‘Plant this, not that’

Passion vine offers gardeners beautiful blooms with the added benefit of being a noninvasive native plant.

I love when author David Zinczenko appears on the morning talk shows promoting his “Eat This, Not That” book series. He compares foods with a zillion calories with their healthier, leaner counterparts.

His goal is to help consumers make better food choices. Each time I see him uncover a chafing dish revealing the low-cal option, I think, “Why don’t we have the same sort of comparisons for the gardening world?” In essence, plant this, not that!

There is a lot to consider when purchasing plants. Like food, not all landscape plants are created equal. Some commonly used species of ornamental plants simply do not behave well in the landscape. These introduced plant species have escaped cultivation by adapting, multiplying and spreading into natural areas, earning themselves the title of “exotic invasive plants.”

Not all non-native plants are invasive — think camellias, azaleas and gardenias. However, according to the South Carolina Exotic Plant Pest Council, a large number of invasive plants are actually landscape staples such as climbing vincas (V. major and V. minor), Leatherleaf Mahonia (Mahonia bealei) or Nandina (Nandina domestica), all of which are non-native or exotic in origin. These silent invaders find their way out of the garden and into natural areas, roadsides and even waterways, posing a severe threat to the native plants that make up our distinctive Lowcountry landscapes.

By expanding our plant palette and swapping out these botanical bullies for native or well-adapted plants, we can help reduce the amount of taxpayer dollars going to remove invasive plants from state and national parks and other public areas. Over the next few weeks, I will offer up a series of “plant this, not that” suggestions for Lowcountry gardeners.

Chinese silver grass (Miscanthus sinensis) once was considered the height of low-maintenance beauty. This Asian introduction still is available for sale in the trade.

Initially bred to produce sterile seeds, it has since adapted in the landscape and now sends viable seeds blowing in the wind.

Found growing abundantly on disturbed sites and roadways, this aggressive grass is taking over native plant communities.

Swap this miscreant for a native grass such as Sweetgrass (Muhlenbergia filipes), River Oats (Chasmanthium latifolia) or Sand Cordgrass (Spartina bakerii).

Both Chinese and Japanese privet (Ligustrum spp.) have become simultaneously invasive and overused in the landscape. There are many readily available native and well-adapted plants that can be easily swapped for these misbehaving evergreens.

Sporting bright green foliage and a snappy upright form, Carolina cherry laurel (Prunus caroliniana) makes an excellent backdrop in the landscape. Several native hollies are good substitutions as well. Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) and Inkberry holly (Ilex glabra) are reliable, easy to grow and add interest with berries and evergreen foliage. Prostrate plum yew (Cephalotaxus harringtonia) is a well-adapted, slow-growing evergreen with a fine texture that would make a good swap for Chinese privet.

Several vines top the invasive plant list, including English Ivy, Chinese and Japanese Wisteria and multiflora rose.

Consider swapping Asian wisterias for the American variety (Wisteria frutescens), which is just as beautiful without becoming a nuisance. Plant evergreen Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata) instead of ivy or vinca (also found on the “most wanted” list).

Purple passionflower (Passiflora incarnata L.) is a great swap for any invasive vine as it rewards gardeners with its beautiful flowers and attracts hordes of gulf fritillary butterflies. Don’t panic when the caterpillars eat the vine, it will bounce back!

Native coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens L.) boasts red tubular flowers on scrambling semi-evergreen vines, easily outshining any invasive interloper. Send Carolina Jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) climbing up arbors and trellises to add a pop of early yellow color and evergreen foliage instead of planting more ivy or wisterias. Both will attract hummingbirds and other pollinators.

Amy L. Dabbs is the urban horticulture extension agent and tri-county Master Gardener coordinator for the Clemson University Cooperative Extension. Send questions to gardening@postandcourier.com.