Suburban Ecology: Not-so-common native plants for your garden

Strawberry Bush and Boneset
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We all are no strangers now to the fact that we should be using more native plants in our landscapes.

I’ve said before that the goal is to have 80 percent of the biomass of your landscape plants be native, and as nurseries are carrying more and more of them, it is easier to do now.

The easiest ones to find in local nurseries, the ones we all know and love, include Black-eyed Susan, Cardinal flowers, Butterfly weed, and Purple coneflower (actually not a New Jersey native). But there are many more cool native plants I’d like to introduce you to.



Some of the best perennials for supporting the ecosystem are less familiar and may be a little harder to find, but worth seeking out: Baneberry, Jack-in-the-pulpit, Turtlehead, Wild Geranium, Beebalm, Beardtongue, Solomon’s-seal and Trillium.

These workhorse perennials support insects, bees and birds, with berries, seeds, pollen and nectar.

Two of my favorite local growers are Toadshade Wildflower Farm and Wild Ridge Plants. The former is mail order; the latter, pick-up only. These are great resources, and by buying from them you can support a Jersey business and the ecosystem at the same time.

Toadshade Wildflower Farm in Frenchtown is owned  Dr. Randi Eckel, an entomologist. So she is in a unique position to offer insights on pollinators and the plants they prefer. She is growing more than 500 species of native plants in her suburban backyard. As it is not zoned for commercial use, she sells mail order.

You also could arrange to pick up your plants at her hardware store in Frenchtown, which is a good idea for a larger order as shipping can get expensive. I recently ordered a few hard-to-find plants for a total of $28.25 and the shipping was $27.97.

If you register for one of the many lectures Dr. Randi gives for the Native Plant Society of New Jersey, the Frelinghuysen Arboretum or area garden clubs, she generally brings a good supply along to sell. If you are up to it, Toadshade also carries seeds for even more unique native perennials, and these all are sourced in New Jersey and nearby Pennsylvania.

Randi says asking about her favorite underused native plant is “a bit like asking a parent to name their favorite child.” But she did give me a few ideas.

American Strawberry Bush, (Euonymous americanus), is the native version of the invasive Burning Bush (Euonymous alatus). This stunning five-foot-tall plant, sometimes called Bursting-Heart, is super showy in fall, with scarlet fruit capsules opening to show orange seeds inside.

Strawberry Bush & Boneset

Late Flowering Boneset (Eupatorium serotinum) is a five-foot-tall plant covered in small white flowers from September through November. Its long narrow leaves are a beautiful gray-green color. Its a great source of nectar late in the season for bees and butterflies. Salt and deer tolerant, too.

Another great pollinator plant, Flat-Topped White Aster (Doellingeria umbellata) has big clusters of white flowers with chartreuse green centers in August and September. It is the host plant for several butterflies and moths including the rare Harris’ Checkerspot. It gets up to four feet tall.

One of my favorites, Pasture Thistle (Cirsium discolor) is just what you think, one of the thistly purple plants seen growing along roads. This genus contains many pernicious weeds, but this one is a good one.

Find the right spot for it, and you’ll be rewarded because this tall purple fall bloomer is the host plant for Painted Lady butterflies. It’s also a bird- and bee magnet, and its seed ‘fluff’ is used by goldfinches for nesting material. Pasture Thistle grows in just about any sunny spot, but it’s thorny, so put in in the back of the border. The thorns keep the deer at bay.

The not-so-subtle giant Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum) gets to seven feet. Perfoliatum means the leaves surround the stem, in this case forming “cups” that catch water. You’ll find birds drinking from this after a rain. This hefty plant needs space, but in return will give you flowers all summer long. It attracts butterflies, skippers and bees, and provides seeds for birds in fall.

When mine outgrew my small garden, I dug it up and split it in two. Now one is thriving at mom’s house, and the other, at a friend’s place in Easton.

Wild Ridge Plants in Pohatcong Township, Warren County, is owned and operated by Rachel Mackow and Jared Rosenbaum at their farm. Rachel teaches foraging and has an herbal practice. Jared is a botanist and Certified Ecological Restoration Practitioner.

Their native plant nursery is on their farm, but please make an appointment. They are an all-natural, chemical-free business, and source all their seeds locally. They were certified “River Friendly” by the  North Jersey Resource Conservation & Development in 2018. The nonprofit recognizes farms that protect our shared natural resources through responsible land management.

Asked about his favorite underused native, Jared said:  “The more wildflower gardens I plant and the more wild areas I restore, the more I want to include native sedges in every planting palette. Sedges are grass-like plants with long leaf blades and a mounding or vase-like habit.

“Underground, they do remarkable work, weaving loose soil together with their fibrous roots. Sedges are the matrix into which I want to do my plantings, to build an undisturbed soil so the wildflowers feel at home, and reduce niches for weeds to recruit. Plus they have a beautiful architecture of their own,” he said.

Broadleaf Sedge & Purplestem Angelica

I agree. Basically, use sedges as “green mulch,” in between all your other plants. There is a sedge for just about every habitat, from sunny wetlands to shaded woods. Jared favors Appalachian sedge (Carex appalachica) with fine leaves, and Rosy sedge (Carex rosea) for shaded woodlands and edges. Broadleaf sedge (Carex platphylla) and Spreading sedge (Carex laxiculmis) are known for their wide leaves.

A favorite of mine I spotted in the farms meadow is Purplestem Angelica (Angelica atropurpurea),  a native cousin of Angelica gigas, an annual found in most nurseries. This girl gets 6 feet tall and blooms in June with white balls that turn into super interesting seed heads. Great in a wet area or the back of a border, with other giants like Joe Pye.

Its hard to believe Turk’s Cap Lily (Lilium superb) is native, with its exotic looks and name. Orange flowers facing down, with their petals curled up like a…. Turk’s cap, this beauty gets up to 6 feet tall, in moist-to-wet soils, from sun to shade.

This summer, plant more natives — interesting ones.

Carolle Huber is a local landscape architect, and a founder of Grow It Green Morristown. See more of her blog posts at www.carollehuber.com

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1 COMMENT

  1. This is a fabulous, timely and important article, Thank you Carolle! There IS a sedge for what seems like every micro habitat. I am particularly a fan of Squarrose Sedge, along with Fox Sedge. So many wonderful natives to grow and fun watch for all the pollinators that come to the native plant garden.

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