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.

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.