Return of the Native
Aralia Nudicaulis among the lily of the valley 
Photo by Dee Salomon

Return of the Native

I have been writing The Ungardener column for a little over a year. If you are a reader then you are likely aware that these articles exist to cajole, inform or otherwise persuade you to get rid of the invasive plants on your property and to cultivate the growth of native plants. There are many ways to write about the topic and, with a few exceptions, I have stuck to the most positive ones as they are nicest to both write and, I hope, to read. Also, my sense is that the topic of invasives so easily leads to negativity, guilt and fear — clearly not the best motivators to action.

Similarly, when I visit people’s property, as I have with each of the 16 participants in my Woodland Workshop, I am always looking for the nicest elements of each property. This might be a beautiful tree, a small patch of trout lily or an area of native strawberry and partridge berry groundcover. It is easier to begin a difficult and potentially long endeavor bolstered by the notion that you are saving something beautiful from disappearance. It gives a sense of what can be — the potential that is waiting to be unleashed. I also am confident that once people get on with the work, their senses become heightened in a way that is tremendously fulfilling and reinforcing. These successes give us confidence and inspiration to address, in our own way, what would otherwise be a scary reality.

Today’s reality is scary. The trick is to open our eyes to it and not let it paralyze us. With that in mind, Doug Tallamy, the esteemed ecologist and entomologist, has a new presentation called “What’s The Rush” that will open your eyes and deserves 30 minutes of your time. You can find it on HomegrownNationalPark.org, the Sharon-based national organization founded by Tallamy and Michelle Alfandari.

Tallamy makes a case for ridding invasive plants and planting natives with a premise that is entirely different from anything I have written about. Doug has spoken in the area before and some of you are already familiar with his assertion: that birds (and other animals) cannot survive without an abundant supply of caterpillars to eat and caterpillars rely on very specific native plants to eat and reproduce. Take away these plants and you starve these animals, breaking an important link in the food chain. Nursery grown and sold non-native plants do little or nothing to assist here and it is clear that the prevailing aesthetic of lawn-maximized yard needs to make way for a connected pathway of native pollinator-friendly plants in all of our yards, plant beds, containers and woods. Please watch it, act upon it and share it.

Aralia. What a seductive word. For me it has been a rather seductive plant. I first discovered Aralia racemosa at Kent Greenhouse and Gardens where I purchased three plants had been looked over at the end-of-season sale. This was before my native plant obsession and surely helped to fuel it. They now number eight, are five feet tall and almost the same size wide; amazing when you think that the entire plant, thick stem and all, dies back at the end of its season. They are happier in the dappled light of the woods than in a garden bed but I could see them thriving under a tree enjoying the shade. Pollinators love their frothy flowers and birds love their tiny berries, which taste a little like root beer.

I have written about its spikey Spikenard cousin, Aralia spinoza, in a previous column when I transplanted a few from the woods to a partially shaded area by the river. It is too early to tell if they will enjoy it there; the ones in the woods have already grown branches along their spikey trunks.

But recently, as I was weeding in the woods behind the house, I scored an Aralia hat trick. A patch of Aralia nudicaulis, Wild Sarsaparilla, that I had never seen before. The photos I have seen of this plant enthrall me: a 12-18 inch delicate stem with three perpendicular branches hovers over a separate stem that holds three globes of delicate flowers that look too big for its stem.

I saw them in real life for the first time in early May at a visit to the Dan Pearson-designed property Robin Hill in Norfolk. They had only just emerged from the ground but even at six inches tall they charmed me. Wow — I wanted that! No nurseries around here had them. Then, serendipitously, crowded by invasive lily of the valley and young burning bush, 15 Aralia nudicaulis appear. This is the kind of magic I encounter in the woods; amazing, no?

Finding, planting, tending and multiplying native Aralia and other native plants is a perfect example of how the woodland contributes to Doug and Michelle’s Homegrown National Park.

What plant treasure have you found in your woods? Let me know at dee@theungardener.com

 

Dee Salomon “ungardens” in Litchfield County.

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