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The Dirt: Got natives? A local guide makes it easy

Whoever planted two Norway maples in front of my house a few decades ago was clearly unaware of the problems that invasive plants like these can cause in the North American landscape and environment. While it’s true that these trees provide deep shade fast—which is why they were often used to replace trees lost to Dutch Elm disease—they also drop seedlings all summer long. These seedlings are often the only plants that can survive in the root-ridden, shaded environment that results, and have quickly invaded the forests of the Northeast, displacing native trees, shrubs, and smaller understory plants. Environmentalists condemn Norway maples for their threat to biodiversity, but gardeners have plenty of practical reasons to dislike them. Their leaves are the last to fall in November, it’s nearly impossible to grow anything else in their shade, and the copious seedpods are a gutter-cleaning nightmare.


There are plenty of great alternatives to Norway maples and many other invasive plants, as clearly and intelligently detailed in a new local publication, Western New York Guide to Native Plants for Your Garden. The booklet is produced by Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, and was written under the guidance of local experts like Sally Cunningham and Lynn Chimera; author and professor Donald Leopold, and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, which keeps a reliable and frequently updated database of native plants. As we’ve discussed here many times, native plants are important because they require less water, need minimal maintenance of any kind, and support local wildlife, including songbirds and butterflies.


I particularly like the book’s targeting of Euonymus alatus (commonly known as burning bush), which is overused to the point of nausea throughout this area. Instead of this plant (which is interesting for about a week and a half every fall), try Aronia Melancarpa (black chokeberry) or Viburnum trilobum (American cranberry).


Both the Norway maple and burning bush examples were found on a final page of common invasives and their native alternatives, but the book contains five sections of plant listings, divided into groundcovers, perennials, shrubs, trees, grasses/ferns, and vines. All the descriptions are accompanied by good color photographs, so gardeners will have no problems finding these plants in nurseries and catalogs.


Consultant Sally Cunningham has already written about many of the plants in this book in the past, but here are some of my favorites.


Anemone canadensis (Canadian anemone): This is a delightful early summer plant for shaded positions. It’s worth tracking down for its deeply cut foliage and pure white flowers, which shine out brightly in deep shade.


Podophyllum peltatum (Mayapple): These classic Western New York natives can be seen throughout most of the local preserves throughout spring—it’s time to create your own carpet of them.


Eutrochium maculatum (spotted Joe Pye weed, formerly called eupatorium maculatum):  This is tall and showy with wide, flat flower heads; it’s a great substitute for the overused "Autumn Joy" sedum, which is not a native.


Cornus sericea (Redosier dogwood): For those who want some true four-season interest instead of the brief color given by such plants as burning bush, Redosier dogwood has flowers, berries, and, throughout winter, beautiful red twigs. It’s a hard-working shrub and a great native choice.


Lindera benzoin (spicebush): This is one of the few shrubs that will thrive in damp shade, and, like many other native alternatives, it has three seasons of interest, with yellow flowers in spring and yellow foliage in fall.


Betula nigra (river birch): This unique multistem tree has beautiful peeling bark and is recommended for rain gardens.


There are many, many other great examples throughout this little book. Most are so beautiful and interesting that they’d be tempting to any gardener, regardless of their helpfulness to biodiversity.


As for Norway maples, there are plenty of excellent alternatives, but my favorites are Liriodendron tulipfera (tulip tree) and Fagus grandifolia (American beech).




Elizabeth Licata has several beds planted with eupatorium, colonsonia, and aruncus, as well as other natives.

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