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Landscape Now: Using Rhode Island Native Plants In Your Yard

Saturday, February 16, 2013


The Cardinal flower is one of the most beautiful midsummer blooming perennials, and a native plant to Rhode Island.

The use of native plants in your gardens, as foundation plantings and for privacy screening needs will benefit your landscape in many ways. Native plants (grown in the New England region) are well adapted to the local soils, thrive in our climate zone and have the best chance of surviving the unpredictable nature of our southern New England weather events. Being able to grow in our native soil, predominately a sandy/loam mix, will afford the new plantings a great start as they spread their roots and adjust to your particular site conditions.

Make sure plants you choose are hardy for our southern New England region. The USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) establishes a Plant Hardiness Map for the U.S. In 2012 they released their updated version (and yes climate change has brought warmer zones closer to southern New England!). Our R.I. zones are 6a (-10 to -5 F) and 6b (0 to -5 F) although some of our coastal areas fall close to zone 7a (0 to -5 F). Choosing plants with the correct hardiness zone rating will help to prevent disappointment when with a very cold winter you can lose valuable new plantings!

Native plants will also be able to survive the uncertain weather, particularly sporadic rainfall and storms, that can play havoc with our plants. However, all newly installed plants will need sufficient watering for the first season (infrequent but deep waterings) and supplemental water when experiencing a drough.

Ten Examples of New England Natives

Native trees, shrubs and perennials can provide you with excellent choices to give you color, function and texture in the landscape. The following ten examples will give you a starting point for creating a design for your spring landscaping plans:


Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis): One of the most beautiful midsummer blooming perennials surprises with a spike of cardinal red flowers, particularly in moist areas. It’s natural habitat is along streams and rivers.
Christmas fern (Polystichum arostichoides): A perfect addition to your shade garden is the Christmas fern with it’s beautiful foliage, adaptability to wet or dry soil conditions and remaining evergreen, even with cold temperatures.
Wild ginger (Asarum canadense): A medium growing ground cover with green, downy leaves exhibiting considerable heat tolerance in shady, moist conditions. In the spring it has purplish, maroon flowers that are bell-shaped but mostly hidden in the foliage.


Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia): This native shrub grows in moist areas and blooms in August, serving as a reminder it almost time for students to return to school and summer is over! Choosing a sun/shade location will afford this plant the best success.
Common Witchazel (Hammamelis virginiana): What a welcome sight to see the yellow flowers of Witchazel beginning in late fall when the medium sized shrub begins to bloom! This multi stemmed small tree has great fall color, grows 10-15’ and the flowers have a light, spicy fragrance.
Inkberry (Ilex glabra): A very useful evergreen shrub for naturalized plantings, gardens and compact forms for foundation plantings. Requires very little if any trimming, grows in sun and shade conditions and withstands some winds and variable water conditions.
Swamp azalea (Rhododendron viscosum): A very underutilized, native azalea that blooms along streams, rivers and in wet areas. This white, spicy, clove fragrant midsummer blooming plant has a place in the moist, peripheral areas of the wooded landscape and in your gardens. It attracts butterflies and hummingbirds and puts on a show in the fall with it’s flame red foliage.


White Fringe Tree (Chionanthus virginicus): An excellent choice where a small tree (15-30’) is required. The Fringe tree has beautiful clusters of white flowers in late spring, with or before the new leaves emerge on the tree. Fall color is an added benefit to this low maintenance, relatively pest-free tree.
American holly (Ilex opaca): This native holly is evergreen, deer resistant and the female holly has red berries that birds will enjoy during the winter and early spring months. Plant away from the house as it can grow 45-60’ tall!
Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana): This native, semi-evergreen magnolia is a wonderful small tree for a deck or patio planting. The small, white fragrant flowers fill the area with a pleasant fragrance in June and July.

Native plants should be your first consideration for adding plantings to your landscape. They will adjust better to your site conditions, grow in our southern New England soils, survive variable weather events and as you have seen offer many wonderful choices for different landscape situations with their colors, fragrance, durability and deer tolerance!

My next article I will describe several local gardens, arboretums and parks you can visit year-round for landscape ideas, view sample native trees and shrubs, and simply relax being outside!

Frank Crandall, Horticultural Solutions. Frank, is a RI resident specializing in coastal landscaping, organic land care, small business consulting, writing, speaking and photography will be submitting biweekly articles about Landscape Solutions. With over 40 years in the horticultural field Frank will write about pertinent, seasonal landscape topics including effective solutions. Comments about Frank’s articles are welcome by contacting him at: [email protected]


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