Louisiana Native Plant Society (LNPS) recently put out a statement on habitat gardening and best practices for ecological resilience. The Native Plant Initiative of GNO is aligned with this statement and supports property owners adherence to best practices of land and water conservation as crucial wildlife habitat. You can read the entire position statement HERE.
LNPS also created a communication toolkit for Louisiana native plant gardeners to explain to their neighbors the benefits of habitat gardening and for finding common ground with neighbors who may not understand why a property owner would choose to garden this way. Click HERE to view the toolkit.
There comes a time about now in New Orleans when Spring feels almost gone and the beautiful displays of the very first native flowers are going to seed. Some of them will continue to bloom for some time, but the first flowers have faded, dried and turned brown….ripe for collecting! On almost every plant out there, it is best to wait until seeds have completely dried on the plant before collecting them (just like nature would do it). It also makes the job much easier. If the seedheads are not completely dry, it might help to lay them out on a sheet pan and store them in paper bags to be sure they won't mold once put away.
Of course, you don't have to collect seeds from your plants. One of the best reasons to grow natives is that the seeds provide valuable nutrition to birds and other animals. You can absolutely leave the seeds on the plant to disburse themselves naturally, especially if you would like some to volunteer in that same spot next year. We like to do a bit of both. With native plants often in short supply, it’s nice to save some seeds to scatter out in another space or plant in containers, or better yet, to share with others. We have heard it said that you should plant seeds when nature would have planted them. That may still mean that they don't sprout until nature would have them sprout, and you still may not have new plants until next Spring. Seed germination varies widely and by circumstance….no better time to start learning!
Just a few native plants that we are collecting dried seed from right now in late May are Winecups, Callirhoe species, Heals All, Prunella vulgaris, Columbine, and Coreopsis lanceolata because it is one of the earliest Coreopsis and therefore almost finished its cycle.
Winecups are one of the showiest natives because of their brilliant pink color. They are also very deep-rooted, long-lived and resilient plants that can tolerate full, blasting roadside-type sun and poor soil. They bloom over an extended period but as new flowers are still blooming, some seeds are already ready to collect.
Prunella, Heals-All or Self-Heal, has a long history and has become one of our favorite low spreading, perennial natives. The flowers are nearly finished now and the flower bracts are drying in place almost ready to harvest for future sowings.
These dried bracts are very tenacious and hang on for a long time, unlike some other plants, so there’s no rush to collect….they will be there in a few weeks just the same and the drier ALL of the seedheads are, the better for collecting and storing.
Columbine is a delightful and showy early Spring native for us. Hinckley’s Columbine has large yellow blooms while Columbine canadensis has red and yellow smaller blooms.
Either species has just about finished and many of their seedheads will be dry and ready to tip over and dump out shiny black seeds.
Lastly, if you were lucky enough to have been to one of our Native Plant Giveaways this Spring, you may have walked away with one of our earliest native Coreopsis species, C. lanceolata.
Lance-leafed Coreopsis has large, toothed, bright yellow flowers and makes a great show. It’s dry seedheads pour out dozens of dark brown seeds when you turn them upside down. This is how they readily re-seed more plants into your garden and they will easily grow wherever you scatter them.
There are so many more blooming plants to come in the next few months and surely many that might be ready now that we did not cover…..what are you collecting seeds from right now in your native garden?
We had out first in person membership meeting since the pandemic! It was held on the shady patio at Rosa Keller Library (site of a current NPI project) on a perfect weather Sunday morning. Board members Ann and Kathy signed in current members and signed up new members. Our president, Tammany, welcomed everyone and caught us up on the goings on of NPI over the past year. Vice president Nell discussed the BTNEP grant awarded to NPI to fund more plant giveaways, the mini prairie planting at Rosa Keller Library, Broadmoor Rain Garden, and other current projects NPI is working on. Author, biologist, artist, and NPI member, Susan Norris-Davis, introduced her new book The Big Easy Native Plant Guide a native plant book written for New Orleans. Board member, Tanya, discussed NPI's involvement in the Gentilly Resiliency District and French Market Association's mural and native plantings. NPI member, Jennifer Prout, explained the design concept of matrix planting and its application in the Big Lake Native Plant Trail at City Park. We closed the meeting with a plant give away and refreshments. Exciting projects are on the horizon!! We hope you will become a member and join NPI's mission to increase the use of native plants in our area by expanding public awareness of their ecological benefits, boosting availability, and by preserving and creating native plant communities.
“How We Turned a Barren Construction Site Into A Gold Level Habitat In Less Than One Year"
Our interest in using native plants in our landscaping began over twenty five years ago as two of our hobbies - gardening and birdwatching - intertwined. For Dave, reading Noah’s Garden by Sara Stein back in 1994 was like what reading Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home or Nature’s Best Hope is for many today. It showed how we could enjoy both hobbies in a way that also supported our more fundamental interests in nature and conservation.
Our first attempt at gardening with native plants was in conjunction with the construction of a new home in a Baton Rouge subdivision in 1995. We outgrew that space within five years and acquired 26 acres in the Tunica Hills north of St. Francisville. We enjoyed almost 20 years of fun in the woods before facing the fact that it was time to downsize. Which brings us to the start of the present-day story….
Initially, the concept of downsizing was depressing as we struggled with the thought of trying to shrink what we had in terms of both home and garden. What to keep? What to get rid of? And how? We needed a vision! We found it at an exhibit at the West Baton Rouge museum on the interior design concepts of Frank Lloyd Wright. Dave and I walked out of the exhibit, looked at each other, and said “That’s it! We keep nothing and go in a completely different direction.”
This meant swapping a 160 year old historic home and most of its contents for a small but intensely functional space based on the principles of Wright’s Usonian designs. But the characteristics of organic architecture - “creating harmony between human habitation and the natural world” - also provided an exciting step forward in our continuing interest in gardening with native plants.
So now we had to find a homesite. We looked for property on the New Orleans north shore in order to be closer to both of our mothers who still live in the area. We chose a 3/4 acre lot in the Money Hill subdivision in Abita Springs. We were attracted to Money Hill because of the conservation ethics expressed by the Goodyear family as well as their association with The Nature Conservancy. We chose our lot based on its gradual elevation change and the fact that it backed up to a small lake and a large common area with lots of space and lovely views. We knew our architect could help us do something really cool with the site.
Design Goals for the Home and Garden
In keeping with the principles of organic architecture, we wanted the construction of the home to be “dirt neutral.” In other words, we wanted as little fill and as little excavation as possible, despite the fact that the lot had a strong declining slope from front to back. The result was a split-level open u-shape home that melded into the existing topography. Pale green brick would further help the house blend in to its surroundings.
The changing elevation across the property created both challenges and opportunities. Managing the drainage in a sensitive way would be a challenge and for this we collaborated with Philip Moser Associates and installed a series of french drains and dry stream beds. A low retaining wall at the rear of the main garden in the front yard was added to retain both soil and soil moisture in this bed. Terraced steps in the rear compliment the geometry of the house, creating garden and lawn spaces that absorb water runoff from the roof. This also allowed us to preserve and protect a large longleaf pine in the backyard by avoiding any significant fill in its root zone.
Different elevations and exposures on the site offered us the opportunity to create three main habitat areas. The higher and sunnier front yard became the upland pine savannah; the lower, wetter northeastern corner became the lowland pine savannah or “flatwoods garden;” and the shadier west side became the woodland garden.
We were required to present a landscape plan to the Money Hill HOA prior to constructing our home. At the time we did this, the committee was primarily concerned with tree preservation and had some detailed requirements regarding the minimum number of trees you were required to have for each zone of your property. This was not a difficult target for us to meet and our initial plan was readily accepted. While the plan included a large planting area in the front yard for the upland pine savannah, there was also a generous amount of turf, which probably helped facilitate the approval. That said, current guidelines call for a minimum of 20% turf area in the front yard, so we have the opportunity to expand this garden as we learn more about what plants are most successful in this area. Thus far, the only “push back” we have received from the HOA was that it took longer than the required three months from move-in to install the garden.
When it came to selecting specific plants for the gardens, we wanted to focus primarily on the use of indigenous native plant material common to the longleaf pine ecosystem that was original to the Money Hill area. Lucky for us, our best friends are Rick and Susan Webb who own the fabulous Louisiana Growers Nursery in nearby Amite. Having held my landscape horticulture license since 2002, we had easy access to some wonderful plant material, including lots of special selections that Rick has made from St. Tammany, Washington, and Tangipahoa parishes.
We also put into practice some of the principles we had recently learned from Claudia West and Piet Oudolf. We sought to use native grasses and perennials in relatively dense masses. Perennials were selected with an eye towards attracting birds, butterflies, and other pollinators. Many of our perennials came from Louisiana Growers, but we also discovered the great selection of perennials available as “landscape plugs” from Northcreek Nursery in Pennsylvania. Again, having my professional license allowed us access to this source of plant material. Using large quantities of smaller plants allowed us to achieve masses of plants quickly and economically.
Specific Plant Materials
While we focused on masses of perennials, we also opted for diversity in terms of both the woody and perennial selections. Having the three different habitats guided our selection process and accentuated this diversity. What follows is a list of some of the plant material in each of the three habitat gardens.
Upland Pine Savannah: This garden is in the front yard, receiving full sun with a southern exposure. The property slopes gently from the street down towards the house.
Woodland: The woodland habitat stretches along the western side of the home, extending into the back yard area. It is bordered by the wooded lot next door which we bought half-way into the construction process in order to preserve the trees.
Other Perennials: There are some non-native perennials that we just can’t live without and find particularly attractive to hummingbirds and butterflies. These have been included in other planters and beds around the home: Cigar Flower (Cuphea ignea), Shrimp Plant (Justicia brandegeeana), Lantana sp. ‘New Gold.’
Lot Next Door: As mentioned earlier, about half-way through construction, we had the opportunity to purchase the lot to the west of ours. We have begun to introduce more native trees, shrubs, and perennials into the understory. The list below includes both pre-existing and recently planted species.
Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia), Green Milkweed (Asclepias viridis)
American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium fistulosum), Yaupon (Ilex vomitoria), Sweetbay Magnolia(M. virginiana var. australis), Southern Wax Myrtle(Myrica cerifera), Black Gum (Nyssa sylvatica var. sylvatica), Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris), Loblolly pinePinus taeda), Black Cherry (Prunus serotina), Common Hoptree (Ptelea trifoliata), Live Oak (Quercus virginiana), Winged Sumac (Rhus copallinum), Giant Coneflower (Rudbeckia maxima), Lyre Leaf Sage (Salvia lyrta), Tree Huckleberry(Vaccinium arboreum).
As of this writing, it has been a little over twelve months since we installed most of the woody plant material. Perennials have just gone through their first winter and, for the most part, appear to have survived the recent cold snap. We are curious to see what Spring will bring. Our biggest challenge has been having to deal with the poor quality garden soil that was brought in to build some of the landscape beds. We’ve had to apply a lot more fertilizer than we’d like in order to lower the soil pH and improve fertility.
Overall though, the first year has been very rewarding. The abundance of milkweed brought lots of monarchs and countless caterpillars and chrysalis. Numerous other swallowtails, skippers, dragonflies, bees, and other pollinators have been spotted as well. Turtles come up from the nearby lake to lay their eggs in the garden which is fine with us. Various species of woodpeckers, flycatchers, warblers, and other songbirds have been spotted. We’ve had at least three different hummingbird species overwinter in the garden too.
The pandemic has prevented us from socializing much, so I can’t report on how the garden has been received beyond our immediate neighbors. Our next-door neighbor is an equally avid gardener with a completely different style, but she loves it and is always curious about what we are doing. Her granddaughter has even brought a chrysalis and a pitcher plant from our garden to show-and-tell! The young family across the street has expressed positive curiosity as well and recently inquired about our Certified Habitat sign.
I have to admit that I laughed when, in the middle of the admittedly drawn out process of initial installation, a member of the HOA committee asked when we would be finished. “Never!” We recognize that our garden will never be finished. It will always be evolving. As we learn from our successes and failures, we will probably reduce the turf and expand the garden in the front yard. We plan to “gently manage” the side lot by continuing to add appropriate trees, shrubs, and perennials to the understory. We look forward to enjoying our garden and its critters for many years to come!
Tracey Banowetz is past president of the Louisiana Native Plant Society and owner of WildWing Gardens, specializing in gardens for birds, butterflies, and wildlife. She lives and gardens with her husband David in Abita Springs, Louisiana.
Preliminary landscape design showing 3 habitat areas
This article by Dan Gill, former LSU AgCenter Horticulturist, explains why to use native plants in our landscapes.
(07/29/16) "Native plants are not used as much as they could be in our landscapes. While natives cannot satisfactorily replace all of the many types of plants we use, incorporating native plants when and where we can is a good thing.
The best reason to use native plants is that they give our landscapes a sense of place. Using plants native to your region links your landscape to natural areas and the plants they contain. It makes the gardens here in the Gulf Coast South look distinctively different than gardens in other parts of the country..."
THE BIG EASY NATIVE PLANT GUIDE written specifically for the greater New Orleans area by our own Susan Norris-Davis is now available after many months of development! It includes 47 species for both sun and shade, vetted for ease of growing, suitable for small city gardens, and available locally at listed sites. It is beautifully illustrated (Amelia Wiygul) and thoroughly researched. Printed locally in the Lower 9 at Paper Machine on 100% post-consumer fiber recycled paper. It will be for sale at the City Park Pelican Greenhouse plant sales on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday mornings 8am - noon. The author will be there this Friday and would be happy to sign a copy.
We enjoy our Spring gardening season so much here in the deep Gulf South, but once we get to July and August and into the real dog days of summer, with near constant tropical deluges and sauna-like heat, our gardens can just look tired and not at their best. Many of the garden plants we use for seasonal color and pizzazz don’t manage our summertime combination of heavy rainfall and oppressive temperatures very well, but as usual - there’s a native plant for that!
Some of the most dramatic and colorful native plants for our area, with flowers sometimes as much as 8-10” across, are our native hibiscus species. These plants, in the Malvaceae family, also answer to common names like Rose Mallow, Swamp Rose Mallow, Crimson-eyed Mallow and yes, Marsh Mallow. The genus Hibiscus includes four species (aculeatus, grandiflorus, lasiocarpos, and mosheutos) that are native to Louisiana plus H. coccineus that is native to the United States but perhaps not Louisiana. Also garden worthy is Kosteletskya virginica, our native Saltmarsh Mallow. Found naturally in moist to wet areas up the eastern seaboard from Louisiana to New Jersey, all of these easy-to-grow plants shine in the summer heat and thrive here in our gardens.
Native mallows are herbaceous, long-lived perennial plants. Flower colors often vary in nature from white to shades of pink and even bright red in the case of Hibiscus coccineus, better known Scarlet Rosemallow or Texas Star Hibiscus. Hibiscus aculeatus, the Pineland Hibiscus or Comfortroot, can be a soft white to butter-yellow, reminiscent of an okra flower. Hibiscus moscheutos and H. lasiocarpus are usually “crimson eyed” having a distinctive red throat on white flowers. Halbeardleaf Hibiscus, H. laevis, is distinguished by its’ leaf-shape and can be found in many color variations. All have an impressive pollen-coated stamen that protrudes from the flower, making them particularly attractive to people and bees alike. Lots of breeding has been done with our native hibiscus species. Hybrids and cultivars abound in the nursery trade, including the LSU Super Plants, the Luna series.
In the wild, mallows occur in ditches, in or near swamps, lakes or rivers showing off their love for moist to wet, rich soil. While they are well suited to wet and moist areas, pond edges, and rain gardens which makes them the perfect stormwater management plant, they are equally as happy in the average sunny garden bed with adequate moisture. This time of year, it is often easy to spot these plants along our roadsides in ditches or in swampy areas. I often see pink mallows on the Lake side of the Bonne Carre’ spillway and have recently been seeing pale yellow Comfortroot on the sides of Highway 25 near Folsom blooming in wet swales.
Native mallows differ from non-native tropical hibiscus in that they go completely dormant in winter, leaving only upright tan-colored, hollow stalks standing. I find these stalks dramatic and interesting in the winter garden and rather than clip them down, I leave them standing. This not only marks where the plant is in the garden, but also provides perfect nesting spaces for native bees that rely on hollow plant stalks for rearing their young. I have also seen birds shred the dried, woody stems to make nesting material.
Most native mallow species can get quite tall, as much as 6-8’ or more, but the plants can be encouraged to branch by pinching the growing tip at an early stage before they set flower buds. As a plant matures, more and more flowering stalks will emerge each year from the crown, making for a bushier, fuller appearance. When flowering is finished, the large dry seed pods are easy to harvest, each containing many seeds to collect and share. They are super easy to grow and sprout quickly in regular potting mix, with no special preparation, under just a bit of soil. For some summer sizzle in your sunny garden, try these excellent, easy natives!
Tammany Baumgarten is a New Orleans Master Gardener and the current President of the Native Plant Initiative of Greater New Orleans. The Native Plant Initiative of Greater New Orleans will be hosting Mallow Madness, a native hibiscus give-away, on August 22nd, 8-10am, at First Grace Methodist Church, 3401 Canal Street in New Orleans. See the website, npi-gno.org for updates and more info.
Caroline Coroneos Dormon (1888-1971) by Amy Graham of Longue Vue Gardens
“I could no more have stopped studying birds, flowers, and trees and drawing them than I could have stopped breathing!”
“Our swamp debutante (the iris) has become a horticultural queen, reigning in gardens around the world”, 1951
Considered Louisiana’s first conservationist and one of the most influential American naturalists of the early 20th century, Caroline Dormon was an accomplished horticulturist, botanist, archeologist, ornithologist, teacher, Louisiana Iris hybridizer and author. As a child in Saline LA, Dormon developed a keen interest in nature and spent most of her life collecting, cataloging and preserving native plants. As the first woman employed by the U.S. Forestry Service in 1921, Caroline worked to establish Kisatchie National Forest by writing an enabling act that would allow the government to purchase old growth forest land.
Affectionately known as “Miss Carrie”, Dormon’s expertise was uncontested which conveyed into years of lecturing and consultation work through the 1940’s. Projects included highway beautification with the Louisiana Department of Transportation, nature-scaping of the Huey P. Long Charity Hospital and the establishment of the Louisiana State Arboretum in 1961. She also developed forestry education materials for schools, promoted forestry conservation support among civic leaders, and advocated for education and support for the Choctaw and Chitimacha tribes of Louisiana.
Dormon’s letters attest to professional correspondence with notable national figures including Lady Bird Johnson, Thomas Edison, garden writer Elizabeth Lawrence, famed botanist Dr. J.K. Small and landscape architect Ellen Biddle Shipman.
Published works include: Wild Flowers of Louisiana (1934), the first published work devoted entirely to describing Louisiana wildflowers, Forest Trees of Louisiana (1941), Flowers Native to the Deep South (1958), Natives Preferred (1965), Southern Indian Boy (1967), and Bird Talk (1969).
Dormon’s lifelong project was her 121-acre home Briarwood. On Dormon’s passing in 1971, her beloved Briarwood was willed to The Foundation for the Preservation of the Caroline Dormon Nature Preserve, Inc, and became the Briarwood Nature Preserve, now designated as a National Historic Place.
The Dormon archives are located at the library of Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, LA.
Awards and appointments:
Member of the DeSoto Commission
Eloise Paine Luquer Medal by the Garden Club of America
Louisiana’s Board of Public Welfare and the State’s Highway Department
Honorary Doctorate of Science from Louisiana State University for Distinguished Scientific Achievement