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Gardening: Unique natives for the garden

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It finally looks like spring is here. And with Earth Day just around the corner, it seems like a great time to talk about some of the wonderful native plants available to grow in the home garden.

There is a plethora of native plants that are worth looking into which thrive in the adverse conditions of the Lowcountry garden, many of which have often been overlooked for other plants that are often harder to grow and just seem out of place in a typical Charleston garden. Native plants not only grow well here but they also attract many of the essential and beneficial wildlife that can work with you to help maintain a healthy garden.

Common Indicia Azalea

The idea of a native plant can be rather murky, as some plants that are ubiquitous in the home landscape, such as the indica azalea, are not native and are in fact from Asia. Christopher Burtt/Provided

The first question is, what is a native plant? According to the U.S. Forest Service, native plants are those that have evolved naturally with local wildlife and adapted to the local ecosystem.

The idea of a native plant can be rather murky, as some plants that are ubiquitous in the home landscape, such as the indica azalea, are not native and is, in fact, from Asia. Other plants that are sometimes less common, such as the wild azalea, are essential to the local ecosystem and have been here long before the more common indica azalea.

The wild azalea, which is blooming right now, does seem to be making a comeback for many home landscapes. There are multiple species in the rhododendron genus that are considered native and produce an interesting array of flowers that are rather different from their Asian cousins.

Native plants are an essential part of any garden. Their role in attracting and feeding local, native wildlife cannot be overstated. Plants such as the Carolina jessamine, sometimes referred to as yellow or Carolina jasmine, is not only the state flower but is also an important early spring blooming vine.

Similarly, the eastern redbud is one of the earliest blooming trees and provides some of the first flowers of the year.

Native plants are important in building and maintaining a healthy and vibrant ecosystem within one’s own garden. There are many different species of native plants worth growing and enjoying in the home landscape. Here are a few examples of some unique and interesting plants to get one interested in the vast array of wonderful natives.

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Stokes aster, or Stokesia laevis, is one my favorite natives to plant in the landscape. It is a beautiful and important pollinator plant in the sunflower family. It grows well in both full sun and part shade and can tolerate a variety of soil types. It is both easy to grow and relatively easy to divide as it grows in larger clumps. Only getting about 12 inches tall and persists through the winter, it is a great addition to just about anywhere in the garden.

Georgia savory, Clinopodium georgianum, is a native herb in the mint family and is rather unknown. One of the easiest perennials that grows in a variety of locations, it thrives in part sun to full sun and is relatively drought tolerant. Georgia savory makes an excellent addition to any pollinator garden with its wonderful small pink flowers. It grows only about 12 inches tall and 2 feet wide and generally persists through the winter.

White False Indigo

Fale indigo is a beautiful perennial that makes a great addition to any garden. Christopher Burtt/Provided

Wild, or false, indigo is a beautiful perennial that makes a great addition. Baptisia australis or Baptisia alba is a sight to behold in the garden and comes in both blue and white flowers. A true perennial in the pea family, it is a legume that does have the ability to fix nitrogen like beans and clover. It prefers full sun but can grow in light shade. False indigo is also a host plant for a number of different butterflies. It grows about 1 to 2 feet tall.

The importance of native plants is one that is talked about a lot in horticulture and is worth looking into. Their adaptions to growing in our area — as well as their attractiveness to a variety of local, beneficial wildlife — are all just some of the examples. Whether one is growing ornamentals or edible plants, attracting beneficial insects and pollinators is important in the overall sustaining of a healthy ecosystem within the home garden.

If you are interested in learning more about beneficial insects and their role in growing edible plants, check out our monthly Edible Garden Series. This month, we are talking about dealing with pests and diseases in an edible garden and the role that beneficial wildlife plays in helping to maintain a healthy vegetable and fruit garden.

To register for the free Edible Garden Series talk for April, go to www.eventbrite.com/e/150056676559. For more information about native plants in the home garden, check out Clemson’s Home and Garden Information Center at https://hgic.clemson.edu.

Christopher Burtt is the Urban Horticulture Extension Agent and Master Gardener Coordinator for Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties. He can be reached by email at cburtt@clemson.edu.

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