Featured Native Plants

Goldenrod (Solidago species)

Fall has arrived and so have the goldenrods. Their bright yellow sprays of flowers can be seen everywhere right now. It is a time to celebrate!

Before you sneeze, we’d like to address the widely-held belief that goldenrods are responsible for late summer and fall pollen allergies. This is a misconception! Goldenrods have showy, yellow flowers to attract insects who transfer their relatively heavy, very sticky pollen from flower to flower. Ragweed (Ambrosia species), which flowers around the same time and is wind-pollinated, is the real culprit. To increase the chance that pollination occurs, a ragweed plant releases into the air huge amounts of light-weight pollen grains, which blow around on the breeze. Because it has no need to attract insect visitors, ragweed flowers are not showy. As a result, when we look around at what’s flowering, in between our late summer sneezes, it’s the goldenrod we notice. Hopefully, understanding this pollination system difference between the two groups of plants will help you enjoy goldenrod flowers more, and consider adding them to your garden. They play important ecological roles as well.

Goldenrods belong to the genus Solidago, which includes over 100 species of flowering plants. Most of these species are native to North America. They are very common in the eastern United States, where some 60 species can be found—among these, more than 20 species are native to New England! Goldenrods have adapted to a wide range of soil and sun conditions and can be found in open woodlands, meadows, along roadsides, and along coastal dunes. The plants propagate by seed or by spreading underground rhizomes which can form colonies around a single plant. Many goldenrod species prefer sun or part shade and can tolerate drought and dry soil. Typically, they are also deer resistant.

Canada goldenrod (Solidago Canadensis) is one of the most common goldenrods in the northeast. This plant grows 4 to 6 feet tall and thrives in moderately rich, well-drained soil. It is common in open fields and meadows. It also looks good in a native pollinator garden. But spreading by rhizomes, it tends to be aggressive and can outcompete other species. For smaller gardens, other species of goldenrods would be more suitable. Some less aggressive species include:

Sweet goldenrod (© UMass)

Wreath goldenrod (AKA blue-stemmed goldenrod).

Because of their late-summer flowering time, goldenrod nectar benefits pollinating insects when other flowers have become scarce. Goldenrod flower visitors include many native bee species as well as solitary wasps, fireflies, beetles, and butterflies. In particular, the species that grow in coastal areas are helpful to Monarch butterflies during their fall migration—a time when food is particularly scarce. (Unlike Monarch caterpillars, which depend on milkweed leaves for food, the adult butterflies drink nectar from a variety of plants during their long journey south.)

Goldenrod seeds provide food for goldfinches, grosbeaks, and other birds. Goldenrod stem and leaf tissues also feed a variety of gall-inducing insects.

A goldenrod stem gall, with developing fly larva inside. Could be a bird's winter meal.

Goldenrod is a flashy fall flower!

  • Sweet goldenrod or anise-scented goldenrod (Solidago odora) is a 2- to 4-foot-tall perennial with an upright form and a rich, anise scent. It thrives in dry, sandy, open woods in the northeast. It has a clump-forming habit, with a spread of 1 to 2 feet. The flowers, which appear in late July, are fragrant and can be used as cut flowers.

  • Showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) truly deserves its name. The tiny, bright-yellow flowers appear in dense, erect clusters at the top of stiff, narrow-leaved reddish stems that grow 2 to 4 feet tall and spread 2 to 4 feet across. Because of their height, S. speciosa and S. odora work well towards the back of a garden.

  • Downy goldenrod (Solidago puberula) is named for the fine spreading hairs that cover its stems. This plant thrives in average moist to dry soil with good drainage in part to full sun. This is a relatively short, clump-forming species that will not take over the landscape.

  • Wreath goldenrod (Solidago caesia), also known as Blue Stemmed Goldenrod, features hundreds of flowers covering the entire 1.5- to 3-foot, arching, greenish-purple stems. Often found in woodlands, it tolerates dry to medium, well-drained soil and prefers light shade, but will also tolerate full sun.

  • Seaside goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens) is a beautiful clump-forming plant often found on beaches, dunes, and salt marches along the Atlantic coast. The plant is salt tolerant and deer resistant. The basal leaves of the plant are topped by 2- to 4-foot-tall stalks that carry dense flowering heads of bright yellow flowers.

Showy goldenrod with bumble bee visitors

A locust borer adult feeds on goldenrod pollen. This beetle species mimics bee and wasp coloration. It does not sting.

Galls are swellings or other atypical growths of plant tissue, developing around an insect larva growing inside. One of the most common and easy to recognize is the goldenrod stem gall, caused by the fly species Eurosta solidaginis. After a female lays her egg on the stem of a goldenrod plant, the larva hatches and burrows into the middle of the stem. Chemicals produced by this tiny insect alter the plant’s growth pattern to swell around it—providing nutrients and a protective barrier from harsh winter weather and some predators. Parasitic wasps and some birds, such as downy woodpeckers, however, do manage to get past this protective barrier, and consume these goldenrod gall fly larvae as vital parts of their own diets. Other insect species create a variety of other galls throughout goldenrod plant tissue, from midge galls at the leaf buds, to a different kind of stem gall caused by a moth caterpillar, to a variety of leaf galls. This wide variety of herbivores supports an even wider variety of insect-eating predators; goldenrods contribute in many ways within our home garden ecosystems.

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)

Spicebush often spreads by root sprouting, forming clumps or thickets. It is also easy to propagate from seeds collected in the fall. After removing the fleshy red coating, place the seeds in a plastic bag along with moist peat moss and store in the refrigerator for a minimum of three months. Germination is normally high, so only a few seeds are needed to grow some new plants. The remaining fruit can be left for migrating birds who benefit from the high fat content in the fruit.

Lindera benzoin, common name Spicebush, is a lovely native shrub that is among the first to flower in the spring. It has dense clusters of tiny yellow flowers that appear at nodes along the stems before the leaves begin to grow. The flowers last about two weeks and provide pollen and nectar for early pollinators, before other plant species are flowering. Spicebush is dioecious, with male and female flowers found on separate plants. Female flowers produce glossy red fruit later in the season. Once the flowers are gone and the leaves emerge in the spring, the shrub blends in with surrounding vegetation. But it comes to the forefront again in the fall when the foliage takes on a beautiful golden-yellow color.

Spicebush is a medium-sized, multi-stemmed, irregularly rounded shrub that grows 6-12’ tall. In a naturalized setting, the shrub is best used in the back of a bed or along the edge of a woodland. Naturally an understory shrub, it grows well in dappled shade and soils that are moist but well-drained. However, with adequate moisture it will also tolerate a sunnier location.

The leaves along the stems are aromatic when crushed with a spicy, citrusy smell, hence the common name Spicebush. All parts of the plant contain an aromatic oil, a trait shared with sassafras, bay laurel, cinnamon, avocado, and other members of the Lauraceae family. A tea can be made from the aromatic stems and leaves. Indigenous Americans have many additional uses for this plant, including medicinal and insect repellent.

Spicebush has sometimes been referred to as the “forsythia of the wilds” because its early yellow spring flowers that make the shrub stand out in the landscape. However, the flowers of Spicebush, while interesting and lovely, are certainly less striking than those of Forsythia. On the other hand, the wildlife value of Spicebush is much higher than that of the non-native Forsythia. Many animals, including birds, feed on various parts of Spicebush. The plant leaves are also a host for the caterpillar stage of several butterfly species, including Spicebush Swallowtail, Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, and the Promethea silkmoth.

Providing an important early spring floral resource for insects.

Common Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)

Winterberry is a dioecious species, meaning female flowers and male flowers grow on separate plants. The flowers are cross-pollinated by bees (and possibly by some fly species too). Pollination requires both male and female plants, and they need to be in bloom simultaneously. Without a male plant nearby, female plants cannot produce berries. One male plant will pollinate about 20 female plants to produce fruit when planted within 40 feet of each other. Beyond 40 feet, one male will pollinate about four to five female plants.

Like most native plants, it is best to use the straight species if possible. New cultivars available on the market have large berries, which are often too big for birds to eat, defeating the purpose of providing winter food. Instead of cultivars, look for straight species at the Grow Native Plant Sale in the spring, Native Plant Trust, and Russell's Nursery.

Winterberry bush is a species of holly native to eastern North America and Canada. It is abundant in the wild and is frequently found in swampy woodland and wetland areas.

Over 40 species of North American birds rely on these berries as one of their winter food sources. Mammals such as moose, deer and rabbits eat the stems and leaves in the winter. It is important to note that although this shrub species is an abundant source of food for wildlife, the berries are poisonous and extremely toxic to humans if consumed. It is best to keep the berries away from small children.

Winterberry grows between 3 to 15 feet in height and width. Because of this shape and size, it makes an excellent property screen or border plant. It is a slow grower and may spread by suckering.

Winterberry produces red, orange or yellow fruit clusters in the fall and winter. Because of this high visibility in the winter landscape, winterberry is very easy for birds to spot. Planted in masses, it produces a veritable feast for winter birds and interest for bird watchers. Grown close to a window, you can enjoy the winter bird show from the comfort of your warm house. In the late spring and early summer, small clusters of white flowers appear, which are not remarkable to humans, but bees love to feast on the nectar.

A female winterberry flower

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)

In his 2008 book Native Ferns, Moss & Grasses, William Cullina cites twentieth-century German horticulturist Karl Foerster, who wrote “Grasses are the hair of mother earth.” With a focus on gardening, Cullina expands, “A garden without grasses is like a face without eyebrows.” He notes that drifts of grasses transform a perennial garden from ordinary to extraordinary, contrasting the grasses with the colors and textures of the flowers, resulting in synergistic and wonderfully surprising combinations.

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is one of our most versatile and beautiful native grasses. Its range covers North America from Nova Scotia and British Columbia in the north to Arizona through Florida in the south. In the wild, Little Bluestem is found on prairies, fields, open woods, rocky and sandy slopes, and along roadsides. But it is a lovely ornamental plant that looks great in every garden.

Prized for its beautiful color and its elegant upright growth pattern, it is clump-forming and grows two to three feet tall and about one foot wide. The basal leaves have a blue-green color when they emerge in late spring. As the season progresses, the leaves and the stems turn into a soft orange or maroon color, and deepen to rust red in the fall. The colors contrast nicely with fluffy silvery seed heads that appear at that time. As the winter approaches, the colors fade to light brown or tan. The basal leaves and especially the stems are rigid enough to stand up to wind, snow and ice. Hence, it is best not to cut down the plants until spring when some of the dried stalks may be used as nesting material for birds and other animals. Retained seeds also provide food for songbirds during fall and winter.

Little Bluestem thrives in full sun and in moist and well-drained soil, but is tolerant of periods of drought and does well in soils ranging from light clay to sandy loam. Its drought-tolerance is attributed to a network of fibrous roots that can extend several feet into the ground. This root system also enhances the value of Little Bluestem for erosion control.

In the garden, Little Bluestem makes a great focal point in a perennial border, where it can be inter-planted with groundcovers or low-growing perennials. Alternatively, it can also be mass-planted to create attractive drifts in a meadow or near the edge of a woodland, with the individual plants spaced three to four feet apart. Little Bluestem can also be grown in container arrangements.

Little Bluestem seeds are readily available in plant nurseries and germinate well when planted in the spring. Plugs or pots are also available in many native plants nurseries. Established plants can also be divided and/or moved to new locations after the basal leaves have emerged in spring or early summer.

In addition to the wildlife value mentioned above, Little Bluestem serves as a larval host plant for nine skipper butterfly species including the common wood nymph (Cercyonis pegala), the Dakota skipper (Hesperia dacotae), and Leonard’s skipper (Hesperia leonardus). Little Bluestem and other native bunch grasses also provide winter habitat for a variety of other insects and smaller animals. For example, the queens of some bumblebees nest at the base of bunch grasses, where they are protected until they emerge in the spring.

New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)

Doug Tallamy, University of Delaware entomologist and author, tells us that among perennial species, asters and goldenrods support the most diverse native pollinators. These two plants probably already occupy a place in your garden as they are both prolific common wildflowers found in the New England area. This month we would like to focus on New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae.)

The Asteraceae family is one of the largest flowering plant families in North America. Aster blooms appear in your garden in late summer and fall when the garden is looking tired and spent, adding a much-needed pop of vibrant color to your sunny border. More than that, they provide an essential source of late-season pollen resources for bees and butterflies and seed heads for songbirds in winter.

The colors of New England Asters vary from purple to violet to all shades of pink, but the rich purple flowers with yellow centers are the iconic harbingers of fall. Asters, left to grow to maturity, can reach 5 feet tall but can be pinched back in from early spring to mid-summer to reduce the height and encourage branching out, which increases blooms. Pinch off the first set of leaves with your fingers just before the node on the stem. It is unnecessary to prune unless you have very rich soil and the asters grow taller than your space or design allows.

If you have a shaded area that needs a pop of brightness, White Wood Asters (Aster divaricata) are an excellent, easy plant to grow from seed. Again to keep the plants tidy, you can cut them back early in the season to 12 inches.

Because asters are native to our area, they are easily spread by seed. If your aster has produced many babies the following year, it can be a great plant to swap with friends. If you have too many asters, cut some seed heads after blooming to reduce spreading. If you would like asters in other areas of your garden when the seed heads are dry, simply sprinkle the seeds in disturbed soil in the fall. In the spring, you will have a new bed of asters.

Asters are an easy native plant that thrives in all types of soil, provides food for wildlife, and is deer resistant. There is no reason not to add these garden workhorses to your landscape.

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Culver's Root (Veronicastrum virginicum)

Culver’s Root (Veronicastrum virginicum) is an impressive native perennial plant found in moist meadows and open woods throughout the eastern United States. The genus name is a combination of Veronica and the suffix astrum ("false") and refers to the plant's resemblance to the Veronicas. It is the only species of Veronicastrum in North America. The common name Culver’s Root derives from a pioneer physician of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Doctor Culver, who advocated for medicinal uses of the roots.

The plant grows up to 4-5 feet tall and 2 feet wide. Its unbranched stems are upright and have narrowly oval, deep green leaves arranged in groups of three to seven in whorls around the stems. The arrangement of leaves is very attractive. From July to mid-August, the stems are topped by spikes of hundreds of densely clustered, small tubular white flowers that branch and create a candelabra-like look. Bloom time can be extended by deadheading the flowers as they start to fade. Butterflies, bees, and other pollinators love the flowers.

The plant performs best in full sun or light shade. In the wild, it is commonly found in wet or moist locations, but it is adaptable in the garden and does well in average or even slightly dry, well-drained soil. The stems tend to flop over and will require support without enough sun. The plant is clump-forming and looks elegant as an accent plant towards the back of a perennial border. It also looks great in a meadow or a wildflower garden. Beautiful native companion plants for Culver’s root include ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata), wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), and false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides).

Culver’s root is most easily propagated by plant division in late fall or early spring. It can also be propagated by plant cuttings taken in late spring or sown from seeds that ripen in the fall. The plant is long-lived but may take a few years to fully establish itself in a new location. It has no disease or pest problems, and the foliage is unpalatable to deer and other herbivores.

Milkweed (Asclepias spp.)

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) with bee.

The Asclepsis genus, commonly referred to as Milkweed, includes over 70 species native to the US and over 100 native to North America. The name milkweed comes from their latex, a milky substance that is released if the cells of the plants are damaged. These are beautiful and beneficial plants that support a large number of butterflies and moths. This includes the Monarch butterfly, which depends on milkweed for reproduction. Milkweed is the only plant upon which monarch caterpillars can feed and survive. Since Monarchs are in decline, it is essential that we all grow milkweed in our gardens. Some species that do well in our region include the Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), and Swap Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). All three are readily propagated by seeds that can be sown in the fall or, after cold-stratification, in the spring.

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), shown in the two photos to the left, has up-right stems and narrow alternate green leaves. It produces spectacular flat-topped clusters of orange flowers in late June and early July. The nectar-rich flowers provide food for butterflies and other insects. It is found from Maine to Florida in the eastern US and from South Dakota to the southern desert states in the west. The plant grows best in full sun and tolerates a range of soil conditions from moist to dry, average to lean, and acidic to neutral. At 2-3 feet tall and wide, it is relative small and can be placed towards the front in a flower bed or at the edge of a wildflower meadow. Being relatively heat and drought- tolerant, it also does well in traffic islands and other hard-to-grow places with dry and sandy soil.

Note: Butterfly weed should not be confused with the Butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), which is non-native shrub originally from China. Because of its name, many gardeners believe that this shrub benefits our butterflies. However, while it does provide nectar to adult butterflies, it does not have any value for reproduction of new butterflies since the caterpillars cannot feed on its leaves.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is a hardy perennial native to Canada and much of the eastern United States. Common milkweed supports more than 450 insects including flies, beetles, ants, bees, wasps, and butterflies. It is an important food source for monarch butterfly caterpillars, in particular.

It thrives in full sun and has a preference for moist soil. But it also tolerates dry conditions. The plant becomes two to six feet tall, with large gray-green leaves and pale purple-pink flowers. It is a beautiful plant. However, it is an aggressive grower and often not recommended for smaller or more formal gardens. In addition to spreading by seeds, it has underground rhizomes that allow it to spread to unwanted places. Thus, it is best planted in meadows or other areas where it has room to grow.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) with bee and Monarch butterfly.

Swamp or rose milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), also known as Rose Milkweed, prefers medium to wet garden soil and full sun or partial shade. In the wild, it is often found growing near the edges of ponds, lakes, streams, or along ditches. Compared to the common milkweed, this is a well-behaved plant that forms clumps and does not spread by rhizomes. It grows 2 to 4 feet tall and produces beautiful deep rose-pink flowers in mid- through late summer. Along with Common Milkweed, this may be the most beneficial milkweed plant for the Monarch butterfly, which feeds on its flowers and lays its eggs on the plant.

Note: While the three species of milkweed described above are highly desirable plants, a closely-related but must-remove plant is the invasive Black Swallow-wort (Cynanchum louiseae). A female Monarch will sometimes place its egg on this plant, unable to distinguish it from milkweed. Unfortunately, the leaves of Black Swallow-wort are poisonous to monarch caterpillars, and they will not survive on this plant. Thus, if you have this plant, make sure to dig it up (roots too!). Cutting or hand pulling alone will not eliminate it.

Amelanchier or Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.)

Amelanchier canadensis in a Lexington home garden.

In addition to having exceptional spring flowers, many Amelanchiers also have stunning fall colors and an ornamental silvery gray bark, making them a multi-season delight. Some species commonly used as landscape plants in our area are:

Amelanchier canadensis, commonly called Canada serviceberry or shadbush, is a large upright suckering shrub or small tree which typically grows 15-20' tall and half as wide. In the wild, it grows in moist soil along stream banks and ponds. In cultivation, it tolerates average soil, and it does well at the edge of woodlands and in naturalized or native plant gardens.

Amelanchier arborea, the downy or shadblow serviceberry, is a small multi-stemmed tree that typically grows to 15-25’ tall in cultivation, but can reach 40’ in the wild. The common name downy describes the leaves, which can be fuzzy when they first appear in the spring. Its close relative Amelanchier laevis, commonly called Allegheny or smooth serviceberry, shares its growth habits. However, the latter is considered a better choice for gardens due to an attractive bronze leaf color in the spring and juicier, better-tasting fruit.

Amelanchier x grandiflora, or apple serviceberry, is a cross between Amelanchier arborea and Amelanchier laevis. This is a winning combination that has beautiful new growth, splendid fall color, larger flowers, and more delicious fruit. It does not grow as tall as some of the other species and does fairly well in shade.

All of these Amelanchier species provide excellent benefits to wildlife because of the nectar, pollen, and berry resources they produce. They also serve as host plants for close to 120 caterpillars, including those of many butterfly species.

The genus Amelanchier, also known as serviceberries, comprises some 20 deciduous shrubs or small trees, many of them native to the eastern United States and Canada. They are among the first to flower in the spring, making them extra lovely. Their delicate white flowers emerge in late March or early April and last five to seven days, depending on the weather. The flowers are an essential source of pollen and nectar to newly emerged bees and other insects. The flowers are followed by berries which turn red before maturing to a dark blue color in the middle of summer. The berries are edible and rival blueberries in terms of size, sweetness, and flavor. The berries can be used in jams, jellies, and pies if you can harvest them before the birds devour them. Many species of birds rely on these high-energy berries to sustain them during the breeding season.

Red-Twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea)

The bright red twigs are beautiful in any winter garden, especially when planted against a backdrop of evergreens. Though the color is best when the plant grows in full sun, it also tolerates light shade. Unlike the Florida dogwood tree (Cornus florida), which is stunning in the spring, this shrub has relatively small spring flowers. However, the flowers attract many pollinators, and birds quickly consume the berries.

For the best winter color, prune this low-maintenance shrub when the branches are more than two years old or cut the entire plant almost to the ground in early spring. Only prune about one third of the plant each year. Over-pruning can reduce the number of flowers and berries. Red-twig dogwood is a tremendous four-season plant that deserves a home in every garden. Read more at the Rhode Island Wild Plant Society or the Missouri Botanical Garden.

The common name red-twig dogwood accurately describes this garden gem. Red-twig refers to the branches that become bright red in the winter. Its botanical name, Cornus sericea, also reflects its appearance. Cornus means horned or antlered, which refers to branching habit, and sericea, which means covered with fine silk or hair, refers to the silky hair found on new young leaves. The ovate to elongated leaves are 2-5 inches long and 1-2.5 inches wide. The plant is a fast grower and, unpruned, becomes 8-10 feet tall and slightly wider.

Red-twig dogwood is native to most of the United States and is a host plant for over 117 butterfly and moth species. It also provides pollen for our native bees. In unmanaged landscapes, it is an understory shrub mostly found by streams and riverbanks. But it will perform well in most garden settings. It can also be very useful in a rain garden where it thrives in the moister soil. Birds consume the berries, and the antlered branches make good nesting sites and shelter for birds and other animals.