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Natives and “Nativars” For Conventional Landscapes (Part 1)

Tuesday, March 14th, 2017 at 7:00 am

When it comes to low maintenance plants, nothing beats native. Once established, natives have natural ways of tolerating drought, excessive watering, extreme winters, late frosts, trampling and grazing. There’s a problem with natives though. They can be difficult to manage. Sometimes they get too big or have a need to lean on their neighbors to look good. This bad reputation has drawn a lot of people away from natives, so today I’m going to talk about a few natives and “nativars” that are in a class of their own. Consider them trailblazers that will make you or your clients rethink native.

Parthenium integrifolium – Wild Quinine

When I first planted Wild Quinine, I had no idea what a gem I was getting. I originally added it to the garden because the coarse, upright leaves provided a much needed contrast to the fine textured foliage of Coreopsis and Perovskia. Then it bloomed. The large white flower heads emerge on 2-4′ tall stems in June through August (though sometimes earlier). The flowers remind me somewhat of pearly everlasting (but more attractive in my opinion). The flowers can be dried for winter arrangements or left in the garden for texture in winter. Plant this in well drained soil in full sun for best performance.

Tradescantia ‘Tough Love’ – Tough Love Spiderwort

The Pink Flowers of 'Tough Love' are different than many other garden species

The Pink Flowers of ‘Tough Love’ are different than many other garden species

Love is something you have to work at and Tradescantia ‘Tough Love’ is one of the best examples of what happens when you just keep working at it. Jim Ault, plant breeder at the Chicago Botanic Garden, introduced me to this pink flowering hybrid Tradescantia a few years ago and I’ve been waiting to get this into my garden ever since. Its parents, Tradescantia tharpii and Tradescantia occidentalis, are both native to the United States, but endemic to western and southwestern states.  Unlike most Tradescantia that grow range-y and tall in moist, shady sites, ‘Tough Love’ prefers drier, sunnier sites, is compact and stays mostly evergreen throughout the season. The only maintenance it needs is a little cutting back at the end of the season.

Schizachyrium scoparium – Little Bluestem

The horticulture industry hasn’t ignored this native plant. It’s already available in a number of cultivars including ‘Carousel’, ‘Jazz’, ‘Prairie Blues, ‘The Blues’, ‘Jazz’, ‘Twilight Zone’, ‘Munchkin’, ‘Standing Ovation’, ‘Smoke Signal’ and more. The species grows anywhere from 2-4′ high and produces little brush-like inflorescences vertically along the plant. It tolerates a range of soils from dry to somewhat wet and does best in full sun, though will grow in part shade. It’s an excellent choice for rain gardens. The fall color on the species ranges from orange to purple and bronze, eventually turning tan for the winter. The plants tend to remain upright for much of the winter so it’s best to cut back when the snow melts.

Dalea purpurea – Purple Prairie Clover

The natural habit of Dalea

The natural habit of Dalea in a wild area

When I want a little time to relax in the morning, one of my favorite things to do is visit Loyola Beach in Chicago’s Roger’s Park Neighborhood. The southern part of the beach is home to a decently sized dune restoration area and is planted with a wide variety of native plants. My favorite is the purple prairie clover. This upright to vase shaped perennial blooms from June until August (sometimes later), producing hundreds of tiny, pea-like, fuchsia to purple flowers on compact columnar inflorescences. The fine textured plant does best in full sun, with strong drought tolerance once established.

There are many more natives and “nativars” that are well suited to the landscape. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more species and varieties that make the cut!

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