Introducing May-Blooming Natives into Ornamental Gardens

Introducing May-Blooming Natives into Ornamental Gardens

  • By Nona Kaplan
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  • May 2018 - Vol.4 No.5
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  • 1 Comment

“April showers bring May flowers.” This old saying holds true in both nature and in ornamental garden beds, yet this year we might well have said “April SNOW showers bring May flowers.” Will the cold weather that has lingered through April deter the anticipated May blooms?  A late spring chill — especially when temperatures drop into the twenties after a period of warmth — can definitely harm perennials.  That’s because plants that break dormancy are more susceptible to late frost damage because of their new, tender growth.  Fortunately, most plants survive this type of cold injury.  Snow can preserve plants by insulating them, but dry cold can be much more damaging.  Keep this in mind when precious new foliage and buds emerge, and cover them up when temperatures in the 20’s are predicted. Hopefully you didn’t put away your winter wardrobe yet and have handy a suitable wrap!

May-blooming Natives to Add to Your Garden   My background in prehistoric America has led me to encourage gardeners to try plants that have been utilized for thousands of years.  I hope more and more of us will give them a place in our ornamental gardens. They deserve to delight us with their beauty and history. It’s possible that by adding them to our gardens, we can act as curators of local native plants, thus assuring their future existence. Yet please do not eat them or take them from their natural habitats. Native plants can be purchased through several nurseries in Virginia, and you’ll find a handy list of native plant nurseries at the website of the Virginia Native Plant Society,  Want to try some May bloomers in your garden?  Here’s a list of natives you might want to try.  

Photo by Jean M. Fogle

Jack-in-the-pulpit  (Arisaema triphyllum),  also known as Indian turnip

A very special lady pointed out this plant to me last summer, soon after I had been hired to garden at her historic and magical estate. This mysterious creature was hidden in the shadows, growing between her many majestic boxwoods. She firmly told me to never pull this plant out of the ground; it rarely grew any longer on her property, however, this one returned every year. Her passion and the features of this native plant led me to revisit a college course on Celtic society.  The Gauls were early Celtic people that lived throughout England, France, and Germany. The Romans chased them into Scotland and Ireland. According to ancient stories, they hid from the Romans, often in forests and trees, which made them appear smaller, like fairy folk.  The Celts called their hidden world a word pronounced like “sheath.” Needless to say it took me a year to remember what the plant was called — “Jack-in-the-pulpit.”  I really couldn’t picture it, yet all summer long I was more than careful not to pull out any plants with three leaves, except poison ivy.

Jack-in-the-pulpit is a mystical guy that can also be a girl. The flower is hidden in the sheath, leaf bract, or spathe, which will dry up and shrivel away revealing vibrant red berries (fruit) in fall.  Although it’s ancient, this plant seems to be  evolving into an insect-eating plant.

See the spadix rising out of the center of this Jack-in-the-pulpit? Photo: Ivo Shandor.

Bugs get trapped in the base while looking for nectar and are unable to climb out on the slippery sides of the flower stem, which is called a spadix. A spadix is type of spike inflorescence which consists of a fleshy stem covered with flowers. Spadices are typical of the family Araceae, to which Jack-in-the-pulpit belongs.

Arisaema triphyllum grows in the shade and in organic moist soils (pH 4.5-6).  Before you try adding it to your garden, be sure you have the conditions it requires: constantly moist soil rich in organic matter.  It can self-sow, or its corms (bulb-like bottoms) can be dug up and divided. The Native Americans used this plant to treat colds and coughs as well as in poultices for boils and snake bites. It is poisonous and should not be used for medicinal purposes except by an expert, and that goes for any plant.

Digital Resources for Jack-in-the-pulpit:


Eastern red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)

Aquilegia canadensis
Photo courtesy of Dancing Goose.

Aquilegia canadensis is sometimes referred to as Eastern columbine, Eastern red columbine,  or as simply wild columbine. It’s worth noting that this columbine is native to our area and much of the eastern half of North America, and is not to be confused with the columbine found west of the Mississippi,  Aquilegia caerulea (Rocky Mountain columbine).  Its name apparently comes from aquila, the Latin word for eagle, and its spurs do resemble talons.  The word columbine comes from the Latin word for dove, and it is indeed a peaceful plant despite its spurs.  This species has many other common names, such as “meeting house” and “rock bells.”  This latter name is perhaps related to the fact that it is often found on cliffs and rocky slopes.

Aquilegia canadensis is found in diverse habitats, from rocky areas to shady deciduous woodlands.  Because it’s so adaptable, it is easy to grow, and is highly recommended for home gardens.   It will thrive in well-drained moist soils, pH 5.5–6.5, and can tolerate drought.

Columbine self sows quite easily. In fact, it is said that they exhaust themselves producing an abundance of flowers, pollen, and seeds to ensure their future survival.  Perhaps they could be considered the native volunteer plant. Nevertheless, they are easy to pull up, and can be easily discouraged from spreading into other beds or the lawn. I have a native columbine that is pink and white that I purchased from Monticello’s garden shop, and it grows wildly in the yard.  I am frequently asked by neighbors to pull the reins on these hardy guys.  On the other hand, when I work in native gardens that have the space for these plants to colonize, it is a rewarding experience to watch columbine thrive. The Eastern red columbine is a huge hummingbird attractor, so if you enjoy watching hummingbirds, this is the plant to introduce into your garden! It also hosts the larvae of Columbine Duskywing butterfly and feeds other butterflies, bees, and the hawk moth.

Digital resources for Eastern red columbine:


Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa),  also known as butterfly milkweed, chigger weed and pleurisy root

Butterfly weed
Photo: Sterling Herron

This plant is a host to the monarch butterfly larvae. The monarch butterfly is the only butterfly known to fly south for the winter as birds do. Most butterflies’ larvae can survive winter, but monarchs are tropical and must return to California or Mexico for their species to survive. Asclepias tuberosa could be seen vibrantly growing along roadsides years ago in shades of yellow to deep orange.  This plant has now almost disappeared due to heavy use of herbicides for highway maintenance.  Commercial farmers are also depleting this plant with their use of chemicals too.

Butterfly weed is known to have been used by the Native Americans for a variety of things from clothing to medicinal teas. The American colonists used it for chest pain and it was listed as a pharmaceutical until 1936. During World War II, the down from the milkweed was used for parachute suits because it is more buoyant than a cork, so it was safer when landing in water. Butterfly weed is an excellent plant to introduce into your garden. It is a superb way to liven up some beds and give a special butterfly a safe journey home for the winter.

I have had difficultly growing this plant from seed, even when trying a cold moist stratification for 3-6 weeks as suggested by expert growers, so you’ll probably have better luck with transplants.  Once butterfly weed becomes established, it is easy to maintain. It prefers dry, sunny open fields and a pH of 5-7. You can make a monarch sanctuary by creating a meadow in an area on your lawn (perhaps somewhere you do not like to mow). Other wild flowers can be incorporated into this area as well. This could be gratifying, knowing you helped the monarchs fly home, not to mention the charm in watching all the wildlife play and thrive in your backyard!

Digital Resources for Butterfly Weed:


Purple Passionvine. Photo by Nona Kaplan, Rivanna Trail.

Purple Passionvine  (Passiflora incarnata)

This vine is also known as the maypop because it makes this sound when you step on it. It can be seen growing in a field on the Rivanna trail. I find it to be just as interesting if not less invasive than the native wisteria. I have included this rather exotic blooming vine because I rarely see it in gardens and wanted to recognize its grace. The name comes from the symbolism of the number five associated with Christianity. The fruit is edible and is made into jams and juices. The Cherokee used it as a poultice for inflammation. It is also used to soothe anxiety in Europe. Again, only buy native plants from reputable sources and never dig them up or pick them from their natural habitat. Please recognize that the information about these plants in terms of their medicinal properties comes from credible sources as shown in the references, yet it is strongly advised to never eat them unless you are an expert or under the supervision of a qualified practitioner.

An easy way to mark the beginning of our planting and growing season is Mother’s Day.  Up until then, we gardeners have to  wait to begin sowing seeds for bountiful blooming flowers.  Try to remember that “good things come to those who wait.” Nature has a brilliant way of balancing things out. Earth has had billions of years of practice. The best gardening comes with observation, plus a bit of trial and error. Keeping this in mind, there are  many native plants that can be introduced into ornamental gardens. Check out the links below; you might even discover that you already have some native plants in your garden. Look and see what you may already have intuitively planted!


Digital Resources for Virginia Native Plants:

“Native Plants for Southeast Virginia,”

“Native Plants for Northern Virginia,”

Regional Plant Guides for Virginia,”


Gardening with Native Wild Flowers (Samuel B. Jones, Jr., and Leonard E. Foote, 1997)

Growing and Propagating Wild Flowers (Phillips, 1985)

The New England Wild Flower Society Guide to Growing and Propagating Wildflowers of the United States and Canada (Cullina, 2000)

Native Plants of the Northeast: A Guide for Gardening and Conservation (Leopold, 2005)

Southeastern Wildflowers (Midgley, 1999)

Wildflowers Around the Year ( Ryden, 2001)

Wildflowers in Color: A Field Guide to More Than 250 Wildflowers of Eastern North America (Stupka, 1994)

Wildflowers of the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains (Adkins, 2005)

“Protecting Plants from Cold Temperatures,”

“Frost and Cold Injury – Annuals, Bulbs, Groundcovers, Perennials, and Vines,”

“Asclepias tuberosa,” Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center,

Native Plant Finder, Va.Dept.of Conservation,



  1. C J Rhondeau

    Last year I harvested Butterfly weed tubers and their flowers from an area in Crozet ready for development. The upside is I may get some plants through trial and error; the downside was I seemed to get in poison ivy at that spot, so suffered a bit. I have the columbine and love it, even though it just goes everywhere. Tried the Jack-in-the-Pulpit, which was moved from a friend’s yard in McLean. It survived 2years and somdpfar I have not seen it pop up. Another downside to that little story is there must have been some Creeping Charlie among the potting dirt in the pot. That invasive weed us all over her yard, and I now fight it here in my beds and lawn. The good, the bad, and the downright ugly,

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