At the Root

Story & Photograph Felder Rushing

am constantly amazed at how many of our wonderful native Mississippi wildflowers have finally become popular in regular landscapes. They have caught up, fittingly, with the mostly-Asian plants we have come to depend on for a “Southern” scene.

Nothing wrong, mind you, with azaleas, crape myrtles, liriope, roses, iris and day lilies, but these are not native plants and quite often suffer from problems.

Still, too many people still think that “wildflower” means “weed.” When I was a youngster, my horticulturist great-grandmother explained the difference. “Over here in the flower bed,” she said, “they are wildflowers. When they get out in the lawn, they are weeds.”

Many native plants are a bit invasive because they are naturally adapted to our climate and soils and spread readily from seeds like they have been doing for thousands of years. Of course, so do a lot of imported plants; some of which can actually take over and destroy nearby native habitats.

When it comes to being beautiful, easy to grow and attractive to butterflies, birds and other native wildlife, it’s hard to beat what has already been well-adapted for our soils and weather. 

Still, most gardeners aren’t interested in wildflowers, just good flowers. So, instead of emphasizing their wildness, I focus my garden sensibilities on those that are most easily adapted to garden-variety gardens.

It’s not just the trees and shrubs, either, though there are lots of oaks, magnolias, birches, cedars, cypress, buckeyes and native yaupon hollies. Plus oakleaf hydrangea, sweetshrub, wax myrtle, cherry laurel, blueberries, flowering prickly pear cactus and yucca. All native, all commonly grown in landscapes.

These are what I call “backbone” plants of the garden, giving shape and texture; most are well adapted for both sun and shade, and can survive mostly on rainfall alone.

Our native vines, including yellow Carolina jessamine, trumpet creeper, smilax, crossvine, coral honeysuckle and sweet autumn clematis, are fantastic for toning down arbors and rustic fences.

But it’s the native flowering perennials that really catch my eye. I am seeing more people relaxing about native ferns, violets, spiderwort (Tradescantia), phlox, Mexican primrose and liatris, summer phlox, and fall-blooming perennial sunflowers, goldenrods and the lavender-blue wild ageratum.

I am surprised to see more and more Stoke’s aster (Stokesia) and low-growers like monkey grass with huge pompoms of bluish lavender, blue Amsonia and “obedience” (Physostegia) — all of which are super popular in European gardens but grow wild in our own ditches.

I’m not hard-core with natives, though my garden certainly has more than its share. They lend an exciting sense of place that centers me on being at home in my native land, and they are fantastic for native butterflies and hummingbirds. If you like the informal meadow affect, a word to the wise: Accessorize the planting with something human-scale, to let people know you are working on an overall scene, not just letting the weeds grow. Think about how a bit of fence, a wagon wheel, an old plow or some other “country farm” feature can let your neighbors know you are doing this on purpose, not just letting your yard go.

Fortunately, these days, growing beautiful native wildflowers in modern gardens isn’t considered a sign of neglect. It’s only natural.