Gardening Unplugged - Fall Blooming Natives

Gardening Unplugged - Fall Blooming Natives

with Dr. Patrick McMillan

By Published November 01, 2022

Shop for Fall Flowering Plants at Plant Delights Nursery

In this episode of Gardening Unplugged, Dr. Patrick McMillan discusses the wonderful variety of fall blooming natives available to the home gardener and the philosophy of building a Backyard National Park to preserve not only native plants, but the birds, bees, and even beetles that depend on them.

Fall blooming native plants featured in this video:


Video Transcript

People want to join they can join. So, thank you guys so much for being here to support the garden and enjoy the Garden today. It's all, the weather broke for us, so it actually feels like fall. I was afraid it was going to be 95 degrees when I was talking about you know fall blooming natives. But you know the big, one of the big pushes right now in gardening circles is really looking at providing an ecosystem service with our backyards, right? And certainly, that's something I'm always thinking about, when I design any kind of landscape. It's always, not just for me, it's from it's, well it is just for me, because if I wasn't here, nobody would be here to appreciate the birds, the butterflies, the bees, and the beetles that I'm trying to make. And I've spent most of my career really designing those type of habitat gardens, which I call natural community gardens. Doesn't mean that I'm really just duplicating some natural association, recurring association of plants that occur in nature, but it means I'm designing a garden to function like an ecosystem. So that everything I'm putting into that garden has something to give back. It's attracting native pollinators and feeding them pollen, and nectar. It's attracting caterpillars, so that we're creating more inchworms and caterpillars that so many of our birds, you know, that winter down in South America and Central America, they fly thousands of miles to be here just because of all the inch worms that are produced in in our trees in the springtime, and that feeds them. So anytime I can support those ecological webs, I figure we're doing really good for the environment. And there's actually Doug Tallamy, who I was just spent an afternoon with last weekend, and I talked at the same event, and he's got this big you know project - let's try to build the Backyard National Park. Now we have way more space in backyards in this country than we do in many national parks. And so, if we could get those to be connected to the environment around us, then we're actually going to be making a big impact on preserving the native birds, bees, butterflies, and I always say beetles, because beetles, for them you know, if there was a... if you had to choose a poster animal for planet Earth, or poster organism, it would be beetles, because a third of everything on the world is a beetle, you know? So, it's the most species group of things, at least that's what my friend Bill Reynolds always says.

How To Make a Beuatiful Garden Using Natives

So how do you make a beautiful garden using natives? Because natives obviously are going to do a good job at supporting pollinators. I'm, not like one of these guys that says you have to have native to just your backyard, or you have to have native to North Carolina, or the Southeast, as long as it's native to planet Earth and doing what you want it to do, in terms of attracting pollinators or feeding insects, then I think it's great. We just need to fill our spaces with as much of that as we can. So, we're going to look at all things that are native to, or near native to the Southeast. And some of which are like native on the roadsides right around here and you might never think to plant them in your garden.

So, this is an excellent example as the first native to talk about. This is exactly the kind of form that we would want for horticulture, because it's well behaved, it's got a big dense cluster of yellow inflorescences, not flowers but inflorescences, and this is called Golden Aster. Common golden aster - Chrysopsis mariana. One of the most common roadside plants in the eastern United States. But it never looks like this. It always looks like a single stem, or a couple stems with a few flowers at the top. But when you put it into a garden setting, it can become an incredible horticultural specimen. And one that, you can see, its feeding sweat bees, its got halictids on it, its got a bunch of flies on it, has a few little wasps on it, and some little ground bees, also are currently working on that plant to get pollen. So, it's something you find right on Saul's Road here, but it doesn't look like this until you bring it into the garden. And in the garden, it's a plant that's going to flower for you for like a month, a month-and-a-half, and provide a brilliant splash of color at a very needed time of the year, at this transition from summer to fall, when there's not a tremendous number of things that are blooming. So, I also said that it wasn't a flower. You know, I always used to trick my clients like "Okay, how many flowers do I have in my hand?" the easiest question in the world, right? I have about 70 flowers in my hand, because this is a composite. Most of the plants that we're interested in as native plants, and that bloom in the fall that are native, are going to be things that are in the Aster family, or the composite family. And we call them composites because what looks like a flower are little ray flowers called ligulate flowers. And if you squish it between your fingers like this, you can get all the flowers to come loose, and you can see that each one of these things that looks like a petal, is actually a single petaled flower that has a tubular base attached to a little seed. And each one of these flowers in the center we call disc flowers. And they're actually little, tiny five petaled flowers that have another, like, just like the ray flowers, they have a little aching a little like nutlet we'd call it. Like dry seed, fruit at the base. So, Aster, so now you can tell people you know, she loved me, he loved me not. Okay well, when you do that, you're not picking petals, you're picking entire flowers off the daisy, when you do that. Because daisies are also in that family. Another family that we can find a lot of native, and it's wonderful to have a carpenter bee and bumblebee and a honeybee... which, by the way, everybody's worried about honeybees disappearing. Honeybees are not native, they're from the old world, right? So, they're actually an invasive exotic. So, people who would never have a plant that wasn't from North Carolina in their garden are trying to feed bees oftentimes that are from Europe and Asia, right, or Africa actually is probably where honeybees first originated. But Aster family plants like the Golden Aster, scientific name for that's Chrysopsis mariana, and then there are some things in the mint family, that are really exceptional native plants for the garden. And I love this one. I'll let you guys kind of pass that around, kind of brush the leaves a little bit, and smell.

This is called Georgia Savory, like in other words, savory, like it tastes good. It smells incredibly strong of peppermint, right? And it flowers really late in the year. So, it's a September through October flowering species in our area and there are forms that we grow that have white flowers, pink flowers, and even off to the purplish side of flowers. They're all native: native from central North Carolina, down to Georgia, Florida, and points west. Incredible plant, a bushy... so what we call a sub shrub, but an incredible thing to add to your landscape. And you can see by the amount of pollinator activity that's on it, great thing to include into your landscape.

There's another really awesome plant here and I'm going to get, I need somebody to help me to figure out what family this is in - is this a mint or is this an aster, what do you think? Don't know? You think it's a mint or aster? What do you think? It doesn't look like the aster because it lacks the ray flowers on the outside. Remember a little trick squishing trick I did WOW squish it again and what comes out are all these little five petaled tubular flowers. Do you see that? So, it is an aster! But just a group of asters that doesn't have ray flowers. So, this one is also another plant that you see growing along roadsides in our area. Usually when you see it growing along roadside it looks a little like this and it's called a Blazing Star. And this one is our Grass Leaf Blazing Star, which is probably the most common one right around us here in eastern North Carolina. And see, wonderful, there's a big slender bodied Ichneumonoid type slender bodied wasp on that one. There's a native bumblebee, a common bumblebee for the area on that. So great supporters of pollinators and covered with these wands of purple at this time of year. So, Blazing Stars the whole group, the whole genus Liatris, is just a really wonderful plants to include in the landscape.

Near Natives Can Support Local Pollinators

Some things that are what I call near-natives, a lot of people get confused when I say near-native.... okay and there's see the there's this scoliid wasp feeding on this beautiful little plant here, which is called Thymophylla pentachaeta. I wish I had a better name for it. It's a little golden and what family do you think that's in? Aster! Looks almost like the Golden Aster we had over there, but this is a tiny little thing from Texas. And this one actually started from seed that I collected. It had already finished going to seed, but I saw the old dead stems and I was in a parking lot in Laredo, Texas and I swept up some of the soil from the parking lot knowing there'd be seeds in it, took it back home, threw it on the ground, and Thymophylla pentachaeta came up. It looks like this from May all the way till hard, hard freeze, oftentimes in December. And you know, it's one that we're just releasing, one of our employees Jeremy Schmidt, he's got a beautiful clump of it growing at his house in a in a garden he has. Just needs well-drained soil. But instead of blooming once, some of these near-natives particularly species from Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, they're supporting our native pollinators. A lot of them will support our native as a native food plant for the caterpillars and things that need them, but they also provide us with flowering that can go all year long, instead of just one little slip. Because guess what? If you grow in the desert, when do you bloom? After it does what? Rains! Hey, it doesn't rain once a year here, it rains all year here, right? So, as long as it's warm enough for those things to flower. They'll flower and produce just as crazy a beautiful mats of flowers. So those are plants that I would include in my landscape. They're native to North America, they may not be native to Wake County, or they may not be native to Juniper North Carolina, but they're fabulous worked into a landscape. Let's walk this way just a little bit and I'm going to show you another one, oh somebody's taking a picture of it, but... Hey, how are you?

Coming to catch up with you.

Oh yeah!

Tickseed, the Worst Common Name Ever

So, we tend to think about Tickseeds, and that's a horrible common name, if you're trying to sell something online on a catalog. But we tend to think about Coreopsis, which have a common name Tickseeds, as being things that bloom in April through June. And that's true for most of the ones that are common in Horticulture. So, you know the Lance Leaf Tickseed, the Whorled Tickseed, the Coreopsis verticillata, which I can't remember the common name of, but all of the, all of the really common ones that you see grown all over the country. But in the South, we have a huge number of Tickseeds that'll bloom in the Fall. And one of my favorite is the ones she's taking a picture of here. This is Coreopsis palustris, okay, Swamp Tickseed. It's a native of southeastern North Carolina and northeastern South Carolina and it flowers really, really late in the year. That but the other way that I love, the reason I love this plant is [in] horticulture today, most people want a plant that stays a little tiny ball, and is dwarf, and doesn't... and slowly dies! That seems to be what everybody wants today, something that stays put and slowly dies. I like things that grow! Right? And I like because, I like building natural community gardens, I like things that will spread, and sort of arrange themselves, and mix together to create a beautiful palette on the landscape. And Coreopsis palustris, this was probably three plants that we put in here two years ago and it is spread out to form that, that beautiful dense mat. And it's not growing alone: there's a Lilium with it, there's Ruellia in with it, and in the spring there's Trillium growing out from where that is. So, there's many layers through the season occupying the same space, providing food, doing all the things they do, and the Coreopsis palustris, the Swamp Tickseed, or Swamp Coreopsis, is one of the best ones you can get to do that. Grows fabulous in regular garden soil. It's actually a very, very rare plant. Like, probably should be if, this is rarer than many endangered species, because it's only found in a couple counties in Southeastern North Carolina, Northeastern South Carolina. It's rarer than Venus fly traps. But it's because we've brought it into the trade, while we, being University of North Carolina, actually brought this into trade, Rob Gardner introduced this plant from UNC Chapel Hill and shared it with Tony here. Tony's been growing it for years and we've spread this plant all around. Which is what we do, we share plants, right? All right let's take another look at one over here. I don't want to take us too far, I'd love to take us over to the sun garden, because there's so much to see over there, but I'm time limited and don't want to get everybody wore out from walking. But I want to show you one of our most finest Asters we really have to grow in the garden, it's down at the at the end of this berm here.

Don't Forget the Grass!

Yeah, you may not know, but I'm a grass and sedge taxonomist. That's what my PhD is in, sedge taxonomy. So, I like, I like a lot of things that people don't normally look at, obscure things. So, grasses do flower, those are flowers. Okay. You may think "Oh it's not a wildflower!" It is a wildflower! Check my wildflower book. if you don't bought my wildflower book, go online, buy it - Guide to the Wildflowers of South Carolina. A lot of garden stuff, a lot of, it's a tremendous a lot of amount of information in that book, and it's a really good one. But this is Muhlenbergia emersleyi. It's, it's one of the muhly grasses, and it's one that I collected in, near well, in the lower parts of Madeira Canyon in Arizona, okay. So, Madeira Canyon, Arizona doesn't sound like something that would do well in South Carolina, does it? Like, it's pretty close to where saguaros grow. And its desert down low, but we have found that a lot of the plants that grow at higher elevations in these Sky Island Mountain ranges in Southeastern Arizona, southern New Mexico, West Texas, they do fabulous in North Carolina's climate.

So, this is a great example, it's a very showy grass and there's a number of Muhlenbergia like this that are make excellent, excellent showy additions to your garden, whether you're trying to set off something else or whether you're trying to create a spectacle in itself. So, there's one called Pink Muhly, you guys familiar with this grass? Pink Muhly is a Muhlenbergia, that's what we call Muhly is just how we shorten that to become a common name. Pink Muhly is sold as Muhlenbergia capillaris. It's actually wrong, it should be Muhlenberg sericea, which is also called Sweet Grass down in South Carolina, has the most beautiful cloud of pink, brilliant pink. There's one blooming over in the sun garden if you walk across the road on the left-hand side. Just coming into bloom, but it's covered with this huge cloud of light pink from October, late September-October, all the way till January. And sometimes, I've even had them go till March in South Carolina, still looking beautiful and pink, depending on how rough the winter is. So, Muhlys make excellent grasses. And if you plant Muhlenbergia capillaris it's also the plant that the leaves are very important and utilized by the Gullah culture down in South Carolina and Georgia to weave what's called the sweet grass baskets. They use the ribbings from Palmetto leaves, and they use sweet grass and other things together to make what's called sweet grass basket. So, an incredibly beautiful artisanship and you pay for it too, if you ever want to buy one, they're not cheap. And they're not cheap for a reason, it's a lot of work that goes into producing that. So, Muhly grasses we don't think of them as being Fall wildflowers, but they are. I'm even in the shade over there, that yellow that's blooming is um a Collinsonia and it's a southern one called Collinsonia punctata, Southern Stoneseed. It's in the mint family. Remember we looked at the mint family with the Georgia Savory and the sun? This is one you put in the shade. And look at all, see the bumblebees and stuff that are going to the flowers there? Right. That's our common native bumblebee around here Bombus impatiens, and he's working every one of those weird flowers. And if you look at those flowers up close, they look like a dragon's mouth open. Very cool plant called citronella, for a common name a lot of times.
Image of Helianthus verticillatus
Helianthus verticillatus

All right, I promise you we are headed somewhere.

Sunflowers - Helianthus. What family of flowers do you think they're in? Aster family, right! Aster family. And the and you can always tell a sunflower from a Golden Aster, or anything else, there's literally tens to hundreds of species and varieties of this that you can buy, but they all smell like sunflower seeds. If you if you squish the flowers, they all smell like a sunflower seed, no matter how distantly related they are to the annual sunflower. Sunflower seeds are a native crop. That's a North American species found in the Midwest and Intermountain west of the United States naturally. This one is an endangered one from Georgia called Helianthus verticillatus, but these make great plants for pollinators and for birds, if you don't crop them down after they finish flowering. The birds love these little sunflower seeds that are in here. The thing about virtually all the sunflowers is, if you don't have like a mass of space to plant them, they're not great. Because if you had this much space to plant and you planted one of these, next year you'd have this many, and that, you'd be over. It's an easy way to fill a garden! Q: Does it grow really fast? Hmm really, really fast! So, there's some dwarf varieties and stuff, most of the sunflowers will spread fairly quickly, so you have to have space to spare really to incorporate many.

Q: Do deer eat them?

A: They generally don't eat them. Mostly because if you feel the leaves, the leaves are really harsh, they're like sandpaper. And so, deer tend not to like that texture, they'll eat everything else before they eat that. Here's a North Carolina native, but this is a Texas form of a North Carolina native, and it's one of the coolest around to me. It flowers all Summer and Fall and what family do you think it's in?

Aster family! Right, so smell that for me, see if it still has any odor. Does it? Yes! Smell like a chocolate Tootsie Roll? Yes! Yes! I could not place it, but yes! It's a chocolate Tootsie Roll! Yeah, so this one has the cultivar name of 'Chocoholic' okay. But the plant's name, species name is Berlandiera pumila. And it's naturally found in the Sand Hills, a very droughty region of the Carolinas, all the way over into Texas. And this form originally came from Yucca Do Nursery, which is in East Texas, from a Texas population of Berlandiera pumila, but even the ones in North Carolina [and] South Carolina look exactly the same. And that plant has been blooming since our summer open house, so for now two months solid flowers, and if you cut it back after it stops looking good, it'll re-bloom again all the way till frost. So that's a, what an incredible native plant, the pollinators love, it's drought tolerant, doesn't require a lot of extra moisture. It's called 'Chocoholic' if you just look up 'Chocoholic' Plant Delights.

It's probably what the common name is 'Chocoholic' black no no 'Chocoholic' plant Plant Delights. Put in Plant Delights, okay, and it'll definitely come up because it's one of our best-selling plants like that.

There's another one, this is another species that's been blooming since, this has been blooming since March. Hymenoxys scaposa, um it's all again a species from Texas, needs well-drained soil, but it supports, all the same native pollinators that come to Golden Asters go to Hymenoxys scaposa. Really cool.

But right down here is the plant that came all the way from one mile that direction, okay. And when you see it, you'll be like "What? How could that possibly come from there?" It's only beginning to flower, but this is our... this is from Saul's Road. This is from a very local population. It's one of the best asters, North American Asters, to plant in the landscape for having big, beautiful flowers. This is a Symphyotrichum grandiflorum, which is called Large Flower Aster, okay. Well named. And you can see just starting now, this thing will bloom into December most years. Covered, in about two or three weeks, it's going to be covered with those big blue composite heads of flowers, and very drought tolerant. It grows on clay road banks, and it doesn't, it doesn't get super tall and flop over in a garden. So, it's an incredible plant, we're making these for next year's catalog, so if you're interested in this plant, it will be available for us next year from cuttings from this actual plant. So, you know, you don't have to go far afield, but when you're planting for things, think about what you're planting for. You know the Salvia there's from Mexico but look at the number of carpenter bees and bumblebees that are native that are utilizing it right now, okay. So, it doesn't have to necessarily be a local native, but when you're buying plants like, doing something like this - coming out on a day to see the plants in the garden and then see them in the in the greenhouse where they're for sale, you can get an idea of what that plant's going to do in your landscape. What's it going to support? Because you can see it interacting with butterflies, and wasps, and bees, and beetles, even which are one of our most important pollinators nobody talks about. And you get a good idea of what it'll do at home. It's the most effective way really to get, you need to be intimate with a plant before you take it home, you know. And there's so many good ones to choose from. So anyway, I know I'm way over time, I used up my time, I could talk about this subject for four days and not be done with it. But you guys have any questions for me?

Seriously check out my Guide to the Wildflowers of South Carolina book they have a copy at the welcome tent up there. We don't sell it here and all the proceeds for it go to support the South Carolina botanic garden, where I was director for 10 years in South Carolina and we have a big, what we call, Natural Heritage Garden. It's all a big native natural community garden, largest of its kind in the world. And all the proceeds go to that, so I don't even make any money. Out of Clemson, South Carolina, yeah. Yeah, so I was there for 20 years as a professor.

Q: What brought you to North Carolina?

A: Circuitous event of circumstances. I wanted... I was five things. I did a TV show on PBS: I was the host, producer, editor, writer, for 15 years I did that on PBS. And then I did, I was also director of the South Carolina Botanic Garden, Director of the Clemson Experimental Forest, the Chair of Environmental Sustainability, and a Professor with a full teaching mode. Five job types! And so, after doing that for a long time and I really thought, I need to really do something less, yeah. And I mean, I have a family and I, you know, they never see me. And I really wanted to be a more normal human being. So, I got to, I left Clemson and took over as director in Kingston, Washington at Heronswood Garden which is Dan Hinckley's Garden. If you guys are familiar with the infamous famous Dan Hinckley, one of the greatest gardeners and garden promoters in the world. And that was an amazing job, but my wife's from here, and her parents got very ill, so we decided to come back. And I was just really lucky, that when I was, we had to be in North Carolina I knew that, or close to where our parents were, and I just called Tony, who I've known for 32 years and said, "Hey Tony, any chance you could got a job?" and he was like "Yeah, sure!" So, I came in and I worked as a Horticulture Manager for a couple weeks and then a Director since then. So, it's not really gotten a lot less, you know, of a responsibility, but it is one and what a place to be at! I mean my gosh, we have 30,000 taxa of plants in this garden. So, there's no other garden on this continent that has the outdoor collection that this place does of plants. So, if you just love plants and you love people, it's hardly a better place to be. So yeah, thank you guys so much for listening and enjoy the garden!

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