Gardening on the wild side

Blue mistflower is one of several native plants that will flower well into fall, delighting pollinators and gardeners, alike.

Blue mistflower is one of several native plants that will flower well into fall, delighting pollinators and gardeners, alike.

In these long, hot, last days of summer, it may not be too late to find surprises in your yard, particularly if parts of it have been abandoned to Mother Nature.

Last month, I went away and left my yard to its own devices for about five weeks, apart from the lawn. A friend kindly mowed the grass, except for one area which I asked him not to bother about. In that section, the size of a large living room, a storm had downed a tall, young maple tree days before I left, bending it almost to the ground.

I tried to prop up the tree, but succeeded only in lifting it about three feet off the ground. I slid an old, angled copper pipe underneath to hold it up and reflected how amazing it was that a tree with a trunk barely three inches in diameter could be so heavy. There it lay, forming a barrier about 15 feet long between the shed and the peach tree — too low to duck under or get a lawn mower underneath and too high to hop over.

At the other end of the section, my fig tree’s low-hanging branches had grown so long that they barred a lawn mower from getting through. I was loath to prune them before winter because I wanted the fruit.

Conspiring further to create a no-(wo)man’s land, this area typically remains damp and soggy for a long time after storms. The constant deluges we experienced last spring had kept the ground boggy and unsuitable for mowing well into July.

It’s mind-boggling how quickly weeds will exploit such a situation. By the time I returned from vacation, brambles and invasive Japanese honeysuckle, usually kept in check by mowing, had grown profusely on both sides of the downed tree. A weed I couldn’t identify, but knew in my bones was bad, grew three feet tall, almost obscuring the maple tree.

Wild mulberry saplings had sprouted from the stump of a huge mulberry tree chopped down last January. Here and there, horsenettle — a weed easily identified by its angular leaves and prickly stem — cleverly mingled among taller plants. Underneath it all, as if to lay out a red (and green) carpet for my return, grew a small groundcover weed, festooned with red, inedible fruit—Indian mock strawberry.

Yet, when I plunged into the wasteland to start weeding, I found several treasures in bloom: Native plants that would look lovely in any cultivated garden and had the added value of attracting butterflies, bees, hummingbirds and other pollinators. The presence of pollinators particularly interests me because my raspberry patch, in flower now, grows fairly close to the new wild area.

The first of the treasures I saw stood about two feet tall and had bright green leaves and pink flowers like buttons. The blossom resembled the center of daisies, without the petals. Within a few days, more flowers appeared and their color deepened to purplish rose. A definite eye-catcher, the plant goes by the name of saltmarsh fleabane (pluchea odorata) and belongs to the aster family.

The book Coastal Plants from Cape Cod to Cape Canaveral describes its habitat as “salt and brackish marshes and rarely freshwater marshes.” The plant can grow up to five feet, but usually stays about two feet tall. Saltmarsh fleabane prefers full sun and may survive for years under colonies of phragmites, the dreaded reeds which invade our marshes. It favors soil rich in organic matter rather than sandy soil.

Don’t expect the flowers to smell fragrant. The “odorata” part of its botanical name does, indeed, mean odor. It gives off an unpleasant odor when crushed, according to my book. But I can’t confirm the report, having carefully avoided damaging my plants – for I discovered several of them.

A mystery is why the plants should be growing in a boggy part of the yard that has no contact, as far as I can tell, with the brackish marsh on the other side of the house. It’s possible that seeds migrated from the marsh, brought by wind and birds, and I suppose that wind off the brackish cove my property faces could have deposited minute amounts of salt in my yard’s soil over the years.

Saltmarsh fleabane offers the great advantage of having a long flowering period, from July to October. As gardeners know, this is a season when most flowers have packed up or are on their way out. The plant’s Latin name, by the way, honors the 18th century French naturalist Abbot Pluche. It can be a perennial or an annual, depending on how far South it grows and the mildness of the climate.

Not far from the fleabane, I spotted something whose flowers looked similar, but colored pale blue instead of pink. This is the lovely and prolific mistflower or wild ageratum. Mistflower also blooms from July to October, a great boon for migrating butterflies and hummers, as well as the gardener wanting color in fall. Song birds and beneficial insects use the plant, which grows one to 3-1/2 feet tall and likes shade or part shade.

For the gardener with a damp place in the yard that could use some color in late summer and fall, mistflower is a perfect choice. Plant a few of them and they’ll proliferate over the years, forming a lovely mass of pale blue when in bloom.

Close to my peach tree, I spotted another native. Covered in small white flowers, it was heath, also called white heath, dense-flowered aster or frostweed. This plant, which blooms from July into November, can grow up to 6-1/2 feet tall. Mine stands about 4-1/2 feet. The plant can form dense mounds and attracts butterflies.

My plan now is to pull out all the weeds and leave the natives to form a wild bed. Wish me luck! It could well take until November.
In the meantime, happy gardening!

Editor’s Note: Laetitia Sands is a master gardener in Dorchester County.

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