Where the Wild Things Are

If you’ve ever wondered how plants survived before gardeners started fussing over them, take a walk through the 100-acre Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve just outside New Hope, home to 800 species of native wildflowers, shrubs, trees and grasses.

Every spring, without benefit of irrigation, chemical fertilizers or pesticides, the damp woodland floor comes to life with the starry flowers of white bloodroot, nodding bluebells and wild sweet William. Dogwoods and honeysuckle-scented azaleas thrive in the dappled sunlight that filters through taller trees. Ferns shed their spores and multiply in the shade, tall red spikes of cardinal flower rise along a running stream, and butterflies sip from milkweeds, hyssops and coneflowers.

As the blooming season draws to a close, graceful goldenrods lean against statuesque purple asters. Docents who lead the daily walking tours make children laugh by pointing out the rounded white flowers of turtlehead (Chelone glabra), which resemble snapping turtles with mouths agape. Seedpods of orange and yellow jewelweed swell and burst, ensuring new plants for next year. The only weeding that’s done here targets nonnative gatecrashers, such as multiflora rose and Japanese honeysuckle, which are spread by birds.

The lesson to be learned at Bowman’s Hill is that plants native to the mid-Atlantic region have adapted to our climate, soil conditions and insect populations over hundreds of years. Nurseries and seed companies are offering more natives every year, and the possibilities abound: Pennsylvania has approximately 2,100 native plant species, a diverse group that includes ferns, grasses, perennials, biennials, annuals, vines, shrubs and trees.

Native plants, or wildflowers, are species that were already in place when European settlers arrived, according to The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. In the wild, these plants take root in sites that suit their needs and flourish without human intervention. A home gardener who plants natives according to their requirements will find them to be remarkably self-sufficient. Some need shade and moisture, while others like plenty of sun and good drainage.

The grounds and nursery manager at Bowman’s Hill, Bill Lamack, collects seeds from plants in the preserve to grow nearly all the natives offered at the preserve’s spring and fall plant sale, the next one held the weekend of May 7. He also uses natives in his own garden.

“It gives you a sense of place if you’re growing plants from your region,” he says. In contrast, gaudy generic annuals that landscapers corral en masse outside hotels and in new housing developments give no such clue as to their origins. “It could be Maine, North Carolina, Ohio—you can’t tell where you are from looking at them,” Lamack says.

The most popular natives at the Bowman’s Hill plant sales are the pretty ones, Lamack says, particularly the red cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), bright orange butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), pink fringed bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia), blue star (Amsonia montana) and a yellow daisy-like groundcover called goldenstar (Chrysogonum virginianum).

In addition to their beautiful blooms, wildflowers are popular with gardeners who want to cut back on using chemicals, encourage beneficial insects and feed the local birds.

Ron Stanwood made a point of choosing plants native to New Jersey when he set out to create a wildlife habitat for birds and butterflies outside his Pitman, New Jersey, home. A member of the National Wildlife Federation, Stanwood followed that organization’s guidelines for creating a natural area, incorporating a pond and several birdhouses in his plan.

“It’s not a formal garden. It’s a wild garden, but I like to keep it ‘controlled wild,’” Stanwood says. He occasionally moves plants from one spot to another, and does some weeding—for poison ivy in particular. Although his brick rancher on three-quarters of an acre is next to a busy convenience store, Stanwood’s vest-pocket Eden attracts downy woodpeckers, goldfinches and purple finches, northern flickers, wrens, red-tailed hawks, chipmunks and squirrels. The garden continues to evolve, and last fall found Stanwood digging out some yarrow that was taking over a patch of coneflowers and ornamental grasses.

Often a plant’s common name, like swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) or wood phlox (Phlox divaricata), is a tip-off to the site it prefers. Touch-me-not, another name for spotted jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), is called that because it will fling seeds at anyone who tweaks one of its fat seedpods. But names can be deceiving.

“Just because they have ‘weed’ in their name doesn’t mean they’re weeds,” Lamack says. The country’s first farmers named some of these plants, he says, and didn’t always appreciate them: “If it wasn’t something that their cows wanted to eat, then it was a weed,” he says. “If it invaded their cornfields, then it was a weed.”

Some gardeners likewise look down on plants that self-seed easily, says Catherine Renzi, owner of Yellow Springs Farm Native Plant Nursery in Chester Springs. She has heard customers remark that a plant “can’t be any good” unless it was purchased. “I don’t know how you counter that, except through education,” Renzi says. Or with marketing spin.

Renzi is seeing some sly semantics creep into the nursery trade. “The orange butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa, is now being called butterfly flower,” she says with amusement. The same thing is happening with Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium fistulosum), a tall flower that draws bees and butterflies to its fluffy, dusky pink heads in August. “They’ll just call it Joe Pye,” Renzi says.

Many public gardens in the Delaware Valley have areas devoted to native plants. Visiting them can give home gardeners a sense of how to use wildflowers on a smaller scale. Notable natives on the grounds of Delaware’s Winterthur museum include an April-blooming bank of Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) and yellow bellwort (Uvularia grandi-flora), and an extravagant field of Queen Anne’s lace. Winterthur’s much-photographed Azalea Woods—home to many non-native Japanese azalea hybrids—also hosts great swaths of tri-petaled white trillium (Trillium grandiflorum), and the pale pink wild azalea called pinxterbloom (Rhododendron periclymenoides).

On a bank of the Schuylkill River in southwest Philadelphia, the garden established by Colonial botanist John Bartram survives tenaciously with examples of the indigenous perennials noted in his son’s diaries, along with a specimen of Franklinia, a tree Bartram may have saved from extinction by propagating its seed. An adjacent 15-acre meadow, created in the 1980s on a former industrial site, is devoted to the common white daisy, at its peak in late April and early May. A 1.5-acre wetland area, planted in 1997, brims with marsh grasses, marsh roses, bullrushes, iris and hibiscus.

The Brandywine Conservancy originally established the wildflower and native plant gardens at the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford to screen parking areas, but the greater reward has been a year-round succession of bloom, bark and berries. Rainwater drains from the two paved parking lots, creating a wetland habitat anchored by crimson-eyed rose mallow (Hibiscus palustris forma peckii). Volunteers who maintain the gardens collect seeds for highway beautification, commercial nurseries and for visitors, who can buy seeds from more than 100 species at the museum shop, by mail, or at the annual wildflower, native plant and seed sale on Mother’s Day weekend.

One reason for choosing native plants is that many non-natives have spread beyond home gardens and into parks and other undeveloped spaces, where they are displacing native species. The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources calls these interlopers “weed pests,” and its website suggests gardeners avoid planting those that threaten the state’s ecosystem and cause havoc in a carefully cultivated backyard. The worst offenders include Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum), purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria, Lythrum virgatum), Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) and autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata).

To those who want to learn more about the benefits of native plants, Catherine Renzi recommends starting with a small area, about a 10-by-20-foot plot. “Experiment; find things you like. It could be that you like certain colors, or textures, or certain plants that attract hummingbirds or butterflies,” she says.

If plants are sited correctly, a mulch of shredded leaves is all the help they will need, says Lamack. The gardener should then step back and accept “a little bit of wildness” from plants that may lean, or sprawl, or become a buffet for butterfly larvae. “You have to accept foliage that might not be perfect,” he says.

In his home garden, Lamack tolerates the caterpillars, and simply lets nature take its course with regard to other insects. “I never have to spray any kind of insecticides,” he says. “The more native stuff you have in your yard, the more birds and more beneficial insects will come. They take care of these problems for you.”