By Susan Wilhelm, Extension Master Gardener
If reading about (or visiting) native plant gardens such as The Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden near Charlotte, North Carolina has whetted your appetite for growing native plants in your own yard (or on your patio or balcony) there are many resources to consult. One book you will not want to miss is Native Plants of the Southeast: A Comprehensive Guide to the Best 460 Species for the Garden by Dr. Larry Mellichamp (Will Stuart, photographer). This user-friendly book “is about Southeast native plants and how to select and use them in the home landscape.”
Native Plants of the Southeast begins with general information on the growing areas of the Southeast along with a thoughtful discussion of what native plants are (for the purposes of this book), why they should be grown, and how to select and grow native plants. The section “How to Use this Book” explains the book’s layout and defines the terms used to describe each of the 460 featured plants.
The plants themselves are organized into nine chapters: Ferns and Clubmosses, Grasses and Grasslike Plants, Aquatic Plants, Bog Plants, Wildflowers, Vines, Shrubs, Conifers, and Trees. Within a chapter the plants are listed in alphabetical order by Latin name followed by the common name and the species. Using a standard format, Mellichamp describes each plant’s habitat and range, what it looks like—including flowering and fruiting time as appropriate—, propagation techniques, landscape uses, ease of cultivation, and availability. Separately, he lists the plants by growing condition or special purpose, such as plants that tolerate dry shade, plants appropriate for containers, or plans with outstanding fall color. Will Stuart’s spectacular photos accompany each description, often including examples of the pollinators the plant attracts. Be sure to check out the photo of a pipevine swallowtail butterfly on a Lilium superbum (Turk’s cap lily) flower—it’s Stuart’s favorite photo in the book.
One of the most helpful tools in Native Plants of the Southeast is Mellichamp’s unique plant rating system. Each plant is rated from one to four stars based on criteria including the plant’s ornamental traits, its availability to the home gardener, and how hard/easy it is to grow. One-star plants are useful but may have only a single season of interest; two-star plants are good plants that may be difficult to find or grow; three-star plants have two or more good traits, are moderately easy to grow and frequently available; and four-star plants are outstanding plants with three-season interest that are commonly available and easy to grow. Most of the flowers, trees and shrubs listed have two-, three-, and four-star ratings.
Equally valuable are Mellichamp’s personal observations based on his experience propagating and growing many of the species in the University of North Carolina Charlotte Botanical Gardens’ seven-acre native plant garden. For example, here you will learn that Carex plantaginea (seersucker or plantain-leaf sedge) mixes well with herbaceous plants and ferns, is long-lived and will naturalize given enough moisture, or that you may need to go to a specialty nursery to find a pure Ilex opaca (American holly) “because there are so many hybrids and exotic ones that grow faster.” Not every plant in Native Plants of the Southeast is suitable for a USDA Hardiness Zone 7 garden. Additionally, Mellichamp’s experience with some plants may be different from other sources. Nevertheless, it’s a good resource to consult if you are looking to add native plants to your home landscape.
Native Plants of the Southeast (Timber Press Incorporated, 2014) is available at the Arlington Public Library and from national booksellers.
Learn more about native plants at Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia’s (MGNV) Tried and True Native Plant Selections for the Mid-Atlantic, Plant NOVA Natives, or see native plants in the MGNV Demonstration Gardens.