The Nativity Scene

Gardeners have many motivations for trying to grow more native plants: supporting insects, birds, and other creatures for their own sake; attracting beneficial insects to attack pests on our plants; choosing plants that are well-adapted to our region’s soils and climate; and simply enjoying the many and varied native plants that are becoming more available as interest in them grows.

This growing interest extends both to our members and to customers at our annual plant sale. With the prospect of an in-person public plant sale next spring, we hope to be digging our own plants or other people’s this fall. Identifying and marking our plants appropriately (always vital!), including whether they are native, helps our customers (and us—so that the plants end up in the appropriate category on our crowded tables). If you can, using the botanical nomenclature is really helpful, since so many common names are ambiguous. Plus, it really helps when you need to figure out nativity, since the exact species makes a big difference.

Considering how many popular and useful garden plants are not native (Hosta, day lilies, all but one species of Astilbe, Epimedium, Hellebore, lamb’s ears, etc.), it is nice to find that there are some large groups of New World origin. You can be pretty sure that almost all species of Solidago (goldenrod), Phlox, Echinacea, Heuchera, Rudbeckia (black-eyed Susans), Liatris, Gaillardia, Agastache, Monarda, Coreopsis, Helenium, and Penstemon are native to at least the Americas (if not necessarily to the mid-Atlantic region or Maryland).

Many plant genera, especially those with large numbers of species, are much more mixed. For instance, Anemone, Asclepias (milkweeds), Helianthus (sunflowers), Aquilegia (columbines), Iris, Vernonia (ironweed), Salvia, and Verbena have species from many regions of the world; knowing exactly which species you have is essential to answering the nativity question. Consider the lobelias: L. cardinalis (cardinal flower) and L. syphilitica (great blue lobelia) are familiar and beloved natives, but lots of charming garden lobelias are not. Then there are the ever-vexing asters: these come from all over, and are often hard to distinguish from each other. The botanists have tried to “help” by splitting species formerly known as asters into Old World and New World genera: if the scientific name is Aster, it’s Old World. New World aster species are in other genera, notably Eurybia and Symphyotrichum. (Others are Almutaster, Canadanthus, Doellingeria, Eucephalus, Ionactis, Oligoneuron, Oreostemma, and Sericocarpus. Phew.)

All this botanical Latin may seem daunting, but it’s really helpful to clear up ambiguities. And if you’re also figuring out nativity, you may be lucky enough to find out that the species name gives you some nice, obvious clue, like japonica, chinensis, tatarica, canadensis, virginiana, novae-angliae, or marilandica. Question answered!