Natives come to the rescue in tricky spots where fussy ornamentals fail: for instance, the dry shade under trees with dense canopies. In such conditions, you’ll save yourself a struggle by using dry-shade-adapted natives such as barren strawberry (Waldsteinia fragarioides), zigzag goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis), woodland sunflower (Helianthus divaricatus), black snakeroot (Actaea simplex Atropurpurea Group syn. Cimicifuga racemosa) and Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) around the base.
Other tough natives that save the day in shade include white wood aster (Aster divaricatus), mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) and Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum). In full sun, many meadow and prairie plants are relatively tough, but particularly dependable species include black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) and pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea).
Competing for space
Regardless of whether a plant is native or non-native, be sure to take its spreadability into account when planning placement. I’ve had more than one native blazing star (Liatris spicata) disappear into a small sea of yarrow in a sunny area. And my native merrybell (Uvularia grandiflora) barely holds its own against the onslaught of non-native periwinkle in a shady section. It’s not that these natives aren’t tough; it’s just that those particular non-natives are tougher.
Likewise, there are many natives—such as false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides), wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) and virgin’s bower clematis (Clematis virginiana)—that will muscle out anything in their path, and should never be planted beside a species that requires a bit more coddling.
If gardens are like conversations, the dialogue between gardener and garden in a native planting is all about what it means to make a cultivated space in the wild and a wild place in the cultivated. It’s a contradiction, but the most engrossing tales often are.