Native Plants: Are they ornamental enough??

There are lots of reasons to grow native plants among ornamental and edible plants in your garden. Natives are:

  • the best food and habitat for native insects that support native birds and other wildlife
  • important food and nectar sources for charismatic insects like butterflies and their larvae (a little chewing can indicate that you are feeding the butterflies).
  • less demanding of fertilizers, water, and pesticides.
  • attractive choices for their color, fruit, flowers or shape.

Some of us collect plants and enjoy the unusual or rare kinds. But do you have reservations about the “look” of natives? Is it like eating health food that is good for you but isn’t quite as fun?

I propose that natives can be striking ornamental additions to the landscape, if we understand from the get-go that native plants in an ornamental landscape need to be treated as ornamentals.

What does that mean? Well, if you want to have plants that fit in with the rest of your landscape, and that landscape is groomed to some extent, then the plants need to all be wearing the same clothes, so to speak. If you prune your hedges, your shrubs, tidy up the perennials, or shape your fruit trees, you need to lavish the same care on your native plants.

If they are in the ornamental landscape, native plants will be more attractive and fit in with their non-native cohorts if you treat them as you do your ornamentals – regular pruning for shape and health, planting them in a spot they can fill without being too large or small, pairing them with other plants for contrast and interest. If you have a wild garden, then less fussing, but still adhere to proper siting for mature size, sun/shade and moisture.

Here are examples of the use of native plants in the landscape, illustrating different approaches to grooming.

A snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) in Nora’s Woods

The snowberry in the first photo is beautifully vase-shaped. It’s in Nora’s Woods – a Seattle park and native plant garden where a neighborhood resident does almost all the horticultural maintenance. The garden is a fantastic example of not only good pruning but pruning native plants to show off their best horticultural qualities. Each plant has its own space and is shaped to show off foliage and fruit.

The first time I saw these snowberries I was surprised they could be so beautiful. Although they are rather nice and modest in nature, when they’re planted in landscapes, they often turn into mounds or thickets of undifferentiated leaves and stems in a few years, obscuring their attractiveness and betraying the designers’ faith in their horticultural value (not the plants’ fault of course).

Example #2:

This is a planted thicket. Or a planting that turned into a thicket. There are snowberries there, under the red twig dogwood. While this is more of a wall than anything, and while it does not duplicate what real nature might have come up with, it does serve a purpose and it is green, if not terribly artsy.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. It serves admirably as a buffer along a lake that can protect wildlife from disturbance and shelter the shoreline from erosion and marauding foot traffic, thusly:

You can avoid having the mass-o-vegetation effect in your landscape by using actual natural vegetated scenes as a reference. Next time you take a hike – take a photo of the native plants in the woods or prairies and see if you can replicate it at home on whatever scale is appropriate, from mossy woodland rocks to large sweeping vistas, depending on the size of your garden.

So to answer my own question, yes! Native plants CAN be ornamental, but you need to work at it, at least as much as you do with your exotic plants. Horticultural skill and knowledge is required to make any plant work in a managed landscape. We have the skill, call us up for a consult or installation!

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