Native plants

Darrel Morrison's Article for the Ecological Landscape Alliance Newsletter: Musings on Ecology, Art and Music in the Landscape

The Ecological Landscape Alliance has the following Mission Statement:

"Advocating for responsible stewardship of land and natural resources in landscaping and horticultural practices."

From the Feb 15, 2018 ELA Newsletter: Darrel Morrison starts his article by saying:

"Increasingly, I am intrigued by the value of linking ecology and ecological processes with art and music in the design of landscapes that might be considered "ecological art."  The products of ecological art have the potential to be, simultaneously:

Ecologically sound 

Experientially rich 

"Of the Place," reflecting a sense of place 

Dynamic, i.e., changing over time"

Similar thoughts have been voiced by a number of other "ecological" landscape designers recently in books and interviews that I've read and in lectures at NYBG, including Claudia West, Thomas Rainer, Roy Diblik, Cassian Schmidt and Patrick Cullina.

This is the challenge we face as garden makers in 2018 - to capture all of these qualities in our plantings and to do it "well".  Everyone agrees that part of "doing it well" means having a real understanding of the plants you're using - to quote/paraphrase Roy Diblik from his lecture at NYBG earlier this winter, you have to use "plant-driven thought"- understand what a plant wants to do and where it wants to be so it can thrive and how fast it grows and how it spreads and so forth.  I feel its important to keep your plant palette broad - not that you have to jam tons of different plants into every design, but that you have to understand a reasonably broad range of plants so that each garden is fresh and each new idea is fresh, even though the general "ecological approach" is the same.  

Of course, no garden ever stays the same.  The key to having a "design without an expiration date"- again paraphrasing Roy Diblik - is to keep "gardening" - keep constantly enhancing and fine-tuning.  You may have to switch out some plant choices here and there, do some dividing, plant bulb layers - but in the end of the day if you've done the job well, you have a sustainable plant community.  (Until a tree falls, or there's a flood, or a new disease comes along or there's an early frost, or no frost ….Then you have to rebalance it)

So that's where we get back to Darrel Morrison's article:

He writes:

Darrel Morrison's Old Stone Mill plant community

Darrel Morrison's Old Stone Mill plant community

Part of Darrel Morrison's Gardens at the BBG - North Entrance "Pine Barrens"

Part of Darrel Morrison's Gardens at the BBG - North Entrance "Pine Barrens"

  • Ecological Soundness grows out of the selection of appropriate plant species and placing them in the micro-environment where they will thrive without the importation of resources such as irrigation water and chemical fertilizers. …They in turn serve a variety of functions, ranging from controlling erosion to providing habitat for birds, butterflies, bumblebees and other pollinators …"

  • Experiential Richness emerges from the presence of a diversity of plant species and associated fauna, in compositions that are rich in color, texture and movement. "

He goes on to say later in the essay:

  • Two other characteristics of the environment that provide a dynamic quality are LIGHT and MOVEMENT. The color of natural light changes as a day progresses, and the physical movement of the plants (and the fauna that are attracted to them bring life to them.) I never tire of seeing the wave-like motion of tall grasses in the landscape, or of seeing (and sometimes hearing) birds, butterflies, and bumblebees moving through a landscape. The direction of light changes throughout a day and a year as well. We can place plants in a designed landscape where they will, during some part of the day, be backlit, literally making them "glow," or as landscape architect A. E. Bye expressed it in a 1967 essay in Landscape Architecture Magazine, they exhibit "luminosity.""

A Darrel Morrison "created" landscape in Wisconsin

A Darrel Morrison "created" landscape in Wisconsin

He alludes to the four "characteristics of landscapes that people find engaging and attractive. These are (1) mystery, (2) complexity, (3) coherence, and (4) legibility." 

Mystery is derived from spatial form which unfolds sequentially as one moves through the landscape, revealing landscape spaces. Mystery implies that part of the scene is hidden, thus motivating people to want to see what is "around the bend."

Complexity relates to the biotic diversity in a landscape and the aesthetic characteristics which come with this diversity - e.g., colors, textures, and movement.

Coherence results from the fact that the distribution of species exhibits perceptible pattern. The tendency of many species being aggregated to a degree, leads to the occurrence of directional "drifts" of color and texture.

Legibility … relates to people's ability to "read" how they will move through the landscape, not feeling claustrophobic or disoriented. 

A Jens Jensen-inspired "signature" for Darrel Morrison is the Council Ring

A Jens Jensen-inspired "signature" for Darrel Morrison is the Council Ring

  • For "sense of place": "We are increasingly surrounded by generic landscapes, whether it is the sprawling big box stores repeated over and over in suburban environments, or landscapes that are increasingly alike, with the same, limited number of species replacing the natural diversity that may have once occurred there. … We can reverse the trend toward "placelessness" by incorporating an array of locally native species which provide cues and clues as to where we are."

  • Dynamic - the created landscape changes over time: "…Landscapes have the potential to be four-dimensional art, with time being the fourth dimension. This is because ecology-based designs are not frozen in time, but are always are evolving, with seasonal changes, growth of individual plants, and in some cases migration of species within the composition. The landscape we see in May is different from the one we see in July, or October, or December. And the landscape we see in 2018 is not the landscape we will see in 2028 or 2048. Hence, there is always something new to discover."

Words to live by - "there is always something new to discover"

Don't Plant these in 2016!

Of the 2814 species of plants growing wild in Massachusetts, fully 45% (1276 species) have been introduced (either on purpose or by accident) from other parts of the globe.  Many of these are agricultural weeds that began arriving in grain or ship’s ballast soon after European colonists came here in the early 1600’s. Others were introduced by horticulturists or the federal government for use in gardens or soil stabilization, reforestation, and the like. It is impossible to know what effect this monumental immigration has had on native plants and animals. Certainly, of the thousands and thousands of plants introduced in the US and Canada from abroad, only a small number (estimates range from 3-7%) are thought to pose a serious threat to native ecosystems. These problem few are quite a problem, however. These invasive exotics have few if any natural predators to keep them in check, instead running rampant and displacing entire communities of native plants as well as the insects, fungi, birds, mammals, reptiles, bacteria, etc that have come to depend on them…. Invasive species have the potential to completely alter habitats, disrupt natural cycles of disturbance and succession, and most importantly, greatly decrease overall biodiversity, pushing rare species to the brink of extinction. Many ecologists now feel that invasive species represent the greatest current and future threat to native plant and animal species worldwide – greater even than human population growth, land development, and pollution.


It is high time that we horticulturists recognize our responsibility to both cease the importation and introduction of new and potentially invasive exotic plants and to stop growing and planting known or suspected invasives regardless of their ornamentality or consumer demand. I believe that we need to adopt the precautionary principle as far as plant introductions are concerned, and assume a species (including all of its cultivars) is invasive until proven otherwise (rather than the current approach of “innocent until proven guilty”). At least let’s not make this situation any worse.

Native plants for challenging situations - 4 I love

Inspired by plant lists and lectures by William Cullina, Head of the Coastal Main Botanical Gardens - check out his website:

Sassafras  (Sassafras albidum) can rival even sugar maples in the beauty of its fall display.  In the shade, the foliage becomes an intense golden yellow.  When the tree is in more sun, leaves become scarlet, orange, and maroon. Sassafras is an opportunistic tree found commonly along unmanaged fence lines and power line right of ways where it can compete with larger trees.  It sprouts readily from stumps and the sprouts grow rapidly, adding up to 3-4 feet in height each year for the first ten years.  You may have never even seen sassafras flowers in early spring – but they’re a good nectar source for early pollinating insects.  

Sassafras flowers in early spring

Sassafras fall color


There are two types of sumac that are nice additions to the landscape if you have good sun.  One is ‘Gro-Low’ fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica).  ‘Gro-Low’ is a vigorous spreading groundcover (up to 2 ft tall with a spread of up to 8 ft), making it an excellent choice for stablizing a bank or smothering weeds.  It has interesting fruits and a gorgeous orange-red fall color, and is deer resistant.  

Rhus aromatica 'Gro-Low'

Rhus aromatica fruit

The other is ‘Tiger Eyes’ staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina ‘Tiger Eyes’ or ‘Bailtiger'), a dwarf, golden-leaved cultivar that typically matures to only 6’ tall and wide. It was discovered in a cultivated nursery setting as a whole plant mutation of R. typhina ‘Laciniata’ and is considered to be superior to both  ‘Laciniata’ and the species because of its dwarf size, quality yellow foliage and minimal suckering.  Deeply dissected compound leaves emerge chartreuse in spring, but quickly mature to bright yellow.  Fall foliage is a striking mixture of orange and scarlet.  It performs best in good sun.  Since it can tend to become a bit leggy and spreads via suckers, its a good candidate for the back of the border, a naturalized stream bank or the wild garden (but not so much as a specimen).

Rhus typhina 'Tiger Eyes'

Rhus typhina fall color

Wavy Hair-grass  (Deschampsia flexuosa) is a clump-forming cool-season native grass that is not too large, takes some shade and has relatively showy flowers - it can fit into a mixed border quite well without overwhelming it.  Like most ornamental grasses, it prefers well-drained soils.  Its foliage is semi-evergreen in a mild winter.  It's native to dry open woods, slopes, fields, grasslands and open areas, forming a low, dense tussock of very thin, arching green grass blades up to 2’ long.  Flower stems rise in summer above the foliage mound bearing wide, airy panicles of tiny, purple to bronze flowers which form a cloud over the foliage that is attractive when backlit.  Flower panicles turn gold after bloom as the seed ripens.

Smooth Witherod  (Viburnum nudum) is native to low woods, swamps and bogs in the east and southeast, from Connecticut south to Florida and Louisiana.  It can tolerate a wide variety of light conditions, from full sun to part shade and can also tolerate boggy conditions – a good candidate for a wettish area in the landscape.  It has showy white flowers in spring – they don’t smell very good though!  (For my nose, its definitely one of the “stinky” viburnums, but others don’t perceive it as smelling particularly bad).  Flowers are followed by clusters of berries in late summer that change color as they ripen from light pink to dark pink to blue to purply-black.  For best cross-pollination and subsequent fruit display, plant shrubs in groups rather than as single specimens.  The best cultivar is ‘Winterthur’ – now fairly commonly available in the Nursery trade - a compact version, growing to about 6’ X 6’, with a reliably beautiful fall foliage color – maroon, dark red, purple.   ‘Winterthur’, an introduction of Winterthur Gardens in Delaware, was a winner of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society Gold Medal Award in 1991 – I guess that qualifies it as “tried and true” at this point!

'Winterthur' berries ripening

'Winterthur' ripe berries look beautiful with the fall foliage color