Buying Native Perennials

Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica)

I often get questions about where to buy native perennials, and my answer isn’t a satisfying “Oh, go to XYZ, they are nearby and they have everything!”.  I usually go to several different places, and frequently have had to order the bulk of my perennials from off-Cape.

This year, I have 16 different perennials I am looking for, to add to the Glory Garden behind the house, the woodland edge area, and the sunny pollinator border.  I decided to try to shop locally on the Cape first, and report to you how much I was able to find.  There is lots of detail below, but the news is pretty good – I was able to find 12 of the 16, or close substitutes, at one of the three places I shopped: Crocker’s in Brewster, Hyannis Country Garden, the Farm in Orleans, and Agway in Chatham. The other local nurseries that carry native plants are Agway (I’ve only been to Chatham) and Cape Abilities in Dennis, but I haven’t gotten to either place this year.

The local nurseries had more variety than in prior years and in general had more cultivars than straight native species.  For my purposes, supporting pollinators, cultivars can be fine, but you need to know which cultivars retain their value for pollinators.  I do some research in advance (using the Missouri Botanical Garden and Native Plant Trust plant finders) so I am familiar with the pollinator-friendly cultivars, and I always look at the tags to see if they describe the plant at attractive to butterflies or pollinators.

I had several unusual perennials that I did not find locally, and I am planning on a visit to the Native Plant Trust in Framingham next week to try to find them.  It’s a long drive, and you need an appointment to shop, but the nursery there is phenomenal source of high-quality native plants, and the bonus is a walk through their 60+ acre Garden in the Woods.  Another off-Cape source I have used successfully is Sylvan Nursery in Westport, MA.  They are a huge wholesale nursery with a very wide selection, but have some days set aside for retail buyers as well – check their website for details.

FYI, I’m posting this today because it’s time-sensitive – will be back early next week to add some pictures.

My Local “Success” List

Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum).  I was looking for the straight species but found the ‘Blue Fortune’ cultivar at Crocker’s.  I have had success with this cultivar, so picked them up. The Farm also carried them.

Bee balm (Monarda).  I was looking for two species.  The more familiar is M. didyma ‘Jacob Kline’, a scarlet bee balm that is very attractive to pollinators and hummingbirds; I found it at Hyannis Country Garden.  The other is M. fistulosa the native straight species that has a light purple flower; I found this one at Crocker’s. 

Blanket flower (Gaillardia spp).  Last year I grew a cultivar ‘Arizona Apricot’ that bloomed from June through October, with only minimal deadheading, my favorite kind of low-maintenance plant.  So I was looking for more, and found some at Crocker’s as well as at the Farm.

Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides).  I’ve found this particular fern to be quite versatile in my yard.  I have it in medium-moisture areas, and it takes part sun as well.  I use it to soften edges and to dress up the base of shrubs.  I find it is slow to colonize, so I couldn’t use my own plants.  Found these at Crocker’s too.

Coreopsis. Many of these cultivars are not good for pollinators, but the old standby ‘Zagreb’ is, so I wanted a few for the front of the border and found them also at Crocker’s.  I didn’t buy enough the first time, so when I was at the Farm in Orleans I looked for some more.  This time, I opted for a different cultivar, ‘Jethro Tull’ (at my husband’s suggestion – big fan back in the day).

Culver’s root (Vernonia virginiana).  Right between the white native hydrangea (H. arborescens) and the goldenrod (S. rugosa ‘Fireworks’) in the sunny pollinator garden is an empty space that needs a tall plant.  The Vernonia family fits this description well. I was looking for ironweed (V. noveboracenses) but found culver’s root (V. virginiana), a very similar plant, at Hyannis Country Garden.

Goldenrod (Solidago spp.). I have all the Canada goldenrod I need occurring naturally, but there are other species that are also interesting.  I put in some Licorice goldenrod (S. odora) in the Glory Garden last year, and it did well, blooming earlier than other goldenrods, in July, so I wanted to add more to that bed.  I did not find it locally but decided the S. rugosa cultivar ‘Fireworks’ would do.  It does colonize, but not as aggressively as the straight species.  This perennial came from Hyannis Country Garden.  I’m still thinking of getting the S. odora when I visit Native Plant Trust.

Joe Pye (Eutrochium maculatum).  I just needed one more plant to fill out a grouping in the pollinator garden and found it at Hyannis Country Garden.  The Farm will also be carrying this, but it wasn’t out at the time of my visit.

Lobelia (Lobelia siphitica). To be honest, I was looking for a different plant – downy skullcap (Scutellaria incana) – which wasn’t available.  But I saw this blue lobelia at Hyannis Country Garden, and decided to use it as a substitute. It is blue, flowers late in the season, and like full sun. I’ve grown it in the Glory Garden, but this will go in the newly-sunny space in the woodland garden.

Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium).  There are several mountain mints available, all lovely plants that tend to be rabbit resistant.  The I already have broad-leaf mountain mint (P. muticum) which has colonized enough in 2 years that I need to divide it and establish another patch of it.  Narrow-leaf mountain mint (P. tenuifolium) has also done fine but hasn’t spread as much.  I was looking for more of the narrow-leaf version, but found common mountain mint (P. virginianum) at Hyannis Country Garden, which I decided to try.  All three bloom with white flowers late in the summer.

Sneezeweed (Helenium spp.). These plants are very long-blooming in the late summer, so I keep buying more.  The problem is that they like richer soils than I have, so they only last a year or two, so I treat them like an annual.  They are fairly easy to find, and are available at Crocker’s and the Farm.

Still Searching

These plants are on the Native Plant Trust price list, and I just hope they are in stock when I go next week.

Bluestar (Amsonia hubrictii).  There are several species of amsonia, all with lovely blue flowers in June.  I have grown A. tabernaemontana successfully for a couple of years and love it paired with blue, white, or yellow flowers.  This time, though, I wanted a bluestar with different, more feathery foliage.  I found the A. tabernaemontana at both Crocker’s and Hyannis Country Garden, and the Farm was already sold out.

Long beech fern. (Phegopteris connectilis).  This is definitely a specialty fern, and Native Plant Trust is the only place I have seen it sold.  It is native to this area and is different from other ferns in the very long triangular fronds.  This is definitely an experiment to see if it will grow in my conditions.

Mayapple (Polypodum peltatum).  These plants are so interesting, with one short stem and one giant leaf per plant.  They colonize slowly, and I am impatient, so I want to add some more to my small but successful colony.

Pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea).  I first saw this plant in the new meadow on the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston.  It is about 30’ high and has small white flowers that dry out but hold their shape as the fall lengthens.  The beauty of the plant is that it likes low-fertility, acidic soils, which is exactly what I have.  Another experiment to try.

If You Need Perennials

I would suggest you get out there and get what you need quickly.  Nurseries are busy and inventory is moving fast. I found this to be true of shrubs and trees as well as perennials.  This is a great sign, as the more demand for native plants, the more the nurseries will grow for next year!

Meanwhile, you know where I will be this weekend – in the garden, shovel in hand and hose ready to water in many new perennials.  Happy gardening!

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