our desert island plants: native spring woodland perennials, with ken druse

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FACING A FORECAST of heaps of snow the other day, Ken Druse and I got to dreaming on the phone together of more colorful times ahead—of the emergence, not so very long in the future, of spring’s first woodland perennials, natives that do their thing early beneath trees and shrubs.

“Hey, let’s make it another edition of our Desert Island Plants series on the radio show and podcast,” we decided. And so favorite natives of spring are the topic this week.

Talking about our most-loved spring native woodland perennials—from blue cohosh (just emerging one April, above) and merrybells, to various trilliums and Virginia bluebells and more—is a perfect fit for Ken Druse. His books “The Natural Shade Garden” in 1992 and “The New Shade Garden” (affiliate link), published in 2015, each covered a choice selection of such plants. He joined me on Skype recently from his own snowbank, a few hours’ drive away from mine, to think spring and its fantastic native perennials.

Plus: We’ll have a book giveaway of “The New Shade Garden;” enter to win in the comments box at the very bottom of the page.

Read along as you listen to the February 8, 2021 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

native spring perennials, with ken druse

Margaret: Hi, Ken. How’s the snowbank? [Laughter.]

Ken: Oh my gosh.

Margaret: I know.

Ken: I don’t know.

Margaret: I know.

Ken: There was a white hippopotamus in the driveway, and it turned out to be my car.

Margaret: Yeah, that’ll happen. That’ll happen. In our previous Desert Island Plants editions, last couple months, we’ve done trees and shrubs and we just, I guess, because we were so desperate, as I said, sort of winter-desperate, starved for color, we got to talking about this the other day. And I realized when I sort of started making my list in preparation, these are some of the plants that I’ve had here the longest. Do you know what I mean? The native perennials, they were some of the first things I either bought or that I found when I got here.

Ken: I call these plants woodlanders, because the ones that I think about most are the plants of the woodland and the early spring plants. And some of them, we call ephemerals because they bloom and they either fade away or just bloom and set seed, sometimes even before the leaves on the trees come out.

But when we started talking about this, we were going to do our favorite shade plants. Then we were going to do our favorite woodland plants. And then we thought, well, early woodland plants. And then we thought native woodland plants. And then I looked up my county’s native woodland plants, because you know how we start with 2,000 plants, and have to get it down to maybe 20.

Margaret: Slice and dice. [Laughter.] Yeah, slice and dice. Yeah. But sort of the early spring natives, as you point out, they’re sort of the opportunists that take advantage of the light that’s coming through the canopy of the shrubs or trees in nature before leaves get on the trees above. And they do their thing: They photosynthesize, they jump up, they photosynthesize, they flower, they set seed. They try to do it early, because otherwise there’s not enough light resources often.

Ken: Well, some of these plants that are my favorites have not been in my garden the longest because they don’t like sandy soil, that’s one thing. They don’t like alkaline soil, my soil’s kind of neutral. They want that slightly acidic to acidic, most of them, and they’re flood-intolerant.

Margaret: Oh, all the things that you’re not.

Ken: Right.

Margaret: Right. You have floods [laughter].

Ken: Under water. One year when we had Hurricane Irene, I have a lot of Trillium grandiflorum, and the next year none. And I thought it was heartbreaking. But then the year after, they came up; they just took a year off.

Margaret: Oh. Let’s start there because Trillium is of course, one of the things we think of when we think of what jumps up early and does its thing and is spectacular native little woodlanders. Grandiflorum, I thought—and we’re both in the Northeast, we should say to those who haven’t listened before—I always thought that must be native here too and it’s not. And where I am, which is up the Hudson Valley a bit adjacent to the Berkshires of Massachusetts, it’s not. Trillium erectum [above] is, and I think something else, but not grandiflorum, which is elsewhere in the Northeast, but not right here.

Ken: Massachusetts, yes.

Margaret: And you kind of alluded to this before, you said about “native to your county” and whatever. And we should confess that we’re both sort of, we’ve become insane range-map geeks, really finding out, not just is it native to the U.S., but is it native to right here? We’ve both become kind of crazy about that, and not to say that our whole gardens are dictated by that, but it’s a fascination that we have.

Ken: And it’s… I call it local. Because there’s native, there’s indigenous—indigenous to North America—native to North America and then local to me. Some people say local is a 50-mile radius, but that’s too general. For me, I often think of 10-mile radius, and now there’s so many things online where you can put in your county and “native plants” and usually there’s lists.

Margaret: Right. “The flora of” such and such. For me, it’s “the flora of Columbia County, New York.” And we’ve talked about that before. Trilliums, so I found three clumps of Trillium erectum, the reddish-colored wakerobin.

Ken: Nodding trillium.

Margaret: Yeah. Under my porch, the edge of my porch. When I first moved here, I found them, I dug them up and I moved them into a better place. And I have lots now. What trilliums are you growing?

Ken: Well, I have, as you know, many trillium, and of course I grow grandiflorum as I said [above, a double-flowered grandiflorum at Ken’s]. I love Trillium luteum because it’s a little bit later and it blooms for such a long time. I have cuneatum, sessile. Well, a lot, but erectum oddly enough, even though I’m well over 100 miles from you, is also native to my county.

Margaret: Right. And that was the kind of fun thing, looking up, it’s maybe the Eastern third of the country it’s native in. Again, people who aren’t listening in New Jersey or New York State where we are, it’s much more widely…. About the Eastern third of the country, as I said, much more widely native than just where we’re talking about. Yeah.

Ken: I know we’ve talked about trillium a lot in the past, but we should maybe describe that it has three leaves and three petals—they’re bracts on the flowers—and our Trillium erectum is kind of almost dried-blood red and the flowers hang down a little bit, which is why it’s nodding.

Margaret: And we’ve talked about before and I’ll give a link to all the details on this, but if you want to multiply it, it’ll start to self-sow once established in your garden, as long as you don’t put too much mulch on or clean up too strongly around the clumps. But also, you and I both have for many years moved them and divided the sort of knobby little rhizomes beneath the ground. We dig them up when they’re in flower, and we move them around and make new clusters and so forth. [Illustration of how-to, below; more on propagating spring wildflowers in this older interview with expert Carol Gracie.]

how to divide trillium

Ken: And people don’t believe us. [Laughter.]

Margaret: Right. But it’s true. And we’ll show the details. What’s the next one you want to shout out among native woodlanders?

Ken: Well, I mentioned ephemerals, and I like some of those because when something blooms really early and then disappears, it makes room for something else. I have a lot of Mertensia virginica, Virginia bluebells [below], and they bloom in lots of places and also self-sow. Not horribly, but gently.

I also have some white ones that appeared that are just incredibly beautiful. But the blue ones bloom, and then they disappear. And for me, the hostas come up, and the Virginia bluebells are completely gone. They melt. You don’t see foliage, nothing.

Margaret: But they’ll come back next year, of course. And speaking of things that self-sow, they will self-sow around, I think. They do in my garden anyway. One really kooky—a speaking of range map, things about that, the Eastern bluebells are native to the Eastern half of North America, except New England.

Ken: Except me.

Margaret: Right. But they’re not in New England technically. And they’ve been moved into New England, but they’re not native. And the woodland phlox, Phlox divaricata, that also is Eastern, [laughter] but not in New England except where it’s been moved into New England. When you look at the range maps, that’s what’s kind of fun is to imagine the histories of these plants over the millennia, and where they’ve been in and so forth. And when we say “native to,” again, it doesn’t mean it’s widespread in any of those areas. It just means it’s been noted as present in a particular state or county or whatever.

Ken: And we’re not saying you can’t grow native plants-

Margaret: Correct.

Ken: …if you want to.

Margaret: Correct. Correct.

Ken: It’s cool to do this. When I started my woodland garden, I had two beds. One was plants that were local to a 10-mile radius, and the other bed was analogous species from around the world. But then I got sloppy, but that was the idea when I started.

Margaret: Right. Another ephemeral you want to shout out quickly?

Ken: Oh, you’re putting me on the spot.

Margaret: Or not, maybe not. Maybe not another ephemeral. That’s totally up to you.

Ken: No, I was thinking what melts away. Well, O.K. Bloodroot, except the leaves sort of stick around. Mayapple disappears after it blooms and has fruit. I love bloodroot, which is Sanguinaria, but when it blooms—and it tends to bloom for about an hour and a half on a Tuesday in May.

Margaret: If it’s not windy or raining. [Laughter.] It shatters the flowers.

Ken: But they’re beautiful white flowers.

Margaret: Oh, I know.

Ken: But if we accept versions or cultivated varieties of some of these native and local plants, the double bloodroot, it hangs around. If it’s cool, it’ll hang around for two weeks. And it’s one of the most beautiful plants in my entire garden. I was going to say Sanguinaria canadensis ‘Multiplex.’

Margaret: The double is ‘Multiplex.’ Yeah. And so that one, again, eastern half of the United States and that one goes farther south than some of our other Eastern natives that maybe don’t make it all the way down into say Texas or the deeper South. That one has a, a range, a native range even into the warm states in the South of the eastern half or so of the country.

Ken: Is that local for you?

Margaret: I don’t really know. I don’t think I looked it up.

Ken: It’s local for me.

blue cohosh, Caulophyllum thalictroides [photo, top of page]. And that might be one of my favorite plants of all time. And yet I never see it anywhere. It’s native to the eastern half or so of the country, not super-hot, like Florida or Texas, but all the way out to the Dakotas practically, but not in the super-hot spots. And it just comes up out of the ground in this ungodly color of blue, of purply kind of foliage.

Ken: Almost black.

Margaret: Yeah, and just is so lovely and unusual. You’re getting beauty and color long before anything… It has little yellowish flowers and so forth, but long before anything. And it’s just a really aristocratic plant, I think, for a little woodlander. Highly, highly recommend people take a look at it. We’ll put pictures with the transcript. By the way, we’ll give away a copy of your “The New Shade Garden” book with the transcript.

Ken: Oh great.

Margaret: But it’s so different. And that is that pigment thing, the anthocyanins that we associate with as opposed to chlorophyll that’s green.

Ken: Antifreeze.

Margaret: Yeah. We think of it as the fall pigments, but in the spring and nobody really knows the whole story, the scientists have a lot of conjecture and experiments around it. Do the anthocyanin pigments, those sort of bluish or red and purple pigments, do they make it taste bad so herbivorous insects and animals don’t eat it? Yes, probably. Do they provide attractiveness so that something that’s going to flower super-early, even when it’s just in foliage, looks more like a flower and gets interest from potential pollinators? Yes. But nobody knows exactly, there’s a lot of different reasons that plants have these colors, but I love Caulophyllum thalictroides.

Ken: The foliage reminds me of what we used to call Cimicifuga, and now we call Actaea. And I think all these plants are poisonous, actually. [Laughter.]

Margaret: Yeah, yeah, whatever.

Ken: Whatever. I know you have a favorite Actaea.

Margaret: I love the actaeas, the baneberries, the doll’s eyes; the cimicifugas are later for me, so I wasn’t including them in my spring list. But the littler ones, the baneberries, the white- and the red-fruited ones. Actaea pachypoda is the white baneberry, or doll’s eyes. And Actaea rubra is the red baneberry, more common. Yeah, and I love them both.

And they were here when I got here, they were at the woodland fringe, a plant here and there. And I became interested in them and bought more. And as I’m doing my groundcover removal projects that we’ve talked about on recent episodes—when the snow melts [laughter]—that’s one of the plants that I found myself ordering lots of little babies of to have more of. Yeah. Speaking of poisonous. Yeah.

Ken: Well just don’t eat the berries, but they’re called doll’s eyes. Wait till you see the picture. You’re going to post that, I’m sure.

Margaret: Absolutely. Yeah. That’s a good one.

Ken: You must have at least slightly acidic soil, because that is a plant that I think wants acid.

Margaret: Yeah, I think so. And I was interested again—range map geek—to look and find out that the red one is very, very widespread and it’s what’s even called circumboreal. It is native in what is the largest floristic region of the world, in terms of square miles or whatever—most of Canada, Alaska, Europe, the Caucases, Russia. It’s this really widespread plant. Whereas the white one is just the eastern half of the U.S. or a little bit more. First cousins, different ranges by far. Yeah. [Above, red baneberry’s range map from Kew Science Plants of the World Online.]

Ken: Except for the berries, the plants look the same.

Margaret: That’s what I thought. I was like, what? [Laughter.] Anyway. Kind of cool. Yeah.

Ken: Well, I love a plant that I think you’ve had trouble with [laughter].

Margaret: Oh dear.

Ken: And grows in my not so acidic soil. And it’s sandy Asarum canadense, the wild ginger, deciduous wild ginger.

Margaret: Oh, it does well here. Yeah.

Ken: I thought it did too well for you.

Margaret: Well it does. I have to be careful what I use it for. It’s great as a groundcover for me,  under a bunch of shrubs or whatever, it’ll make a great spreading groundcover. It will not stay in a clump, in a tidy clump by any means.

Ken: Oh no, it’s a groundcover definitely.

Margaret: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Great plant and kooky little flowers if you crawl around on the ground and sort of brownish things.

Ken: You have to crawl on the ground.

Margaret: Yeah. What about… Have you grown Jeffersonia, Jeffersonia diphylla, the twinleaf [above]?

Ken: Well, that’s funny because in the analogous species department, there’s an Asian twinleaf, which is very beautiful, and there’s a North American twinleaf. And Jeffersonia—who’s that named for? I think we can guess. I don’t always think it’s so showy.

Margaret: Oh no, but it’s just something.

Ken: Because it’s so delicate?

Margaret: Twinleaf. Yeah. The delicateness of it. It’s another one that comes out of the ground like…

Ken: Caulophyllum.

Margaret: …like the blue cohosh, Caulophyllum thalictroides; it comes out of the ground in a strange purplish color, full of anthocyanin pigments. And it’s also, it’s related—like you mentioned the Podophyllum. Did you mention Podophyllum? Or no?

Ken: I said mayapple in passing, but we can talk about those, too.

Margaret: But so it’s related, it’s in the barberry family and that Western United States native, Vancouveria, that’s in that and our non-native but popular epimediums are in that family. I’m always fascinated how many things are in the barberry family that we like as garden perennials. Anyway, so who’s next?

Ken: Well, we mentioned mayapple, and I have lots of mayapple growing in clumps, big clumps naturally. And the Asian, even Himalayan versions of mayapple, the foliage is spectacular, and some of them have pink flowers, but our native mayapple has white flowers followed by quote unquote edible fruits. They say edible, but they don’t say good. I’ve tasted it. I guess it won’t hurt you. It’s not that interesting.

But mayapple has a palmate leaf about as big as a big hand, and it grows in kind of a clump that’s almost like a little pool, and all the leaves are the same height. And if there’s a breeze, they’ll all move together. It’s a really nice plant. I have heard that you shouldn’t grow our local one with the Asian ones because they can transmit something so just keep them apart.

Uvularia grandiflora

Margaret: Huh. Interesting. A different-looking completely plant from that is what I call merrybells, Uvularia grandiflora [above]—yellow flowers that kind of dangle down, merrybells, hence the common name. And just kind of, I don’t know, the foliage is twisted.

Ken: You have hit one of my favorite plants.

Margaret: Yeah, and I just love this plant. This is one that I haven’t ever had it sow around. The clump just stays a big thing.

Ken: Oh mine sows.

Margaret: Oh, see I’ve never had it sow. I’ve had to dig and take off a chunk and move it around.

Ken: Which is easy.

Margaret: Yeah. But Uvularia grandiflora, I think is underutilized. There isn’t a year in the probably 25-plus years—I’ve probably had it even longer than that—that I’ve seen it, watched it come up and emerge and get ready to flower, that I haven’t been delighted by every moment of its show. That’s a winner, I think, in the woodland.

Ken: And there’s a native plant that I can’t believe that it’s a different species, but it’s Uvularia perfoliata, that is local to me. And it looks exactly the same. Really, except the flowers are cream-colored. And it’s not anywhere near as happy. I have to baby it a little bit.

But you know when it says perfoliate or perfoliata, it tells you something about how… You said every moment of this plant after it blooms, usually we don’t care, but this plant, it looks like the leaves are sewn with zigzag thread, the stems pierce the leaves and then go at an angle, pierce another one, go at another angle. It’s one of my absolute favorite plants. The grandiflora is native, but not local to me. Isn’t that weird? And perfoliata is local to me, which is called bellwort, too, or perfoliate bellwort [photo below by Ken].

Margaret: In the last couple, two, three minutes or something-

Ken: Two, three minutes? How’d that happen?

Margaret: Shhh, be quiet. Oh, whatever. Maianthemum. When I first got here up at the top of the hill, by the edge of the woods, there’s a giant sweep of this groundcover that has these tiny little flowers, white flowers, in the spring, Maianthemum canadense. I’ve never cultivated it; I’ve never put it in a garden bed, but it’s just this wonderful sort of native groundcover thing. But I think you have some taller Maianthemum, do you?

Ken: Oh, I do. But the one you’re talking about, which is sometimes called false lily of the valley, but better known as mayflower. And I’ve seen in Massachusetts people mow it in their lawn. I don’t mow it. [Laughter.] I have some. It’s precious. But I don’t mow mine. But some of the maianthemums used to be known as polygonatums, but they weren’t. There’s Maianthemum racemosum, that’s false Solomon seal. And it has lovely leaves. The foliage is beautiful, and then it has starry white flowers and then it has really cool berries that change colors, from green to sort of, I don’t know, they look like wood color, like oak, cut oak, and then they turn red and it will come up from seed, but certainly not aggressively enough if you ask me.

And then there’s starflower, which is also sometimes called starbead because after it flowers, it’s a similar-looking plant, the berries look as if they have a black star on a green berry.

Margaret: Oh, right. I’ve seen a picture of it. Huh. Yeah. O.K. Last minute, a shoutout: native geranium, Geranium maculatum, was here when I got here also. And I’m glad for that. [Above, G. maculatum with Trillium erectum; photo by Ken.]

Ken: A very underused plant.

Margaret: Very underused. If you need something in shady areas that gives you a little bit of color, I think pinkish flowers in the spring, but lovely foliage, geranium-ish foliage. Couldn’t be easier. Loves the shade. Will knit well with other things. Is never thuggish. That’s a great one, I think.

Ken: It might be our only native geranium. I’m not sure about that.

Margaret: Well we have robertianum.

Ken: I don’t think that’s native.

Margaret: And they don’t know if that’s native or not.

Ken: No, I don’t think so.

Margaret: They think maybe it’s not, but it’s so widespread. It’s been here for a zillion years and blah, blah, blah.

Ken: It’s a weed. [Laughter.]

Margaret: Yeah. Yeah. I know. I know. I know. I know. Yeah. Lots and lots and lots. We didn’t even mention jack-in-the-pulpit [above, Arisaema triphyllum at Ken’s].

Ken: We have talked about that a lot, though.

Margaret: There were some here when I got here. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And were there some at your place when you got there?

Ken: Yes.

Margaret: Yeah. Here too. Here too. Here too. And we didn’t talk about the Cypripedium, I don’t think, did we?

Ken: No.

Margaret: Your orchid.

Ken: We don’t have any time. Do we?

Margaret: No. 20 seconds, tell me.

Ken: I can’t grow them because some of them want acid, but a friend of mine who has an acid situation has a clump that I wouldn’t believe, of the yellow one. And I don’t know if I can grow that. Cypripedium reginae, the showy lady slipper orchid, which I’ve seen in Minnesota. It likes alkaline, so I might try that if I’ve got $ 50 to spend on an orchid. [Photo above by Ken Druse.]

Margaret: Yes, I have never grown any, but they are native here as well.

Ken: Spectacularly beautiful. That’s really breathtaking.

Margaret: All right. Well, when it starts to snow again, I’ll call you, O.K.? And we can figure out what else we want to talk about.

Ken: Any time.

Margaret: And dream of spring together. And we’ll have a book giveaway, as I said, with “The New Shade Garden.” Thank you, Ken.

enter to win ‘the new shade garden’

cover New Shade copy 3

I’LL BUY an extra copy of Ken Druse’s “The New Shade Garden” (affiliate link) to share with one lucky reader. All you have to do is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page:

What native spring perennial do you grow (or crave)? Do tell.

No answer, or feeling shy? Simply say something like “count me in,” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, February 16, 2021. Good luck to all.

(Disclosure: Purchases from Amazon links may yield a small commission.)

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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the February 8, 2021 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify
or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

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