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Fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica) is more popular than most sumacs. The “grow low” variety stays under three feet and the plant is capable of thriving in a range of inhospitable conditions, such as the side of a hot summer sidewalk or in parking areas. The late spring flowers are petite and pretty. Other sumacs are critical life support for a host of creatures. For instance, they provide July forage for honeybees. )
Fragrant sumac offers stunning colors in autumn. )
Don’t underestimate the wildlife value of native sumacs. Here, an overwintering robin dines on the fruits of staghorn sumac. )
Wild bergamot delivers a soft pink blush during early- to mid-summer. An aggressive spreader, it increases its footprint every year. This plant has special value to bumblebees, many species of which are struggling, according to Kim Stoner, entomologist and bee specialist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. Wild bergamot is also attractive to hummingbirds and butterflies. )
White snakeroot provides late-season forage for bees. )
White snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) All photos courtesy of Kathy Connolly )
A stand of young sassafras (Sassafras albidum) takes over where mugwort once grew. Sassafras is larval host to several moths and butterflies, including spicebush swallowtail and promethea silkmoth. The small tree is easily identified by its mitten-like leaves. )
Here, native moutainmint does double-duty by suppressing weeds along a driveway while supporting pollinators. )
Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) will take over both sunny and shady areas with tall, graceful fronds. Use it in areas where you don’t want to mow or garden ever again, as it is very tenacious. )
Mountainmint (Pycnanthemum muticum) is a powerful magnet for bees and other pollinators. )
Hemp dogbane or Indianhemp (Apocynum cannabinum) is a vigorous spreader, particularly on difficult slopes. Its flowers won’t win the beauty contest, but it has other values. In the photo, it crowds out an infestation of invasive reed canary grass. The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station lists the plant as one frequented by native bumblebees in “Planting Flowers for Bees in Connecticut.” To find it, check with native plant nurseries such as Earth Tones in Woodbury, Native Plant Nursery in Fairfield, or Nasami Farm in Whately, Massachusetts. )
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We’ve had quite a bit of rain this summer and most plants are acting like giddy teenagers after a six-pack of energy drinks.
One of my friends declared the plants were taking over the universe, and asked me to stop by to take a look so he could decide whether to get rid of them and reclaim some territory in the backyard. I arrived with two of my favorite invasive weed identification books but needn’t have. The dreaded invader was hemp dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum), a plant more likely to be found on the pages of Native Plants of the Northeast by Donald Leopold.
Who’d have thought a native plant would fail to mind its manners? In fact, when some natives get aggressive, they out-compete non-native invasive weeds. In the horticultural world, this quality is sometimes called “competitive exclusion.”
My friend’s reaction to dogbane-in-the-fast-lane also reminded me that it’s easy to love the idea of native plants and easy to praise their value for pollinators, birds, and wildlife. But when they misbehave, something’s gotta give—and it’s usually not us.
Might we consider an alternative point of view?
One of these powerful spreaders may reduce the spaces available to the worst weeds. They also offer a way to replace lawn areas that are no longer desired.
Dogbane (too bad about the name) is not alone. High on the list of natives-we-love-to-hate are root-spreading members of the mint family, such as mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum) and wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). Among fall flowers, some people object to the vigor of white snakeroot (Ageratina altissima, formerly Eupatorium rugosa), a perennial with profuse white flowers and deer-resistance that is hard to match.
Some people believe the native goldenrods make them sneeze, but it is ragweed, another vigorous native, that affects those of us with allergies.
Please pity the sumacs, which offer food and shelter for birds and bees in summer and winter alike. (Not related to poison sumac.) I’ve watched sumacs of all varieties carried away, roots to the sky and helpless on landscapers’ trucks by the hundreds.
Along the same lines, native sassafras, Virginia creeper, hay-scented fern, ostrich fern, and jewelweed get no respect.
Use the pictures here to learn more about native plants that can fill big spaces “like weeds” and why we should think twice or three times before removing them. Note that these vigorous natives need no care once established and are very deer-resistant.
Maybe it’s time to love—not loathe—some plants that can out-compete the weedy invaders from other parts of the globe that are all too common today.
Kathy Connolly is a writer and speaker from Old Saybrook with a specialty in landscapes, land care, and plants. Reach her through her website, www.SpeakingofLandscapes.com.
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