We’ve all seen them: those small blue bumper stickers boasting the word “Native” on cars across the city. It didn’t take me long after I moved to Charleston to realize that the owners of these stickers are displaying a generous sense of pride in their birthright for a reason: They’ve always known the Lowcountry’s picturesque marshes, her sandy beaches and her mighty backyard oaks. Despite the ever-changing face of this city, they want us to know that this beautiful place has been and always will be their home.
You can say the same about native plants.
Natives are often overlooked for annuals sold at big-box stores. We chalk it up to our lack of a green thumb when these plants immediately wilt and die in our challenging heat and humidity. Not only do our natives thrive in the Lowcountry’s hostile conditions, but once established, these plants require little maintenance and continue to come back year after year.
I tend to reference that line from "Field of Dreams" a lot. You know, the one that goes, “If you build it, he will come.” Sometimes I even whisper it as I’m digging a hole in the ground, readying the soil for its new resident. The “he” I am referring to is the wildlife that will inevitably show up once a native is established. Native plants can sometimes be the only food sources for hungry caterpillars that grow up to be beautiful butterflies, or, if they don’t grow up, food for hungry birds. I have customers send me pictures all the time of new pollinator species that show up just as soon as their natives are incorporated into the landscape.
I have comprised a top 10 list of my favorite native plants (listed in no particular order). Each can be found joyously blooming seasonally at Roots and Shoots Nursery.
1. Florida anise (Illicium floridanum): This evergreen shrub is shade-tolerant and does well in massing. The aromatic compounds in its glossy leaves are a deterrent to both insects and deer.
2. American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana): The long, arching branches of this understory shrub give rise to striking clumps of magenta berries seen in fall. A favorite treat for birds.
3. Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata): This delicate vine is known for its unique purple flowers that bloom from June to September. It’s a host species for the friendly Gulf fritillary butterfly.
4. Texas-star hibiscus (Hibiscus coccineus): Easily identified by its impressive, star-shaped and hand-sized flowers, this plant thrives in sunny, damp areas. It’s a fast grower and averages up to 6 feet tall.
5. Coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens): This bushy vine is a hummingbird favorite. Its coral-colored, trumpet-shaped flowers bloom almost all year long.
6. Red salvia (Salvia coccinea): Prolific, hearty and gorgeous bright red blooms from late summer through fall. Another hummingbird favorite.
7. Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum): One of my best pollinators, the silvery flowers of this hearty mint attract an abundance of bees and other beneficial insects.
8. Lanceleaf coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata): Bright yellow, perky flowers that bloom early in the spring. Grows in clumps and can form sizable colonies once established. Propagates well.
9. Blueberry (Vaccinium ashei): Yum.
10. Sweetgrass (Muhlenbergia capillaris): This historic grass is known for its wispy pink flowers in the fall. Plant clumps in masses for full effect.
There are really hundreds of native plants to discover and fall in love with. Gorgeous blooms, wonderful insects and curious birds all arrive as a complete package when you start inviting natives into your landscape. Together, the plants and animals of our Lowcountry spin an intricate web that keeps our ecosystem healthy, but with so much habitat destruction underway in our area, now more than ever, sharing our yards with birds and bees is a very nice thing to do.
To stop and observe the curious behavior of an insect, or delight in a rare flower you have been patiently waiting to bloom all season, these are the small joys that we gardeners understand and why I will always advocate for native plants.
David Manger is the owner of Roots and Shoots Nursery.