Would you have plastic plants in your garden? Pest free, drought tolerant and ever blooming, what’s not to like? Yet despite these benefits, very few gardeners use them. For most gardeners, only the “real” things will do even though they have to work harder to keep them going. However these same gardeners don’t seem to mind that some of the plants they use might as well be plastic to some of the critters with which we share our space.
Consider crape myrtle for instance – Lagerstroemia indica. This plant and all its relatives are native to areas outside of North America – southeast Asia, India, Australia. The native bugs in the United States look at this plant and keep moving because they are not adapted to eating the foliage of this plant. The more of it that we plant, the less food they have because each and every plant equals at least one less native plant for them. Surround it by a small sea of lawn and the problem is compounded because lawn grasses aren’t food for native bugs either. Add in a common landscape shrub like Indian hawthorn (Rhaphiolepis indica) and some exotic annuals like Catharanthus roseus (annual vinca) and your plastic garden is complete. Beautiful but literally “tasteless” as far as native insects are concerned.
You might ask why I care about what native insects want to eat. We want our gardens to beautiful, don’t we … and leaves riddled with holes are not beautiful! I would say that you might want such leaves – if you like birds. Birds LOVE insects; they love to EAT them. And feed them to their baby chicks. So if you like birds, you should like insects.
You can still have a beautiful garden and support the insects by carefully selecting native plants for your area. Instead of the summer flowering crape myrtle, consider our summer flowering sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) [see above] or choose a spring flowering tree and train a vine up through it. I have seen some beautiful examples lately of trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans) growing up and through small trees and large shrubs. The trumpet creeper vines near me have been flowering for almost 4 weeks straight – some plants are developing seed pods and new flowers simultaneously. The large red flowers are a favorite with hummingbirds. Yellow and orange cultivars are available as well.
A shrub replacement for the Indian hawthorn might be Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia). The cultivar ‘Hummingbird’ is both a low growing and a heavy flowering selection. It can also be lightly pruned to encourage a form that is more in keeping with the look of the hawthorn (which is often sheared into forms). The flowers of summersweet are a treat for pollinators and the fragrance is pleasing to most people too.
Other summer flowering shrubs for the southeast include oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) and St. John’s wort such as Hypericum densiflorum.
Long-flowering annuals are a bit harder to replace. Native annuals tend to reproduce a lot of seed which makes them “weedy” to most people. Tropical annuals generally either don’t set seed here or the seed needs more favorable conditions to germinate. One native annual that I love is our red sage – Salvia coccinea. This plant actually does triple duty in my yard – the insects can feed on the foliage, the hummingbirds love the flowers, and the songbirds love the seeds. Extra seedlings are easily pulled up or potted up to share with friends. If you can’t find any native annuals, at least consider choosing annuals that provide a good pollen and nectar source for pollinators – look for flower clusters made of many tiny flowers or single flowers with obvious pollen-rich centers: gazania, zinnia, heliotrope, yarrow, sunflowers, black-eyed Susan are some to consider. Think like a bee when evaluating choices.
So – if a plastic garden is not your thing, consider giving our native insect friends the benefit of the “real” thing too.
Note: I live and garden in the southeastern U.S. so my examples are relative to that area. Please research what is applicable for your region when making your selections.
[About Ellen Honeycutt: I am a passionate native plant gardener near Atlanta, GA who is learning to appreciate more every day the relationship that plants have with our native fauna. I created a personal blog, Using Georgia Native Plants, to help increase the level of regional native plant information available to average gardeners. I try to emphasize the beauty and versatility of native plants as landscape choices as well as the value to the local ecosystem.]
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