The South has far more culinary delights than the rest of the country with barbecue pork, pimento cheese and fried green tomatoes. Walking through the forests of the Gulf Coast states at almost any time of the year, you will be struck by a dazzling array of wonderful ornamental plants. Although many of these plants are suitable only for southern gardens, a surprising number of southern native plants can be perfectly adapted to more northern regions.
Trees bring southern style to cool weather.
The two-winged silver bell welcomes spring with a flurry of flowers.
Name: Halesia diptera
Size: 20 to 30 feet tall and wide
Conditions: full sun to partial shade; Average to moist, well-drained soil
Natural habitat and local range: Scattered coastal floodplains and marshes along the Gulf Coast from South Carolina to Texas
A beautiful inhabitant of southern wetlands, A two-winged silver bull Can also thrive in more normal garden soil. You’d think it wouldn’t be too hard for zone 5, but it seems to prefer the cold winters of often northern regions. White bell-shaped flowers appear in mid-spring. At up to 1½ inches wide, they are the largest of the magniflora group. This explains why this plant is sometimes sold. Halesia diptera var Magniflora. Two-winged silver vine is one of our easiest native flowering trees, commonly seen as a multi-stemmed specimen with smooth, gray bark, and a reliable buttery yellow color. The floral display mixes with and extends to other native spring flowering trees, such as dogwoods (Corns spp. and cvs., zones 3–9) and serviceberries (Amelincheer spp and cvs., zones 3–8).
Pond cypress contrasts its upright form with feathery foliage.
Name: Taxodium distichum var imbricarium Sync Taxodium climbs.
Size: 30 to 70 feet tall and 15 to 20 feet wide
Conditions: full sun; Average from wet soil
Natural habitat and local range: Widely scattered wetlands from Virginia south to Florida and west to Louisiana
It is one of the more recognizable southern trees. Pond cypress. This upright deciduous cone is especially distinctive when new spring growth stands upright along its branches, the spring green branches emerging as a mass of feathers. Its brilliant orange-russet fall color and pyramidal habit are a striking sight whether in its native habitat by the water’s edge or in the home landscape. In natural plantings it blends seamlessly with sugar maples (Acer saccharumzones 3–8) and aspens (population spp and cvs., zones 2–10), even in soils that are much drier and more compact than in its native wetland habitats.
Shrubs add another layer of southern charm.
Swamp Cerella is a magnet for small pollinators.
Name: Cerella racemiflora
Size: 15 to 25 feet tall and wide
Conditions: full sun to partial shade; Moist to wet, well-drained soil rich in organic matter.
Natural habitat and local range: Wetlands to dry, sandy hills along the coast from Virginia to Texas as well as Central America, South America, and the Caribbean islands.
Some of the best ornamental native plants in this region are underutilized, even in southern gardens. Swamp Cerella is among the plants that deserve a place in the spotlight. Throughout its native range it can be found growing in a wide range of conditions, and it adapts to the landscape, tolerating extremes of soil once established in sun to part shade. It is usually grown as a shrub, but on average dry sites it will eventually form a small tree up to 25 feet tall. In moist areas such as pond edges it often forms erosion-controlling shrubs. The narrow, leathery leaves of swamp cherilla can be evergreen in warmer regions but become deciduous northward and turn a brilliant red to orange in fall. Its cinnamon bark is also quite beautiful. The summer display of small flowers held on pointed racemes attracts a wide range of solitary bees and wasp pollinators. A plant in full bloom glows with a cloud of tiny pollen for about a month.
Plumleaf azalea adds a splash of late summer color to the understory.
Name: Rhododendron pronifolium
Size: 10 to 15 feet tall and wide
Conditions: partial shade; Moist, acidic, well-drained soil
Natural habitat and local range: Forested ravines and stream banks at scattered locations in Georgia and Alabama
Another shrub that deserves more love is the newest bloomer of all our native deciduous azaleas. Plumleaf azalea It has orange to red, hummingbird-attracting flowers in late summer, making it a surprising but welcome addition to all the other deciduous, spring-flowering species. Like other members of the Rhododendron tribe, it prefers a shady spot with moist, well-drained soil. Once it is established, however, I find it more tolerant of bright sun and dry soil than others. This plant is quite poisonous if ingested, so be careful if you have pets that graze on your bushes. Its bright mid-summer bloom color is very welcome and the plant looks stunning when grouped with other summer-flowering perennials such as butterfly weed.Asclepias tuberosaZones 3-9) or cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinaliszones 3-9).
Why do some southern plants tolerate cold temperatures?
Many of the plants in this article will thrive in locations that are cooler than their native range. One reason is that during the last ice age, glaciation pushed many plants south, but these species didn’t necessarily become less hardy. For example, Alabama has incredibly diverse flora at the point where the Appalachian Mountains end. Many of the plants found there are hardier than you might expect because they retained some frost tolerance as they were pushed from north to south and down from high altitudes.
Southern perennials can also be remarkably hardy.
You’ll love the sunny style of ‘Screamin’ Yellow’ Baptisia.
Name: Baptisia sphaerocarpa ‘Screams’ Yellow’
Size: 2 to 3 feet tall and 2 to 5 feet wide
Conditions: full sun; Average to dry, well-drained soil
Natural habitat and local range: Grasslands and prairies of the lower Midwest and Gulf Coast states
A hardy rhododendron might not be too surprising, but southern herbaceous perennials can also tolerate quite a bit of cold. One that I wouldn’t be without in my garden is the South Central American native Yellow Baptisia, a particularly unusual cultivar. ‘Screams’ Yellow’. This mounding, bushy-looking perennial has clusters of large yellow pea flowers that are well-placed above the foliage in mid-spring. Once established, it is a durable survivor in a sunny garden, mixing with warm-colored perennials as well as the blues of California lilacs (Cyanothus spp and cvs., zones 4–10).
Santa Fe phlox appreciates a well-drained soil.
Name: Phlox Nana
Size: 1 foot long and 3 feet wide
Conditions: full sun; Average to dry soil; Applicable to a wide range of soil types
Natural habitat and local range: Desert grasslands and open forests from the arid side of Texas to Arizona
Native Phlox are found in most parts of the country, but are underutilized and quite adaptable. Santa Fe Flux All hardy in zone 4. The plant looks best when grown in very lean, well-drained soil or in sunny rock gardens, where it forms an evergreen cushion of narrow, sticky leaves with pink to lavender or white flowers. Early blooms are a welcome introduction to spring, especially when accompanied by native perennials such as bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensisZones 3–8) or trout lily (Erythronium spp and cvs., zones 3–9).
Dixie wood fern deters deer with style.
Name: Dryopteris × Australia
Size: 4 to 5 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet wide
Conditions: full to partial shade; Moist, rich, well-drained soil
Natural habitat and local range: Forests and wetlands of the Southeast from Maryland to Tennessee and west to Louisiana
Whenever gardeners gather to compare notes, the immediate question about any new plant is “Will the deer eat it?” Ferns offer the most reliable resistance to these voracious, long-legged rodents, and are a rare natural hybrid that thrives. Dixie Wood Fern. This robust fern can grow up to 5 feet tall when placed in rich, moist soil. The upright, fountain-like habit looks unusual growing out of patches of eastern native wild geraniums (Geranium maculatumZones 3–8) or the southern population of Bunchberry (Cornus canadensiszones 2-6).
Texas clematis will worm its way into your heart.
Name: Clematis texensis
Size: 8 to 12 feet tall and wide
Conditions: full sun to partial shade; Alkaline to neutral, well-drained soil
Natural habitat and local range: Limestone cliffs, rocky slopes, and stream beds of the southeastern Edwards Plateau in Texas.
Those who have visited my garden know that I have an affinity for grapes. My favorites are clematis, especially those designated as type 3 for pruning. “Type 3” means the plant dies back to the ground in the winter and must be cut back to the ground to start over in the spring. Although most things are probably bigger in the Lone Star State, Texas Clematis A showy but small-flowered species with vines that reach only 12 feet tall before dying back in winter. It reflects the hardy constitution of Texas, which survives even in Zone 4 locations. The bright red summer flowers are best in sun but will tolerate partial shade, and the vines are deer resistant. I like to use late-flowering vines to bring color to spring-flowering shrubs that have finished their early displays, such as red-flowered currants (Ribes sanguineumzones 6-9), or combine them with summer shrubs such as buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentaliszones 5–9).
Warm beaches, great food, beautiful forests, and the friendly people of the South are reasons enough to visit. If you plant some of our wonderful plants as a memento in your home garden, you’ll find that plants are just as friendly as people and you’ll be happy with your local residents wherever you live. will mix with
Mark Wethington is director of the JC Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Photos, except where noted: millettephotomedia.com
The following mail order sellers offer many of the plants featured here.