Garden Q&A: What are some underused native plants?

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Q: What are some underused native plants you like? I worry about us enthusiasts all planting essentially the same thing and then having similar problems to yards using all the same nonnative species.

A: I fret about this a lot myself. We do want to use local natives where we can (at least for the majority of species in our gardens), but equally importantly, we also want those plantings to still be diverse. If we all stick to the same twenty or thirty top-pick choices in native plant lists, that’s certainly better than the alternative but not as ecologically helpful as we could be. Some plant species may carry proportionately more of the burden of supporting a lot of wildlife, but that doesn’t mean we should sideline those that don’t, or those which we don’t yet understand as well in terms of their interspecies relationships.


My favorite native plants comprise a very long list but I do wish certain species were more widely available to gardeners because they seem to fill a great aesthetic or cultivation niche for our plantings, at least based on where I find them growing wild. Your mileage may vary, as they say, but as long as you try to match plants to their preferred site conditions, especially if you notice where they grow well on their own in nature, you’ll have better chances of success with them at home.

Native plants as a group suffer from a scarcity of available seed or transplants, unfortunately, and many go from nursery growers straight to habitat restoration efforts. This may be part of the reason that species I consider treasured rarities remain underused. In one symposium I attended this past winter, the speaker stated that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is the largest seed purchaser in the Western Hemisphere, and when they can’t find enough native seed to fulfill their needs, they are forced to fill-in with non-natives. The nursery industry as a whole needs more suppliers and sustainably-sourced seed or nursery-propagated young plants, so I realize making a wish list is an uphill battle. This also means that sourcing the plants below might be more challenging.

Violet Woodsorrel, a decorative and dainty perennial groundcover for dappled shade.

That said, here are a handful of species beloved by me, if it’s any inspiration:

  • Violet woodsorrel (Oxalis violacea): Well-behaved ground cover for dappled shade and drier areas that often has showy maroon chevrons on the foliage.
  • St. Andrew’s Cross (Hypericum hypericoides): Similar uses to the above, with small foliage, a compact habit, and wonky X-shaped yellow flowers.
  • Flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata): I think of this like nature’s baby’s-breath for floral combinations and a great accent for mingling with bolder colors, and I’ve seen some specimens with great scarlet fall foliage.
  • Azure bluets (Houstonia caerulea): Sure, you can hardly see them when they’re not blooming because the foliage clumps are so tiny, but the blooms are showy considering the size of the plant.
  • Yellow passionflower (Passiflora lutea): Picture a miniaturized version of those exotic-looking tropical passionflowers in a pastel yellow-green, on a vine that doesn’t take over (when it has enough competition) and which can sometimes have silvery leaf markings, and you have a great candidate for a part-shade climber with a smaller stature than most sun-loving vines.
  • Lance-leaved frogfruit (Phyla lanceolata): Great name and subtle aesthetics, but it reminds me of a subdued lantana (they are in the same family) in both its flower structure and changing throat colors in the open blossoms. Small butterflies like the pearl crescent love its nectar.

Q: I recently planted my pepper transplants outside, now that it’s mild enough. Some are already blooming, I suppose because I started them a bit too early inside. Are pollinators out now that can visit them so I can get a jump start on a harvest?

A: They probably are, but we recommend removing these early flowers so that your young, slow-growing pepper plants can devote their energies away from flowering and ripening fruits into getting a good root system established instead. Pinch off any blooms that form for the next three weeks and then let them flower normally. Additionally, remove the flower buds and open flowers from tomato, eggplant, squash, cucumber, and melon transplants just before or right after planting for the same reasons.

University of Maryland Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center offers free gardening and pest information at Click “Ask Extension” to send questions and photos.