hickory forest, it plays an important transitional role by colonizing former agricultural land and areas that have been cleared by storms. The birds and other animals love the tiny black cherries, although a tiny Prunus serotina sprouts wherever the pit ended up, so I have some work to do if I want to avoid a wild black cherry forest. (Not to mention the invasive Norway maple seedlings from neighboring yards.)
Witch Hazel (Hamemalis virginiana)
I added this tree (or is it a large shrub?) in 2008, fairly late in the experiment. I thought we needed more trees, and witch hazel is a common understory tree in our area. Also, it is one of the latest bloomers in the yard – its stringy yellow flowers appear in October or November. Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture of the flowers.
Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis)
The Amelanchiers are in the rose family and they are subject to a number of pests, but the pests don’t kill the plant, so I leave them alone. Also called Juneberry, this large shrub (or is it a small tree?) can grow to 20 feet, but it has been very slow in getting there. The birds love the berries.
Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum)
This acid-loving plant comes in many different varieties, or cultivars, that have been selected for various characteristics, usually berry taste and size. I decided to avoid the cultivars and plant instead the typical specimen you would find in the woods, the kind the birds are used to. I now have three plants, and while I have seen many flowers, I have yet to see any berries.
Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium)
These nondescript low-lying shrubs are common throughout New England – they seem to thrive in areas where nothing else can, although they only produce flowers and fruit with adequate sun. Unfortunately, most of the 10 lowbush blueberries I planted died after two or three seasons, and I’ve never had one produce fruit, although I do see flowers now and then. Right now, I have two left, both in the shadiest, driest part of the yard.
Black Huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata)
The blueberries, huckleberries and other similar acid-loving shrubs such as the dangleberry (Gaylussacia frondosa), all belong to the Ericaceae (ericad) family, whose members are very common in New England woods. I planted about six of these low-growing shrubs and two have survived, one of which has occasionally produced fruit, a dark bluish black berry with a taste less sweet than a blueberry and with several distinctive small pips inside. One way to tell a blueberry from a huckleberry is to take a small magnifying glass to the leaves. The huckleberry will be covered with tiny resin pores, which are lacking on the blueberry.
Roseshell Azalea (Rhododendron prinophyllum)
The blueberries and huckleberries provide fruit for the birds, while the native azaleas provide nectar for the insects. We have three of the roseshells, which have gorgeous long-lipped pink flowers and a clove-like scent.
Pinxterbloom Azalea (Rhododendron periclymenoides)
The pinxterbloom doesn’t have the strong fragrance of the roseshell, but its flowers are just as lovely. Like all ericads, it likes the acid New England soils. We have two of them and they are doing well.
Maple-Leaved Viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium)
Walk through any dry southern New England wooded area and you are bound to see lots of maple-leaved viburnum shrubs – in mid-May they put out flat-topped sprays of tiny white flowers, which turn to blue-black berries in the fall, some of which last through the winter (apparently not the birds’ favorites). I planted two of these in shaded corners and they are thriving.
Arrowwood Viburnum (Viburnum dentatum)
The arrowwood (so-called because native Americans reportedly used its straight woody shoots to make arrows) is one of the few New England natives that is regularly sold as an ornamental plant in traditional nurseries. It is a full-sized multi-stemmed shrub with striking toothed leaves (hence the Latin “dentatum”) and white sprays of tiny flowers that turn into sky-blue berries. I have one that is thriving in a fairly sunny but dry spot (growing from 5 feet to 8 feet tall in about 6 years), but a second one didn’t make it.
Bush Honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera)
Most of the honeysuckles you see (and smell – they are very fragrant) in New England are nasty invasive species introduced from Asia that crowd out the native species and upset the balance of nature achieved over many generations. The bush honeysuckle, on the other hand, is a home-grown shrub with attractive yellow flowers. Little shoots sprout up to slowly form a thicket. I have it growing in front of an old wood pile in a dry, shady area, and it is doing well.
Sweetfern (Comptonia peregrina)
The sweetfern is neither sweet, nor is it a fern. It is a shrub with fern-like leaves that has catkins instead of flowers; they form a little fuzzy capsule that holds the seeds. When you crush the leaves, they give off a strong spicy scent. In the wild, I’ve often seen sweetferns growing in sunny, sandy disturbed areas such as the edges of parking lots or under high-tension wires. I tried to grow this in several places, but it kept dying. Finally I found a sunnier spot where it did fairly well, growing and spreading slowly, until Hurricane Sandy sent a tree limb crashing down on it in fall 2013. As of spring 2013, two small plants had survived the trauma, both struggling but surviving.
Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia)
Also members of the ericad family, mountain laurels are another native that is a common landscaping plant. Although I haven’t seen many mountain laurels growing wild in eastern Massachusetts, you only need to travel west or south to find wooded areas where they are abundant, although straggly, components of the understory. They only really thrive in sunnier spots. In addition to the species, which has pink buds and white flowers, there are numerous cultivars available. Many of these were discovered by Richard Jaynes in Connecticut, who would traipse the woods looking for odd-colored mountain laurel specimens, then cultivate them for sale to gardeners. Mountain laurels have many unusual features. They are broad-leaved, but they are evergreen. The buds are as interesting as the flowers. The hexagonal flowers have an unusual mousetrap-like mechanism whereby a pollinator steps on the spring and the anther pops out and spreads pollen on the insect’s back. While they are often sold as shade tolerant, the fact is that they need quite a bit of sun to generate a full-fledged flowering. Also, mountain laurels teach patience, as they grow very slowly. The only species plant I have left (the other one died) was about a foot tall when I planted it in 2004; as of 2012 it was just a bit over two feet tall.
Mountain Laurel [unknown cultivar] (Kalmia latifolia)
I got this at the sale rack at Garden in the Woods so I never did find out what cultivar it was. The flowers are pink and it appears to be a dwarf, or compact, growth habit.
Sheep Laurel (Kalmia angustifolia)
This is a common plant in southern New England woods and is unusual in that it can be found in sunny, dry areas such as hilltops, but also near swampy areas in full shade (although it rarely flowers in the latter conditions). It is a straggly plant with listless pale leaves that hang down below the tiny hexagonal purple or dark pink flowers. I planted a number of them, but they all died after a couple of seasons.
Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)
I took a chance in planting this in my yard, because I have only seen it growing at the sunny tops of rocky hills, and my yard has no such conditions. It’s a very low-growing evergreen shrub with white flowers and red berries. I believe the two I planted have died, although there is a chance one has survived and it is hiding underneath some other growth.
Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens)
This is another acid-loving broad-leaved evergreen ericad that hates the sun. Unfortunately, I planted it in an area that was shady until we decided to cut down a whole row of Norway maples (an invasive introduced species), which destroyed the conditions for this plant. I did get to see the waxy, bell-shaped flowers and taste the red berries, which do taste like wintergreen.
Partridge Berry (Mitchella repens)
Another casualty, either of too much sun or not enough acid. Patridgeberry mats abound in New England woodlands, but they are so unobtrusive, you may never have seen them. This is a tiny-dark-green-leaved shrub that crawls along the ground. The flowers are botanically unusual because there are two corollas fused at the bottom into one ovule, so each red berry is the product of two flowers. I planted two, and one died right away. The other lasted a couple of seasons and then disappeared.
Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)
Native plant enthusiasts describe certain non-natives – the ones that spread everywhere and turn a diverse community into a monoculture – “invasive.” But when a native spreads all over, it is called “aggressive.” Virginia creeper is an aggressive species, at least in my neighborhood, but it is the only common vine I wanted to include in my community. (For obvious reasons, I didn’t want the other common native vine – poison ivy – in my community, although it regularly volunteers.) After a couple of years, the vines were everywhere, and I have to do some management so they don’t overwhelm. But they do provide food and shelter for the birds and attractive fall color and they like to climb up things like tree trunks and fences and old rock barbecues, which can be aesthetically pleasing or messy, depending on your taste.
To see part two, including herbaceous plants, click here.