Picking my favorite natives is like picking my favorite foods: I love so many; it’s hard to know where to begin. But I think I’ll focus on a few underappreciated natives that make great garden plants.
Most gardens have shade and these areas are typically the areas of our garden we neglect the most, or fill with invasive groundcovers. My absolute favorite fern is Dryopteris x australis or Dixie Wood Fern. This plant is a naturally occurring hybrid that is found in moist areas from Louisiana all the way to Virginia. The plant has strikingly upright fronds that grow three to four feet in height. What I love about this plant is how vigorous it is. In places where Ostrich Fern or Cinnamon Fern have limped along, Dixie Wood fern thrives, covering the ground in dense, glossy foliage. Plus, this fern is semi-evergreen, holding much of its form during winter. Combine this fern with other perennials with contrasting foliage such as hostas, Solomon’s Seals, or native sedges. You won’t be disappointed.
My favorite grass at the moment is Sporobolus heterolepsis or Prairie Dropseed (click here for photo). This plant is finally getting the attention it deserves. Low, neat clumps of fine textured grass hug the ground for most of the growing season. During late summer, the grass adds fine inflorescences that smell a bit like coriander (or burnt popcorn). The grass has lovely orange tones in during autumn. I love to use this plant in large masses, particularly against the edge of a lawn where it gives the look of a ‘rough.’ And because this plant is so low and fine-textured, it is an excellent plant to interplant flowering perennials into. A lovely, drought-tolerant, and tough grass. Chanticleer has a large mass of this grass at the edge of a large lawn . . . it’s stunning.
Finally, last year I fell in love with Monarda punctata or Horsemint. This low perennial sports hot pink whorled leaves just below the flowers that dries into a lovely silver color that glows in the moonlight. Unlike most Monardas, this plant tolerates poor soil and drought. Pollinators love this plant. Since this plant can get a bit gangly by itself, I plant it in pockets on the edge of the border, or better, interplanted into a matrix of low grasses like Sporobolus, Schizachyrium, or Elymus. Last year, I easily grew this plant from seed and it bloomed during the first season.
You can read more of Thomas' views on gardening and landscapes on his blog, Grounded Design