Enjoying Native Plants

By Anja Lowrence, Master Gardener, SCMG

As many of us have been isolating at home this past year, we’ve read about how nature has taken over our towns, air quality improved with reduced manufacturing and the world woke up to the fact that we are the problem. Our interventions have harmed our planet.

Sometimes, it seems that we, as individual gardeners, can do little to help … but there is something that we can all do to help our planet. We can choose to include native plants in our gardens. Native plants have developed complex interconnected relationships with the soil, fauna and flora of the region over centuries. Loss of these plants has caused a loss of biodiversity in our urban settings creating what is called an urban desert. Our exotic plants, while beautiful, do not support native pollinators.

Why is this important? A native oak tree can support over 500 different species of insects, while the exotic ginkgo supports about 5. These insects are a significant source of food for wildlife, especially birds who rely on tasty nutritious caterpillars to feed their young.

So we encourage all gardeners to add a few native plants to their gardens. Here in Simcoe County we are in Ecoregion 6E. This is different from gardening zones, which are defined only by minimum and maximum temperatures for an area based on historical data. An ecoregion is a large area of land/water, defined by its environmental conditions including climate, landforms and soil characteristics. This link to the Ontario Environment and Energy web page provides more information on Ecoregions. Ecoregion 6E is called the Lake Simcoe Rideau Ecoregion and is part of the mixedwood plains ecozone.

There are numerous native plant nurseries in our area where you can purchase plants or seeds. Be sure to choose native plants and not cultivars of native plants as we do know if they support the same way the original plant does. Cultivars are created by selected breeding for a specific trait & may not have the same quantity or quality of pollen as the native plant.

A word of caution: many plants have parts that are toxic to humans & their pets. Please do not consume any part of a plant unless you are confident it is not toxic.

The following table contains a selection of native plants that will provide flowers throughout the season, once established. While you will note that these plants are unlikely to seen together in the same garden bed, these plants should provide our native pollinators with pollen during the growing season.

Wild Ginger aka Asarum canadense is a low growing perennial herb that flowers in early spring. The flowers appear at the base of the leaves and rarely seen. Leaves are large, hairy heart shaped and are often wider than long. Plants spread by seed and by underground rhizomes and make an excellent shade ground cover. (much better than sweet woodruff, an invasive exotic from Europe). Canadian Zone 2 – 6.

 

Jack-in-the-Pulpit aka Arisaema triphyllum is another spring flowering native with which we are all familiar. This wood land plant appears as a spear in spring soon revealing the familiar double stems each with three leaflets. And who can forget the spathe with the curled hood that remind one of the rostrum clergy once used. The tiny flower is inside this tube changes as the corm ages. When younger, only the stamens develop (male flowers). As the plant ages, carpels (female Flowers) start to appear. When fertilized the seeds ripen to reveal the bright red fruits which contain 1-5 seeds.  Zone 2 – 8.

 

Bloodroot aka Sanguinaria canadensis is a low growing, shade loving native perennial that flowers in very early spring. The grey green of the underside of leaves unfurl for the white flowers. The bright yellow anthers & stigma are clearly visible. After flowering a seed pod develops and when mature the seeds are spread by ants, myrmecochory, who are attracted to the nutrient rich elaiosomes that cap the seeds. Plants also spread by underground rhizomes. Leaves are persistent for the entire season in Zones 6 and lower, in warmer zones it should be treated as an ephemeral. Zones 1 – 8.

 

Wild Columbine aka Aquilegia canadensis is also a spring flowering perennial that is tolerant of many soil types as well as from full sun to full shade. The nodding red sepals encase the yellow petals which then taper upward into erect red spurs. The green basal leaves are delicate, deeply lobed, tri-palmate with long stems. Wild columbine is relatively short lived (< 5 years) but will readily self-seed. The nectar in the flowers is a favourite of native bees and hummingbirds.  Zone 1 – 8

 

Butterfly weed aka Asclepias tuberosa is only one of the 12 milkweeds native to Ontario. However, it is by far one of the showiest with its bright orange flowers appearing mid-summer. As a member of the milkweed family, it haswhite latex like sap and is the host for Monarch Butterflies larvae. Once established, it is very tolerant of many adverse conditions such as drought, poor soil and urban pollution. Zone 1-8

 

Black-eyed Susan aka Rudbeckia hirta has a very long bloom period for a perennial.  It starts flowering in July and continues well into the fall providing a beautiful swath of yellow in the garden. A very forgiving garden native that is tolerant of all soils, moisture and light levels, though it does best in full sun. Easily grown from seed or by splitting of existing growth. This plant is native to the prairies but has readily naturalized in Ontario. It is a North American native beloved by butterflies and bees. Zone 1-8

 

Blue Vervain aka Verbena hastata provides spikes of purple blue flowers for weeks on end from mid-summer until fall. Absolutely beautiful when mass planted. Blue Vervain does great in pots in full sun provided there is enough moisture. This is one plant that can survive with ‘wet feet’, so the edge of a pond is an ideal location. In the lower zones an extra layer of mulch would be recommended. Zone 3 – 8

 

Cup Plant aka Silphium perfoliatum is a big plant with tiny yellow flowers. I always call this a ‘guy plant’: it is big bold & can’t be ignored! Striking in the right setting, Cup Plant can grow to be 3 m. It does self-seed readily, but seedlings are easy to identify and remove. This plant gets its name from the way the course leaves cup around the square stem. These cups hold dew and rain water that is used by insects as a moisture source. Bees and other pollinators swarm around the tiny ~3 cm yellow daisy like flowers from mid-summer into the fall.  Zone 0 -7

 

New England Aster aka Symphyotrichum novae-angliae is the poster child for autumn flowers. Wonderful purple-blue flowers with yellow centres from August well into the fall. A tall plant whose lower leaves are gone by the time the flowers appear. Asters are very important late season pollen sources for pollinators. Zone 2 – 7

 

White Turtlehead aka Chelon glabra is a wonderful late summer until well into fall. The plant gets its name from the way the unusual looking flower.  A favourite of native bees & hummingbirds. Great addition to any garden for fall interest. Zone 1-8

 

 

 

 

References:

Forest Plants of Central Ontario, 1996 eds: Chambers, Legasy & Bentley. Lone Pine Publishing

Encyclopaedia of Garden Plants, 1996 eds: Brickell, Cole & Zuk. Reader’s Digest

https://www.worldplants.ca

https://notsohollowfarm.ca

http://fiddleheadnursery.ca

https://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org

https://www.usda.gov