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Wild Flower Society: 10 Outside-the-Box Native Plants

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Wild Flower Society: 10 Outside-the-Box Native Plants

April 6, 2021

New England gardeners who look for native species enjoy the happy support of the New England Wild Flower Society, an organization dedicated to the study, preservation, and propagation of the region’s wild flora. Each spring I look forward to finding new inspiration at the society’s wilderness showcase, Garden in the Woods, where I also can purchase rare native plants for my own garden. (See Walk on the Wild Side: A New England Native Garden for my virtual tour.)

The society’s Native Plants for New England Gardens has expert information and growing tips for 100 native flowers, ground covers, shrubs, ferns,  grasses, trees, and vines ($18 at Amazon). We asked authors Mark Richardson, director of the Garden in the Woods, and Dan Jaffe, the official propagator and stock bed grower at the society, to share some of their favorite herbaceous perennials from the book. Here are some of their picks for the unsung heroes of the native New England gardens.

(N.B.: Many of these species are native to other parts of the northern and eastern US as well. Many of the plants listed here are available at Garden in the Woods in Framingham, Massachusetts, or at New England Wild Flower Society’s Nasami Farm in Whatley, Massachusetts. See the plant list for available varieties.)

Photography by Dan Jaffe, unless otherwise noted.

Blue Vervain

Native to all of eastern North America, blue vervain, (Verbena hastata) prefers full to part sun and moist soil in USDA growing zones 3 to 9.
Above: Native to all of eastern North America, blue vervain, (Verbena hastata) prefers full to part sun and moist soil in USDA growing zones 3 to 9.

Featuring vibrant purple-to-blue flowers, blue vervain, is not only beautiful, it also supports many native pollinators such as sweat bees as well as the caterpillars of regional butterflies. It’s happiest among the grasses in moist meadows or on the edge of wetlands, where the authors recommend pairing it with native rose milkweed and blue flag iris.

Bowman’s Root

Native to the northeastern United States and Canada, Bowman&#8\2\17;s root (Gillenia trifoliata) prefers an open area with moist to dry soil that receives sun to part shade in zones 4 to 9. Photograph by Amy Nyman.
Above: Native to the northeastern United States and Canada, Bowman’s root (Gillenia trifoliata) prefers an open area with moist to dry soil that receives sun to part shade in zones 4 to 9. Photograph by Amy Nyman.

A great choice for the novice gardeners, Bowman’s root is a plant that “seems to thrive on neglect.” Featuring delicate, white, spring-to-summer flowers and thin and trifoliate leaves, the native forms large clusters from one to three feet high, which are full of texture and movement. In the fall the foliage turns to seasonal reds and purples.

Mountain Mint

Native throughout the US, broad-leaved mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum) thrives in moist soils with sun to part sun, in zones 3 to 9. Those with dry soil would do better with its cousin, P. Incanum. Mountain Mint seeds available online from Select Seeds; \$7.50.
Above: Native throughout the US, broad-leaved mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum) thrives in moist soils with sun to part sun, in zones 3 to 9. Those with dry soil would do better with its cousin, P. Incanum. Mountain Mint seeds available online from Select Seeds; $7.50.
The New England region is home to six species of native mints, including bee balms (Monarda spp.) and hyssops (Agastache spp.), which are happily “better-behaved” than the standard, sprawling variety. Mountain mint, Pycnanthemum spp. is the lesser-known of native mints. Aesthetically speaking, mountain mint’s fragrant, silvery leaves are the real draw; its flowers, though modest, are “pollinator magnets.”

Wild Senna

Tall and dramatic, wild senna (Senna hebecarpa) is a drought-tolerant native that can survive a variety of conditions in zones 3 to 9. Wild Senna seeds are available online at Prairie Moon Nursery; \$\2.50 packet.
Above: Tall and dramatic, wild senna (Senna hebecarpa) is a drought-tolerant native that can survive a variety of conditions in zones 3 to 9. Wild Senna seeds are available online at Prairie Moon Nursery; $2.50 packet.

Though stunning, wild senna is even more important from an ecological standpoint as it “attracts and supports more bees than any other plant that blooms” in late summer. Standing at six feet tall, this giant is a bit aggressive. The New England Wild Flower Society recommends planting it among other robust plants that can withstand the competition.

Sundial Lupine

Save the Karner butterfly! Plant native Sundial or wild lupines, Lupinus perennis (not the more common L. polyphylus found in most garden centers) in dry and well-drained soil. Zones 3 to 9. Sundial Lupine seeds are available at Prairie Moon Nursery; \$\2.50 for a packet.
Above: Save the Karner butterfly! Plant native Sundial or wild lupines, Lupinus perennis (not the more common L. polyphylus found in most garden centers) in dry and well-drained soil. Zones 3 to 9. Sundial Lupine seeds are available at Prairie Moon Nursery; $2.50 for a packet.

It may surprise you to learn that most of the lupines that you see flanking New England’s highways are not native, but rather, western lupines. This displacement is unfortunate, as the native variety, sundial lupine, is the only plant that hosts the caterpillars of the Karner blue butterfly, which is now critically endangered due to loss of habitat.

Blue Cohosh

Native to a large part of the northern US as well as Canada, blue cohosh enjoys shady spots, with moist soils, in zones 3 to 8.
Above: Native to a large part of the northern US as well as Canada, blue cohosh enjoys shady spots, with moist soils, in zones 3 to 8.

Blue cohosh (Caulophyllum giganteum) is a plant that keeps on giving as it changes throughout the growing season. In spring its eggplant leaves and yellow flowers are among the first to emerge. In summer its gray-blue foliage provides a lively textural element. In autumn, blue cohosh’s vibrant blue fruits stand in striking contrast to more standard autumnal hues.

Dutchman’s Breeches and Squirrel Corn

Dutchman&#8\2\17;s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) is a part-sun- to shade-loving plant that prefers moist soil. It will be perennial in zones 3 to 8; \$7 per plant at Prairie Moon Nursery.
Above: Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) is a part-sun- to shade-loving plant that prefers moist soil. It will be perennial in zones 3 to 8; $7 per plant at Prairie Moon Nursery.
Few are aware that New England boasts two of its own species of bleeding hearts: squirrel corn, Dicentra canadensis, and Dutchman’s breeches, Dicentra cucullaria. Smaller than other bleeding hearts, these two can create a charming woodland carpet. The New England Wild Flower Society recommends planting the two together for a longer staggered bloom time.

Wild Columbine

 Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is happiest in sun to part shade in zones 3 to 9; \$\10.99 per plant from High Country Gardens.
Above: Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is happiest in sun to part shade in zones 3 to 9; $10.99 per plant from High Country Gardens.
With its sculptural red and yellow flowers, wild columbine (A. canadensis) is among the more exotic-looking New England natives. After the blooms fade in summer, the plant produces numerous seeds which are easy to collect for friends or to spread around wherever you want a bit of spring color.

Rue Anemone

 Rue Anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides) prefers moist soil and shade in zones 4 to 9; \$\10 at Prairie Moon Nursery.
Above: Rue Anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides) prefers moist soil and shade in zones 4 to 9; $10 at Prairie Moon Nursery.
An early and long-lasting spring bloomer that disappears to make way for summer plants, rue anemone Thalictrum thalictroides, is perfect for filling in the gaps in springtime shade gardens.

Black Cohosh

Native throughout much of North America, tall Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa) is a summer bloomer that thrives in shady, moist soil in zones 4 to 9; \$\1\2 from the Monticello Shop. Photograph by Jackie Donnelly.
Above: Native throughout much of North America, tall Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa) is a summer bloomer that thrives in shady, moist soil in zones 4 to 9; $12 from the Monticello Shop. Photograph by Jackie Donnelly.
Similar to another popular New England native, Culver’s root, Veronicastrum virginicum, bugbane or black cohosh, Actaea racemosa, produces dramatic white spires that bloom in midsummer. “A tough plant for tough places,” as Jaffe and Richardson describe it, black cohosh will thrive even when planted in dry, acidic soils. Though it’s also happy in more favorable soil conditions.

Bloodroot

Native to eastern and central US regions, Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) likes shade spots with well-drained soil in zones 3 to 9; \$4.95 per seed packet at Vermont Wildflower Farm.
Above: Native to eastern and central US regions, Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) likes shade spots with well-drained soil in zones 3 to 9; $4.95 per seed packet at Vermont Wildflower Farm.
Another ephemeral spring plant, bloodroot is prized for both its pure white flowers as well as its uniquely shaped, veined leaves, which can reach seven inches across. Plant with other more colorful natives such as blue phlox to provide textural interest.

N.B.: This post is an update; it was first published April 9, 2018.

For more detailed information of the plants above, visit Garden in the Woods or purchase Native Plants for New England Gardens; $18. Also, see:

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Plants & Seeds

Rue Anemone

$10.00 USD from Prairie Moon Nursery

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