Chesapeake Native Gardens: Signs of Spring

Plant this instead of that ...

Garden Centers appeal to our innate desire for spring by tempting us with pansies, daffodils, hyacinths, forsythia and ornamental cherry trees and what's not to love about that! In a Chesapeake garden, the signs of spring are a bit different, though equally energizing.


Nature lovers and hikers know one of the earliest signs of spring in our environs is the emergence of skunk cabbage near streams and in moist areas. If you are not familiar, this Bay Journal article about the "swamp stomp" will tell you much of what you may need to know about skunk cabbage.

In our native gardens, early emerging flowers include yellow trout lilies (Erythronium americana), also called the dogtooth violet, and blood root (Sanguinaria canadensis). These are followed by wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides), also called Atlantic camas, and ephemerals such as Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), Celandine poppies (Stylophorum diphyllum), and trilliums (Trillium luteum, Trillium sessile, Trillium cuneatum). While most of these are usually available through native plant nurseries, yellow trout lillies and wild hyacinth can be harder to find. Nature by Design in Alexandria has both yellow trout lily and wild hyacinth on its plant list for 2021. Since these are mostly ephemerals that die back after spring, it's much easier to find ephemerals at nurseries in spring rather than later in the year.

Groundcovers like pachysandra (Pachysandra procumbens), creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera) and foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) bloom once spring gets underway. Perennials making early appearances include heuchera (Heuchera americana), dwarf crested iris (Iris cristata) and many native ferns.


Spicebush (Shutterstock Image)

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is our earliest blooming native shrub. Citron yellow blooms emerging on bare branches are a sure sign spring is truly here. The minty unfurling leaves of oak leaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) are not far behind. Serviceberries (Amelanchier canadensis) bud up in early spring and the white blooms coincide with shad running upstream to spawn around the Chesapeake watershed. Fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii) and chokeberries (Aronia arbutifolia) also bloom around this time.


Bloom on a Very Old Redbud Tree

Redbuds (Cercis canadensis) and dogwoods (Cornus Florida) round out the explosion of native blooms.


We have an incredible array of choices when it comes to plants. So why are there are so many ornamental plants available as opposed to native plants.? Collecting plants from far off lands goes back centuries of course. As with many things, there are trends for plants that are popular, or unique or evoke an exotic locale. And retailers provide what we want -- no maintenance, long blooming, easy care plants. The ironic thing is many native plants excel in the low maintenance - easy to care for category. At this point though, most gardens have plenty of ornamental plants!


I often tell friends, there is a native choice for every garden need. In many cases, the native replacement for an ornamental plant is nearly identical -- think substituting native dogwood for ornamental kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa). The trees are similar in shape, size, and bloom time and both produce small red fruits in fall.


Not every ornamental plant has an exact substitute though. If you want a native replacement for late summer flowering crepe myrtle (Lagerstromeia) from Asia, for example, you might choose a river birch (Betula nigra) to get beautiful winter bark as crepe myrtle has, or fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus) as a substitute for the white panicle flowers of crepe myrtle or a rose mallow hibiscus (Hibiscus moscheutos) to have vibrant deep red blooms in late summer as many crepe myrtles do. While you might not get every attribute of an ornamental plant, you can certainly replicate key features.


Fortunately, most ornamental plants do have strong native replacements. If you choose those, your garden will be far more effective at supporting nature, attracting birds and being a place teeming with life!

Nuts for Natives maintains this dynamic list of substitutes for ornamental plants. You can always search it for ideas. Do you have substitutes to suggest? Are you looking for a native substitute for an ornamental plant not on this list? Please let me know in the comments and we can grow this list together!


As always, thanks for reading and I hope you are able to enjoy the changing season.





We want you to be as excited about planting Chesapeake natives as we are. “Plant This or That” gives you a native alternative to popular plants. Other posts highlight really fabulous fauna native to the Chesapeake.

Nuts for Natives, avid gardener, Baltimore City admirer, Chesapeake Bay Watershed restoration enthusiast, and public service fan.

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