Featured photo courtesy of Prairie Moon Nursery
Growing native plants can also be challenging in ways that we don’t often see in vegetables. Since I haven’t seen much written up about what those challenges are, I’ve decided to write about them. I want vegetable growers to be better prepared when choosing native plants to add to your gardens, and when planting them.
I really don’t want to discourage you from planting natives, as there are lots of great reasons to grow them. There’s a world of information out there about why it’s a good idea, including from various organizations mentioned below. For many native plant species, late fall and early winter are great times to put seeds in the ground. And despite all the factors mentioned below, in many cases, it can be really easy to grow native plants. After all, any plant native to your region has been know to grow without human help in your region.
Many customers have asked us about how many of the seeds we sell are native. The answer: a fairly small portion. But some people might possibly be using the word native when what they really mean to ask about is, which plants are heirlooms. And we sell hundreds of heirloom varieties. Heirlooms are varieties that have been cultivated for long enough to get passed down through generations of humans, whereas natives are species that have been growing in a particular area, typically for thousands of years, without having been introduced by humans.
Why don’t we sell more natives? Well, part of the answer is that we’ve been working on it. We sell a few more native plant seeds than we used to. To read more about them, continue past the next section.
What often makes it hard to grow native plants
One of the most common challenges of growing native plants is that so many of them — including most Echinaceas — require a period of moist cold before they will have good germination rates. This is called stratification. I find this intuitive regarding plants native to temperate climates because they need to be able to germinate in wild conditions where they experience a yearly period of moist cold.
Many native plants have other, more unusual, requirements before they will have good germination. For this reason, Prairie Moon Nursery (which carries seed packets of far more native plant species than any other company I know of) uses germination codes to indicate the kind of pre-planting treatment they recommend. For some plants, including Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) and Early Horse Gentian (Triosetum aurantiancum) they even sell seed with a “?” germination code, indicating that they “are not sure of the best germination method for this native seed. Your input would be of interest to [them].”
Most wild plants, including most plants native to any given area, have generally evolved to have seeds that will germinate over a much longer period of time than most cultivated plants. I find this intuitive as well, because in the wild, there are many unpredictable factors about what will happen shortly after a seed starts to germinate. For example, there might be a cold spell, a heat wave, a drought, or a change in which insects are in the area, eating which kinds of plants. If some of the seeds stay alive without sprouting for an additional month, or an additional year, or an additional ten years, that delay gives the species something of a back-up plan. In extraordinary cases, seeds have even been found to germinate after hundreds of years.
Unfortunately for seed companies, when a plant spreads its germination out over a long period, that usually makes it harder for humans to assess how many of the seeds in a given lot are alive, and harder to write good instructions about how to get them to grow, and harder to schedule times for planting and transplanting, among other challenges.
Occasionally we also see this prolonged period of germination in older heirloom varieties of crop plants that are closer to their wild relatives. For example, Choppee okra and Whippoorwill southern peas germinate over longer periods of time than most okra and southern peas.
Most native plants are perennials. There are various advantages of perennials over annuals, including that you generally only have to plant them once. But when seed companies grow perennials, it takes us a lot more time to get to know them well enough to decide to sell them and to write descriptions. It also takes our seed growers a lot more time to grow them to a stage of maturity that provides a good harvest of seed.
For most native plant species, there are no good instructions for how to harvest seeds or how to plant them. In many of these cases, it would be really challenging for us to write instructions for our own area and climate, let alone instructions that would work in most of the climates where our customers would plant those seeds. So, when we do add native plants to our listings, generally one of our main criteria is that they should, based on the information available to us, be relatively easy to grow.
In some cases, when we grow an unfamiliar plant, we make guesses about how best to take care of it based on how we take care of other plants in the same family. All plants are botanically grouped into families; there are hundreds in total. However, many native plants don’t have any widely cultivated relatives. Almost all widely-cultivated temperate-climate garden vegetables are in the same dozen families. All of these vegetable families also include native species, and some, such as the grasses, the legumes, and the asters, include a very wide range of wild, native species.
One of the criteria we’ve used when deciding which native plant seeds to sell is ease of growing from seed. Therefore, most, but not all, of the native plants listed below will grow well without any special treatment. Ginseng and Goldenseal, as the most noteworthy exceptions, come with additional planting instructions.
What native plants Southern Exposure sells
As the folks at RVA Homegrown Natives describe well, the definition of “native” is somewhat fuzzy. Every species is native to somewhere. In any given location, a lot of plants could be considered native by some people and not native by other people.
Butterfly Weed, Scullcap, Dyer’s Coreopsis, Ginseng, and Goldenseal are also all native to broad areas of North America, including Virginia. Anise-Hyssop, Jewels of Opar, Red Drummond Phlox, and the Echinaceas that we sell are native to parts of North America, but not to Virginia.
The Rudbeckias we sell, and most of the sunflowers we sell, are cultivars of species likely to be native to various parts of North America. Beach Sunflower (unavailable for 2023) and Silverleaf Sunflower are species types native to small ranges within the United States.
Wild Bergamot is native to broad areas of North America. It’s also prone to spreading so vigorously that you’ll probably want to be cautious about where you plant it. Lemon Bergamot is native to significant parts of the Southeastern US.
Some of the squashes we sell — those in the species Cucurbita pepo — are cultivars of a species likely to be native to a range including parts of the Southeastern US. In all our squash listings, we include the species at the beginning of the description, so you can tell which of the squashes we sell are Cucurbita pepo. However, based on the information I’ve found, I would estimate that cultivated squashes in the species Cucurbita pepo probably have their ancient ancestral roots primarily in Mexico rather than the United States — though I couldn’t find conclusive information on this.
Corn, beans, and squash have been grown in Eastern North America since long before Europeans first arrived on this continent. But, with the exception of wild Cucurbita pepo squashes, they were not growing in Eastern North America in pre-agricultural times. So they don’t fall into our category of native plants. These three crops, commonly referred to as the three sisters, were first domesticated in other parts of the Americas, and they are native to those regions.
At Southern Exposure, we’ve been hoping to add Eastern Red Columbine to our listings. It’s one of the best-known and showiest of the plants that are both native to our region and easy to grow from seed. It did well in our trial gardens, impressing me with its bicolor flowers, and looking more attractive to my human eyes than many highly selected, hybrid kinds of columbine. We hope to offer it in future years.
We’ve also been hoping to have Rudbeckia laciniata available for sale, but it seems that most of the plants on our land bear very few viable seeds.
We’ve planted a range of additional plants native to the Eastern U.S. in our trial gardens, to help us decide which ones to sell. Among those that we’ve planted, and like enough to think about selling, are Boneset, Blue Vervain, Cherokee Sweet Mint, Cup Plant, Giant Yellow Hyssop, Joe Pye Weed, Maryland Senna, Partridge Pea, Purple Lovegrass, Virginia Mountain Mint, Yarrow, and Wapato.
Where to find more native plants
I’ve only found one company based in a Southeastern US state selling a wide range of native seed packets for gardeners: Roundstone Native Seeds. Roundstone also has a greater emphasis on regional ecotypes than any other company I know of. When shopping further from home, consider that Prairie Moon Nursery has detailed maps of the native ranges of their seeds and plants.
There are also loads of nurseries selling mostly, or even exclusively, native plants. The Virginia Native Plant Society lists a few dozen such nurseries on its website. Meanwhile, as the folks at Maine’s Wild Seed Project point out, many big box stores are competing with local nurseries while selling plants that are not as suited to their particular region, with little or no attention to the ecological effects of their choices.
Besides the materials created by nurseries and seed companies, there is a world of other sources of information about identifying and growing plants native to our region. Here are a few I’d recommend:
- The Xerces Society’s list of Native Plants for Pollinators for the Southeast (short pdf)
- The Southeast Native Plant Primer, by Larry Mellichamp and Paula Gross (book)
- North Carolina Extension Agent Debbie Roos’s Pollinator Paradise Garden website (including pdfs)
- The Digital Atlas of the Virginia Flora (also includes non-native flora) and
- The Native Plant Guides from the Virginia Native Plant Society (for 9 regions within Virginia).