DUTCHESS COUNTY, N.Y. -- As you shop for plants this spring make your purchases really count. Consider what a plant does, not just how it looks, before you buy. Most people select plants purely on the basis of aesthetics, without considering a plant’s ecological impact.
Part of the problem can be the uninspired selection of plants at retailers, all of which seem to carry the same overused, underperforming plants. Some tri-state retailers still offer invasive plants like Burning Bush, Japanese Barberry, Privet and Chinese Silver Grass. Speak up when you see these plants for sale.
Make better plant choices this spring - put your money to work with plants that “work” by contributing to environmental health. Here are three overused landscape plants and their ecological native alternatives:
Forsythia vs. Spicebush
Forsythia, native to Asia, seems to have been planted everywhere. Unfortunately, Forsythia flowers hold little attraction for our native bees. After the flower show is over, the plant fades into the background.
Native Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is a compelling alternative to Forsythia. Its yellow flowers emerge in early spring before the leaves appear and are an early nectar and pollen source for small native bees. The leaves then serve to feed the caterpillars of the Spicebush Swallowtail and Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies, as well as the beautiful Promethea Silkmoth.
In the fall, Spicebush produces small red fruits that are nutritious fuel for migrating birds preparing for their long journey South. Spicebush is a dioecious plant - there are both male plants and female plants. You need both sexes to have fruit. One male plant will be sufficient for pollination of four female plants.
Kwanzan Cherry vs. Chokecherry
Kwanzan is a frequently used selection of Japanese flowering cherry. Although showy, its double-flowered petals have no value to pollinators – the extra petals have replaced the forage resources that would have otherwise existed. This tree is sterile and does not produce fruit.
Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) is a small native cherry tree that is an ecological workhorse. Its large clusters of fragrant, white flowers are compelling to a wide array of pollinators - considered to be of special value to native bees. Like most native Prunus species, Chokecherry is a host plant for many butterflies and moths, including the Spring Azure, Striped Hairstreak and Columbia Silkmoth.
In late summer, Chokecherry produces abundant clusters of dark red fruits which are an important food source for many birds and other wildlife.
Boxwood vs. Inkberry
Boxwoods (Buxus species) have long been a staple in Northeastern landscapes. Native to Europe, parts of Africa and Asia, their main appeal is their evergreen foliage.
Why not give native Inkberry a try as a boxwood replacement? A native evergreen holly, Inkberry (Ilex glabra) has compelling flowers for pollinators, followed by dark, inky fruit that is a winter food source for many birds. Like all hollies, Inkberry is dioecious, so make sure to buy both male and female plants to get fruit. As with Spicebush, one male plant for every four female plants will be adequate.
Make better plant choices this spring and ask retailers to stock more native plants that contribute to the environment.
Kim Eierman, a resident of Bronxville, is an environmental horticulturist and Founder of EcoBeneficial . When she is not speaking, writing, or consulting about ecological landscapes, she teaches at the New York Botanical Garden, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, The Native Plant Center and Rutgers Home Gardeners School.