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In the Limelight: Native Plants at the Philadelphia Flower Show

First Outdoor Show Teems with Natives.

Habitat sign Philadelphia Flower Show

The show, for the first time in 193 years, moved outdoors to Philadelphia's country like setting at FDR Park. With the theme "Habitat: Nature's Masterpiece," natives were everywhere. Here are a few ideas, some creative, and some more practical, to inspire.

"Habitat," a mounded flower bed filled to the brim with flowering penstemon, liatris, monarch's delight and oakleaf hydrangeas mixed in with ornamental lavenders, yarrows, smoke bush, salvias and grasses greeted visitors to the largest number of displays ever.

In the inspirational category, New York landscape designer and horticulturalist Patrick Cullina featured more unusual native trees: bigleaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla) and Pond cypress (Taxodium ascendens).

The tropical looking leaves of the magnolia are the largest of any native North American tree, reaching up to two and a half feet in length. The tree is rare and native to the southeast. Redbud Native Nursery in Media, Pennsylvania recently had several young Ashe magnolia (Magnolia 'ashei') trees. According to the Lady Bird Johnson Wild Flower Center, Ashe magnolia is a smaller species or possibly sub-species of the bigleaf magnolia and grows 15 to 25 feet tall. These smaller magnolia are thought to be native to certain parts of northern Florida and Texas and are said to grow in zones 5 through 9.

The feathery fringe of the pond cypress popped against the royal blue walls. It naturally grows in wetlands and the edges of ponds to 70 to 80 feet in height so is impractical for most garden settings. The ground beneath the trees was planted with native low bush blueberry and carex among perennials and ferns.

native tree saplings in kokedama

Nomad Studio created a circle of native tree saplings planted in the kokedama style. Twelve hundred tulip poplar, American hornbeam and sweet gum saplings suspended at eye level made one feel as if you were bathing in a mini-forest. Kokedama, I came to learn, is a Japanese style of planting. While these saplings would not grow for long in moss balls, the display drew one in to the world of sapling trees and hope for the future.

small urban garden river birches

More practical ideas included using river birches (Betula nigra) for modern designs and small patios. The peeling, flaking textural bark invites you to reach out and touch. River birches are relatively easy to grow and are interesting year round. While they grow to 40' in height, they can be limbed up to highlight the bark and keep a relatively small profile at the base.

In demonstration garden beds, a couple of different combinations of carex, heuchera, ferns and oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), layered from short in front to tall in back, add four seasons of interest and create a living mulch. I am not sure which ferns are used here but Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) would work well and add winter interest since it is semi-evergreen.

Another perennial combination, carex, heuchera and wild bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia), mixed very different textures to create a natural looking ground cover layer for part shade. The native heuchera, American alumroot (heuchera americana), works in this combination. Appalachian sedge (Carex appalachica), bristleleaf sedge (Carex eburnea) and Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica) could all be used here. Wild bleeding heart, shown blooming here in June, typically blooms in spring in the central Chesapeake watershed.

Both are great planting ideas for dappled or partial shade.

In the evergreen category, the most frequently used tree seemed to be eastern red cedar 'emerald sentinel' (Juniperus virginiana 'corcorcor'). It is a cultivar of the straight species that is smaller, growing to 20 feet in height and 8 feet in width. Exhibitors used it in formal and more informal gardens like the one above.

Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve created this dry land shrub habitat using eastern red cedar 'emerald sentinel,' prickly pear cactus (Opuntia humifusa) and yellow sundrops (Oenothera fruticosa). I had always wondered how one would grow prickly pear cactus and have it look at home. This combination looked terrific and works for a sunny dry spot. Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve sits on 135 acres about 40 miles northeast of Philadelphia in Bucks County and features its own native plant nursery open to the public in spring and fall.

Of course, because it was the Philadelphia Flower Show, there were creative ideas galore for our outdoor spaces!

The difference between the March show and this was so striking. At the traditional show in the Philadelphia Convention Center, most plants are forced into bloom. The outdoor exhibits featured plants that are actually blooming in our gardens making the artful displays so tangible. Habitat, it is a masterpiece indeed!


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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