Since 1994, with the publication of her landmark book, Gardening with Native Plants of the Southeast, Sally Wasowski plant profiles and planting combinations have influenced gardens across the region. Recently the book was released in paperback by Taylor Trade Books and it’s given Sally and her fans a chance to reflect on the impact she has had. Native plants are not just the latest garden fad. Their appreciation and use reflects a growing awareness of their fine qualities: Natives are better adapted to our soils. Mississippi’s predominantly acidic mineral soils make it difficult for many imported ornamental plants (called exotics) to perform well.
- Natives are easy to grow, require minimal amounts of fertilizer and seldom need pesticide sprays since they are acclimated to the same environment that sustains common insects and diseases
- Natives contribute mightily to the design virtue called ‘sense of place’ in which locally sourced and naturally beautiful materials are used to evoke distinctive visual and emotional reactions. The best example of this connotation is perhaps the Magnolia, our state tree. It matters little where you see this tree and its flowers – they scream ‘South’ no matter where they are grown.
- Natives fit Mississippi’s climate. Our local flora is better suited to the average temperature and rainfall amounts in the state. Strongly influenced from weather patterns arising from the Gulf of Mexico, many natives have proven able to withstand the occasional droughts, freezes, heat waves, and strong winds. Exotics from temperate climes often cannot take these extremes as well as native plants have evolved to do.
- Natives are critical for wildlife habitat. Many species of butterflies, birds, and animals need specific plants for food, shelter, and nesting space. By using native plants and local favorites in home and public landscapes, we welcome native fauna to the environment.
- Well-behaved natives are not bullies and do not displace native plant species in the way that rampant exotics do. The exception to this rule occurs when plants native to the equivalent of hot, dry roadside conditions are introduced to richly organic garden beds. Like teenagers with a credit card, they may run wild.
Garden centers always included some native species in their inventories, such as cypress and oak trees, and they have more to offer than ever. A decade ago, finding native hydrangea and hypericum (St. John’s wort) involved word-of-mouth and luck, but now they are featured at mainstream nurseries and adorn catalog covers. Landscape architects have added native viburnum, azalea and holly, even when it has meant growing their own stock. Standout natives that deserve a place in more landscapes include black gum and tulip poplar trees, shrubs strawberry, beautyberry and clethra, and perennial gayfeather and native cactus.
Special interest groups such as Native Plant Societies conduct field trips and programs to raise awareness of the plants and their habitats. Crosby Arboretum in Picayune, Magnolia Botanic Gardens in Verona and Clinton Community Nature Center are among several facilities in our state that demonstrate daily how these overlooked plants can grow in our gardens, neighborhoods and wild areas. These public collections contain hundreds of species, including selections and cultivars of natives and a few unusual but well-behaved exotics. For more information or to visit these public gardens:
- Crosby Arboretum 370 Ridge Rd., Picayune MS 39466 (601-799-2311). www.crosbyarboretum.msstate.edu.
- Magnolia Botanic Gardens MSU 5421 Hwy 145 S, Verona MS 38879 (601-566-2201)
- Clinton Community Nature Center 617 Dunton Rd., Clinton MS 39056 (601-926-1104). www.clintonnaturecenter.org.
Laura Weeks of Lorelei Books in Vicksburg has the Wasowski’s book in stock and reports strong reader interest, which does seem to be the trend. “The book is selling well,” says Andy Wasowski, Sally’s husband and co-author, “which tells us that people are continuing to be interested in native plants. We like that!”