The Violet Fern

A Colorful Tale of a Garden in the Making


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Going Native: Button Bush

Well, it’s been some time since I have posted about a native plant in my garden. I suppose I have been waiting for things to grow up a bit. If you are not a long term reader of my blog, I have purchased most of the native plants in my garden bare root through mail order. My prized Buttonbush, Cephalanthus occidental is no exception. Actually a Buttonbush is one of the first natives I planted in my garden. I fell in love with its ball-sized blooms!

Buttonbush blossoms 2013

Buttonbush blossoms 2013

My garden is now covered in snow and shellacked in ice but this past summer, my Buttonbush bloomed for the first time and boy oh boy, was it worth the wait! Understand how I fell in love?

Buttonbush bloom 2013

Buttonbush bloom 2013

Buttonbush likes a moist soil (in fact I moved mine from its original planting spot – off to a slow start – to a wetter part of the garden which enticed it to bloom for me). It is a good choice native plant to grow in wet, sunny or partly shady spots in your garden. It would be right at home along a pond, lake or stream and can even grow in standing water.

I am growing mine in zone 4 but its range extends South to Florida. It has large, beautiful dark green leaves. And although the leaves themselves are enough to sell me, the flowers will blow any plant lover away! It is no wonder that this plant is considered a honey plant: a plant that furnishes nectar suitable for making honey. So, obviously it attracts and is a great resource for many nectar loving butterflies, bees and insects. I witnessed this attraction! It is also a larval host plant for the Titan Sphinx, Aellopos titan, and Hydrangea Sphinx, Darapsa versicolor moth. In fact I may have sighted a Titan Sphinx (which I generalized as a Hawk or Hummingbird Moth) in my garden last summer? (New Year note: be more observant!)

Its habit is spreading, multi-stemmed with an irregular crown but did I mention the flowers? Its bloom time is tooted to be from June through August. What delighted me was that the spectacular flowers turned into interesting balls of seed in beautiful shades of red and pink come September!

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Leaves in evening light

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Leaves in sunlight

Seedhead close up - wish it had better focus - but you can see the beautiful color!

Seed head close up – wish it had better focus – but you can see the beautiful color!

I noticed Bluestone Perennials is now offering a “nativar” of Buttonbush occidental ‘Sugar Shack’ who’s growth habit is smaller in size, 3-4 ft, vs. the true native species which can reach 8-12 ft (for those of you with space restrictions.)

No pond should be without a Buttonbush! (A moist soil will also suit a Buttonbush.)

Sources: wildflower.org, Prairie Moon Nursery, Bluestone Perennials, butterfliesandmoths.org

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Going Nativar: Gro Low Fragrant Sumac

I just learned of the term nativar, a phrase sometimes used to describe a cultivar selected from a native plant. Rhus aromatica ‘Gro Low’ is just that. It has been specially selected to clone a desired trait – in this case growing “low,” or only upwards to 2 feet, from our true native Fragrant Sumac which typically reaches heights of up to 6-12 feet.

How do you know if a plant is a nativar or cultivar? Scientific botanical names should be written in italics with the genus name capitalized and the species name in lower case. The name of the cultivar should not be italicized but enclosed by single quotes following the species name. i.e Rhus (genus) aromatica (species) ‘Gro Low’ (cultivar). Another example is Betula nigra ‘Heritage,’ a familiar cultivar of the native river birch commonly available in nurseries. I also recently planted this “nativar” in my garden.

I admit, I have been careless in displaying cultivar names in some of my posts but now that I have a clear understanding of this naming system, I will make it a point to correctly display all cultivars and nativars. A good nursery will also make it a point to display plant names properly.

Are nativars the same as planting a native plant? I have heard yes and no. My experience is somewhat limited as my garden is still quite young. Nativars may be developed to produce less berries (less mess) which would defeat the purpose of planting a berry plant for me – the main reason I like to plant native is for wildlife value and berries are valuable! So, in that situation the answer would be no. But I will agree that sometimes a nativar is a better option for those of us with limited space as in the case of the Gro Low Fragrant Sumac. Its size in particular makes it a better choice to grow alongside my “Nice Driveway” as well as its preference for a well drained soil in full sun.

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And as for berries? Gro Low Sumac will produce fuzzy red berries attractive to birds. Interestingly, I’ve read some nativars of Gro Low are monoecious, having both male and female flowers on the same plant while most are more commonly dioecious, requiring a male plant to pollinate a female plant. The male flowers are small catkins and the female flowers appear in clusters which then form berries. All I observe on mine are catkins (male), so I think mine may be an all male plant and I am now on the lookout for a Gro Low plant that displays female flowers.

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Male Catkins
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Male Catkins

In Spring both male and female yellow flowers form a delicate eye-catching haze. Gro Low is also an accepted larval host of the Red-Banded Hairstreak Butterfly. It also makes a great alternative to the invasive Burning Bush – its Fall color is fantastic! You won’t have to prune it into a “cupcake,” either. Mine is still putting on a great show while all the Burning Bushes in the neighborhood are now bare. Consider using this shrub as a ground cover as well. It would be a great choice for an awkward slope. Mine softens the edge of our over-sized driveway nicely.

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Most of the plants selected for my garden have some type of wildlife value. Natives tend to offer the best wildlife value which is why I feature native plants in my “Going Native” posts for other gardeners to consider. Sumacs are highly valuable to wildlife but can be large or suckering so if you have a small garden, a nativar such as Gro Low Sumac offers a happy medium. I have another bird-planted (?) Sumac variety growing in my garden that I believe is truly native. It may not be the best choice for the space but hey, if it fell free from the sky, why not try. Once I’m confident that I’ve identified it correctly, I’ll share it with you.


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Going Native: Flowering Raspberry

I planted Flowering Raspberry, Rubus odoratus in my Woodland Edge border last Spring. It grew well. The rabbits dined upon it all Winter. This year it grew well again in spite of the nibbling. Actually it grew in even better and is exactly as I pictured – yes, just as I imagined. It is filling in the space as I drew it in my little sketch/plan of the Woodland Edge. Yes, I’m amazed by that. Plants do not usually grow according to plan. Perhaps this one will continue to fill in, and fill in, and fill in … then it will have grown outside the plan. But I want to add more of it to the other side of my garden because I am just that happy with it. I don’t foresee my love for this plant fading.

It propagates by runners and seeds although I think the seeds will be devoured before I have a chance to save them. Dining rabbits, enticing blooms that resemble those of a wild rose and disappearing berries and seeds are all clear indications that this plant is not only loved by me, but by the wildlife in my garden, too. Many types of bees are attracted to the Flowering Raspberry. Robins and other fruit loving birds eat the berries. Small mammals will eat the seeds.

Not only does it flower (long lasting!) and produce berries, but Flowering Raspberry has beautiful large Maple-like leaves that I find myself admiring every time I walk by. They form intricate layers and shades of green and will turn a nice yellow color come Fall.

These shrubs grow to approximately 6 ft and are hardy to zone 3. Mine grow in a pretty good amount of sun but I’ve heard they will grow well in shade, too. I purchased my shrubs from Amanda’s Garden Native Perennial Nursery, but you may be lucky enough to gather some seeds in the wild. If you’re patient, I may be giving away some of these plants in a few years!