Diggin' In: A champion of native plants
NEWPORT NEWS — Helen Hamilton championed native plants long before the average homeowner even knew they existed.
As past president of the John Clayton Chapter, Virginia Native Plant Society, Helen helped spread the word about native species in southeastern Virginia — evergreen shrubs like wax myrtle (sometimes called bayberry) and flowering perennials like Joepye weed — to anyone who would listen and learn.
All that hard work is now paying off because native plants are finally getting their due respect.
“Gardeners are beginning to realize that native plants require less care,” says Helen, 80, who lives in Williamsburg.
“There may also be more awareness, thanks to Dr. Tallamy, of the connection between native plants as food and habitat for insects and birds.”
Tallamy, chairman of the department of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware in Newark, Del., is author of “Bringing Nature Home,” which spotlights the many ways insects interact with plants, especially native species, and how these interactions benefit our environment. His website, www.PlantANative.com, explains how home gardeners can sustain wildlife with native plants.
To further the knowledge and use of native plants in home gardens, Helen has written a new book, “Wildflower and Grasses of Virginia’s Coastal Plain.” The book’s 288 pages profile wildflowers and grasses that can be commonly seen along roadsides, in meadows, gardens and yards. The plants are arranged in the book by flower color, and include descriptions that outline habitat, range and growing conditions, as well as interesting facts about uses in folk medicine. Many are also native to other U.S. states.
“The book is a great ‘menu’ for gardening for wildlife,” says Kathi Mestayer, a habitat gardener in Williamsburg.
Much of the book’s content comes from articles Helen wrote over the past seven
years for newspapers; Dr. Gustavus Hall, professor emeritus at the College of William and Mary, edited and rewrote parts of the text for botanical accuracy. The book, $25, can be purchased at wildflowersofvirginia.com or at www.amazon.com.
“Native plants are beautiful and can fill a garden,” says Helen, 80, a lifelong casual gardener.
“Birds require the protein from insects that feed on native plants.
Native s hr ubs a nd o r namental grasses are really underutilized, so hopefully the public will learn to use them more.”
Retired, Helen worked as a high school teacher 1966-1997, teaching earth science, biology and chemistry. For the next three years, she volunteered as a plant technician with the National Park Service.
Her favorite resources for learning about native plants include the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service at www.plants.usda.gov.
Native purple muhly is among her favorites. The or namental g rass is cold hardy in zones 6-11, and is commonly sold as a summer annual in other growing zones.
“I love the way the stems bend, indicating a flower is emerging,” she says.
“My f avorite plant g roup is the grasses because they are solely windpollinated and their flowers are very basic — only stamens and pistils — no pretty petals with fragrances and colors.”
Helen’s attention to detail and little-known attributes is why her book works so well for the novice gardener as well as the master green thumb. For instance, she explains how the pollen from common sneezeweed is distributed by insects, not the wind, and how seashore mallow attracts butterflies and hummingbirds.
“Helen’s book an easy book for beginners to navigate and since it has many of the most common plants, identifying plants out in the wild should be fairly simple,” says Phillip Meritt, president of the John Clayton chapter — www.claytonvnps.org.
“There are also lots of interesting facts about the various uses for the plants as well as occasional informa- tion on where the plant names originated. Even if you never take it outside, it makes for interesting reading.” Wonderful Wintergreen Here’s a winter- i nt e re s t nat ive plant Helen suggests for your coldweather garden. Wintergreen is also grown and sold by Monrovia, www. monrovia.com, a brand available at garden centers nationwide; the plant is cold hardy in zones 3-8.
The leaves of Wintergreen, or Gaultheria procumbens, have been the source of wintergreen flavoring for chewing gum, teas, candies and medicines. The low, evergreen shrub features underground stems that creep, forming colonies, and produce short erect branches 4-16 inches tall. Glossy, thick and shiny, the 1-2-inch leaves are slightly toothed and frag rant, according to Helen. In spring, tiny bell-shaped white flowers dangle from the leaf axils, followed by bright red fruits with a spicy taste.
Wintergreen grows in oak woods, under pines, in clearings, in light to moderate shade. Soil should be acid, and rich in organic material. Scattered across Virginia, the plant’s range is from Newfoundland to Manitoba, south to Virginia, Kentucky, northern Indiana, and Minnesota and in the mountains to Georgia and Alabama. It blooms June-August, and fruits September-December.
A common related species, Spotted Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) has leaves conspicuously striped with white, she notes.
Methyl salicylate produces the wintergreen flavor. While this plant was once a commercial source for wintergreen flavoring, methyl salicylate is now p ro d uced s y nt het i c a l ly. The chemical has anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties. Leaf tea was used in the past to treat many ailments such as headaches and fevers, and as a wash for sore muscles and rheumatism, she says.
The fruit has been used in salads and pies. Many birds and mammals feed on the fruits and deer browse both the leaves and fruits, says Helen.
• Kathy Van Mullekom is garden/ home columnist for the Daily Press in Ne wp o r t Ne ws . C o n t a c t h e r v i a Fa c eb o o k @ K a t h y H o g a n Va n Mullekom, Twit[email protected]gindirt and P i n t e re s t @ d i g g i n i n ; h e r bl o g, Dig[email protected]; or by email kvan[email protected]
Purple muhly, Muhlenbergia capillaris, produces clouds of purple wisps that catch the autumn sun.