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Native Garden Ideas Galore: A Washington D.C. Neighborhood Park

It's an ecological treasure trove!

inkberry flowers
inkberry flowers

Dogwoods (Benthamidia Florida), inkberries (Ilex glabra), viburnums (Viburnum dentatum) and more! Recent renovations to Hearst Park in Washington D.C. serve up more than tennis courts and a pool. Many of the newly planted grasses, shrubs and trees are all excellent examples of native plants we can use in our own gardens.

Why does that matter? Let's take a look at two trees featured along the south side of Hearst Park: lilacs (Syringa reticulata) and flowering dogwoods. Both trees are relatively small in stature with pleasing shapes and charming white blooms in May. Is one "better" than the other? Oh yes. Flowering dogwoods, native to our area, support at least 111 species of caterpillars! To raise one clutch of chickadees, scientists tell us mama and papa birds need two to four hundred caterpillars a day. Now, that is a lot of caterpillars. Lilac trees, native to Asia, have not co-evolved for tens of thousands of years with insects here in our area. Those 111 kinds of caterpillars can't dine on the lilac tree. Ecologically, the dogwood is the big winner.

Hearst Park is filled with examples of native grasses, shrubs and trees offering sustenance to wildlife everyday. These also happen to be very easy to grow plants that look great too.

Plants for spring flowers

Looking for a shrub with beautiful white flowers in spring, loads of blue berries in late summer and fabulous fall color? Check out the arrowwood viburnums planted along the north side of the pool just beneath the majestic willow oaks.

Have you seen these amazing orange blooms? The stunning flowers belong to the Florida flame azalea (Rhododendron austrinum), one of three native azaleas prevalent in the mid-Atlantic. These native azaleas bloom with soft oranges, pale pinks and whites. The bright fuschias, magentas and purple shrubs are asian azaleas. The Florida flame azaleas at Hearst Park are planted along the slope beneath the cherry trees along the eastern side of the park.

Plants for moist soils

Need a shrub that can take really moist conditions? Look no further than the winterberry (Ilex verticillata). This native shrub is planted in the water retention areas beneath the walkway to the tennis courts. After heavy rain, the retention areas, designed to create a temporary shallow pond, hold excess water until the ground can absorb it. Standing right in that water is no problem for the winterberries. They also grow just fine in regular soils. To the delight of gardeners and birds alike, winterberries are covered with bright red berries through fall and early winter.

River birches (Betula nigra), newly planted on the west side of the park, thrive in moist conditions, hence their name. These are easy to grow trees that reach a height of 30 to 40 feet. They are also coveted for their interesting bark and attractiveness to several hundred types of caterpillars.

Plants for fall color

muhly grass and inkberry

One of the standout grasses as Hearst Park is muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris). Planted behind the benches in the new seating area outside the pool house, it really stands out in fall and winter. Muhly grass thrives in full sun and when the light catches the feather pink flowers in fall, garden buffs swoon! It provides great winter texture too.

Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) is a four season shrub easy to grow in part shade or sun. Spring foliage, summer flowers, brilliant fall color and interesting winter bark make it a year round plant!

Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica) blooms like crazy in May adds tons of color to your fall garden. This low growing shrub likes sun to part shade and can adapt to most soils. In Hearst Park, you can find lots of Virginia sweetspire growing next to the steps down to the walkway on the north side of the pool.

Plants to add winter interest

inkberry shrub

Evergreen shrubs are a must if you are looking to create structure and winter interest in your garden. Inkberries, a native evergreen shrub, is a perfect fit. These shrubs grow in full sun or part shade. Find them near the pool house and along the soccer field. These are a great native substitute for boxwoods.

American hollies (Ilex opaca) are a very versatile native evergreen tree. They grow in all sort of soils and in sun to shade. At Hearst Park, young trees line the south edge of the tennis courts. Red berries add sparkle to your garden in winter.

Red twig dogwoods (Cornus sericea) planted along the east slope down to the tennis courts bloom in April. In fall, after their leaves drop, bright red stems become visible and last throughout winter. For best color, plant the shrub in full sun and cut back stems to 7" or so every couple of years to encourage new stems to grow, The younger stems have the brightest color.

Plants with ecological superpowers

willow oak tree over 100 years old
90 year old willow oak tree

The absolute heart of Hearst Park is the majestic willow oaks (Quercus phellos), officially designated as "heritage trees" based on their size. Ecologically, oak trees are the GOAT of the natural world supporting over 500 species of caterpillars!

Seeing more and more local parks using the power of plants to support the natural world around us is inspiring. Find a native plant that speaks to you, add it to your garden and amp up your caterpillar producing power. You can make the difference!


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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