Recently, fellow Native Plants & Wildlife Gardens team member, Genevieve Schmidt, wrote a post about native plant alternatives for several overused plants found in many gardens in California, where Gen lives, gardens and works as a landscaper. As Gen mentions in her post, Plant This, Not That: California Natives Edition, by simply looking beyond the every-house-on-my-street-has-one-of-those plants, and instead choosing a similar native plant, gardeners “could be adding wildlife value and getting a similar color or textural effect in the garden”.
Pat Sutton joined Gen and wrote about eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), in her post Plant This, Not That: New Jersey Natives Edition. And now it’s my turn to jump on the bandwagon and write a post for Connecticut (and New England) gardeners and suggest a native alternative to three non-native staples of many local gardens.
American Holly (left), not ‘Nellie R. Stevens’ Holly (right)
Upright, evergreen hollies are a popular plant in many gardens. Used as foundation plants, to soften the corner of a building, to flank an entrance or as a privacy screen, hollies are an appropriate choice for an array of locations. But for some reason, many gardeners do not choose our native American holly (Ilex opaca). Instead they opt for a hybrid holly, like ‘Nellie R. Stevens’ holly (Ilex x ‘Nellie R. Stevens’).
With its spiny, green leaves, bright red berries and natural conical shape, American holly really is the quintessential holly. It offers all the garden design characteristics of hybrid hollies but is more wildlife-friendly. Bluebirds, northern cardinals, woodpeckers and cedar waxwings are just a few of the birds that eat the berries or use American holly for shelter. It is also a larval host plant for Henry’s elfin butterfly.
Summersweet (left), not butterfly bush (right)
Every garden needs a few summer-blooming shrubs to help transition the garden from the exuberance of spring to the subtleties of fall. Unfortunately, one of the most popular summer-blooming shrubs, butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), is becoming invasive in many areas. Sure, its nectar is attractive to butterflies but it does not support any insect life.
A much more habitat-friendly alternative is our native summersweet (Clethra alnifolia). Summersweet is only available with white or pink flowers (something purple lovers may bemoan) but its intoxicating fragrance more than makes up for it. Butterflies, bees and hummingbirds find summersweet irresistible. Several species of butterflies use summersweet as a larval host plant. And as an added bonus, summersweet blooms in shade and tolerates all but the most drought-prone areas of your garden.
Little Bluestem (left), not Maiden Grass (right)
Ornamental grasses are becoming increasingly popular with many gardeners, and for good reason. They can be planted as a specimen, part of a mixed bed or even used in mass as a privacy screen. Fast-growing and available in a variety of leaf color and texture, grasses are an easy way to add graceful movement, a pop of color or a contrast of texture to any garden.
But for years, it seemed like the only ornamental grasses you could find in nurseries were non-native grasses, such as maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis). A more wildlife-friendly choice is our native little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium).
Little bluestem’s foliage is an eye-catching mix of blue, green, orange and red that turns a bright bronzy-orange in the fall and holds its color into the winter. It’s fuzzy seed heads are a favorite food for birds and it provides shelter for nesting birds and insects. Little bluestem is also a larval host plant for several types of butterflies, including cobweb skipper, dusted skipper and Peck’s skipper.
When choosing plants for your garden, remember that it’s important to look beyond the usual suspects and instead find a native alternative that will nurture the garden as well as the gardener. What native alternatives are you using in your garden?
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