Plant This, Not That: Connecticut Natives Edition

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)

Summersweet and butterfly bushEvery 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)

Little bluestem and maiden grassOrnamental 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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    • says

      Carol, I’d definitely give clethra another try. Mine are planted in a semi-shady, dry location and are thriving. The only issue I have is that the deer seem to browse the ‘Ruby Spice’ with the pink flowers but leave ‘Hummingbird’ and ‘Sixteen Candles’, with their white flowers, alone. Strange.
      Debbie Roberts recently posted..Plant This, Not That

  1. says

    Three good choices. BTW: I have noticed that summer sweet is spreading in the north Stamford woods, which means that it is not a favorite deer food. This is also true of the American holly. With the hollies, of course, don’t’ forget to plant male and female.

    • says

      Sue, Thanks for the reminder about planting female/male hollies together. I haven’t seen any clethra in my area, probably because the winged euonymus has crowded out everything else. And I’ve also found the deer seem to like the pink-flowered clethra in my garden but leave the white-flowered ones alone.
      Debbie Roberts recently posted..Plant This, Not That

      • says

        The north Stamford woods are full of clethra – the species plant is surviving the deer partially because it can thrive in the wetter areas that the deer tend to avoid. Ditto spicebush, winterberry, arrowwood viburnum, button bush, witch hazel and a bunch more.

        On American Holly, ten years ago American Holly was considered at the north end of its range in Southern Fairfield County, along the coast, due to winter damage to the leaves. I guess things are warmer now but I’d still favor putting it in a protected location like the woods where it really wants to be or on the south side of a building (but not too close as it needs good air circulation and does get big).

        • says

          Hi Sue, Sometimes I think you and I see different ‘north Stamford woods’.:) Most of the shrubs you mention are deer candy in my area. American holly is generally considered to be hardy to zone 5 which should not be an issue for CT gardeners but the caution to plant in a protected area is a good one.
          Debbie Roberts recently posted..Wordless Wednesday ~ Nature’s Bounty

    • says

      Hi Gen, Thanks for getting the ‘Plant This, Not That’ ball rolling. It is fun to read what other team members suggest and realize there are so many great native plants options available. The clethra does seem to be a popular pick so far.
      Debbie Roberts recently posted..Plant This, Not That

  2. says

    Great suggestions, Debbie. Hopefully more nurseries will carry Ilex opaca if more gardeners ask for it. I check every nursery I visit, which is many, and few regularly stock American Holly. Interesting that deer in your region leave the white Clethra along. Food for thought.
    Joene Hendry recently posted..Autumn’s Leafy Bounty

  3. says

    Little bluestem is always a great garden choice. I had a colony of Peck’s skippers on my switch grass for many years, perhaps they were also using the little bluestem. Skipper larvae are not very obvious. This was in an older part of Toronto, long urbanized but close to a ravine.
    I have started a Southern Ontario edition of Plant This Not That on my blog,
    There are so many great native plants. They just need publicists – that’s us!
    Trish Murphy recently posted..Golden Ragwort: Plant This, Not That – Southern Ontario edition

  4. says

    I was so happy to see you showcase Summersweet because it really deserves widespread use in New England! Once people catch a whiff of those flowers blooming in the middle of the summer, they are usually hooked for life! Thankfully, clethra still grows abundantly in the wild in my area, near ponds and lake shores especially. They are also fairly easy to grow from seed. I grew some from seed many years ago from New England Wild Flower Society and they were very quick to establish a good size. I even got a pink flowering version from my efforts – which seems much more healthy than the Ruby Spice cultivar I planted about 6 years ago.

    Thanks for the great posting. Next year we are finally going to pull out the Chinese Hollies that were planted here 20 years ago and some kind of native holly is definitely going to replace them :)
    Ellen Sousa recently posted..When Life Gives You Storm Damage, Make Habitat!

    • says

      Ellen, That’s so interesting that you grew clethra from seed, and with good results. I definitely notice that the pink cultivars in my garden do not seem as robust – on many levels- as their white counterparts. My C. Ruby Spice are only a few years old so it will be interesting to see how they are doing in another 4 years.
      Debbie Roberts recently posted..Book Review & Guest Post


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