Bayou-Diversity (23 February 2020) Warm weather will soon be tickling the lawn and garden itch of many Louisiana residents. I’d like to suggest a different way to scratch it. Forego the usual pilgrimage to purchase exotic bedding plants, fertilizer, insecticides and herbicides and consider converting at least part of your yard to native plants. Native plants are simply those plants that occur (or once occurred) naturally in a given area. They include trees, shrubs and wildflowers, and there are many good reasons to grow them. Low maintenance is a virtue in today’s busy world. Common sense dictates that plants which adapted over thousands of years to grow in an area will thrive better than introduced exotics, especially during extremes in temperature and precipitation. They are less susceptible to disease and insect problems, thereby decreasing the need to use chemicals. With proper planning a native plant garden is as aesthetically pleasing and certainly more unique than the typical lawn and flower beds.
Begin by learning all you can about native plant gardening. Start with a simple border or small bed of perennials. Make a list of plants that are appropriate for your site considering moisture and light conditions. A shady, damp spot that refuses to grow your St. Augustine grass may be ideal for wild geraniums and Christmas ferns. That harsh area with infertile clay soils in the front yard may blossom with hardy black-eyed susans, goldenrods, and blazing stars. Other native perennials that do well locally include mountain mint, bee-balm, blue star, phlox and cardinal flower. Many wildflowers grow larger and more showy in cultivation.
Wild shrubs and trees also make excellent landscaping plants. In addition to being attractive, they provide shade, windbreaks, and wildlife habitat. If you want the beautiful zebra swallowtail butterfly to visit your garden, plant pawpaw trees. They feed on nothing else and both are greatly diminished in our area. Other popular native trees include southern magnolia, redbud, sweetbay and flowering dogwood. Virginia willow, native azaleas, wax myrtle, oakleaf hydrangea, and witch hazel are native shrubs worthy of consideration in any yard.
Until recent years the only way to obtain native plants was to dig them in the wild. Unfortunately this led to the eradication of entire populations, especially the more desirable perennials. In most cases wild sources should not be collected. Exceptions include construction sites and other areas where their destruction is imminent. The seeds of wild plants can also be gathered and propagated. Some nurseries and garden supply centers carry native plants, and their availability is increasing as the popularity of native gardening continues to grow. Check out the Louisiana Native Plant Society Group on Facebook (search “native plant nursery” on that site) for other sources.
Be forewarned though that native plant gardening is an itch not easily soothed. People who were otherwise perfectly normal have converted entire manicured lawns to soothing, low maintenance, natural landscapes filled with songbirds, butterflies and water gardens.