Native plants for the spring garden

April has been designated as National Native Plant Month.

It’s great that we are starting to recognize the benefit that native plants add to the landscape.

Native plants provide necessary shelter and food for bees, butterflies, birds and many other animals. They are also just as beautiful in our gardens and landscapes as non-native plants.

There are a number of definitions, depending on who you talk to, as to what constitutes a native plant, but I like this one from the National Wildlife Federation: “A plant is considered native if it has occurred naturally in a particular region, ecosystem or habitat without human introduction.”

There are a lot of plants in our wild areas that are not native, some have “naturalized” after escaping cultivation and some are just downright invasive taking over large tracts of land.

One of those invasive monsters is the Amur or Bush Honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii).

Native to far eastern Asia, it was introduced in the mid 1800s as an ornamental shrub. It was also used for erosion control and thought to be good wildlife habitat.

Birds that eat the fruits have helped it self-seed aggressively from the garden into natural areas. In many wooded areas it is the only shrub left in the understory as deer will not eat it.

One problem with it is that it leafs out before our native plants, getting a jump on the season and casting shade where our spring ephemerals should be growing. I recently tagged over 40 of these bushes on just one acre and pulled a number of seedlings.

My goal this season is to remove them from the area and replant with native shrubs. I will have to be vigilant in coming years as more seedlings are sure to emerge.

Adding native plants back to your garden or landscape can help increase the biodiversity on your property and not just plant biodivesity. Adding native plants will also help the native bees, butterflies, moths, beneficial insects, and birds that depend on those plants.

Many of our native bees are plant specific, just like the monarch butterfly that can only rear its caterpillars on milkweed. Approximately 25 percent of our native bees — in the Eastern US — are pollen specialists, which means that they only go to certain flower families, sometimes only certain flowers. The life cycle of those bees are timed to when those flowers bloom.

Other butterflies have similar plant relationships.

The zebra swallowtail needs the pawpaw tree, Fritillary butterflies need violets — yes, the violets that grow in your lawn. Move them to your garden so you don’t mow down the fritillary caterpillars. Native plants and native insects just go together.

If you are looking to add some spring blooming native plants, here are some of my favorites.

nSkunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) is not for every garden. Actually it needs a moist habitat.

In the wild, it grows in wet woods, along stream banks, in swamps, and other wet, shady areas.

The interesting thing about skunk cabbage is that it can generate its own heat so it can bloom when there is still snow on the ground. The leaves when damaged do smell like a skunk, hence one of its common names.

A member of the arum family, the bloom consists of a large spathe — hood — surrounding a spadix. The actual flowers are located on the spadix.

The flower smells a bit stinky to attract its pollinators which are flies and gnats. It would certainly make an interesting addition to a bog garden.

nOne of the earliest native plants to bloom is Hepatica, a sweet, petite plant growing to about 6 inches tall.

There are two species native to North America, the sharped-lobed hepatica (H. acutiloba) and the round-leaved hepatica (H. americana). The shape of the leaves gives each its name.

The mottled leaves turn bright red in the fall. The star shaped flowers can vary in color — white, pink, or blue.

Hepatica will grow in part-sun or shade. The crowns do not tolerate being waterlogged, so plant them in well-drained soil. They would do best on a bit of a slope or create a small hill for them in the garden.

nSpring beauty (Claytonia virginica) is a low growing plant with thin, grass-like leaves.

The clusters of pink or whitish blooms have dark pink stripes. Plants grow from an underground corm.

Spring beauty does best when grown in full sun to part shade in well-drained soils. A true spring ephemeral the plant disappears in late spring as it goes into dormancy.

You may want to mark where you grow it in the garden, so you don’t accidentally disturb it.

nBloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is the earliest blooming native perennial in my garden.

I have a patch in a sheltered spot that has started blooming. It usually blooms in early to mid-April depending on the location and the year.

Bloodroot gets its name from the red juice that “bleeds” out of the rhizome when it is cut or broken.

The blooms are a pure white with a yellow center. Unfortunately, they are rather short lived once they open.

Each plant has a single leaf that will enfold the flower stem before they bloom. The leaves are lobed and may go dormant by mid-summer.

They will form a nice colony over time. There are some cultivated double flowers, but these are often sterile, so stick to the single blooms if you want to feed the bees.

nGolden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) is the host plant for the caterpillar of the black swallowtail butterfly. The bright yellow flowers are an excellent source of pollen and nectar to many beneficial insects early in the spring.

A member of the carrot family, it will naturalize in wet, sunny meadows and open woodlands. Growing 1 to 3 feet tall, it prefers full to partial sun, and moist loamy soil. So far it has done just fine in my garden soil.

Native plants can be hard to find in nurseries and sometimes your only choice is to order online. As gardeners gain an appreciation for growing native plants, the supply will catch up with the demand.

Keep an eye out for these native beauties and don’t be afraid to give them a try. The butterflies, bees and birds will thank you by visiting your garden.

Have a gardening question? The Master Gardener office is open.

Please wear a mask when visiting the Cornell Cooperative Extension office and check in at the reception window.

Master Gardener volunteers are normally in the office Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. until noon. You can stop in at the CCE office at 420 E. Main St. in Batavia, call (585) 343-3040, ext. 127, or e-mail it at: geneseemg@hotmail.com.

The Genesee County Master Gardeners will be hosting a special Earth Day program on April 22 called “How to Create a Backyard (or front yard) Habitat. It will start at noon via Zoom.

Natural habitat in this country is disappearing at a rapid rate. We will talk about ways that you can create the right conditions in your yard to encourage a host of birds, bees, and butterflies.

This will be an overview of the basics requirements necessary to create your very own living landscape. If you aren’t sure where to start, we’ll offer a variety of suggestions for all sized yards.

Registration is required. Visit the events page at http://genesee.cce.cornell.edu/events.”

Johnson Newspapers 7.1