How Sweet It Is!

Itea virginiana is one of our most beautiful and versatile native shrubs. Its romantic common name, “Virginia Sweetspire,” is a good one, because this shrub is a sweet addition to the landscape year-round.

Itea virginiana or “Virginia Sweetspire” shrub 

Itea (pronounced eye-tee-uh) grows in a loose mounding form, reaching 4-5 feet tall and wide in a few years, with gently arching branches. In mid-June, after most trees and shrubs have finished blooming, Itea is just starting its summer show. Spikes of white flowers 4 to 6 inches long cover the shrub, arching away from the deep-green leaves on long stems. 

Itea starts blooming in mid-June
The flowers open gradually

The star-shaped flowers begin opening from the stem to the tip, and last several weeks. And they are sweet! The elegant fragrance is not over-powering, but definitely carries in sultry June air. The flowers are loaded with nectar and butterflies flock to them. When the flowers fade, birds will feast on the seeds that remain all winter.

Itea’s fragrant flowers justify the name “Sweetspire”

Itea is native to swampy meadows and wet woodlands from New Jersey to Florida, and west as far as southern Illinois, but it does very well in more northern gardens. It can thrive in full sun or part shade, and is surprisingly drought tolerant given its swampy origins. It is winter hardy in Zones 5-9, and is not attractive to deer or rabbits. 

Throughout the summer, the foliage remains fresh and glossy, so Itea looks great in full sun as a hedge or foundation plant. But because of its shade tolerance, it can even replace pachysandra, vinca, or ivy under trees.

Itea is part of our full-sun foundation planting at the Nature Center’s Manor House
Itea in part shade under a Redbud tree at the Nature Center

And have we mentioned fall color? Itea is known for its gorgeous fall foliage, turning various shades of red, orange, and purple while holding onto its leaves until snowfall. Cultivars called “Henry’s Garnet” and “Merlot” are specifically marketed for their brilliance in the fall landscape. Fall color is best in full sun, but it’s still impressive in part shade. We frequently recommend Itea as a native alternative to invasive burning bush.

The same Itea planting in mid-November
All the fall colors

So, Itea is carefree, a hedge or foundation plant, an under-tree plant, has showy and fragrant flowers, offers nectar for butterflies and seeds for birds, grows in sun or shade, and has fabulous fall color – we think that’s pretty sweet!


Billy Goat or Nanny Goat?

“Goat’s Beard” is the common name of Aruncus dioicus, a gorgeous native plant that is perfect for shade gardens. It is spectacular toward the back of a mixed border, along a fence, or at the edge of a woods. Blooming from late spring through mid-summer, Aruncus (pronounced “ah-runk-us”) grows 4 to 6 feet tall with very large, fluffy white flowers. Many different pollinators are attracted to its flowers, which makes Aruncus especially valuable in shade where great pollinator plants are more difficult to find.

Aruncus dioicus lights up the woods
Bumblebee collecting pollen on Aruncus

Sometimes confused with Asian astilbe, Aruncus blooms only in white, is much taller, and has bigger flowers. Common names can add to the confusion – we have seen Asian astilbe sold in nurseries as “false Goat’s Beard,” and we’ve seen Aruncus labelled as “false astilbe” or “false spirea,” so it’s always important to check the Latin or scientific name on plant labels.

Asian astilbe is shorter and has smaller flowers

And, as is often the case, the scientific name is very interesting! Aruncus dioicus refers to the fact that Aruncus is “dioecious,” meaning the plants are either male or female. The word “dioicus” in its name comes from Greek meaning “two households.” While dioecious plants are fairly common among trees and shrubs, they are rather unusual in garden perennials.

The flowers on male Aruncus plants have many pollen-bearing stamens, while the flowers on the female plants have only 3 pistils and, of course, no pollen. Bees are drawn to both types of flowers by nectar, and transfer pollen from the male to the female flowers.

Male flowers have many stamens loaded with pollen
Female flowers have 3 pistils and nectar to attract bees

The male flowers are somewhat showier because the stamens give them a fluffy appearance, but the plants are not typically labelled separately for sale. You’ll have to look closely to see whether your Goat’s Beard is a Billy goat or a Nanny goat! Both make excellent garden plants, and look fabulous massed in the shade.

Female Goat’s Beard blooming in the shade
Tiny pollinator on male Goat’s Beard

Aruncus is native to the US from Pennsylvania to North Carolina and west from Indiana to Arkansas. Although it is not native to New York, it does very well in northern gardens and is hardy through Zone 4 in rich, moist soil, and part sun to full shade. It is not generally attractive to deer or rabbits, and it is the larval host plant for the Dusky Azure butterfly.

As pollinators face increasing stress, providing native plant sources of nectar and pollen is more critical than ever. Goat’s Beard does that while adding light and beauty to your shade garden.

Bumblebee with a paste of pollen and nectar packed into her pollen basket (corbicula) for transport

Baptisia: It Will Return!

“Perennials” are plants that come back every year… at least in theory. In reality, some perennials are short-lived and only come back for a few years. Others may come back every year, but not necessarily where you planted them – they pop up in other places, or dramatically expand their territory. Some perennials need to be divided (split at the roots) to stay vigorous, or they will languish and stop blooming.

Baptisia (“Wild Indigo” or “False Indigo”), on the other hand, is truly perennial. There are documented cases of gardens, abandoned and neglected for over 30 years, where the only remaining original plant was Baptisia – still growing right where it was first planted, and still blooming.

Baptisia australis (Blue Wild Indigo) in spring

Baptisia is as beautiful as it is durable. It sends up vertical stalks loaded with flowers in May and June. All summer long, it acts like a shrub, 3 to 4 feet tall and wide, with blue-green foliage that remains fresh even in the hottest weather. In the fall, it produces attractive pods that add seasonal interest. The whole plant dies back to the ground after a few hard frosts, remaining unharmed by snow mounds or road salt throughout the winter. In spring, this reliable perennial definitely returns.

Baptisia australis flower

Baptisia evolved growing in open meadows and prairies. It is in the legume family, which explains the sweet-pea shape of the flowers. Like other legumes, Baptisia is nitrogen-fixing. Essentially, the plant manufactures its own nitrogen fertilizer, so it can live in very poor soil. Baptisia roots can extend 7 feet deep, even into hard-packed prairie, so it is drought tolerant.

Though Baptisia is easy to find in plant nurseries, you may be inclined to give it a pass when you first see it. It looks a bit like purple asparagus coming up in early spring. Because of its deep roots, nurseries can offer only very young plants, but a small plant will fill out dramatically after two or three years in the ground.

A one-year old Baptisia australis in the Pollinator Garden at the Nature Center

Baptisia is very low maintenance. It never needs dividing. In fact, once its deep roots are established, it really should not be moved or divided. The best bet is to buy container plants and give them enough room to mature undisturbed. Note, however, that the one non-negotiable for Baptisia is sun – 8 to 10 hours a day. Even very long-established plants will begin to fade if they become shaded by trees and shrubs. So, plan ahead when deciding where to site Baptisia.

A 15-year-old stand of Baptisia plants in mid-June

There is a lot to choose from in the Baptisia family these days – at least 3 garden-worthy species, plus hybrids and cultivars. Here are a few favorites:

Baptisia australis, or Wild Blue Indigo, is a species native to New York and always our first choice. Its natural habitat varies from moist woodland edges to open prairie. Its original native range extends south as far as Georgia and west from Nebraska to Texas. It likes our acidic soil, and is hardy in Zones 4-9. It is not generally attractive to deer, and it is the host plant for the Wild Indigo Duskywing butterfly.

Baptisia sphaerocarpa (Yellow Wild Indigo) is not native to New York, but is native farther west and south from Missouri and Oklahoma to Texas. Baptisia alba (White Wild Indigo) is native in the Southeast from Virginia to Florida. Both of these Baptisia species are winter hardy to Zone 5, and do well in New York gardens.

Baptisia sphaerocarpa (Yellow Wild Indigo)
Baptisia alba (White Wild Indigo)

Interestingly, these three Baptisia species have yielded natural hybrids resulting in some very beautiful flower color variations. Hybrids called ‘Purple Smoke’ and ‘Twilight Prairie Blues’ are often available and seem to perform as well as the species.

Hybrid Baptisia ‘Twilight Prairie Blues’

New cultivars have been developed by growers and are sold under various names such as ‘Lemon Meringue,’ ‘Dutch Chocolate,’ and ‘Cherries Jubilee.’ Whether these cultivars provide the same benefits to wildlife as the species is unknown.

So, if you want a true perennial that will come back every year, never need dividing, never need fertilizing, and will be beautiful for many years to come, try Baptisia!

Wild Yellow and Wild Blue Baptisia in the garden

Made in the Shade

The two questions we hear most often from home gardeners are “what grows in the shade?” and “what won’t deer eat?” There is a great answer to both questions: ferns!

We have an amazing variety of native ferns in the northern US. There are ferns for wet or dry shady areas, ferns that grow tall and ferns that stay short, ferns that form tidy well-behaved clumps, and ferns that run wild, filling in large areas for groundcover or erosion control. Some ferns are happy in deep shade, and others like more sun than you might expect. Ferns can be dramatic accents in the garden, or create soothing, naturalistic vistas. And all of them are ignored by deer, rabbits, and woodchucks.

Ferns are ancient. Fossils more than 220 million years old have been found of the very same fern species that grow in our forests and gardens today. Apparently, dinosaurs didn’t eat ferns either! Here are a few of our favorite ferns for home gardens:

Cinnamon Fern

For drama, use Cinnamon Fern (Osmunda cinnamomea). Named for the tall cinnamon-colored stalk that rises out of its center, Cinnamon Fern can be a focal point in the garden. It grows 3 to 5 feet tall, with lush fronds extending just as wide, and almost has the tropical look of a palm. It does well in shade, but as long as the ground is damp, it will get even bigger with more sun. In early spring, it looks positively alien as it emerges from the ground covered with fuzzy hairs that disappear as the fronds unfurl. In the fall, Cinnamon Fern turns bright yellow before going dormant for the winter.

Cinnamon Fern emerging in early spring

For a front-of-the-border charmer, use Lady Fern (Athyrium filix-femina). Forming well-behaved clumps with an airy grace, Lady Fern does well in part-shade and even moisture. A cultivar called “Lady-in-Red” has deep red stems that contrast with its fresh green fronds. It will grow 2 to 3 feet tall and wide, and will stay politely where you put it.

Lady Fern with Rhododendron
Athyrium filix-femina “Lady-in-Red”

If you want to cover a lot of terrain, and collect a bonus edible veggie, Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris var. pensylvanica) is the way to go. With adequate moisture, Ostrich Fern will grow 3 to 5 feet tall in shade or sun, and spread itself aggressively. It grows in defined clumps, but sends out runners that form new clumps in time. It can be controlled easily enough by severing the runners and digging out the new plants — or by eating them! Fiddlehead ferns are delicious. They should be harvested in early spring when the ferns are just emerging from the ground and getting ready to unfurl. Cut the emerging fiddleheads with a bit of the green stem. Wash them and peel off any papery covering. They are great steamed, or sauteed in a little butter with salt, pepper, and a bit of garlic.

Ostrich Fern makes a gorgeous groundcover
Fiddleheads from Ostrich Ferns are delicious!

Another garden favorite is Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum pedatum). The unusual circular fronds sit on top of a slender stem (petiole), about 18 inches tall, with fluffy “feathers” arranged around the circle. They are much tougher than they look and combine well with other shade plants. In rich, moist soil, they can take quite a bit of sun without wilting. Their lacy texture is beautiful contrasting with broad-leaf plants like Wild Ginger, Coral Bells, or Rhododendron.

Maidenhair Fern with Wild Ginger

One of the most ancient ferns is also one of the most interesting. Interrupted Fern (Osmunda claytoniana) sends up stalks with fresh green leaves, then appears to change its mind as the stalk develops curly brown “flowers” in the middle, then changes its mind again and continues with green. These “interrupted” stalks are the fertile spore-bearing part of the fern. Once the spores mature and drop, the fronds arch gracefully, up to 4 feet high, for the rest of the summer. Clumps of Interrupted Fern will expand very slowly over the years providing a strong architectural feature to the garden.

Interrupted Fern bearing its spores in mid-stem
A 30-year-old stand of Interrupted Fern stays fresh and vertical all summer

Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) has the great virtue of being evergreen. It does well in dry shade, and needs no care at all. You can find it easily while walking in northern woods in the winter time, and it makes a great evergreen groundcover under trees and shrubs in the home garden. It stays low, under 2 feet typically, and spreads only very slowly. But if planted densely, it makes an attractive year-round groundcover.

Christmas Ferns planted at the Nature Center
December in the Nature Center’s forest

All of these native ferns are hardy to Zone 3 and need very little care. They are woodland plants, so they like soil naturally enriched with fallen leaves and decayed plant matter. Try a few in those troublesome, shady and deer-browsed spots. Or plant a whole fern garden and try them all!

Fern garden in spring: (clockwise from upper left) Cinnamon Fern, Interrupted Fern, Christmas Fern, Maidenhair Fern

A Small Wonder That Makes Us Wonder

There is a fascinating little plant, just emerging now in the early days of spring, that is a marvel of evolution. It is also one of our favorite native ground covers for shade.

Asarum canadense, Wild Ginger, is native to shady forests from Northern Canada all the way south to Georgia and west to the Dakotas. It has beautiful leaves that grow in pairs like rounded hearts. It grows very close to the ground, never more than 3 or 4 inches high, and it forms lush mats that densely cover a slowly expanding area. It spreads about 6 inches in each direction every year.

Wild Ginger and Trout Lily hug the ground in a shady spot

Underneath the pretty leaves, Wild Ginger hides its secret flowers. There are lots of flowers, but you have to get down low and push aside the leaves to find them. The flower stems and leaf stalks (petioles) are covered with downy hairs that give them a furry appearance. The flowers are purplish brown, with 3 pointed petals that open to a little cup where the stamens with pollen are hidden.

Wild ginger flowers hide under the leaves
Stamens with pollen are tucked inside the flower

Botanists believe that Wild Ginger evolved with its flowers right next to the ground to attract early-season flies as pollinators. Flies emerge from the ground looking for carrion. They promptly find the brownish flowers of Wild Ginger right on the ground and crawl inside. There they hide from rain and the cold nights of early spring, snuggling into the cup-like flowers and accidentally collecting pollen on their bodies that will be transferred to the next flower they visit.

Seeds develop in the pollinated flowers, and when they ripen, they are discovered by ants. The seeds have oily little appendages that are nutritious and delicious to ants who carry them off to their colonies. The ants eat the oily part, but abandon the seeds to germinate. Not only are the seeds protected this way from seed-eating animals, but they are effectively planted by the ants.

Wild ginger growing under a cherry tree
Did ants carry Asarum seeds up into the crook of the tree?

Wild Ginger is in the same botanical family, Aristolochiacea, as our native Pipevine, the host plant for the gorgeous Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly, and many experts believe that Wild Ginger is an alternate host plant for the Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillar.

Wild ginger does indeed taste like ginger, though eating much of it may be toxic and is not recommended. Indigenous Americans dried the tubers and ground them as a spice. Early colonists boiled the tubers with sugar water, making something like candied ginger and then used the cooking liquid as a syrup. Both groups used the plant as a poultice to treat wounds, and modern research has confirmed the presence of two antibiotic compounds in the plant.

Today, we know Asarum canadense best as a fantastic shade ground cover. It preserves soil moisture and suppresses weeds all summer. It is deciduous, so it uncovers bare ground for the winter, which benefits ground-nesting native bees, flies, and beetles. As a garden plant, it is absolutely gorgeous in combination with ferns and shade-loving grasses. It is ideal under trees and shrubs, as well as in wooded areas, and eliminates the need for mulch. Deer completely ignore it.

Wild Ginger with Maidenhair Fern and Bunny Blue sedge

So, this amazing plant evolved offering shelter to the little flies that pollinate it, feeding the ants that protect and distribute its seeds, and hosting caterpillars that turn into beautiful butterflies that pollinate other plants. It healed the wounds and spiced the food of the earliest humans on this continent. It is beautiful, and perfectly adapted to our climate. It is not difficult to grow, and it does exactly what we want our ground covers to do. It belongs here in every sense of the word. Wild Ginger is a perfect example of the benefits of native plants.

Why, then, do we see so much pachysandra, ivy, vinca, wintercreeper, and other non-native ground covers escaping suburban yards to infest our woodlands, suppress native plants, diminish food sources, and even pull down our trees? Why would we choose those imported plants when the perfect plant always has been right here?

We can’t help but wonder.

Pachysandra and vinca destroying forest