Natives in the garden

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by SARI CARP

redbud

A Shenandoah Valley favorite: glorious redbud blossoms are frequently found in early spring at the edges of forests. ©Adobe Stock

These days, it’s all about the natives. No, this isn’t a political statement; we’re talking trees here.

Planting native trees is the most rewarding route to restoring the balance of our forests and fields, damaged by invasive imports like the absurdly named “Tree of Heaven” (Ailanthus altissima). Natives sustain wildlife, resist blights and infestations, and adapt to local conditions like proximity to black walnut trees (whose toxic compound juglone kills most non-natives).

Most natives have something exciting going for them, be it stunning flowers, delicious fruit, drop-dead fall color, winter interest, or all of the above. They’re all around us too, so you can easily check out mature trees in the wild (or a local arboretum) before deciding which ones you’d like to add to your own garden.

Most natives have something exciting going for them, be it stunning flowers, delicious fruit, drop-dead fall color, winter interest, or all of the above.

Not all natives are suitable for garden planting. Some (e.g. walnuts and butternuts) kill too many other plants, while others (e.g. sycamores and tulip poplars) are too large for most situations. Often, cultivars have been developed of natives, offering gardeners a wider range of leaf color, shape and size, or improved fruiting habits. As always when planting, consider the tree’s needs with regards to light, moisture and especially, space. Many natives grow quickly, and you don’t want an eventual monster too close to your house, your driveway or a power line. Also, if you plant in the spring, water, water, water throughout the summer! Newly planted trees need far more water than established ones.
Here are 10 of the most appealing and versatile natives:

Dogwood (Cornus florida)
Mature size: 25’ high by up to 25’ wide
Virginia’s state tree needs little introduction, known for its four petaled white “flowers” (actually bracts, or leaves, growing around a very tiny flower). It’s a highly flexible tree, flowering well even in shade. A pink flowering cultivar is available for gardens, and both colors are readily available for purchase.

Redbud (Cercis canadensis)
Mature size: 20’ high by 25’ wide; cultivars may be smaller
Like dogwoods, redbuds are an understory tree in woodlands, though they demand a bit more sun than dogwoods. Fluorescent pink flowers, heart-shaped leaves and long brown seedpods provide all-season interest. If the standard version of redbuds isn’t exciting enough for your garden (though how could it not be?!), many cultivars are available, including weeping redbuds and varieties with red, multicolor or variegated leaves.

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
Mature size: up to 12’ high by 12’ wide
The often overlooked spicebush is one of the first heralds of spring, and practically the only flowering bush that thrives in deep shade and floodplains. Its pale yellow flowers appear in early spring, giving way to delicate leaves with a citrus-y taste. The fresh leaves make a delicious sun tea (brewed with cold water), while hot tea can be made in winter from the twigs. Spicebush’s bright red berries, referred to as “Appalachian allspice”, do taste considerably like allspice, and can be used fresh or dried.

Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)
Mature size: 12’ high by 12’ wide
Witch hazel also flowers happily in heavy shade, but its bizarre, hairy looking yellow blossoms appear in winter, when most leaves have already fallen from the trees. Slightly contorted branches add to its winter interest. Intriguing non-native cultivars are also available.

Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana)
Mature size: 30’ high by 20’ wide
If you want a flowering evergreen that tolerates frequently flooded soil, the “swamp magnolia” may be your only choice. Its thick white flowers and dark green oval leaves resemble those of its more celebrated cousin, Magnolia grandiflora, though they’re less dense. It needs at least 4 hours of sun a day.

Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.)
Mature size: around 20’ high by 15’ wide
A favorite of native tree connoisseurs, this tree offers a little bit of everything: pretty white flowers, huge wildlife appeal and yummy red berries (tasting a bit like blueberries, with a hint of cherry). Serviceberries suit a wide number of garden uses, including rain and wildlife gardens, and are fairly shade tolerant.

Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana)
Mature size: up to 80’ high by 30’ wide; cultivars are smaller
Persimmons are often thought of as Asian fruits, but we have our own native variety. American persimmon fruits are smaller than their Japanese and Korean cousins, but just as sweet and edible if harvested at the right time (late fall-winter). Persimmons are a fantastic tree to plant for wildlife, who also love the fruit. The distinctive bark, divided into scaly plates, is my favorite of any tree, and subtle cup-shaped yellow flowers intrigue in spring. Native persimmons aren’t self-fertile, so you need both male and female trees to get fruit. Some cultivars or crosses with Asian varieties (e.g. “Nikita’s Gift”) are self-fertile and begin fruiting at much younger ages than the pure native.

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)
Mature size: up to 40’ high by 25’ wide
The pawpaw isn’t a shy, retiring tree. Its giant dark green leaves, deep purple flowers and massive fruit (weighing in at up to a pound, the largest of any natives) demand to be noticed. Pawpaws’ taste is perhaps best described as a cross between a banana and a pear. If you plan to harvest the fruit, cultivars, such as those developed by Peterson Pawpaws, are available with improved production and flesh-to-seed ratios. Pawpaws tolerate shade and wet soil and tend to be deer resistant; always a plus around here! They’re also the only host for the larvae of an important pollinator, the zebra swallowtail butterfly.

Mulberry (Morus rubra/Morus alba)
Mature size: up to 60’ high and 40’ wide
Mulberry’s another great choice for floodplains, which most fruit trees find too damp. Wildlife and humans alike love the berries. They look like long, thin blackberries, ripening in mid-summer to a deep purple (on the more common rubra) or white (alba). Mulberry leaves are fun, too, as there are three different shapes on the same tree: oval, three lobed, and two lobed (in a mitten shape). A dwarf weeping cultivar is available, ideal for sheltering chickens, wildlife or children under its dense branches.

River Birch (Betula nigra)
Mature size: 70’ tall by 55’ wide
The only native birch in our area is a rock star at stabilizing eroding creek banks. Its peeling bark, curling like a giant cinnamon stick, and its catkins, which remain on the branches after leaf drop, make it tops for winter interest too. River birches are easy to find, even in many “big box store” garden departments.

SARI CARP shares her love of native trees from a farm in Edinburg, Va.

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