Gardening with native plants in a time of change

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Trillium, a spring ephemeral, flourishes on gardener Carol Angle’s Albemarle property. (Photo by Andrea Hubbell)

Is this the hill?
Is this the kirk?
Is this mine own countree?
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge

A fascination with native flora—plants growing here before European settlement—has a venerable history in Charlottesville, and if you can’t guess who it traces to, you haven’t lived here long. Thomas Jefferson famously noted the Virginia bluebell, “a bluish colored, funnel-formed flower,” in his Garden Book in April, 1776. He featured native plants and cultivated The Grove on the southwest slope of the little mountain but, complicated fellow that he was, Jefferson also delighted in bedecking Monticello with exotic beauties, like ginkgo and mimosa.

I’ve seen a lot of gardens and am continually struck by how much people invest in land they happen to be in charge of for a time (though few can surpass Jefferson for sheer indebtedness). Endless energy and labor, horticultural skill, money, pride, love, memories, ideas of beauty, nature, and duty —these all get translated by human hands into the landscape. Fran Boninti, Phil Stokes, Pat Willis, and Carol Angle—some of the most dedicated and knowledgeable plants-people around—tend these foothills now. And they give them their all.

But the world has turned. If Jefferson saw mimosa seedlings in his own flowerbeds, he would probably have had “the senile corps” (aged slaves relegated to the gardens and patron saints to us all) dig them up and send them off to his cultural buddies at home and across the Atlantic. The bloom was not off the rose, so to speak, and plants from abroad were still treasured as novelties. Twenty-first century gardeners have a different view of prolific foreign plants.

The most notorious—Japanese honeysuckle, Asian bittersweet, multiflora rose, Kudzu and garlic mustard—were imported, the first two for fragrant flowers and showy berries, the latter for (extremely effective) erosion control. Evolved in other climes, they have no natural predators and, especially on disturbed ground, run rampant. Unlike Queen Anne’s lace, chicory, and bachelor’s button—scattered in our meadows for centuries as decorous reminders of colonial times—these new guys don’t “naturalize”; they “invade” and “escape.”

A particular ecology is represented by plants that take over an untended piece of land. Nowadays, that’s as likely to be bittersweet and garlic mustard as red cedar and broomsedge. This bothers some people more than others, but it’s the reality for everyone gardening with native plants today. No one seems particularly worried about warmer temperatures. Plants will creep northward or southward depending on how habitats move, but what happens when they disappear altogether?

Autumn olive feeds birds in fall with its alluring alien berries as it takes over hedgerows and woodland edges, crowding out native willow and cherry that could feed butterflies and birds in the spring. Do we leave it alone or beat it back? Where to begin? Where to stop?

Crozet resident Fran Boninti, a charter member of the Jefferson Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society and veteran Monticello garden guide, pulls a weed from her daffodil collection. (Photo by Andrea Hubbell)

Fran Boninti and the bad rununculus
“It’s a sense of place,” said Fran Boninti, charter member of the Jefferson Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society and veteran Monticello garden guide. “If your ecology is correct, you stir the memory in the plant, and it will reproduce because it’s happy. Because it knows it’s in the right place.” She sees it as her mission to defend that place “’til my last breath.”

Boninti’s purpose is not a xenophobic stand against foreign interlopers. She’s interested in provenance, happily devouring the Atlas of Virginia Flora to fine-tune Rivanna Garden Club’s design for Hatton Ferry, which has led her to exclude Virginia summersweet from the Albemarle County native plant list because “the closest it gets to us is Cumberland.” She also grubs out bottle-brush buckeye so it won’t overtake parts of the garden, and one of her most difficult weeds is the mat-forming native celandine poppy which crowds out more delicate spring beauties.

“I am seeking out plants, native and non-native, that do not spread because in good conscience I don’t want to create dead zones of plants,” she said.

Boninti delights in native common violets, letting them froth through the beds and paths because, as a larval food source, “without them, there wouldn’t be any fritallaries. It’s all about the bugs.” She’s lost some plants to the violets and digs when she has to, but she doesn’t see them as a threat.

She’s been gardening her plot for 30 years with her husband, Andrew (“he planted every tree and shrub on this place”), on two acres of rich woodland in Albemarle County. They’ve transformed the gently sloping hillside into an impressive ornamental garden with sweeping stone and timber steps connecting room after room through the meticulous woods, each overflowing with flowering plants thriving beneath the deciduous canopy. This spring, the couple will host several tours and Boninti was busy weeding and potting up for the Native Plant Society sale when I met with her.

Boninti loves the native plants and prizes their ecological niches. “I don’t like it when they take our native forms and hybridize them,” she said, indicating the new coneflowers with their mutated petals, dwarf habits, and array of gaudy colors. She’s preaching to the choir here as we roll our eyes and curl our lips at the outlandish newcomers. “They are not the native Echinacea our insects, bugs and butterflies grew up eating. My natives attract the invertebrates that they evolved with,” she said.

Boninti harbors no hatred for the foreign plant, with Japanese maples scattered like sculpture along the walkways, a fine Japanese holly hedge, and the most sophisticated treatment of a Gold Mop Cypress I’ve ever seen. But she treasures the plants of the native woods. Spicebush, spring beauties, trillium, and bluebells tumble down the slopes. Groves of winterberry and witch-hazel tower over our heads as we meander up and down on a heavenly spring afternoon.

Threaten these plants and you stir her ire. Boninti’s own personal nightmare invaded this paradise in the form of a buttercup (“the bad ranunculus”), most likely non-native, probably come in with an outside plant. “One day I had one and the next I had a hundred.” Shades of the mugwort that infests my own beds. She’s been fighting them ever since and unlike when she began, “90 percent of my time is spent fighting invasives.”

Mostly she hand-weeds, gleefully hefting the mini-mattock that’s come in the mail from Way Cool Tools. The invasives go into plastic bags then to the garbage for the landfill, where they can spread no more. But she has painted an herbicide on the bad ranunculus, because she says she can hear the spring beauties and native ferns crying out, “save me, save me.” I believe her. She has wept for plants before, she said, and as one who has shed a tear or two myself for abused and neglected botanical life, I do not find her admission amusing or even sentimental.

“I consider myself an organic gardener,” Boninti said. She does not use pesticides except in the most extreme circumstance of the bad ranunculus and she mulches with leaves (“shredded hardwood will not touch my plants”), carefully conserving water. The couple’s cistern saw them through the first year of the fabled drought and she admires natives’ thriftiness. She doesn’t water after the first time. “I can’t afford plants that can’t help themselves.” Stern words from the plant-weeper.

Like all those who possess inherited wisdom, she speaks affectionately of her mentor Ted Scott who “took me under his wing” and taught her the importance of “the right plant for the right place.” She got to know him in her early days at VNPS digging plants from his garden for the sales. “He taught me the ecology behind growing natives. That it’s not just sticking a plant in the ground. How do you enrich the ecology on your property without poisoning everything? And that is what upsets me so about the invasives.”

NATIVE PLANT CONNECTIONS
Virginia Native Plant Society Plant Sale: Sunday, April 29 at 1pm at Ivy Creek Natural Area
Ivy Creek Natural Foundation (ivycreekfoundation.org)
The Wintergreen Nature Foundation (twnf.org)

NATIVE PLANTS
*Trees: Bald Cypress, Dogwood, Red Buckeye, Dogwood, Paw-Paw, Redbud, Sourwood
*Shrubs: Bottlebrush Buckeye, Leucothoe, Spicebush, Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia), Witch-hazel, Winterberry
*Perennials: Bloodroot, Hay-scented and Christmas Fern, Dutchman’s Breeches, Foamflower, Green and Gold (Chrysogonum), Jacob’s Ladder, Mayapple, Spring Beauties (Claytonia), Trillium, Twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla), Virginia Bluebells

INVASIVE NON-NATIVE PLANTS
*Asian Bittersweet (Celastrus orbicularis—China, Japan)
*Bradford Pear (Pyrus calleryana ‘Bradfordii’—China)
*Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica—Japan)
*Kudzu (Pueraria lobata—China, Japan)
*Autumn Olive (Eleagnus umbellata—China, Korea, Japan)
*Mimosa (Albizia julibrissin—Persia, China)
*Multiflora Rose (Japan, Korea, China)
*Garlic Mustard (Asia, North Africa, Europe)
*Japanese Stilt Grass (Microstegium vimineum—Asia)
*Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris—China)
*Periwinkle (Vinca minor—Europe)
*The Bad Ranunculus (probably R. ficaria—Europe)

NATIVE PLANTS WITH INVASIVE TENDENCIES
*Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium)
*Robin’s Plantain (Erigeron pulchellus)
*Celandine Poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum)

Phil Stokes: the strategist
“Things are out of balance and we’re losing diversity. It’s not Virginia anymore. It’s really sad,” said Phil Stokes, long-time member of Ivy Creek Foundation and VNPS and president of Tree Stewards. He despises the highway monoculture of autumn olive in the same way Boninti “detests the Bradford Pear.” A cloud of beauty to untutored eyes, the pear overruns hillsides with its bastard seedlings.

“How can a cherry or oak rise above that?” Boninti asked.

Stokes and Boninti’s fight is with “homogenization,” a landscape of botanical Walmarts, all the same everywhere.

I hate my mugwort, too. It’s a reproach to my neglect, more so as I come to know this group of gardeners. Stokes learned about wildflowers exploring the woods behind his house. He cultivates a native meadow there, but it’s getting overgrown with brambles since he’s been tending his tree farm in western Albemarle County. He grows Chinese chestnuts, walnuts, and pecans professionally, then comes home to walk these shaded trails, leaving Virginia bluebells, ferns, trilliums, and spring beauties in his wake.

When he began 11 years ago, edges of the 52-acre woodland were solid curtains of bittersweet, which he hacked and “nuked” with glyphosphate herbicide. He does it all pretty much by himself. It’s hard to get volunteers for such dirty work, even with his connections, and everyone is afraid of ticks.

As soon as Stokes has cleared an area, he re-plants either with mail order bare root plants (Scott’s Bros., New Moon Nursery) or native grasses (Ernst Conservatory Seeds). He is an experienced grass man and has experimented with them fruitfully. He’s also a pioneer in learning how to control invasives in a natural setting and restore habitat. For instance, Stokes has also found that autumn bent grass can out-compete Japanese stilt grass if seeded densely. He’s direct-seeded broom sedge and creeping red fescue in cleared areas where they’ve made solid patches that hold their own in a dampish meadow by the pond. He nurses little swaths of bald cypress, red buckeye, and swamp white oak. He hopes to attract wood duck and chases away Canada geese. Farther along he’s established a healthy bank of leucothoe, bluebells, and daffodils (the one non-native he’s added as far as I can tell).

When I spoke to him, Stokes was just back from a presentation at Blandy Farms during which he had chronicled his war in the woods. It took nearly three years of digging seedlings to clear the bittersweet after the first assault, a watchful eye to rid annuals like garlic mustard before they’d seeded, concentrating on small infestations and working outward. Japanese honeysuckle and multiflora rose were the targets of a second line of attack, less destructive than bittersweet because they don’t spread by seed. Though Stokes often takes along a garden fork and “can’t walk in the woods without my pruners,” he sprays glyphosphate on garlic mustard and honeysuckle in winter, before natives emerge. “It’s mostly subtraction not addition in some parts of the woods,” he said.

Stokes is not a destroyer. He nurses native stands of skunk cabbage, mayapple, and running cedar, adding dutchman’s breeches and native sedum. He remembers his dad mowing the grass at home in Illinois, steering around patches of trillium and mayapple that grew beneath the white oaks out in the suburbs of the 1950s. He still sees them there when he visits. He likes the idea of self-sustaining plants and fostering little colonies that will grow into the future.

Pat Willis: the wild child
Pat Willis lives in a sea of periwinkle (escaped from homesteads and graveyards since colonial times) that spreads through her 15 acre woodland and laps against her wooden house. She sees it as a benign presence, reaching its own equilibrium, accommodating spring beauties and trilliums that rise up through its lace. She thinks it’s reached its level now and doesn’t pull it much anymore. She thinks there’s less of it than when she came.
“Maybe it’s backtracking,” she mused.

Willis was a city girl from Baltimore who started a landscape business in northern Virginia that specialized in small urban patio gardens. She was involved with the Virginia Native Plant Society in Alexandria and joined the Jefferson Chapter down here soon after re-locating to Green Springs Historic District in Louisa County—14,000 acres of farms and woodland with easements restricting subdivision and commercial building.

All of a sudden she found herself in the middle of “things growing on their own.” Ever since, she’s been picking out threads in the forest floor to reveal the tapestry below. Blue woodland phlox grows up through the gravelly middle of the drive. Her driveway circle was a mass of honeysuckle 25 years ago but glistens now with a large pool of creamy foamflower in full bloom. As she cleared the honeysuckle the foamflower spread, and she got the idea of just guiding things along. Willis doesn’t add many plants but weeds around the little things that need some help—spring beauties, Jacob’s ladder, chrysogonum (Green and Gold), and native ferns.

“I pull constantly…I haven’t used Round-Up in years,” Willis, who describes herself as “a plant right-to-lifer,” said.

She thinks they “have a right to grow where they want” and doesn’t like “the kill, kill, kill” approach.

Willis believes “plants go in cycles” and can fend for themselves. She has seen bloodroot and wild phlox “get up and move” around the woods, showing up in new places and receding from others. “I don’t think our native plants are that weak…eventually they’ll get up and fight or move someplace. If you think about it, why isn’t the world covered in three feet of honeysuckle?” she said.

As if on cue, we discovered a bright orange-red native honeysuckle twining along the woodland floor on a recent walk, somehow co-existing with a carpet of its more vigorous Japanese cousin. “I gotta get out here,” she said, eyeing her enemy. When Willis works an area she spends hours at a time “pulling, and pulling, and pulling, and pulling” until it’s done, and then might not get back around for a couple of years.

“Mine’s a wild child garden,” she said. “I have very little influence on it; if it’s growing there, it should be there.” Underneath her potting bench are flats of native Robin’s plantain that’s crowding out her Green and Gold. So she’s potting it up for the VNPS plant sale. Who knows what it’ll do someplace else?

Nebraska native Carol Angle examines a woodland wildflower from her Albemarle garden . (Photo by Andrea Hubbell)

Carol Angle: the collector
Carol Angle has gardened her way from Nebraska to Virginia. She’s always found an appeal in supporting “the threatened natives,” influenced by her daughter who gardened with natives in Minneapolis. After her “little plot” in Omaha where she “was on a first name acquaintance with every weed,” Angle’s move to Charlottesville in 1999 furnished a larger canvas, 20 acres in a small subdivision west of town.

“Fortunately, Cole Burrell came into my life and introduced me to the wide world of Virginia natives,” she said.

Everyone in the native plant community knows and refers fondly to horticultural designer and author Colston Burrell, whose gardens in Free Union, which feature collections of European hellebores and extensive native plantings, are renowned. Burrell designed a native grass slope behind Angle’s house and streamside plantings below. Now he brings students to see the wide variety of species on her land.

Angle allows non-Virginia natives like camassia and yuccas, “admitted under my personal Lewis and Clark clause,” as well as Japanese Snowbell and doublefile viburnum. Burrell, another Midwest transplant, teases her about plants that don’t belong. “Cole’s a tough censor. He’ll tell me it shouldn’t be here,” Angle said. “I guess I admire the ones that take over.”

But you can tell she has a collector’s heart. There’s a bit of garlic mustard and autumn olive in the woods, but they haven’t had their spring weeding yet and the beds are well-tended. Up above, the traffic on Garth Road rushes by, but there’s a habitat down here that could otherwise be a dumping ground for acres of suburban lawn. Instead, there’s a young planting of sourwoods and a stand of paw-paws in a bog by the stream. We pass a patch of geese feathers where they think a bear came through. A grove of wild cherry scents the air. Last summer, the mowed path from the house through the meadow thrummed with birds and insects.

We all pick away at what obscures our vision. And we all have our prejudices. I’ve discovered some of my own visiting these landscapes, but there is something intensely personal about what we accept or reject.

A final revelation: As I was leaving Willis’ woodland, the accommodator of periwinkle confessed, “I hate the mimosa….It’s the only thing I had cut down when I came here. They’re too bosomy, like wild-west floozies. I can see them dancing on the bar.” Willis still pulls seedlings after 25 years and indeed there are no mimosas among her periwinkle and honeysuckle.

As we parted ways, she turned back towards the native honeysuckle we’d just left behind.
“I gotta go weed,” she said.

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