Plants like aster, wild indigo, and butterfly milkweed foster a sense of rootedness
Every March, folks across the Upstate dive into their gardens, prepping the soil, praying for sun. As they select flora for beds, boxes, and yards, a unique trend has emerged in recent springs: the popularity of indigenous plants. “We’re seeing a big turn toward native plants, especially with newcomers to the area and new home buyers,” shares Madison Spencer with Lichtenfelt Nurseries. “The younger generation is starting to recognize the need for it and natives are meant to grow here.”
The South Carolina Native Plant Society has been promoting that message since 1996. The Upstate Chapter is one of six, spanning mountains to the Midlands and the coast. Locally, the group numbers more than 400, from Baby Boomers to Gen. Z. Cathy McCurdy manages the Upstate chapter’s nursery. “We know the desire’s out there,” she reveals. “People want that in their landscape now. So many people come to our annual sale that almost everything goes. Our shrubs are bestsellers; our azaleas are popular. We have more than 200 species of plants.”
Choosing native instead of plants introduced to the region saves on labor and resources while supporting nature. In short, native plants cut back on the need for fertilizer and water while feeding pollinators and birds. They have centuries of survivability in their roots. “If we have a cold freeze, or hard, drought summer, the natives are going to stand up to it nine out of ten times,” explains Madison. “They’re naturally inclined to do so. An ornamental plant just isn’t.”
Supporting wildlife is a key component. In 2019, scientists reported that almost 30% of birds in North America have vanished, due to development and clearing of food and shelter sources. The Lichtenfelt assistant manager says, “Planting native plants is the only way to rebuild what we’ve lost, and take care of the species that are beneficial to our farm crops and gardens.” Bringing in birds and insects also reduces the need for pesticides, as they eat the bad bugs gardeners don’t want.
What more and more South Carolinians do want is to protect their heritage, rooted in the land. As the Native Plant Society promotes, native plants define us as a state and a people, giving us a sense of belonging and a sense of place. Cathy agrees. “Almost no place in the United States has as much biodiversity as South Carolina. It’s amazing and something to be celebrated. We have to make sure we preserve our natives.”
Serviceberry: Understory tree that tops out at 15 feet. Beautiful orange-to-red color in fall and fruits berries that feed native birds in winter.
Dogwood: Several native varieties with pink and white blooms. Early spring showcase, when everything is waking up.
Witch hazel: Pop of color with bright, fringe flowers in winter when nothing else is blooming. Perfect for smaller gardens, as most varieties max out at 6-12 feet.
Inkberry holly: Fantastic evergreen alternative to a boxwood. Neat and tidy growth habit for border planting that can tolerate sun or shade as well as soggy soil. Very versatile.
American beautyberry: Several varieties that fan out and cascade over the body of the bush. Summer’s end brings vibrant purple berries that hang on long after leaves have fallen.
Florida anise: Don’t let the name fool you. This native plant produces pretty chartreuse-to-yellow leaves, with star-shaped flowers that range from white to red, depending on the variety. Leaves produce a fun, licorice aroma.
Oakleaf hydrangea: Different from non-native hydrangeas, as it leafs out in spring and blooms through the summer, with leaves hanging through fall into winter. Burgundy-to-red colored blooms. Nice accent for a shade garden.
Joe-pye weed: Four-foot-tall plant that anchors the back of the garden. (Baby Joe is shorter.) Hybrid plant that is good for small spaces, with its tall stalk, broad leaves and showy, pink clusters of blooms on top. Heat resistant and drought tolerant.
Beebalm: Three-foot-tall stalks with pink, magenta and red fringe flowers. Tubular petals make this a winner with hummingbirds and butterflies. 3×3 when it matures.
Coreopsis: Mounding perennial with long, green leaves. Petite stalks emerge from the mound with yellow-serrated edged, bright-gold flowers. Blooms prolifically through the summer. Great pollinator attractor and can adapt to smaller spaces.
Purple coneflower: Tried and true “bulletproof” plant that does well in the Upstate. One of the most drought resistant. Magenta-purple petals on a really big cone that pops up and blooms all summer.
This year’s Spring Sale is April 15 at Conestee State Park. For more information, visit SCNPS.org.