You know the story. We bought our house in 2001 on 7000 square feet of land. In the next three years, I pulled out everything in the back except for two oak trees (Quercus alba) and two wild black cherry trees (Prunus serotina). Then I researched the native plants that grow in my area of New England where light and moisture conditions are similar to my backyard. Then I found places I could buy these plants or seeds legally (“transplanting” them from parks is not legal) and proceeded to create a replica of the native plant community that would have existed prior to the introduction of invasive non-native species by humans. Now, when I walk through New England’s wild areas, I see many of the same trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants that I have in my backyard – and vice versa.
Despite the title of this post, I don’t like to use the term ‘garden’ for my yard – it is more of a landscape, with some minimal human interventions, but mostly a wild area. I would like it to look like you are taking a walk in the woods.
Creating a native plant community has been a joy and a struggle. Some non-native invasives insist on trying to take over, and some of the natives spread in ways that Mary (my patient and long suffering spouse) finds “too messy.” But there are times – like late May and early June – when the natives show their true colors. This June evening, Mary and I took a walk through the backyard and I took some photos with my iPhone 5 (which, frustratingly, was having difficulty with bright whites and yellows). Here is my list:
1. The Path. Besides the fence and the house, the only obvious human intervention is a winding path, culminating in a small circular “room” with a chair and a statute of St. Francis of Assisi (thanks, Mom!). One of the first pieces of advice I got about creating a native plant community was to make it look like it was done on purpose. A path serves this purpose as well as allowing us to access the yard without stepping on plants. The first couple of years, I tried to keep the path clear of weeds by putting down wood chips, but that became expensive and time-consuming, so I let the plants grow and I just mow them. I also mow a path through the large patch of Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica) (a grasslike, shade-tolerant woodland plant), which is shown below.
The winding path.
The mowed path through the Pennsylvania sedge.
2. Maple-Leaf Viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium). I bought two very small plants and planted them in 2004 in dry, shady sites near the fence. Since then, they have flourished. After the white racemes of flowers come dark blue berries that last into the winter, when the birds and critters finally decide to eat them.
3. Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia). We have four mountain laurel shrubs growing in the yard. One is the species, and the other three are cultivars, which are naturally-occurring varieties that have some unique quality – a different color flower, or a more compact growth habit. Both the buds and the flowers are remarkable in their geometry, and the flowers are unique in having stamens tucked into slots in the umbrella-like flower so that when a pollinator steps on one of them, it pops out and spreads pollen on her back. Here are photos of the species (the white one) and a colorful cultivar.
4. Bush Honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera). The only native honeysuckle in our area. The non-native invasive honeysuckles may smell nicer, but they are devastating to native plant communities.
5. Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum pubescens).
6. False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum racemosum).
7. Yellow Star Grass (Hypoxis hirsuta).
8. Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis). This is the basic model from which all the various garden varieties have been bred.
9. Wild Sarsparilla (Aralia nudicaulis). Three fireworks-like globes of white flowers perch on a separate stem from the leaves, which hover overhead.
10. Robin’s Plantain (Erigeron pulchellus). As each tiny flower of this composite is pollinated, it turns from yellow to brown.
“What is this you call property? It cannot be the earth, for the land is our mother, nourishing all her children, beasts, birds, fish and all men. The woods, the streams, everything on it belongs to everybody and is for the use of all. How can one man say it belongs only to him?” – Chief Massasoit, Wampanoags of Massachusetts.
“La propriété, c’est le vol!” (“Property is theft!“)
– Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.
My backyard in May, with the native azaleas in bloom.
When my wife Mary and I bought a house on 7,000+ square feet of land in a small city in Eastern Massachusetts in July 2001, I didn’t feel like I owned the land (actually, I didn’t – the bank owned it then and will continue to do so for the next 20 years or so). Instead, I imagined that I’d been asked to act as steward of this tiny portion of the earth for a period of time. So I researched the native plants that grew in this area before non-native invasive species took over, in environments similar to my back yard, found places where I could buy them legally and planted them. I wanted to recreate, to the extent I could, the diverse community of interdependent living things that had evolved before human interventions had disrupted nature’s equilibrium. You can see some of the results of the botanical portion of the experiment here and here. I can’t say that I have succeeded (yet) in reaching my goal (keeping the invasive non-natives at bay is a challenge), but there have been some positive signs. One of the benefits of creating a semi-wild space with native plants is that wildlife visits and occasionally comes to live here. I’ve been keeping a list (surprised?) of the wild animal visitors we’ve seen in the first dozen years of our stewardship (vertebrates only for now). Most are common visitors to urban and suburban backyards, but a few may be surprises. (I’d love to hear about what wildlife others have seen.) Here is the list, organized using the biological classification system:
“So little time – so much to know!” – Jeremy Hillary Boob, Ph.D.
I’ve been taking a break from blogging about the arts to spend some time with the sciences. I’ve immersed myself in discoveries, inventions, explorations, and observations. I’ve been learning (or relearning) about black holes, internal combustion engines, photosynthesis, neurotransmitters, planes, trains and automobiles, the Krebs cycle, the ozone layer, dinosaurs, gravitation, the periodic table, inertia, entropy, psychoanalysis, safety pins, parachutes, plate tectonics, washing machines, sewing machines, evolution, radio waves, the speed of light, hydrothermal vents, animal domestication, genetic modification and The Pill. I watched the rise and fall of catastrophism, vitalism, phlogiston, luminiferous aether, spontaneous generation, the oar-powered submarine and the steam-powered automobile. For those easily intimidated by science, I promise you that lying just beneath all the names and dates, technical terms and and chemical and mathematical formulas, are lots of fascinating stories and unforgettable characters. I even sneaked in a couple of jokes here and there – extra points for those who find them.
Here are my four new science lists:
Most Important Scientific Discoveries of All Time This meta-list contains all the discoveries and inventions on three or more of the 17+ lists I found. They are organized by rank, with the most-listed discoveries on top. Accompanying each discovery is an illustration of some kind and a short essay about the topic.
Most Important Scientific Discoveries – Chronological Similar to the first list, but this one is organized chronologically, so you can get a better sense of the history of science, and it includes all the discoveries/inventions that were on two or more of the 17+ original source lists. Because this list was so long, I decided not to add illustrations, although I may change my mind on this.
The Greatest Scientists of All Time If you’ve been following along, you know how this works. I found lots of ‘greatest scientists of all time’ lists and combined them into a meta-list. This list is organized by rank, meaning that the scientists on the most lists are at the top. For each scientist, I’ve included a short description of his or her achievements, as well as birth and death dates, country of origin and a picture.
Timeline of Science and Technology If you’re short on time and want an overview of scientific knowledge, this is the list for you. I combined the Scientific Discoveries, Greatest Scientists and Best Inventions lists, mixed in some of the Art and Architecture lists, and then threw in some random information (worst floods, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions; milestones of human evolution; the formation of the universe, our solar system, etc.). The result is a somewhat eclectic selection of events that have occurred over the last 13.8 billion years, with emphasis on the last 400 years or so. Each entry is only a sentence long, so this one is perfect for those with short attention spans. And there are pictures.
I hope you’ll take a look. And feel free to leave a comment.
After making lists of best paintings and sculptures, and best architecture, the logical next list was best photography. But making meta-lists of the best photographs and best photographers of all time proved to be quite a challenge. The problem, from a listers’ standpoint, was that the art of photography is splintered into a number of styles or genres, which exist somewhat independently of one another. Photojournalists have the Pulitzer Prize and the World Press Photo awards and most lists of “best photos” focus on their work (Robert Capa’s Dying Loyalist Soldier being the classic example). Then there are the historians, who focus on firsts – first true photo, first self-portrait, first color photo, etc. Street photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Helen Levitt are often lumped in with photojournalists, but are quite distinct. There are landscape photographers, nature photographers and wildlife photographers, although often these categories overlap. Portrait photography and fashion photography, while distinct, may also overlap. Fashion photography is also a sub-genre of commercial photography in that both are trying to sell something (other than prints of the photo – in that sense all professional photography is commercial). Finally, there is art, or fine art photography. Many of the photographs in this genre overlap with one or more of the other genres, but there are some, like Man Ray’s Rayographs or Jeff Wall’s tableaux, that are unique. Because I wanted to make a list that covered as many categories of photography as possible, I had to look for the best photos by looking beyond lists to try and determine which photographs were the most highly regarded.
The result, I am glad to say, is a ‘best photography’ list that includes fine art photography, photojournalism, street photography, nature, landscape and wildlife photography, portrait photography, fashion photography and sports photography. Nearly every renowned photographer is represented, as are many familiar images. But there will also be names most do not recognize and photos you’ve never seen before.
Here are two lists of best photographers that I compiled from a number of different lists. This first is the top dozen photographers and the second is a longer list, organized chronologically. The numbers in parentheses indicate the number of lists containing the photographer’s name.
Top Photographers of All Time 1. Henri Cartier-Bresson (France; 1908-2004)
2. Annie Leibovitz (US; 1949- )
3. Ansel Adams (US; 1902-1984)
4. Dorothea Lange (US; 1895-1965)
5. Yousuf Karsh (Armenia/Canada; 1908-2002)
6. Robert Capa (Hungary; 1913-1954)
7. Irving Penn (US; 1917- 2009)
8. Cecil Beaton (UK; 1904-1980)
9. Diane Arbus (US; 1923-1971)
10. Richard Avedon (US; 1923-2004)
11. Robert Frank (Switzerland/US; 1924- )
12. Steve McCurry (US; 1950- )
Best Photographers of All Time: Chronological Julia Margaret Cameron (UK; 1815-1879) (4) Roger Fenton (UK; 1819-1869) (3) Alfred Stieglitz (US; 1864-1946) (6) August Sander (Germany; 1876-1964) (3) Edward Steichen (Luxembourg/US; 1879-1973) (4) Edward Weston (US; 1886-1958) (5) Man Ray (US/France; 1890-1976) (4) Paul Strand (US; 1890-1976) (3) Andre Kertész (Hungary/France/US; 1894-1985) (5) Dorothea Lange (US; 1895-1965) (9) Brassaï (Hungary/France; 1899-1984) (5) Ansel Adams (US; 1902-1984) (10) Walker Evans (US; 1903-1975) (5) Cecil Beaton (UK; 1904-1980) (7) Philippe Halsman (Latvia/US; 1906-1979) (4) Horst P. Horst (Germany/US; 1906-1999) (4) Henri Cartier-Bresson (France; 1908-2004) (12) Yousuf Karsh (Armenia/Canada; 1908-2002) (8) Robert Doisneau (France; 1912-1994) (5) Eve Arnold (US; 1912-2012) (4) Robert Capa (Hungary; 1913-1954) (8) Helen Levitt (US; 1913-2009) (3) Irving Penn (US; 1917- 2009) (8) W. Eugene Smith (US; 1918-1978) (5) Helmut Newton (Germany/Australia/UK/France/US; 1920-2004) (5) Diane Arbus (US; 1923-1971) (7) Richard Avedon (US; 1923-2004) (7) Robert Frank (Switzerland/US; 1924- ) (7) Garry Winogrand (US; 1928-1984) (3) Elliott Erwitt (France/US; 1928- ) (3) Jay Maisel (US; 1931- ) (3) Brian Duffy (UK; 1933- ) (4) Jerry Uelsmann (US; 1934- ) (3) Don McCullin (UK; 1935- ) (3) Philip Jones Griffiths (UK; 1936-2008) (3) David Bailey (UK; 1938- ) (4) William Eggleston (US; 1939- ) (4) Mary Ellen Mark (US; 1940- ) (6) Patrick Demarchelier (France; 1943- ) (3) Sebastião Salgado (Brazil; 1944- ) (6) Robert Mapplethorpe (US; 1946-1989) (4) James Nachtwey (US; 1948- ) (6) Annie Leibovitz (US; 1949- ) (12) Steve McCurry (US; 1950- ) (7) Art Wolfe (US; 1951- ) (3) Frans Lanting (Netherlands/US; 1951- ) (3) Herb Ritts (US; 1952-2002) (4) Martin Parr (UK; 1952- ) (3) Nan Goldin (US; 1953- ) (3) Cindy Sherman (US; 1954- ) (6) Mario Testino (Peru/US; 1954- ) (4) Steven Meisel (US; 1954- ) (3) Ellen von Unwerth (Germany; 1954- ) (3) Nick Knight (UK; 1958- ) (4) David LaChapelle (US; 1963- ) (5)
Here is Part Two of my survey of the native plants that have grown in my yard. Part One covered trees, shrubs and vines. This part covers herbaceous plants, including grasses, sedges, ferns and club mosses. CLICK ON PHOTOS TO ENLARGE.
Herbaceous Plants Round-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica nobilis)
Although the field guides tell us that this plant is a native of southern New England, I went many years before I actually saw it in the wild, and it wasn’t anywhere near eastern Massachusetts. Until a couple of years ago, it didn’t matter, because I couldn’t find it for sale anywhere. Then I saw it at Garden in the Woods and brought it home. It is probably the earliest bloomer in the yard – often blooming in the last week of March. The composition of the soil determines the color of the flowers, which range from white to pink to purple to blue. Mine are white, with maybe a tinge of pink.
Rue Anemone (Anemonella thalictroides)
With its delicate white flowers and interestingly-shaped leaves, this is another early bloomer. Although it has survived many years, it has not exactly thrived, so I was surprised to discover a patch of it growing about 100 feet away.
Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana)
We planted all our berries for the wildlife, but we were so excited when the first tiny wild strawberries emerged that we had to taste a few. Little bursts of intense flavor. These have tended to stray from where I first planted them, almost as if they have used up that area and need to move to fresh ground.
Red Baneberry (Actaea rubra)
A delicate tuft of whitish flowers emerges late in April or early in May. By the end of June, this tuft has transformed into a club of lipstick-red berries that the animals slowly pick off all summer.
Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum)
These pretty plants have pink-purple flowers and attractive deeply-cut foliage. The seed capsule (see photo) is a Medieval contraption that flings the seeds across the yard, where another plant will arise. I planted two originally and one died after a year or two, but the remaining plant has been spreading its seed steadily.
Heartleaf Alexander (Zizia aptera)
This was a mistake. I meant to get Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), which is common in Massachusetts woods, but I bought this one instead. It is native to the middle Atlantic states, but it seems to be doing OK here, so I bent the rules and left it.
Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum pubescens)
Spreading slowing by underground rhizome, tiny greenish-yellow flowers hanging down from the stems, going almost unnoticed, Solomon’s Seal is the epitome of the subtle woodland flora. Instead of the big, showy flowers you find at garden centers or in environments with lots more sun and/or moisture, these woodland plants conserve their resources and excel in understatement.
Wild Oats (Uvularia sessifolia)
This plant has three common names: wild oats, merry bells, and sessile bellwort. (I’ve always though the latter name would be good for a character in a British farce – Cecil Bellwort.) When they first emerge, the plants look just like miniature Solomon’s seals. But then the pale, anything-but-merry, drooping flowers appear in late April and they take on a whole different character. Then, later in the spring, the bizarre seed pod appears like some kind of geometric goiter.
Canada Mayflower (Maianthemum canadense)
An extremely common herb of the oak-hickory forest, Canada mayflower often forms huge patches. It is also called ‘false lily-of-the-valley’, but the irony is that lily-of-the-valley is a non-native that spreads invasively, including into our yard, from other peoples’ gardens.
False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum racemosum)
Like a cross between Canada mayflower, its close relative, and Solomon’s seal. They are very common in the woods near our house.
Wild Columbine (Aquilegia Canadensis)
I’ve never seen these in eastern Massachusetts, so I’m bending my rules a little by bringing them into the yard. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful, unusual flower and I couldn’t resist. And I did see them growing on a hilltop in Connecticut.
Wild Sarsparilla (Aralia nudicaulis)
This is one of the most common herbs of the southern New England woodland. Its leaves are everywhere, but it takes a little detective work to find the flowers, which are contained on a separate stalk and are hiding underneath the leaves. Each globe of tiny flowers looks like an exploding firework.
Common Cinquefoil (Potentilla simplex)
This volunteer likes to spread along the ground like a vine, with the little yellow flowers poking up from time to time.
Rough Cinquefoil (Potentilla norvegica)
Another native volunteer.
Yellow Star Grass (Hypoxis hirsuta)
This humble plant wins the award for longest blooms in the yard – they start in early May and continue until mid-September.
Robin’s Plantain (Erigeron pulchellus)
The most interesting, attractive and well-behaved member of the fleabane family.
Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron annuus)
Another volunteer that I go back and forth about. It has a weedy appearance, but it does brighten up the yard during some periods when almost nothing else is in bloom.
Philadelphia Fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus)
Another volunteer fleabane that blooms slightly later in the season.
Whorled Loosestrife (Lysimachia quadrifolia)
This is one of my personal favorites. It spreads by underground rhizomes, like many woodland plants, but it is showier than most. The yellow flowers with the red markings inside, often perched atop the whorled leaves, stare out like peering eyes, looking in all directions.
Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exaltata)
Its strange white flowers dangle from the stem. Not a showy plant and it has not spread, but the one individual I planted has thrived.
Purple Milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens)
This is an endangered species in Massachusetts, and I am proud to create more habitat for it to flourish. The flowers have a much deeper color than the common milkweed, with a much less aggressive habit, spreading by seed instead of underground rhizome. The insects love them.
Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)
I grew these from seed – first using small containers indoors, then transplanting the seedlings into the yard. The flowers are a startling neon orange. They’ve been slowly spreading to create a healthy patch in a sunny spot at the turn of the path.
Blue-stemmed Goldenrod (Solidago caesia)
Also called wreath goldenrod for the way the flowers wind around the stem, this is a common roadside native in eastern Massachusetts, and I have to exert some control over it to ensure it does not take over. It is the only goldenrod that can thrive in shady conditions. Still, when they bloom in the fall, they bring a welcome resurgence of color to the fading yard.
Lance-leaf Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia)
Also called flat-top goldenrod, these slim volunteers arrived after we took down a row of Norway maples at the back of the yard, thus letting in the morning sun. I’ve tried to confine them over by the fence, but they tend to come up where they will. Butterflies flock to them.
Spotted St. John’s Wort (Hypericum punctatum)
Another sun-loving volunteer, this is a native St. John’s Wort, in contrast to the more common non-native plant of disturbed areas and parking lots.
Whorled Wood Aster (Oclemena acuminatus)
A common aster of the wooded areas in eastern Massachusetts, the flowers are not showy, and the leaves are not actually whorled – they just appear so from above due to their placement on the stem.
White Wood Aster (Eurybia divaricata)
Another common wood aster that spreads slowly around the yard.
Common Blue Wood Aster (Symphotrichum cordifolium)
Also called heart-leaved aster, this large, leafy volunteer spreads like wildfire, and would quickly obscure everything else in the yard if allowed. Over the years, I have imposed various restrictions on this plant, and each year I need to impose more limits. The problem is the thousands of tiny white or light-blue composite flowers that bloom in the fall – each one contains a myriad of even tinier seeds that spread easily around the yard.
Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia)
Considered by many to be a lawn weed, this native is a volunteer that can become aggressive, but i have decided to let it go a little wild every spring, and then I do a fair amount of eradication in summer, when the leaves grow to enormous size. There are blue and white varieties growing side by side.
Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera pubescens)
The only member of the orchid family that is native to New England (please tell me if I’m wrong, fellow bloggers), I’ve only seen it once in the wild – in a forest glade outside New Milford, Connecticut. When I finally found it for sale, I bought two and planted them in the fall. They came up in the spring and flowered (see photos), but didn’t make it through the winter.
Starflower (Trientalis borealis)
One of my favorite denizens of the oak-hickory forest floor, Its lucky seven leaflets and petals are extremely rare numbers in the world of plants. I couldn’t find any for sale, so I transplanted some from my sister’s home in Maine (I’m sure we could debate the ethics of this for hours). They died without even flowering.
Indian Cucumber Root (Medeola virginiana)
Another Maine transplant, this is a wonderful plant that produces a whorl of leaves the first year, and in the second year, another, smaller whorl above it, with bizarre flowers that remind me of little spaceships. These flourished for a number of years, but I think they were outcompeted by the invasive lesser celandine.
Indian Tobacco (Lobelia inflata)
This is one of those native volunteers that I have debated about over the years. Like certain other species that show up occasionally (daisy fleabane, pokeweed, beggar ticks), it is a weed (in the technical sense) that colonizes disturbed areas and rarely forms part of an established, integrated plant community. On the other hand, its tiny light-blue flowers bloom in mid-summer, when most of the garden is green, and its puffy seed pods are mildly amusing.
Ferns Interrupted Fern (Osmunda claytoniana)
I really took a chance with these. They are almost always found in much moister areas than my yard, but I hoped they could adapt, and I was right. I put them right up against the fence, a very shady spot, but also the lowest part of the yard, and therefore the wettest. The name ‘interrupted’ comes from the appearance of the fronds from a distance – it looks like there are gaps in the foliage. Actually, unlike other ferns, which store their spores on the backsides of the fronds, the interrupted fern has evolved separate fertile fronds that look like shrunken, brown versions of the regular fronds and contain all the spores. Like all the ferns in our yard, it grows in clumps, which are much easier to manage than spreading ferns such as hayscented fern, which I’ve seen spread to cover entire forest floors.
Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides)
This fern gets its name from its evergreen habit. You will see the fronds of Christmas ferns -by now lying flat on the ground – in the middle of winter when the snow melts, still leathery and rich green, They are among the hardiest ferns, and survive in dry, shady spots in our yard.
Marginal Wood Fern (Dryopteris marginalis)
This fern is very attractive – a darker green than most. Its name come from the arrangement of the spores on the backs of the fronds – they are meticulously arranged along the margins.
Grasses and Sedges Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus histrix)
This is a native ornamental grass with wonderful flower stalks that last throughout the winter. They also make nice dried flower arrangements.
Deer-Tongue Grass (Dicanthelium clandestinum)
This native grass volunteer has hairy leaves and long, branching flowers.
Witchgrass (Panicum capillare)
Another volunteer native grass.
Path Rush (Juncus tenuis)
Path rush lives up to its name – as soon as I dug a path through my backyard, these plants began appearing. They seem to appreciate the challenge of well-packed rocky soil.
Pennsylvania Sedge (Carex pensylvanica)
Not surprisingly, most of the grass species that we use for our lawns are not native to New England. When I was walking the woods of eastern Massachusetts, I kept coming across a type of grass that looked a lot like lawn grass. It turns out it isn’t a grass at all, but a sedge: Pennsylvania sedge. I decided that although I don’t believe in traditional, labor and resource intensive lawns, a ‘lawn’ of Pa. sedge would be a nice alternative. In addition to the area where I planted it, over the years, it has filled in bare spots all over the yard. Plus the flowers are quite attractive. I
Oval-leaf Sedge (Carex cephalophora)
A volunteer sedge that grows in clumps and has an interesting spiky flower.
Hairy-leaved Sedge (Carex hirsutella)
Another volunteer sedge – no pictures.
Awl-fruited Sedge (Carex stipata)
Still another volunteer sedge.
Club Mosses Ground Pine (Lycopodium obscurum) Ground Cedar (Lycopodium complanatum)
Club mosses are primitive plants that evolved before flowering plants. At the time of the dinosaurs, they grew over a hundred feet high. Miniature versions of those giants are still common in New England woods – they look a little like Bonsai trees. I was thrilled to find a native plant nursery that sold two varieties that I often saw on my woodland walks. Unfortunately, neither of them survived more than a season in my yard. It may be that they need some special soil fungus to survive, or perhaps it was just too dry. The photo is of ground cedar.
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.]
TREES 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 “Quinnipiac” (Kalmia latifolia)
This is one of the Jaynes cultivars. It has deep red buds and light pink flowers with a dark pink circle at the base of the flower.
Mountain Laurel “Raspberry glow” (Kalmia latifolia)
This is a dark pink Jaynes cultivar – unfortunately, I don’t have pictures of the flowers.
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.
VINES 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.