By Catherine Darnell
Nothing is more delightful than Tennessee in springtime, when the gray-brown woods of winter seem to burst into vivid color almost overnight. This time of year, a simple walk in the woods can turn into an adventure that even Alice would envy, with charming native flowers and plants waiting at every turn.
Half the fun lies in the element of surprise, the “you never know what you’ll find” sense of discovery. Take, for example, the tiny lady’s-slippers spotted by Terry Todd of Dickson on one of her springtime walks at Montgomery Bell State Park.
“That yellow lady’s-slipper was the most thrilling thing in my life,” says Todd, who still talks excitedly about her find. She and her sister, Andrea Luplow, have taken up wildflower walks as a hobby, whiling away the long hours of winter poring over flower magazines.
When the first warm days of spring hit, the sisters are more than ready.
“In late March and April, we go tromping on the farm,” Todd says. “If we find something we haven’t seen, we’ll go home and look it up.”
The newfound treasures are sometimes transplanted from one part of their property to the banks of their creek, now overflowing with brightly colored Virginia bluebells, celandine poppies, Jacob’s ladder, Dutchman’s breeches, trout lilies and columbine – to name just a few.
“I never want to plant anything anymore that’s not native,” Todd says emphatically.
Like most people, Todd uses the words “wildflower” and “native” interchangeably, although native Tennessee plants are her passion. Keep in mind that not all wildflowers are natives – some were introduced here from other countries or regions and are not true natives of Tennessee.
Whether you’re a new transplant to the state yourself or a seasoned Volunteer gardener, here are some tips for making the most of your springtime “tromps.” Of course, everyone has their own favorites, but we’ve rounded up some experts to share their personal list of “Top Tennessee Natives” – the native plants that no flower-loving Tennessean can afford to miss.
Woodlands to the West
In the western third of the state, say hello to some familiar and not-so-familiar faces, as suggested by Rick Pudwell, director of horticulture at the Memphis Botanic Garden.
Some of his favorite West Tennessee bloomers include the native columbine, a red and green nodding flower hard not to love, which seeds freely at the edge of the woodland garden; green and gold, a 3- to 4-inch ground cover with brilliant yellow flowers March-April; the fern-leaf bleeding heart, which will flower pink most of the summer; and the woodland phlox, a bluish-purple bloom and the “one plant that attracts the most gardeners in the early spring.”
Pudwell also loves Solomon’s seal, with its long green leaves and tiny flowers like white bells; spiderwort, with narrow leaves and blue/purple blooms in sun or shade; foamflower, whose airy blooms look exactly as they sound; the tiny bloodroot with its violet-like leaves and white, star-shaped flowers; wild ginger, with its thick leaves and brown flowers that face downward; stokes aster, a lavender flower; and, finally, the bog lily, a beautiful white bloom rarely found farther north.
Meet in the Middle
Many of the plants mentioned above are also native to Middle Tennessee. While Tennessee includes three different plant zones, Mother Nature seems to offer a level growing field in the spring, when many of the plants can be seen throughout the state.
In Nashville, Paul Moore, of Moore & Moore West Garden Center, was experimenting with native plants when they were only a gleam in most Middle Tennessee gardeners’ eyes.
In addition to some of the spring delights already mentioned, he adds the wild geranium, a pinky lavender flower with mounding foliage; the iridescent blue and pink of the Virginia bluebell; trillium, a small three-leafed plant with blooms of various colors; spring beauty, a carpet of light flowers with a tint of pink; cut-leafed toothwort, which has clusters of tubular flowers that nod down; rue anemone, a tiny plant with white star-shaped blooms; wood poppies or the celandine, which blooms yellow; and blue-eyed Mary, a rare annual that reseeds with a blue and white bicolored flower.
East is Eden
“My favorite … is absolutely charming,” says Mike Fowler, a landscape architect and partner in the firm of Ross/Fowler in Knoxville. “It is the small crested iris. It’s a brand-new experience every time I see it.”
The plant, which also grows elsewhere in the state, looks exactly as it sounds. It’s a delight in masses.
Another personal recommendation, he says, is the showy orchid found at the edge of the mountains. The delicate blooms are generally smaller than the familiar hothouse orchids once pinned to prom dresses. “That’s the kind of native plant people want to know about.”
Of course, one can’t talk about East Tennessee without mentioning the breathtaking rhododendrons and mountain laurel, which bloom a little later.
“It’s spectacular when you see them growing,” Fowler says.
Natives in your backyard While it might be permissible for Dickson’s flower-loving Todd to transplant from one part of her property to another, most experts advise against digging up natives for several reasons.
The first is that state and federal parks take a dim view of traveling with a trowel. So might private property owners.
But the most important reason is “you never want to wild-collect,” Paul Moore says. “It destroys the population.”
Instead, buy from nursery-propagated sources, he says. There are plenty of nurseries all across the state that sell native plants. Another source is garden club sales.
Moore advises gardeners to be careful when buying from places that advertise native plants. Some of them do not propagate the plants, he says, but go directly into the wild and dig, thus robbing the landscape of plants that may take years to regenerate.
Ask questions. Do your research.
If you’re buying from someone who doesn’t know whether or not they are selling wild-collected plants, raise an eyebrow.
When planting natives in your flower beds, know they need the same kind of growing conditions they had in the wild.
“You want humus-y soil,” Moore says. “You can’t put them in clay and expect them to live.”
The plants don’t need a lot of depth, since most have shallow root systems. They need to be watered until they get established. Since most of the plants discussed here bloom in the spring, they will go dormant in hot weather, so they don’t need to be maintained during that time. Once a year, add composted manure or a granular organic-based fertilizer.
Now that you’ve got the facts, go native.