US National Arboretum


Fashionable Natives?

image of Echinacea purpurea 'Sunset' (Sunset coneflower); courtesy Mary Walters of Walters Gardens Not many people realize that today’s native plants are on the cutting-edge of fashion. We’re talking runway chic, brimming with refined colors, different shapes, more numerous and even larger blooms.

Native plant fashion designers (we’ll call them breeders and perhaps nurseries) have been working hard to create improved selections of our most popular native plants by enhancing the color palette, increasing blooming capacity, making smaller, more attractive habits, and increasing disease and insect resistance in many of our favorite natives.  

image of Rudbeckia occidentalis 'Green Wizard' (Green Wizard black-eyed Susan); courtesy Mary Walters of Walters Gardens As much as we gardeners crave new plants, we need to ask ourselves – is a purple coneflower bloom that looks like a 1950’s frilly shower cap an improvement? Will this wacky shaped bloom confuse the finches and butterflies who are attracted to the “cones” of the coneflower? Is a black-eyed Susan (see image at left) still considered ornamental if it only has the black cone and no glowing golden–yellow petals? Sure, it’s new, but is it really an improvement?

image of Itea virginica 'Henry's Garnet' (Henry’s Garnet Virginia sweetspire); courtesy Mary Walters of Walters Gardens Undoubtedly, there have been many selections of native plants introduced in the past that have truly been improvements over the species. ‘Henry’s Garnet’ Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica 'Henry's Garnet'; see image at right), for example, was selected on the grounds of the famous Henry Foundation outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for its brilliant scarlet fall color. One would be hard pressed to find a native stand with such glorious fall color.

image of Panicum virgatum 'Northwind' (Northwind switch grass); courtesy Mary Walters of Walters Gardens Successful examples can also be found in recent selections of switch grass (Panicum virgatum). Usually considered a roadside weed, selections of this tough and hardy native grass have made landscaping with native grasses very popular.  

Switch grass selections have become popular replacements for maidenhair grass (Miscanthus sinensis) because selections of maidenhair grass have been listed as invasive in parts of the United States. Now that switch grass comes in all colors and sizes, it is being used widely throughout the U.S. in both residential and commercial settings. image of Panicum virgatum 'Dallas Blues' (Dallas Blues switchgrass); courtesy Mary Walters of Walters Gardens

Popular selections include: 'Northwind' (see image at left), chosen for its upright habit, steel blue foliage, and mauve-pink plumes; 'Cloud Nine', selected for its incredibly columnar form, bluish-green foliage, and large reddish-pink plumes; and finally, 'Dallas Blues' (see image at right), selected for its wide, steel-blue foliage, large habit (up to 7 feet tall), and enormous plumes (up to 2 feet long) that emerge steel-blue and fade to reddish-purple. Are these improvements? Absolutely. But, that’s not always the case. Some selections don’t look appropriate in a natural setting. Isn’t that what gardening with native plants is all about? Take any of the variegated summer phlox selections (Phlox panicultata or P. maculata). None of them looks natural and some have even smaller blooms than the non-variegated selections. So, are they improved? The jury is still out on these. Are they introducing native plants to people who wouldn’t normally buy natives? Absolutely!  

image of Echinacea purpurea 'Twilight' (Twilight coneflower); courtesy Mary Walters of Walters Gardens Native plants that are bred to have more colorful foliage, larger blooms, and blooms in different colors are appetizers for people who think they don’t like native plants because they’ll look wild or sloppy. image of Echinacea 'Art's Pride' Orange Meadowbrite® (Orange Meadowbrite coneflower) If consumers buy a new, fashionable, orange selection of purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) and wonder why the name is “purple” coneflower, not even knowing this plant is native, won’t they be pleasantly surprised to find the straight species blooming in a delicate shade of lavender? Purple coneflower is the perfect example of native plant fashion.

If you are attracted to these new, colorful selections, try them. Hopefully, you’ll get hooked and want to have all of the colors and all of the species available. Sometimes having the bold and beautiful make you really appreciate the older, simpler characteristics of the straight species.   image of Echinacea purpurea 'Razzmatazz' (Razzmatazz coneflower); courtesy Darwin’s Plants website


What’s old will someday be new again…  

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Last Updated   July 10, 2007 11:11 AM