Dig­gin' In: A cham­pion of na­tive plants

The Progress-Index - At Home - - FRONT PAGE - BY KATHY VAN MULLEKOM

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]

COUR­TESY HE­LEN HAMIL­TON/MCT

Pur­ple muhly, Muh­len­ber­gia cap­il­laris, pro­duces clouds of pur­ple wisps that catch the au­tumn sun.

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