The old adage “there’s no place like home” is certainly true for people, but it’s also accurate for plants. Native flowers, shrubs, and grasses flourish in their home soil, while also supporting the ecosystem surrounding them.
Coastal Georgia’s native plants provide food sources, shelter, and nesting materials for birds. They also help lower landscaping maintenance costs, while reducing water and pesticide use. And these are just some of the many reasons we should be incorporating native plants into our home landscapes. If we each replicate a slice of the ecosystem that once existed in our now fragmented natural environment, we can do our part to knit these pieces back together.
As with any plant you are considering, evaluate all aspects of its temperament to determine if it will be a good fit in your landscape. Certain characteristics could be a positive in one situation and a negative in another. For instance, a plant that sends out runners may be helpful in stabilizing a slope, but might not be welcome in an area where you need a plant to stay put. Soil type, soil moisture, and light conditions, as well as design aesthetic are also important factors.
Another great benefit of using local plants is that you can simply take a walk to see where they thrive. It helps to understand what conditions plants need, their shapes and sizes, when they flower, and how they perform throughout the year.
Unfortunately, in nature, plants are not labeled, and it can take some real effort to identify the plants you are seeing. There are several great online and printed resources available, as well native plant-focused nonprofits, including the Georgia Native Plant Society and Coastal WildScapes, whose missions focus on increasing the use of native plants. These groups often have field trips to help you learn about and identify native plants which can be a great resource to better understand our coastal Georgia ecosystems.
Another challenge is finding sources to purchase plants native to the area. You should not collect native plants from the wild. Luckily, local groups like Coastal WildScapes have spring and fall plant sales. Many local garden clubs are also promoting native species or hosting native plant swaps.
Our coastal environment comes with some unique challenges to plant growth, including salt spray, potential strong storm winds, saltwater inundation, high deer populations, sandy dry soils, high humidity, and hot summers. Depending on the situation, many of our native species have varying levels of resiliency to these factors. Also, many native plants only bloom at certain times, so if you would like to achieve season-long flowering, you will need to stagger species based on these bloom times. With all that said, let’s take a closer look at some of the native plants you should consider bringing home:
• Scarlet Sage (Salvia coccinea) — These scarlet tubular plants grow two feet in full sun to part shade. They tolerate normal to dry soils. These flowers are attractive to hummingbirds and many native pollinators. Their peak flowering season is early summer until frost.
• Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) — This pollinator favorite is a host for Monarch butterflies. It grows up to two feet in full sun to part shade with orange flowers in summer.
• Lanceleaf Tickseed (Coreopsis lanceolata) — Often found on roadsides and natural upland habitats, its peak flowering period is spring to early summer. It is also attractive to pollinators.
• Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium) — This is a very unusual spherical flower that produces clusters in mid-summer that persist through winter. It, too, is a great pollinator plant.
• Blazing Star (Liatris spicata) — There are many species of Blazing Star native to sandy, upland soils. Many grow in full sun to part shade with graceful wands of flowers in the fall.
• Seashore Mallow (Kosteleskya virginiana) — Found on the edges of brackish marshes, it tolerates salt water well. It also grows like a shrub to three to five feet tall and produces light pink two-inch flowers in summer through the fall. It’s a favorite of hummingbirds.
• Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) — This clump forming grass grows up to three feet with a cloud of purple-pink flowers in fall.
• Coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) — These tubular red flowers bloom in summer are also attractive to hummingbirds.
When maintaining our gardens, we are often tempted to do a fall clean-up and make it tidy before winter. However, if we are gardening with natives with the intention to create a slice of nature at home we should let the garden rest and wait until early spring. There are many species of native insects that overwinter in the garden as well as wildlife that use it as a food source or for cover.
— Eamonn Leonard is a plant biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resource’s Wildlife Conservation Division and a founder of Coastal Wildscapes.