Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A nativist’s dilemma

As a gardener who advocates the use of plants native to the United States, I find myself at a crossroads as I ponder several shrubs that I cannot help but admire, even if they are non-native (and, in some books, listed as invasive), particularly if they attract wildlife just as native plants do. The two plants that come to mind are Vitex (aka Chaste Tree) and Nandina domestica.

Vitex is a large shrub or small tree (depending on how you want to prune it) with very palmate, cut leaves that resemble that of a Japanese maple. It has a broadly rounded, airy, delicate habit and looks quite sculptural when limbed up into a small tree rather than a shrub. The flowers of Vitex are purple spikes similar to that of salvia and Russian Sage. Vitex prefers moist, well drained soil but is very tolerant of dry, chalky soils as well. Cold hardy to zone 6. In northern areas, treat as a herbaceous perennial, like butterfly bush.

Nandina domestica is a medium to large evergreen shrub that makes an excellent hedge or privacy screen, as well as an accent plant. Nandina is best down for its colorful foliage and clusters of red berries that persist all year long. Nandina grows from woody canes that spread underground to form colonies by rhizomes. There are a plethora of cultivars and varieties in different shapes and sizes, many of them dwarf or compact in size, or developed for brighter fall color. In spring, Nandina sends up delicate clusters of small white flowers that become red berries in the fall. Birds don’t’ care much for the berries, so they remain on the plant year round. Nandina is a very easy care plant, tolerating moist and dry soils including drought, and is cold hardy to zone 6. To develop a fuller plant, stagger the heights of the canes when pruning.

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