Starting with the native species, perennial plant breeders are developing new cultivars with improved traits.
Creeping phlox

Creeping phlox (Phlox subulata) is a good native groundcover for sharply drained soils.
Spring Symphony foamflower

Spring Symphony foamflower (Tiarella) brightens a woodland garden.
Espresso cranesbill

Espresso cranesbill (Geranium maculatum) has darker foliage than its native parents.

Native plants are all the rage in perennial and landscape gardening, and that’s a relatively new trend. Collecting and growing exotic plants began centuries ago as European explorers discovered new species in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. As long as ornamental gardening has existed, new, exotic plants have been the most desirable and highly prized specimens.

Well, it’s all fun and games until somebody gets hurt. The injury occurred when aggressive, non-native plants escaped from cultivation and upset the delicate natural balance in wetlands, waterways, meadows, and forests throughout the country. The consequences have been dire and expensive to control.

That’s where native garden plants come in. Many North American plants have been garden staples for years because they’re well adapted to their local climate and soil, and bloom reliably. Every perennial gardener knows black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia), coneflower (Echinacea), phlox, and tickseed (Coreopsis) because they’re low-maintenance, high-performing plants. Starting with the native species, perennial plant breeders are developing new cultivars with improved traits, such as flower and foliage size or color, disease resistance, and growth habit. Allan Armitage, University of Georgia, refers to the improved versions of our native plants as nativars.

I’ve grown quite fond of some of these nativars and have several of them thriving in dappled shade at the edge of a sunny border. All bloom for weeks in spring to early summer.

  • Espresso geranium (Geranium maculatum ‘Espresso’) was discovered in Landenberg, PA, as a darker-leafed version of our native geranium, also known as cranesbill. This perennial thrives in shade to part sun and is deer-resistant. The deeply incised, burgundy-bronze foliage is a perfect foil for the lavender-pink flowers in early summer.
  • Spring Symphony tiarella has frothy, pale-pink flower spikes and palm-shaped leaves that add cool contrast to Espresso’s dramatic colors. When I remember to deadhead, it blooms sporadically throughout the summer.
  • Corbett columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), with its nectar-rich, yellow flowers, this early summer bloomer brings in hummingbirds like a magnet. Its cool blue-green leaves are a bit more resistant to leaf miners than non-native columbines.
  • Creeping phlox (Phlox subulata) carpets the edge of the garden where it basks in the afternoon sun. Starry pink flowers twinkle against the emerald, needle-like foliage.

In addition, many state agencies also offer plant lists and information on their websites. Type “landscaping with native plants” into your favorite search engine and explore!

Ann Whitman, Horticulturist, Gardener’s Supply