THE LONGER I GARDEN, the more I see plants as science teachers, bringing nature into focus by playing out its processes right before my eyes. The plants that tell the story of how things work best of all are native ones, but many garden plants come from elsewhere.
I spoke about some notable natives with my friend Andy Brand of Broken Arrow Nursery, with whom I often hosting half-day workshops in my Hudson Valley, New York, garden, when we focus on upping the beneficial wildlife quotient in your own backyard with better plants and better practices. Andy has been one of the experts I’ve pestered for ideas as I’ve been doing that in my own garden in recent years to good effect.
Andy is manager of Connecticut-based Broken Arrow, and he’s a serious amateur naturalist, and founder of the Connecticut state butterfly association. (That’s a photo by Andy of a red-banded hairstreak on a Clethra blossom, top of page.) Learn where many familiar garden plants come from (Asia!); some high-value natives he loves; advice for growing mountain laurel; the rich plant palette of the Southeastern U.S., and also an invocation for slowing down to pay closer attention.
Read along as you listen to the Aug. 1, 2016 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
my native-plant q&a with andy brand
Q. Maybe before we even get to some of your notable natives, Andy, let’s take a quick virtual “look” around the average American garden or garden center. I’m not sure people realize, but so much of the traditional garden palette comes from Asia, doesn’t it?
A. I think you look at most garden centers now, and the majority of the plants are not from the United States or North America, for that matter. The majority are from Asia, from Europe, and places in between.
Q. Like hostas—not from America. Astilbe. Epimedium.
A. Right—Japanese maples, exactly. So many things that are standards in most people’s landscapes are not from this area.
Q. We’re not saying that means they’re bad, as long as they’re not invasive as some alien plants have proven to be—we’ll put aside the judgment for now. But natives have some special assets in enhancing the wildlife quotient in our gardens.
A. They certainly do. All of our fauna and insects and everything have evolved with our native plants. I always state in the lectures I give on native plants that not all plants that come from other places are bad. I think when people hear that a plant comes from Asia, for instance, they think it’s going to be a bad plant or invasive, and it’s certainly not the case.
Q. On the subject of, say, Japanese versus American species: I noticed that you and your Broken Arrow colleague Chris Koppel even do a sort of back-and-forth program. Describe that to me.
A. We put a little program together called “East versus West.”
Q. I see; it’s a guy sport-competition thing. [Laughter.]
A. Chris is a very enthusiastic lover of Japanese plants, Chinese plants. I am too, but I’m on the Western side and deal with the native plants of this area in North America. We battle it out. For instance, we do Cornus kousa versus Cornus florida. Cornus kousa is the Chinese dogwood and Cornus florida is our native flowering dogwood. We discuss the attributes of both. [Above, kousa blooms in Margaret’s garden.]
Q. I love both, but they are very different.
A. I do, too. My big push with the Cornus florida is the wildlife attributes of the plant, particularly the fruit. The birds, in the fall, absolutely go crazy for it. They need all that energy before they migrate south. That’s a perfect source for that energy, is the fruit.
Q. A lot of our American dogwoods, like the smaller, shrubby kinds, have great wildlife-sustaining fruit, too.
A. Typically you see the Cornus florida in people’s front yards, but it’s an understory tree when you see it in the wild. It will tolerate a considerable amount of shade and s till fruit quite well in those conditions.
Q. So when you do East versus West, is it a dead heat at the end? [Laughter.]
A. Yes, we’re not too bloody then; we usually call it a truce and a tie.
Q. And it is interesting, so I wanted to make an aside about it. I don’t think people realize that a lot of our palette is similar to Asia. I guess in some epoch long ago there was a land bridge across the Bering Straits and we were connected before the plates shifted—or various other theories about how and why we have a similar plant palette to certain parts of Asia.
A. And our climates are pretty similar, temperature wise, so those plants do quite well here.
Q. So when you and the Broken Arrow team really get behind a plant, maybe thinking of new things to add to the assortment, or thing to swap out, or promote–is native status one of the qualities you’re excited about more now and that factors in heavily?
A. It is. We’ve seen a huge increase in our customer interest in natives over the past five to 10 years. We’ve increased the different cultivars of native plants, different species we’ve been growing of natives. Not just Connecticut natives, but also plants that are native to the mid-Atlantic or the Southeast, or even the West Coast, that are perfectly hardy here in our region and perform quite well here.
Q. It’s interesting that you say Southeast, because I didn’t really understand this when I first got some of the plants in my garden, which is like 30 years old. Some of them I have had almost as long. Some of my biggest shrubs, and among my favorites—like bottlebrush buckeye, Aesculus parviflora—I knew that it was a “native plant” when I bought it, but I didn’t realize that it was from the Southeast. There are a number of exceptional woody plants from the Southeast, aren’t there? [Above, silver-spooted skipper in bottlebrush flowers in Margaret’s garden.]
A. You’ve touched on one of the best. The bottlebrush buckeye is such a fantastic plant for butterflies. It attracts swallowtails in particular. It’s amazing how many will go to it.
Another one: Chionanthus virginicus, the American fringe tree, is another example of a Southeastern native. Calycanthus, or sweet shrub, is another example that’s from the Southeast but does really well in the Northeast, particularly if you like a citrusy, fruity fragrance to the flowers.
Q. Where’s Fothergilla from? [Below, blooming in Margaret’s garden.]
A. That’s from the Southeast, too.
Q. I’m sitting here mentally closing my eyes and looking around my yard and thinking about what’s from where.
With the fringe tree, the Chionanthus, that you mention [in flower in Margaret’s garden, below]: I notice on the wonder website from New England Wildflower Society, called GoBotany—they have a search tool about plants. You probably use it all the time.
A. It’s fantastic.
Q. They give a range map for each plant—like green if it’s native and purple if it’s naturalized. So the Chionanthus is not native to the Northeast, where you and I both are, but it’s naturalized well up into New England. [See the fringe tree example on GoBotany.]
Broken Arrow has a native element in its history, doesn’t it?
A. We do. When Broken Arrow opened, in 1984, it was opened by Dr. Richard Jaynes, who spent most of his career at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven. He spent probably 20 or 25 years hybridizing Kalmia latifolia, or mountain laurel. It’s the Connecticut state flower, and I think the Pennsylvania state flower.
Q. I think its range is from way, way up to way, away down the Eastern U.S.
A. It flowers late May-early June with those pale pink to white flowers. It has evergreen foliage—it’s related to azaleas and rhododendron, so it likes those very similar conditions. And it can be pretty finicky. [Laughter.] [Above, Kalmia ‘Peppermint.’]
Q. I was just going to say that. The other day I was having a meal with several very experienced gardeners who I won’t name—since I’m going to mention plants we have killed. [Laughter.] But they’re people you know. And we all confessed to one another that we can’t grow mountain laurel; we’ve all killed it.
And yet at a neighbor’s house in my town, more of a beginning gardener—she brought home a few years ago a whole bunch of different Kalmia from the Broken Arrow plant sale you did in my driveway at an Open Day event. And they were looking spectacular this spring in her yard. I was like, “What the heck is wrong with me?” [Laughter.]
A. They are very particular as to the conditions that they will do well in. You have to have well-drained, acid soils—they cannot be heavy clay by any means, or they will die pretty quickly. They detest being planted too deep, too. That’s often the case, as people tend to plant mountain laurel, which have shallow roots, a little too deep and in a matter of months will turn yellow and drop their foliage and die.
Q. Oh, you say “turn yellow and drop their foliage,” I’m thinking I smothered the thing. Too-deep is a bad thing.
A. It’s a no-no.
Q. Generally that’s true with a lot of woody plants, isn’t it?
A. Yes, and particularly with the plants in that Ericaceous family that include mountain laurel, rhododendron, andromeda and things like that.
Q. Do you have a secret formula that you mulch them with or feed them?
A. If we do fertilize them at all, we use an evergreen plant food. But the key thing there is we always go a quarter-strength of what is recommended n the package, because mountain laurel are very susceptible to being burned by over-fertilization. As far as mulching, we use a lot of chips that we get from our friendly arborist down the street.
Q. [Laughter.] As opposed to the unfriendly ones in the other direction?
A. Yes, you’ve got to watch out for those. [Laughter.] The friendly ones give us nice chips that we use around the laurels, and again we don’t put it too, too deep near the trunks so we don’t have issues with critters chewing them (which we have plenty of this year).
Q. Want to take us through some of your notable natives—whether they’re new, different, improved?
A. We haven’t really touched on perennials. But always on my top 10 list of natives, just tying in the whole insect world, are the milkweeds or Asclepias. Particularly with how important they are to the monarch butterfly.
Everybody’s probably heard of the decline that’s happening with the population of monarchs, and everybody’s being urged to plant as many Asclepias as they can in their yards, to help the monarchs out. But what I love about them is not that they do attract many butterflies to their flowers for the nectar that they supply, but there is pretty much an Asclepias for every type of habitat you have.
Q. Now I didn’t know that.
A. Whether it’s wet soils with swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) [two photos above, with bee on the flowers], or full blazing sun with the butterfly weed or Asclepias tuberosa. There’s a tall milkweed or poke milkweed, Asclepias exaltata [immediately above], that grows in part shade, which is nice, and still flowers and attracts butterflies. So if you have a field and can allow the common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) to kind of run rampant [photo below], let it do it. It’s such a fantastic nectar source and food source for not just butterflies, but so many insects. If you ever stand in a mass planting of Asclepias it’s alive with sound. And they’re all relatively easy to grow.
Swamp milkweed sounds like it needs wet soils, but it will grow in average soils. Asclepias tuberosa does put down a pretty good taproot, so once you plant that, plant it where you want it.
Q. [Laughter.] It ain’t gonna move.
A. Not happily, no. [Above, A. tuberosa‘s orange flowers.]
One other plant that is always high on my list as far as a really great native plant for wildlife is Ilex verticillata, the winterberry.
Q. And you know I’m addicted.
A. And there are more forms being introduced, some new dwarf forms that are new, like ‘Little Goblin,’ which we are trying this year. The typical species gets so big and tall, and spread pretty big—it’s really too much for a lot of landscapes. So maybe some of these newer introductions might be more suited for smaller landscapes.
Q. What I love is that there is also a range of fruit size and color, besides shrub size. [Below, the winterberry called ‘Winter Gold.’]
A. Orange and yellow, and the red, which everybody is used to seeing. But you just need to remember that if you want the fruit, you need a male and a female. That’s the biggest thing that everybody needs to keep in mind.
Q. And the male won’t get the showy fruit, so you can tuck him in the back of the border.
A. Yes, in the back, out of sight, and let the girls shine later in the fall. Usually October is when the fruit starts to ripen, and they’ll persist for quite awhile if you don’t cut the branches and bring them in for decorations. They can last into February sometimes, and that’s when the birds really love them. Flocks of robins that are lingering around, or bluebirds, or cedar waxwings.
Q. Cedar waxwings go crazy. I had a waxwing today in the vegetable garden, picking around to see if anything I had was tasty. [Laughter.] They are such a beautiful bird, and have a nice sound as well.
So ‘Little Goblin’ winterberry. I can’t recall the name of the smallish cultivar I have with big orangey-red fruit…
A. You probably have ‘Red Sprite.’
Q. Right. So this is smaller?
A. It’s listed at 3 to 4 feet, so we will see.
A. I hope it is that size, because it’s good even for foundation plantings.
Q. So winterberry holly. Any other notables in the time we have left?
A. One I’d put out is Clethra alnifolia, the summersweet. I’m surprised that by us now the flowers are just starting to open. Usually I think of it a little more into the beginning of August. That’s starting to flower with really lovely fragrant white flowers. [Clethra ‘Anne Bidwell’ flowering, above.]
Q. Can that take a wet spot?
A. It will, and it will sucker a spread and form a nice colony over time. Typically you’ll see it growing along wetlands, pond edges, and in the understory as well, so it will tolerate some shade. Similar conditions to the winterberry we just talked about. They can grow side by side and have a similar growth habit, with that suckering nature to both of them.
One I always point out to people—and it’s not going to knock your socks off being a showy native—is Lindera benzoin, the spicebush. If people are on the fence about that plant, when we’re looking at it, at this time of year, when I see a leaf that’s folded over, typically you’ll find the larvae of the spicebush swallowtail butterfly.
Q. Funny you should say that because yesterday out the window I thought, “Who’s that big butterfly?” And I think it was a spicebush swallowtail. [Photo above in Margaret’s garden, on verbena.]
A. If people are on the fence, and I show them that caterpillar [above] and tell them what it is, they immediately purchase it. When I give a talk on butterflies, I’m almost 95 or 99 percent certain and tell people that if they plant this in their yard, you are going to get spicebush swallowtails. They’re amazing caterpillars.
Q. And the plant has great fall color. [Below, in fall at Margaret’s.]
A. Brilliant yellow, and if you go by and break off a leaf and crush it, it smells wonderful. And the flowers are very early—it’s one of the first shrubs to start flowering, in April here.
Q. Even earlier than the heinous forsythia in my garden. [Laughter.]
A. Yes. And same color—greenish-yellow flowers, and very tiny but very showy when you get masses of them as an understory plant. So that’s a great one.
Q. It is a great one. Speaking of observing caterpillars: You started a Facebook page—not the one for the nursery stuff you post, but one called Seeing Nature: Observations from New England.
A. It’s everything from birds, to plants that I see in flower, to interesting foliage or insects—a lot of insects, of butterflies. The reason I started it was just to try to get people to observe more.
Q. Slow down.
A. To observe more when they’re in the gardens—or when they’re bird watching. Not just, “Oh, that’s a new one for my life list, let’s move on.” But watch the bird; what is the bird doing? Is it feeding? Does it have young? Take the time out and watch the wildlife. Don’t just see it and dismiss it and look for something new.
Q. You really can learn what birds are denizens of what types of habitat, even within your own yard, by noting such things, as you just said. Where do they come to; what are they eating? What’s their behavior like? What’s their flight pattern like? What time of day do you see them?
A. That’s the way I learned—how I taught myself—what the different butterflies and moths would lay their eggs on, and their caterpillars would feed on. I would just watch them for hours.
I’d watch a female finally land, and see what plant she happened to lay eggs on, and then learn what the larvae would be eating. It’s really fascinating, if you take the time to spend out in a field, or in the woods, to appreciate everything that’s around us.
Q. I remember one time you visited, we were up in the field above my house—sort of the meadow area—and you said, “Hear that?” And you said it was the Louisiana water thrush. And I was like, “I don’t hear that. What are you talking about?” And it was my yard, where I had been for like 25 years, year in and year out, and yet you were telling me to listen more carefully. You heard it.
A. Just to be attuned to everything around us.
Q. Or the red-eyed vireo I think you pointed out to me., saying to really stop, listen, and look.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Aug. 1, 2016 show right here. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
(Photos courtesy of Andy Brand.)