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Native Plants

“Going native” in the garden is almost as trendy now as my favorite powder blue leisure suit was in 1975 (white belt and shoes were fashionable options). But, just as I had to exercise extreme caution around open flames in that bulletproof polyester, you should take a close look at the plants we use in gardens before you decide to only use natives.
Love those traditional southern gardens bursting with evergreen azaleas, hydrangeas, camellias, crape myrtles and gardenias? Unfortunately, they are all Asian imports.
Another issue in the native plant debate is how to define the term. The National Arboretum suggests that a native plant is one “occurring naturally in a particular region, ecosystem or habitat without direct or indirect human intervention.” That sounds pretty straightforward. But, one of the signature plants of the southern United States that’s considered a native – Southern magnolia – did not grow naturally in the Wilmington area.
As gardeners we don’t care about such hair splitting and nit picking. We just want plants that look good, don’t have lots of problems and aren’t invasive. And, the idea that natives are always better adapted isn’t true in the disturbed soils of the average subdivision.
I’m not trying to steer you away from natives. There are lots of great plants we can use. But, unless you are a purist, a combination of natives and introduced plants will provide a more pleasing garden.
As the home of the North Carolina Azalea Festival, Wilmington gardens must have azaleas. The azalea police will find you eventually if you don’t. Even though the popular evergreen types aren’t native, consider types that drop their leaves in winter like Coast Azalea or Piedmont Azalea with white to light-pink blooms. If purity of purpose isn’t a goal, try some of the hybrids with bright yellow and orange blooms like the Aromis. While beautiful in flower their deciduous nature means they need a space that allows them to put on their spring show and then fade into the background. Part-shade, moist, high organic matter soil and good drainage are required.
A native garden superstar is our state flower – flowering dogwood. Nothing says “spring is here” as well as its white to pink bracts. But, like most superstars, flowering dogwood is temperamental. That same well-drained, moist, high organic matter soil is a must as is a place with bright light and protection from intense midday sun. Start small with a plant grown in a container. Local nurseries will have well-adapted selections. If you want pink go with those that are sold as “red” such as ‘Cherokee Chief’.
Even though southern magnolia isn’t technically native to Wilmington, the large evergreen leaves with brown undersides, waxy white early summer flowers and interesting seeds make it a popular landscape choice. And, unlike flowering dogwood, it is tough and easy to grow. Smaller selections like Little Gem and Teddy Bear won’t overwhelm smaller gardens.
Those of you who have made the mistake of removing the lower limbs of southern magnolia and endured the constant leaf cleanup may find this plant as desirable as one of those acetate shirts we wore with leisure suits (mine had palm trees). But, situated properly, this plant is a great choice.
Other great native trees include river birch with its peeling bark, the stately bald cypress and tupelo or black gum.
For showy spring flowers look for Old Man’s Beard. The white, fleecy flowers on this 15 to 20 foot small tree support its common name.
The selection of native perennial flowers, shrubs and trees is as wide as the lapels on a 1970’s era sport coat. And, with high demand for natives, nurseries continue to expand their offerings.
A list of native plants of North and South Carolina is located at

Al Hight, NHC Extension Director

NC Cooperative Extension and Arboretum: 6206 Oleander Drive • Wilmington, NC 28403 • Phone 910-798-7660 • Fax 910-798-7678
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