Irene-Proof Native Plants!

In the northeast, we’re in the midst of cleaning up after Hurricane Irene, which caused major washouts of roads and dams across the region. On our small farm in the hills of central MA, we received more than 5″ of rain within a 12-hour period, enough to cause our farm pond to burst over its dam and send a wall of water down the towards our house. Not a pretty scene, but what has been interesting is the plants that stood up (literally) to the flood damage. The envelope please? My top three native New England plants for enduring a hurricane are:

Swamp Aster (Symphyotrichum puniceus):

Swamp Aster – Symphyotrichum puniceus (formerly known as Aster puniceus)

This swamp aster stands in a streambed about 3 feet below this earthen/stone dam. It’s not only still standing tall after being pummeled by several thousand gallons of floodwater, but it continues to bloom as if nothing at all happened. In contrast, many of my New England asters just a few feet away toppled right over…

Second prize for most flood-proof plant goes to little bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium) with its sturdy root systems that held on for dear life against the water, gravel and silt that washed 5 inches of surrounding soil away:

Note the tiny little bluestem between the rocks at the right of the photo. Only 1 year old, it still managed to hold on tight!

For reference, this is the same scene a week or two ago:

Little bluestem is an outstanding US continental native bunchgrass that can be used as a focal point, en masse or even in containers.

The little bluestem’s resilience is good news, because we’ve been trying out a variety of plants here as a flood buffer, to control erosion and prevent silt and mud from flooding into the stream during the increasingly destructive storms we’re seeing. The defensive front line of little bluestem (along with swamp milkweedwild bergamot and garden phlox taking up the rear), all held up well and we now plan to expand those plantings to increase the buffer zone and trap more sediment before it flows into the stream. Our stream is a tributary to Turkey Hill Brook, one of the cleanest rivers in Massachusetts, and as a farm, we feel a responsibility to filter our agricultural nutrients before they reach our town’s public water supply.

Third prize for withstanding the rising water is blue flag iris (Iris versicolor), planted in stone rip-rap to help stabilize the pond banks:

Blue flag is native to pond shores and wet meadows, making it a good choice for areas that sometimes flood

The blue flag performed admirably despite being partially submerged by fast-moving water, and at least this side of the pond is secure, for now.

2011 has brought severe weather to all areas of the planet, and in Massachusetts we had record snowfall, an earthquake, a hurricane and a tornado so far this year. It’s a frightening pattern, especially for those who live on or near water, but as gardeners, we can all contribute in significant ways to mitigating future storm damage. Choose (or encourage) local-provenance native plants, they are best adapted to your local conditions, and support the widest diversity of wildlife. Especially if you live on a slope, a mix of plants with varying root depths will slow down and trap water before it washes downhill into watersheds along with anything it picks up along the way. Build a rain garden or find a way to channel rainwater from your roof into an area with moisture-loving plants. Even a small green roof can help soak up rainwater and provide safe habitat for many forms of small wildlife.

Who knows what storms lie ahead, but as they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…and planting a storm-proof garden is one way we can all manage an uncertain future!

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  1. says

    Ellen how crazy has the weather been. We too saw a tornado just miss, Irene just hit us at her least (1-2 inches), an earthquake, record snowfall and spring flooding rains…My gardens have survived and my natives have thrived…glad to hear yours are doing well…
    Donna recently posted..Garden Journal-As Summer Wanes

  2. says

    Hi Ellen, Glad to hear you, and your garden, survived Irene. I have to tell you that here in my CT garden, my little bluestem were flattened by all the wind and rain. I was in the garden yesterday contemplating whether or not I should take them (the answer is yes, I will). But I do have a native grass to add to your list…Panicum virgatum. It survived the storm without missing a bit.
    Debbie Roberts recently posted..Wordless Wednesday: A Ray of Sun

  3. says

    Debbie, don’t get me wrong, my little bluestems definitely were flattened but their roots held on and they will live to stand tall once again. I was just amazed that they weren’t washed away by the floodwater…good to know the Panic Grass held up well for you. I’ll add that to the list of plants that shrug off a storm :)
    Ellen Sousa recently posted..The Year I Shall Win the Pachysandra War


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