From Ho-hum to Home Sweet Home

Does this planting “spark joy”?

People call these ornamental shrubs. But are they? Ornamental, really?

All around us we see the same limited palette of non-native, often dangerously invasive, and dull landscape choices. In pursuit of the aesthetic of “neat and tidy,” these shrubs are often hacked into unnatural shapes that do little to inspire or attract. Most of these plants offer less than two weeks of landscape interest (looking at you, forsythia and burning bush) and just occupy space the rest of the year. 

Two years ago, when we re-designed the foundation plantings around the Manor House at the Nature Center, we included under-used native shrubs that can beautify and diversify typical suburban plantings while providing necessary food and shelter for pollinators and birds. These are plants that look good while doing good.

A variety of all-native plants in our foundation landscape design

Under windows, or anywhere you need shrubs that stay fairly low, consider Itea virginiana (Virginia sweetspire). Itea blooms with delicate, but showy, white flowers in spring, attracting lots of butterflies. It has lush green leaves on arching stems all summer and rarely needs pruning. In fall, the leaves turn multiple shades of purple and red and hang on until the very end of the season. Itea will tolerate a half-day of shade, but its fall color is best in full sun.

Itea in spring
Itea in its fall glory

In a spot where you can use more height, try the magnificent native Viburnam nudum, also called Witherod or Possum Haw. This shrub attracts butterflies in spring with big fans of white blossoms. Its leaves are shiny and deep green. Then, in late summer, it produces berries in multiple colors that ripen into raisin-like fruits birds love. And for its last act before winter, the shiny leaves of Witherod Viburnum turn fall colors that put burning bush to shame.

Viburnam nudum gracefully grows 6 to 12 feet tall
Late summer berries will ripen from white to pink to blue
In October, the leaves turn flame red

For mid-summer razzle dazzle, you can’t beat Shrubby St. John’s wort (Hypericum prolificum). This shrub is a great foundation plant with a naturally rounded shape and airy grey-green leaves on warm grey stems. Its fall color is mostly yellow, but it holds its leaves until very late in the season. It is one of the first plants to leaf out in the spring, so it looks great all year. 

Shrubby St. John’s wort near the Manor House entrance

But its real star power shines in mid-to-late summer when it produces loads of bright yellow powder-puff flowers for at least a month. The flowers have no nectar, but are loaded with pollen. Bumblebees nuzzle into the flowers making all of the little stamens tremble and vibrate. 

Summer show with dazzling flowers

But you don’t have to worry about the bumblebees stinging – they are so obsessed with collecting pollen, they don’t notice you at all. It’s fun to watch them, and you can almost hear the shrub buzz as you walk by.

Bumblebee busy collecting pollen

Foundation plantings should be interesting, diverse, and useful to the ecology. If we can have multiple-season interest with native shrubs, why limit ourselves to the same old/same old “ornamental” plants we see too often?

This blog is authored weekly by Cathy Ludden, local expert and advocate for native plants; and Board Member, Greenburgh Nature Center. Follow Cathy on Instagram for more photos and gardening tips @cathyludden.

Oh Fother, Where Art Thou?

Specifically, oh Fothergilla gardenii, where art thou? And where all the other really interesting native shrubs? 

Why is it, we wonder, that a walk through any Westchester neighborhood reveals the same repetitive collection of uninteresting plants? Yard after yard, and in every park and golf course and commercial zone, we see the same boring plants: forsythia, burning bush, taxus, barberry, boxwood. Worse, none of these plants are native to North America, so they have no value to wildlife. And much worse, some of them are incredibly invasive, taking over forests and replacing native plants essential to biodiversity.

Even if that weren’t a priority, wouldn’t it just be fun to have shrubs you don’t see in every yard on your street? And shouldn’t we want plants in our landscape that are interesting for more than two weeks a year? 

Forsythia blooms in early spring, but does nothing interesting in summer or fall. Burning bush turns red in the fall, but does nothing interesting in spring or summer, and it’s so invasive that its sale is now regulated or banned in New York and other states.

Dwarf Fothergilla, on the other hand, is a gorgeous native shrub with three seasons of interest. It blooms in early spring, and unlike forsythia, its flowers are fragrant – they smell like honey! And they attract and nourish pollinators.

Spring flowers on Fothergilla

All summer long, Fothergilla catches the eye with pretty bluish-green, rounded leaves. It can be used as a hedge, but rarely needs trimming. It tops out around 4 feet and naturally maintains a rounded shape. It is not vulnerable to disease and needs no regular maintenance. It may need supplemental water in periods of drought, but it does not need fertilizer.

Fothergilla’s blue-green leaves contrast with other summer greens
A hedge of Fothergilla just starting to turn in Autumn

In fall, Fothergilla is nothing short of spectacular, especially if it is planted in full sun. To really show it off, you can plant it in front of evergreens.  At the Nature Center, we have it in front of the native Inkberry (Ilex glabra), where it stands out as a specimen shrub in all three seasons. You can find it on the patio in front of the Manor House at the top of the stairs.

Fothergilla gardenii in Autumn at the Nature Center
Actually, it’s hard to miss!
Not boring! Try this beautiful native shrub!

Check back next week to learn about other “not-boring” native shrubs!

This blog is authored weekly by Cathy Ludden, local expert and advocate for native plants; and Board Member, Greenburgh Nature Center. Follow Cathy on Instagram for more photos and gardening tips @cathyludden.

Be Still, My Bleeding Heart!

We have a new love at the Nature Center.  

Dicentra eximia, a native plant commonly called Fringed Bleeding Heart, started blooming here in May and continued blooming right through Halloween! It has lacy, soft green foliage that stays fresh from early spring through pumpkin time. Its flowers are little red and pink hearts with a “droplet” at the tip. Bees love them, and now, so do we.

Fringed Bleeding Heart (foreground) blooming in May with Prairie Smoke
The same spot in September
Still fresh in October, as autumn leaves start to turn

We planted Fringed Bleeding Heart two years ago in front of the Manor House, mostly to fill in until our new shrubs got big enough to occupy the space. The soil there is not rich at all, and the building faces west. Though the overhanging eves protect the flower bed from full sun at mid-day, it is definitely not a shady area. You could think this was a questionable planting decision, since most sources say that Dicentra eximia needs rich, moist, fertile soil, and part or full shade.

We are starting to suspect that this advice comes from gardeners more familiar with the non-native bleeding heart (Laprocapnos or Dicentra spectabilis), an old garden favorite that originated in Asia. That plant definitely wants rich soil, steady moisture, and shade. It has lovely flowers, but it also goes dormant after blooming and disappears completely by late spring.

Fringed Bleeding Heart, on the other hand, originated in the Appalachian Mountains where the soil is often rocky and dries out between rainfalls. Though it can be found on shady forest floors where the soil is rich and moist, it also grows on rocky ledges with thin soil and more sun. We are starting to think this plant is tougher than most gardeners believe.

We are testing that theory by including a big patch of Dicentra eximia in the new Pollinator Garden we planted last June. Most of the other plants in that garden are tough, sun-loving, drought-tolerant perennials and grasses. But right there, in the slim shadow of a small Redbud tree, we included Fringed Bleeding Heart. The soil is poor and dry, for the most part – exactly what the other pollinator-friendly plants prefer. The Fringed Bleeding Heart gets a bit of shade from the tree, but is otherwise exposed. 

And this is how it’s done so far:

Fringed Bleeding Heart in the Pollinator Garden in July with Anise Hyssop
Still lush in mid-September
Fringed Bleeding Heart still blooming in October!

A native plant that literally blooms its little hearts out for you all season long?
Oh yes, we’re definitely in love!

This blog is authored weekly by Cathy Ludden, local expert and advocate for native plants and Board Member, Greenburgh Nature Center. Follow Cathy on Instagram for more photos and gardening tips.

Don’t Blame the Goldenrod

Glorious goldenrod, the bright star of the autumn landscape, is often falsely accused of causing fall allergies. The more likely culprit is ragweed, which blooms at the same time. Goldenrod pollen is sticky and heavy, not windborne, so it isn’t likely to make you sneeze. Ragweed, on the other hand, is a menace!

Goldenrod varieties begin blooming in early fall and continue until frost

Goldenrod is so important for pollinators that it is often called a “keystone” plant – its absence would cause numerous other species to disappear. Not only is it a rich source of late-season nectar, but there are over 20 species of native bees that can only eat the pollen of goldenrod.  Without goldenrod, whole species of bees would become extinct!

A bumblebee buffet

And goldenrod is a wonderful garden plant, just coming into bloom in late September as most flowering plants start to fade. You can find goldenrod ‘Fireworks’ (Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’) at most local nurseries. It is a well-behaved, clump-forming perennial that truly earns its name: bursts of tiny yellow flowers shoot out in every direction, attracting pollinators of all types. 

Fireworks!

Another great garden plant is ‘Golden Fleece’ (Solidago sphacelata ‘Golden Fleece’). Unlike most goldenrods that can reach a height 3 feet or more, ‘Golden Fleece’ is compact, staying under 18 inches and spreading slowly to 2 feet wide, making it a great front-of-the border choice. We use it as an edger along the path in our new Pollinator Garden. 

‘Golden fleece’ is a great edge plant

Both varieties, like most other goldenrods, are deer resistant, drought tolerant, and prefer full sun and well-drained soil. Look for ‘Fireworks’ at the Nature Center right at the entrance to the Meadow. You’ll see ‘Golden Fleece’ lining both sides of the path through the Pollinator Garden. Many other varieties of goldenrod pop up naturally in the Meadow and in the woods where you will find them bringing that amazing sunshine color into our fall landscape.

Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’ at the Meadow entrance
Blue-stemmed Goldenrod at woods edge
Goldenrod glowing in the Meadow

This blog is authored weekly by Cathy Ludden, local expert and advocate for native plants and Board Member, Greenburgh Nature Center.

What’s in a Name?

One of our favorite fall flowers is Helenium autumnale, commonly called “sneezeweed.”  Helenium is covered with flowers from early September until frost, and it blooms in all of the fall colors – yellow, orange, red, and burgundy – sometimes all at once on the same plant! The flowers attract bees and butterflies, and the plant is a reliable, well-behaved perennial that enjoys full sun and average soil moisture. 

Heleniumn autumnale ‘Mariachi Salsa’

The only part of its name that makes sense is “autumnale,” because it does indeed bloom in autumn. Apparently, the name “Helenium” refers to Helen of Troy, and some romantics say that the blooms arose originally from Helen’s tears. Since the plant is native to North America, and Helen of Troy didn’t even know this continent existed, that legend makes no sense.  Maybe the flowers are as beautiful as the mythical Helen? The bees seem to think so.

Multiple colors on the same plant

And then there is the strange and misleading common name – “sneezeweed.” Helenium is pollinated by insects, not wind, so it is not a source of fall allergies. However, the seeds of Helenium were used by certain Native American tribes as a sort of snuff intended to cause violent sneezing when inhaled. It was thought that clearing the sinuses with strong sneezes was therapeutic. Unless you try that, Helenium should not cause any sneezing.

We planted Helenium ‘Mariachi Salsa’ along the foundation of the Manor House, as well as in the Pollinator Garden.  It only grows to about 2 ½ feet tall, and it forms a tidy mound that looks good at the front-to-middle of the garden. Try it for great fall flower color and to feed late-season pollinators. Although the straight species has mostly yellow flowers, nurseries are showing numerous cultivars in a variety of showy fall colors.

Helenium at the Manor House foundation
Helenium in the pollinator garden

Call it Helenium, or even call it “Helen” if you like, but please don’t call it “sneezeweed.” That’s just mean.

This blog is authored weekly by Cathy Ludden, local expert and advocate for native plants and Board Member, Greenburgh Nature Center.