Favourite and not-so-favourite native plants

When it comes to native plants, I like them all! From the Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense), for which you have to get down on your hands and knees in order to appreciate its lovely three-petalled maroon flower – to the lofty Flat-topped Aster (Doellingeria umbellata) with its clusters of white-petalled flowers set off by yellow centre disks, making for a creamy effect.

But I do have favourites. And I also have reservations.

The number one example of qualified affection comes with the spiderwort. The species I have is Tradescantia ohiensis; like others in the genus, the flower has three petals and opens early in the day, closing by around noon. Ohio Spiderwort is a wonderful deep blue with six bright yellow anthers (those are the pollen-bearing parts of the stamens) and strappy blue-green leaves. When visited by a brightly coloured bee (I believe the Agapostemon virescens is the one in the photo below), the effect is deeply satisfying.

But I have found spiderwort to be a prolific spreader and determined occupier of its space. If it turns up where not wanted – for instance, in the middle of a patch of another well-loved plant - and you don’t notice, you may find the well-loved plant is being edged out as the spiderwort clump grows bigger and bigger. That being said, its tenacious roots make it useful for erosion control, so this beauty is a useful player in the right spot. For now, in my garden, the right spot is contained in a large pot on the patio.
Agapostemon Virescens bee on Ohio Spiderwort
No reservations for this one: Queen of the Prairie (Filipendula rubra). This is garden royalty, a tall plant with showy plumes of brilliant pink, the flowers highlighted by long white stamens and pink anthers. The Queen is a spreader, but reasonably easy to control and all is forgiven when the fabulous show begins (it started yesterday, here in the lee of Lake Huron). She prefers a regular watering. I had my first specimen in a raised bed under full sun. It was too dry and she faded away by the second year. Strictly speaking, this is not an Ontario native, her range stops south of the Great Lakes. Close enough, I say.

Of the three milkweeds native to our area, all of which are the much-needed host plants for the Monarch butterfly, Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) is the most “garden-worthy.” Common Milkweed (A. syriaca) is lovely, with its fragrant globes of dusky pink but its underground-rhizome spreading habit can be disruptive in a small garden. Swamp Milkweed (A. incarnata) is glorious, with deep magenta blooms that seem to attract the most interesting insects – I have fond memories of watching the Great Black Digger Wasp at work. But for sheer visual impact give me the bright orange of Butterflyweed at the front of the border. I haven’t yet found the perfect plant, whether native or not, to set it off; something purple and not tall, I think. That’s a work in progress.

Thistles have a bad name, a reputation that dates back to agricultural times before herbicides came to the rescue, undoubtedly saving much backbreaking human labour but also to the detriment of the health of most, perhaps all, living creatures in the field, including farmers. The thistles that were a problem were generally imports that arrived with the settlers - Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare), Nodding Thistle (Carduus nutans) and the misnamed Canada Thistle (Cirsium arvense).

The biennial Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor), also misnamed because it is native and was here long before European-type fields became part of the landscape, is the one I have grown, recognizable for the white underside to the leaf. Its purple flowerhead is wildly attractive to bees and butterflies, and in the fall, goldfinches gorge on the seeds. It has the erect architectural form we associate with thistles and is a wonderful addition to the garden. It can also alarm visitors, which is fun.

There’s something about Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix) that I find very appealing. I’ve seen it beckon from the deep shade of a local forest, its pale seedheads catching whatever available light it can. It’s a host plant for a number of insects, including the Northern Pearly Eye butterfly. I still don’t have enough of this plant to animate the shade garden, but it grows very easily from seed, so more to come.

Now for the other side of the story. My pet peeve is False Sunflower or Sweet Oxeye (Heliopsis helianthoides). This native plant is a bully. It seeds prolifically and grows tall, into ever-expanding clumps that smother unfortunate neighbours. It took me and my helper almost two hours yesterday to remove a huge specimen with multiple seedlings from a bed. False Sunflower does however get visited by many pollinators and is a host plant to Crescent and Common Ringlet butterflies, so I took the flowerheads to Tiny Marsh today and threw them into a garlic mustard field urging them to turn to seed and do their worst. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I have many more clumps. Just need to get them away from valued plantings.

A vine arrived a few years ago. It looked rather like the very pleasing annual Cucumber Vine (Echinocystis lobata) but it wasn’t. I identified it as Bur Cucumber (Sicyos angulatus), another annual, determined it was native and admired the pretty little white flowers that were attracting bees and wasps. It developed a small cluster of spiny fruit and I forgot about it. Until a couple of years later when I found it growing up through a couple of apple trees and sprawling around in a tangle on the ground. Pulling it out revealed that the little spines float off and can land on bare skin and become itchy and uncomfortable. It is now unwelcome, falling into the same general category as mosquitoes, and I look for it early. Which reminds me… I just went out and found a few vines that I pulled up. Perhaps in another year it will be gone. Until some bird brings it back.

That completes my list of less favoured native plants.
Laurie at Big Bay Point
- 12 July 2023 at 05:23pm

Kate, how I love to read your blog because it echoes my observations and feelings. I form an opinion about a plant, and then wonder, "Am I alone in this?". How wonderful to find out that someone else shares my opinions, e.g., Heliopsis helianthoides. "Smooth Sumac", a real invasive that is impossible to get rid off, is a constant battle for me, but my favourite native is Hairy Beardtongue (Penstemon), which I bought from you, by the way, three years ago. Keep writing, and I'm so sorry that I can't buy any more from you.
Kind wishes, Laurie Wallace, Big Bay Point.
Ken Thompson
- 13 July 2023 at 07:20am

Kate, I also am happy you have continued with your blog and I too miss your native plant sales.
I have a plant I love for its huge leaves but I I do notice it is a fairly aggressive self seeder that will be difficult to root out if not caught as a seedling; Prairie Dock.
- 13 July 2023 at 09:25am

Ah, Silphium terebinthinaceum, which I have not grown. I have Cup Plant, Silphium perfoliatum, similarly hard to root out - and I considered adding it to my unfavourite list but didn't because I really like the way its clasping leaves collect water. But it is also a prolific seeder and seedlings should be dug up and sent to a good home, or weeded out if they begin to overwhelm. Warning endorsed!
Brian Morris
- 13 July 2023 at 11:46am

Kate:Always a pleasure to read your blog and commentaries. Glad to hear you continue to enjoy the Queen of the prairie. I have grown it in both wet areas but in fairly dry ones as well once it had a chance to get acclimated. You are absolutely right about the Ohio Spiderwort and the Cup plant.Both of these species are lovely and attractive to pollinators but require judicious managementas you mentioned. The biggest nuisance on our property is Black Locust ( Robinia pseudoacacia) which is non native to Canada but is native to certain areas in the Appalachians . Somehow it got on our property before our time (22 years), and silently began spreading among a wooded area. Since discovering it about 7 years ago we have been battling to rid our property with very, very modest success. Notwithstanding the foregoing its praises are sung by many nurseries in Ontario. Trust me you don't want it anywhere near your property. These and European Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) and Glossy Buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula or Frangula alnus) another invasive species which virtually every property in our area (and beyond) is blessed with. These are more easily managed with good results but because they are both so prolific it is a constant battle. Anyway enough of my rant.
- 13 July 2023 at 04:43pm

This is a good message to get out. The right plant in the right spot and sometimes that means not in our suburban garden.
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