Grow local: How to embrace Virginia’s native plants

Photo courtesy of Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens.

By Aila Boyd

April 16, 2024

Native plants, evolved to thrive in Virginia’s unique climate and soil conditions, offer more than just beauty—they’re resilient, low-maintenance, and support local ecosystems. For those reasons and more, they make great additions to any garden.

Here are six captivating native plants to consider for your garden, along with three gardens where you can admire native species in full bloom and two nurseries to purchase them from.

Virginia’s native plants

White Turtlehead

The White Turtlehead is the Virginia Native Plant Society’s “Wildflower of the Year” for 2024. The perennial herb is described as rising from a rhizomatous rootstock with smooth stems that sparingly branch above. It features flower spikes of 3-8 centimeters in length that form at stem tips from late summer to fall.

It takes its name from the Greek word for turtle because “the corollas resemble heads of turtles.” It even has human uses that Native Americans were aware of, including internal use as a tonic and external applications for itch relief.

Hollow Joe-Pye-Weed

Hollow Joe-Pye-Weed, another perennial herb, is a previous “Wildflower of the Year” (for 2023). “Flowers are small and clustered into cylindric heads consisting of 4-7 individual pink to purple flowers,” the society said of the weed. Its name is said to come from the Greek word for “true wheel” because of its whorled leaves.

The society noted that the weed makes for an excellent garden plant because it does well in full sun and looks good as a garden border because of its large flower clusters.

Virginia Spiderwort

The Virginia Spiderwort, whether encountered in a native woodland or well-tended perennial garden, is sure to please naturalists and gardeners alike, according to the society. The plant’s flowers occur in tight clusters located at the stem apex from April through July. Uniquely, flowers are produced in daily succession for several weeks, with each open flower being elevated above the cluster of buds.

Catawba Rhododendron

Catawba Rhododendron, or Pink Laurel, is native to Southwest Virginia, specifically in higher and drier habitats. The mound-shaped broadleaf evergreen shrub gets to between 6-20 feet in height.

“The numerous bell-shaped rosy-lilac flowers occur in dense, terminal clusters,” the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center said. “This attractive flowering shrub with southern affinities forms dense thickets on mountain slopes.”

Redbud

Redbuds are small trees or shrubs with flowers that first appear in spring before leaves emerge. Despite the name, the flower is more purple. Due to the color, the tree is a highly prized landscape plant, according to the society. Native American tribes used the leaves, bark, or roots to treat a range of medical problems.

Flowering Dogwood

And, finally, no list would be complete without mentioning the Flowering Dogwood. Reaching between 20-40 feet, the tree features showy, white, and pink spring blooms. “A lovely, small, flowering tree with short trunk and crown of spreading or nearly horizontal branches,” is how the center defines the tree. “Graceful, horizontal-tiered branching; red fruits, and scarlet-red foliage are other landscape attributes.”

Native plant gardens

Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

Location: 1800 Lakeside Ave., Richmond

The Morton Native Plant Garden at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden features some of the most notable drought-tolerant plants that are native to Central Virginia. “A few of the specimens you’ll see are sourwood trees featuring seed-heads, looking like tassels or pom-poms at the top of the tree, the American hophornbeam, which in spring, features blooms that look like the hops you use for beer-making, and spicebush filled with spicebush swallowtail butterfly caterpillars,” the garden said.

The garden is open from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Ticket information can be found here.

Arlington Native Plant Garden

Location: 4245 Fairfax Dr., Arlington

The Arlington Native Plant Garden, a peaceful and purposeful ode to the mid-Atlantic’s natural heritage, is surprisingly just mere steps away from the hustle and bustle of North Fairfax Drive. The humble half-acre plot highlights past and future seasons at work, “demonstrating in miniature the perennial symphony that naturally unfolds across the mid-Atlantic as the sun’s command.”

The garden features witch hazel, wild hydrangea, common milkweed, trumpet vine, and more. It’s open to the public year-round during daylight hours.

Mill Mountain Wildflower Garden

Location: 2000 Fishburn Parkway, Roanoke

Perched atop Mill Mountain, a mountain within Roanoke’s city limits, the Mill Mountain Wildflower Garden covers about two and a half acres. It features hundreds of native plants, shrubs and trees. Colorful interpretive signs provide visitors with information on the plants. It’s a public park, so visitors can drop in anytime.

Native plant nurseries

Hummingbird Hill Native Plant Nursery

Location: 4190 Free Union Rd., Charlottesville

Hummingbird Hill Native Plant Nursery specializes in helping homeowners who are looking for a holistic approach to helping nature by planting native plants. “We believe helping any part of nature — from pollinating insects to birds to mammals — begins with just one course of action: helping native plants,” the nursery said.

For those looking to add native plants to their gardens, the nursery recommends starting by identifying the native plants that are already present on the property. From there, it suggests identifying and removing non-native invasive species. Lastly, it says to add habitat corridors. “This can be done by both planting local natives that are suitable to the location and also by encouraging natives to spread in naturally,” it said.

Butterfly weed, a bushy perennial with bright orange flowers, is one of the many plants sold at the nursery.

The Wild Plant Nursery

Location: 6100 Cloud Dr., Springfield

Established in 2001, the Wild Plant Nursery is the region’s most comprehensive source of local, wild native plants. All the plants are grown from seeds the nursery collects from over 50 local natural areas. Some of the roughly 340 species that are available include black chokeberry, smooth alder, bushy bluestem, and woodland agrimony.

The nursery is open from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. on Sundays, Mondays and Wednesdays.

This article first appeared on Good Info News Wire and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.Grow local: How to embrace Virginia’s native plantsGrow local: How to embrace Virginia’s native plants

  • Aila Boyd

    Aila Boyd is a Virginia-based educator and journalist. She received her MFA in writing from Lindenwood University.

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