Go Native With Your GardensPosted on: 27 March 2009 by Gareth Hargreaves
Gardening expert Maxine Farmer gives her verdict on the best native plants available to brighten up your garden.
With the dazzling array of plants available in garden centres these days, it is all too easy to forget the charms that some of our native plants have to offer. And while their more exotic cousins certainly have their place, I am personally a big fan of using native plants as much as possible and for some very good reasons.
First, native plants are well adapted to our climate, even with the extreme weather we’ve experienced in the past few years, meaning that they are robust, usually prolific and generally require very little maintenance.
For instance, loosestrife and meadowsweet are both flowering perennials originally from riverside meadow. Not only have they been cultivated into attractive garden plants, they take cold, wet winters alternating with baking hot summers in their stride.
Another reason for choosing native plants is that they are very attractive to local insects, which in turn, play an important role in sustaining the environment. Anyone who has read the recent reports in the press about the scarcity of bees – and the need to encourage them – will appreciate the important of this point.
A third, less definable reason is a very personal one: I like the way that using native plants seems to ‘go with the flow’ of the seasons. Right now, the leaves of bluebells (hyacinthoides non scripta) are unfurling in the soil beneath trees, while the first sight of the cuckooflower (cardamine pratense) tells me that summer is only a few months away.
Some readers might doubt my sanity at this point, because many people regard cuckooflowers as weeds. True enough, there are quite a few native species that are unlikely to win a beauty contest, but equally, there are many that are beautiful enough to earn their position in our flowerbeds, with or without a little help from plant breeders.
It is also worth bearing in mind that in some cases, what we think of as ‘native’ plants may actually have been alien once upon a time, but have been here for so long that we think of them as locals. I have also found that some native plants have ‘cousins’ from overseas which adapt extremely well to our part of the world.
Here are my top recommendations for easy-to-grow native plants:
1) Purple Loosestrife (lythrum salicaria) - is a tall, wavy perennial plant that bears blooms for weeks on end during the summer and I have found it very suitable for both quite dry and quite wet environments, preferably with a good dose of sun. In addition to the common purple version, other colours have been cultivated, such as ‘Blush’ which carries spears of tiny, densely packed pale pink flowers.
2) Male fern (dryopteris felix-mas) – up to about 4 feet in height, this is a vigorous fern of with lush fronds and more tolerant than most ferns of dry light soil. Ideal for light shade. Deciduous (loses its leaves in winter).
3) Quaking Grass (briza media) – ornamental grasses are very much in vogue, so look no further than this lovely perennial with its nodding, purple-pink flowerheads. Typical of chalky downs, it is also known by other names, including Shivering Grass. Best grown on dry soil.
4) Oxe Eye Daisy (leucanthemum vulgare) – a long-established favourite of the cottage garden, white daisy flowers with bright yellow centres appear throughout the summer. Happy in sun or semi-shade, it fairs best in light, free-draining soil.
5) Yellow flag (Iris pseudacorus) – a handsome plant with vigorous spear-shaped leaves several feet long and usually semi-erect. In summer, brilliant yellow iris flowers appear. Although the Yellow Flag prefers damp soil, I have found it to be very happy in reasonably dry clay too.
6) Snake’s Head Fritillary (fritillaria meleagris) – the chequered pattern on these nodding bells of purple or white give the plant its name. In spring, this is a delicate, outstandingly beautiful perennial and one that it reasonably easy to grow. Happiest in damp soil.
7) Meadowsweet (filipendula ulmaria) – one of my personal favourite perennials, Meadowsweet will grow happily away with no special care required. From June to September, it carries masses of tiny cream flowered flowers create a ‘fluffy’ effect and smell delicious. There are some excellent variations, including the pink-flowered filipendula rubra ‘Venusta’ from North America. Naturally happy in soil that is damp in winter, dry in summer.
8) Lily of the valley (convallaria majalis) – its fall from fashion is a shame, because this is a hard-working little plant, with its hearty green leaves and in early summer, stems of waxy white bell flowers, the scent of which is still a feature in many modern perfumes. Ideal for shady spots and best grown on dry, sandy or lime-rich soils, preferably enriched with leaf-mould.
9) Teasel (dipsacus fullonum) – often viewed as a weed, the Teasel has been elevated by the garden gurus into a ‘must have’ plant and rightly so. Its thistle-like flowers appear in the second half of summer, carried on majestic stems sometimes over six feet tall. It is beloved of bees, butterflies and birds, particularly goldfinches.
10) Wood Spurge (Euphorbia amygdaloides) – euphorbias are those handsome foliage plants that can cost a small fortune in the garden centre and are deservedly popular, providing a long season of interest. Semi-evergreen, our native Wood Spurge provide dense mounds of dark-green matt leaves in winter, with lime-green flowerheads making an appearance in spring, followed by pale-green brachts in summer.
This is just a small selection of the wide variety of native plants that deserve a home in our gardens, including trees and even edible plants. Excellent further reading is Flora Britannica, and although out of print, English Plants for your Garden is available in libraries or through secondhand booksellers.
So this season, instead of going straight for the more exotic imports, why not give some of our native plants a try and see the benefits to your garden and local wildlife?
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