Your first native plant book

– Posted in: Book reviews, Habitat gardening, Native/Invasive

If you want to learn more about the plants native to your area, a good place to start would be The New England Wild Flower Society Guide to Growing and Propagating Wildflowers of the United States and Canada by William Cullina. He has done a good job creating a general reference work that can help both novice and advanced gardeners, whether they are attempting habitat restoration or just looking for plants that will do well in a problem area (too wet, too dry and the like).

Not only does he avoid preaching, but he also recognizes that not all of his readers will care to limit themselves to plants native to their region:

While I encourage you to grow and appreciate the plants of your area, I know that we all as gardeners like to seek out the challenge of something new and different, so whenever possible I have included information to aid you in growing a particular plant outside its native range.

In fact, all the information he provides seems aimed to enable you, the gardener, to successfully grow native wildflowers, no matter what your underlying philosophy. His section on Ecological Gardening could be renamed Sensible Gardening, as it discusses the various conditions necessary for plant life and how to best match plants to the conditions at your site. If you’re completely new to the whole idea of habitat gardening, a map will help you locate your floristic province, which is discussed in the pages following the map.

Then it’s on to the plants. Cullina has limited himself to non-woody perennials that are not grasses, sedges or ferns that were growing in North America before European settlement. Don’t worry, there’s still plenty left. Each genus is given an overview, and he provides hardiness zone, soil type, native range, mature size, and bloom color and time for each species, plus a descriptive write-up on each. These descriptions can be a real treat. Sometimes they are especially apt and picturesque, as with Trout Lilies: “the reflexed tepals have a windswept look, as if being held out the window of a moving automobile.” In other cases they are “trade secrets” that will give you a bit of an edge. In a photo caption for trilliums, Cullina reveals that he helps “them spread by . . . pulling off the calyx [of the ripened fruit] . . . and then pinching and squirting the seeds down into some nearby soil.” If I find any ripened seed pods on my half-dozen trilliums, I will be sure to try this trick. Occasionally the author enlightens you on some head scratching point, such as, “Why don’t my Trout Lilies bloom?” Answer: “It appears that there are two forms of the species, one reproducing mostly vegetatively to form carpets of single leaves and seldom flowering, the other forming fewer stolons, emerging later and producing large, paired leaves and flowers.” Mystery solved. One thing I should point out is that this book is not a field guide. It doesn’t tell you how to distinguish between Aster cordifolius and A. divaricatus, for example, though it tells you how to grow both. You’ll need a bona fide field guide for that.

As if this weren’t enough, Cullina provides an extensive guide to propagating these native plants, including both general methods and specific information by genus. Some plants are easy, but others are not for the faint of heart. Take, for instance, all those plants whose seeds require Germination Method D: “seed needs a period of warm moist stratification followed by cold stratification and will germinate after shifting back to warm.” You not only have to be a disciplined and patient gardener to persevere with such seed germinating, you have to have a place where you can keep the seed pot for all that time without it being tipped over or the label misplaced.

But wait–there’s still more! The Appendix has a dozen lists to help you locate plants for specialized needs: for woodlands, for meadows, for dry shade, for butterflies, and the like. Then there’s a comprehensive list of sources for all these plants, and a directory of native plant societies.

If you could have only one book on native plants, this might be your best choice. But I hope you’re not limited to one book, because there is, after all, Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines: A Guide to Using, Growing, and Propagating North American Woody Plants–Cullina’s other book on this topic.
William Cullina will be speaking at Going Native, the 12th Annual Spring Gardening Seminar of The Men’s Garden Club of Syracuse, co-sponsored by Phoenix Flower Farm/PFF Landscaping, on April 1, 2006 at the Craftsman Inn in Fayetteville, NY. Please call (315) 451-2964 or 428-9401 to check for ticket availability.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.

~Albert Camus in Albert Camus quotations

Comments on this entry are closed.

wiseacre July 13, 2008, 1:56 pm

My first “native” plant book was the Peterson Field Guide to Wildflowers. (northeastern) Not everything in the book is native but it does rat out the immigrants.

I wanted to know what some of the plants were that I chanced upon. Once I started I couldn’t stop. Now I hunt wildflowers and shoot them myself.

Kathy Purdy March 31, 2006, 7:07 am

Yes, he certainly does. He covers plants of the Great Plains and the Gulf Coastal Plain. Texas Bluebonnets are in there, for example. But amongst all his many lists, he doesn’t list plants by floristic zone, probably because so many plants grow in more than one zone. You have to read the plant descriptions to find out where a plant “belongs,” or you could get a plant list from a local native plant society.

Cynthia March 30, 2006, 10:00 am

Does he delve into zone 8 habitats?

RO March 28, 2006, 8:34 pm

Did I mention that Hortico has a whole section on native plants for sale?