In 1878, Sherman Stowell sold to Elizabeth Brockett 30 acres of land which he had earlier purchased from George Jennings. I now live and garden with my family on some of that land, which Jennings or Stowell, or perhaps Ms. Brockett, had cleared of trees to make pasture. The forest is growing back, but itâ€™s not the same forest. For one thing, several invasive plants are now growing here, everything from Rosa multiflora to Lonicera tartarica. And where are the trilliums?
Call me a romantic or call me ecologically correct, but I’d like to restore the native flora to my parcel of land, land that was sown to timothy and grazed by cows. How does one go about such a restoration? For starters, you have to know what plants were originally growing there. I’ve taken an informal survey of our property and catalogued all the natives Iâ€™ve found. I mention trilliums because they bloom along the roadside further down our country lane. What will it take to grow them here?
Native Plant Reference Books: Compare and Contrast
I recently read three reference works on native plants, trying to find the answer to that question. For each of them, I looked up all the natives growing on our land in them, and compared it to my own experience of those plants. I also checked to see what they had on trilliums. Hereâ€™s what I found.
Native Plants of the Northeast: A Guide for Gardening and Conservation by Donald Leopold (Timber Press, 2005). Leopoldâ€™s book covers all types of plants: ferns, grasses, wildflowers, vines, shrubs, and trees. He has a nice discussion of regional plant communities and makes the distinction between planting native species and re-establishing a natural community. (The latter is a lot more difficult.) He doesnâ€™t cover hybrids but does include selections of species. His plant descriptions stick to the facts and are pretty much devoid of anecdotes. Propagating information is included with each entry. Lists of plants suited for specific conditions and an extensive bibliography are in the back. Of the wildflowers growing on my property, this book was missing four: Anemone virginiana, Adlumia fungosa, Polygala paucifolia, and a Spiranthes species that only showed up once several years ago and I never managed to identify.
Growing and Propagating Wildflowers of the United States and Canada, and Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines: A Guide to Using, Growing, and Propagating North American Woody Plants, both by William Cullina (Houghton Mifflin, 2000 and 2002 respectively). In the wildflower book (reviewed in more detail here), Cullina, like Leopold, has a discussion of plant communities; in both volumes Cullina discusses what he means by ecological gardening. (Cullina purports to cover plants from all of temperate North America, but I canâ€™t evaluate his coverage of the plants of other North American regions, having lived in the Northeast all my life.) He gives the same factual information that Leopold does, but often adds personal observations or anecdotes to his profiles. In addition to brief propagation instructions for each plant, he goes into much greater detail on propagation in the back of both volumes. The back of the wildflower volume has a list of wildflowers for various sites, sources, and native plant societies. The back of the tree, shrub, and vine book has those three lists plus a list of alternatives to invasive plants and a list of public gardens featuring native plants. Two flowers missing: Adlumia fungosa and Polygala paucifolia.
Armitage’s Native Plants for North American Gardens by Allan Armitage (Timber Press, 2006). Armitage includes hybrids, which neither of the other two authors includes, but he is more restrictive in terms of plant type: herbaceous perennial native plants are profiled almost exclusively, with a few annuals and bulbs thrown in. He has the most quotable introduction (â€œcultivars are the gardenersâ€™ candy storeâ€), but doesnâ€™t discuss habitats at all. To his mind, his book is about growing native plants in gardens, not about restoring habitat. Armitage is chattier than either of the other two authors, and less precise. He will tell you his personal reaction to each plant, but sometimes neglect to give the height and width of it. His back-of-the-book lists include nurseries, plant societies, internet sites, and books, and the requisite plants listed by use. No Eupatorium fistulosum or Polygala paucifolia, but he did have Adlumia and Spiranthes.
None of these authors told me what I really wanted to know about Trillium grandiflorum, which is, what would make it happy enough to reproduce and form colonies? Leopold says moist circumneutral soil, part sun to part shade. Cullina goes a little further and says Sugar Maple-Beech woodlands. Confusingly, in his introduction to the genus he says they like lime, but when profiling the species says it grows in neutral to acidic rich woods. Armitage also recommends lime but is otherwise unhelpful. What I would really like to know is if there are marker plants that would clue me into the best place to plant trilliums. Something along the lines of, â€œif you see plant x growing in a certain spot, you can be sure trilliums will do well there, too.â€
If you could get only one book, I would pick Leopoldâ€™s, because it is more focused on our region and profiles all sorts of plants, woody and herbaceous. For a second book, it depends on what your goals are. You are more likely to find the plants Armitage mentions in a garden center; if you are more interested in restoring habitat, or in propagating your own, Cullinaâ€™s books would be more helpful. Ideally, of course, youâ€™d have them all.
Other Native Plant Resources
Wildflowers of New York in Color by William K. Chapman, et. al. (1998, Syracuse University Press, ISBN 0-8156-0470-X). Excellent photos, but makes no distinction between natives and exotics.
Weeds of the Northeast by Richard H. Uva et. al. (1997, Cornell University Press, ISBN 0-8014-8334-4). Believe it or not, some native plants are sometimes considered weeds. Includes photos of seedlings and seeds for the natives it does cover.
The Field Guide to Wildlife Habitats of the Eastern United States by Janine M. Benyus (1989, Simon and Schuster, ISBN 0-671-65908-1). A good overview of common habitats, what animals and plants you will find there, and why.
Native Alternatives to Invasive Plants (Brooklyn Botanic Garden All-Region Guide) by C. Colston Burrell (Brooklyn Botanic Garden, 2006 ISBN 1889538744). A good introduction to many of the showiest and most garden-worthy native plants.
Stewardship Garden published by Janet Allen, founder of the central NY chapter of Wild Ones, a not-for-profit environmental education and advocacy organization. Her website is an excellent site to get started learning to create a habitat that supports native plants and wildlife.
Leopold vs. Cullina in person
On April 1, 2006, I had the opportunity to hear both Don Leopold and Bill Cullina speak at the 12th Annual Gardening Seminar put on jointly by the Menâ€™s Garden Club of Syracuse and Phoenix Flower Farm.
Don Leopold was funny. Bill Cullina was funnier. He started out by saying, “I’ve decided to deviate from my usual program and tell you about the latest in begonia breeding.” You can hear little murmurs going around the room as people say, “Begonias! I paid to hear about native plants.” Then, as the slides and names got ever more outlandish–a spotted begonia labeled Begonia x hybridus ‘Chicken Pox’, others with legitimate and not-so-legitimate sounding names, leading up to a blue “begonia” that looked an awful lot like a Meconopsis to me (but then, I’ve only seen photos of them). Finally, ta-da! April Fools! The audience laughs and applauds with relief. Frankly, I had forgotten what day it was, so he got me pretty good.
Both men knew their subject well, and introduced me to native plants I hadnâ€™t come across before. But Don Leopold, a professor at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, had an intimate knowledge of Syracuse habitats and plants, especially those that do well on limestone soils. There are some unique wetland habitats in the greater Syracuse region, and Don has studied them extensively. From him I learned that bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia) grows in Clark Reservation, and pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is native west of Rochester.
This article originally appeared in the May 2007 issue of Upstate Gardeners Journal in a slightly different form. Elizabeth Licata’s recent post put me in mind to reprint it. While it does focus on native plants in my area, most of the books mentioned will be helpful to anyone in the Northeast.