More communities and homeowners are beginning to think beyond mere prettiness when they choose plants for their gardens as the awareness of the importance of native plants grows.
Native plants have evolved in this climate, with the birds and insects of this ecosystem, and therefore are capable of thriving in the hot, humid coastal South while standing up to being munched on by insects, said Jennifer Tyrrell, the bird-friendly coordinator at Audubon South Carolina.
She said the group is using two main ideas when promoting native plants: that they’re low-maintenance and climate resilient.
Municipalities in the area are using native plants themselves.
Tyrrell said Summerville has been recognized as a “bird-friendly/climate-resilient” community. It’s one of five such communities recognized within the state.
Planning Director Jessi Shuler said the Commercial Design Review Board has tried to encourage the use of native and naturalized plants in landscaping, promoting the plants as good for wildlife and requiring less maintenance.
That encouragement will be somewhat more formal when the town’s Unified Development Ordinance is adopted. The ordinance will refer to a recommended plant list that will include diverse native plants as well as lists of recommendations for trees that do well in parking lots, trees that perform well as buffers and trees that are best for wildlife, she said. The recommendations could also include non-natives that work well in small planting areas.
Shuler said the new ordinance will also make it easier for people to remove invasive tree species from their property.
The town itself also tries to use native species, as well as using natural mulch and pine straw in landscaping. Thinking about green infrastructure seems to be more common in municipalities, Shuler said.
Charleston and Mt. Pleasant have used native plants in landscaping along Lockwood Boulevard and U.S. 17, Tyrrell said, using beneficial plants in a very visible way.
And that landscaping does get noticed. Ashley Collins at Flowertown Garden Center said that when the sweetgrass blooms soft and fluffy pink in the fall they get people coming in to the nursery asking “What is that?” and saying they have to have it.
Choosing plants, Collins said, is about finding the right plant for the right spot. People often come in with a problem – in this area that problem is often a wet area in the yard – and the nursery tries to direct them to good options. Often that option could be a native plant that’s perfectly suited for that “problem” spot.
Collins said native plants provide food and habitat for wildlife and grow easily.
But sometimes native plants can grow too easily: magnolia grandiflora, the beloved Southern magnolia, can grow to 50 or 60 feet, which might be a bit much for a homeowner with a relatively small lot. Magnolia grandiflora “Little Gem,” however, is a cultivar that’s been bred to grow slowly and to only about 20 feet or so — much more reasonable for the average homeowner.
This year the nursery is selling a cultivar of Virginia creeper, a native with lovely fall color and berries for birds but one that can quickly grow out of control, overtaking fences and buildings. The cultivar is “less rampant.”
The use of cultivars of native plants – lately dubbed “nativars” – is up for debate, with some native plant proponents concerned that the nativars don’t offer the same ecological benefit as natives.
Researchers are working to determine whether nativars are just as beneficial to birds and insects. According to the Habitat Network, a citizen science project at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the answer so far is “it depends.”
In a February 2018 blog post, the network reviews the latest research which seems to show the potential benefits must be evaluated on a plant-by-plant basis, rather than an overarching “yes” or “no” to all nativars.
And, odd as it might sound, it can be difficult to find native plants. Collins said plants like passionflower and other natives fly out the door as soon as they arrive.