In most parts of the country, I’d wager, a gardener intent on using native plants will have hundreds of species readily available to them.
For one thing, many very common ornamental and landscape plants are North American natives: even the most bland of big-box garden centers here in the Mid-Atlantic will often carry plants like purple coneflower, aster, goldenrod, phlox, black-eyed susan, winterberry, ninebark, or red maple. Independent garden centers of any size are likely to offer an even broader array, especially if they participate in the American Beauties program.
The more adventurous and informed gardener has many resources above and beyond these traditional retail outlets. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center has a database of more than 1,200 native plant suppliers across the country. This database depends on suppliers self-reporting, so it may not be 100% accurate, but there is surely a supplier of native plants within driving distance of most people. Your local native plant society can also surely point you to a nearby source of natives.
And while I generally prefer to buy my plants from a local grower, there are many wonderful mail order nurseries who provide a great array of hard-to-find native plants.
Still, there are an awful lot of native plants that remain pretty hard to track down. According to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service there are nearly 2,400 species of plants native to my home state of Maryland. Against that backdrop, having “hundreds of species readily available” to me begins to seem somewhat less impressive. For example, even though there are eight species of Sporobolus native to Maryland, only one (Northern dropseed, or Sporobolus heterolepsis) is even sporadically available locally. I’ve seen it (and bought it) a few times over the past couple years, but it is nowhere nearly as common as it deserves to be.
Another plant whose rarity “in the trade” boggles my mind is Anise-scented goldenrod (Solidago odora). I ordered a few tiny plugs of this from Prairies Nursery in 2009, sight unseen, and am immensely grateful that I did. You might know that I am a big fan of goldenrods in general, but this species is my favorite hands down. In my yard it has bloomed earlier, longer, and more reliably than any other goldenrod I have thus giving me a shot of color in early August that is hard to come by in my neck of the woods. It is a perfect height for my urban yard, at about two or three feet tall, and behaves itself just fine: it doesn’t flop over and reseeds but barely so. The real kicker, though, is the characteristic that gives the plant its common name. The leaves, when crushed or bruised, really do sweetly smell like anise or licorice!
So here we have a plant with great beauty, good behavior, and real sales “hook” in the scented leaves and STILL nobody (except Prairie Nursery, so far as I can tell) grows it and sells it? Did I mention that this is the state herb of neighboring Delaware? This plant could be selling itself at garden centers and native plant sales!
Worse, some plants are harder to find than they appear to be. One notoriously troublesome character is Viburnum dentatum, or southern arrowwod. If there is a garden center within 100 miles of me that DOESN’T carry Viburnum dentatum, I’d be shocked. But I’m willing to bet that every single one of those plants is the “Blue Muffin” cultivar (aka Viburnum dentatum ‘Christom’). Since southern arrowwod is essentially self-infertile, and these cultivars are genetic clones, there is virtually no chance of seeing any of the namesake blue berries on a “Blue Muffin” viburnum. The form of the shrub is great, and the flowers are beautiful, but the berries have been completely absent on my plants four years running. To get these berries I’ll need a companion plant: a different cultivar that happens to bloom at the same time as Blue Muffin. These cultivars are available, by mail-order, but in my area you’d have no chance of buying one by accident.
Does any of this frustrate me? Yeah, it does a little bit. I wish it were easier to buy a wide array of native plants than it is. On the other hand, the challenges of tracking down these hard-to-find species have taken me to nurseries, native plant sales, and suppliers that I would not have found had the journey been made easy. This process of discovery is exciting and, more importantly, has introduced me to some truly wonderful and knowledgeable experts.
But more importantly, it has opened my eyes to the joy of being something more than merely a passive consumer. Native plant growers have a lot of passion, and if enough people ask them about a particular hard-to-find species I guarantee that some of those growers will be willing to introduce it.
So if you want something you can’t find, keep asking for it: I am confident that eventually you will find it.
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