Star Gardener: Supporting Wildlife Diversity

Being good to the environment need not be analogous to holding your nose while taking cod-liver oil
Lecia Harbison at last year’s Garden Club of East Hampton garden party plant sale preview Durell Godfrey

Plants that support pollinators and wildlife diversity, especially natives, are the most frequently requested today. Here on the East End, plants that are deer-resistant may be even more valued.

Being good to the environment need not be analogous to holding your nose while taking cod-liver oil. Exciting, highly ornamental selections that meet these criteria are introduced every year, and many of them, as well as classics like butterfly weed, will be available tomorrow evening and Saturday morning at the Garden Club of East Hampton’s annual garden party and plant sale at the Mulford Farm.

One of the most exciting new perennials is the Eastern Bee Balm, Monarda bradburiana, which I first saw last year at Chanticleer in Pennsylvania. Its flowers are pink-lilac, and it has aromatic leaves like other members of the mint family. Unlike most monardas, it is a clump former and grows to about 18 inches. It looks good massed in naturalistic plantings or more traditional beds. It flowers from May into the summer, has attractive seed heads after the flowers are finished, attracts pollinators and hummingbirds, and is deer-resistant. What more could we want?

Another newcomer is the climbing Blue Moon Kentucky Wisteria, with foot-long, fragrant panicles of lavender-blue flowers that begin in May and can repeat three times in a season. Its panicles are about twice as long, and thus showier, than those of another popular native wisteria, Amethyst Falls.

The white, star-shape flowers tinged with pink of gaura look like a swarm of fluttering butterflies. That image has stayed with me for the 30 years since I first saw it in an experimental garden in Germany, of all places. (It is native to Texas.)

Sparkle White is a prizewinning new selection. It flowers throughout the summer in full sun with good drainage, is deer-resistant, and attracts beneficial insects, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Because it is more compact than other gaura, it will look good on its own as a container plant or in the front of the border. 

Penstemons are among the jewels of the West, and, I confess, I’ve never tried them. They are hummingbird magnets and flower nonstop from early summer to late autumn. With the advent of P. Sunburst Ruby, it’s time to take the plunge. Their flowers look similar to those of snapdragons. With bright red flowers with white throats, Sunburst Ruby will add a spot of excitement to sunny beds.

Salvias also are long flowering, deer-resistant, and attractive to honeybees and hummingbirds. Two of the best have to be treated as annuals, but are well worth it: Amistad has luminous violet-purple flowers, while Wendy’s Wish has been described as magenta pink to red with decorative dark stems. Both are tall (about four feet), so generally are better suited to the garden rather than containers. 

The European perennial salvia, Caradonna, is deer-resistant and attracts pollinators like its American counterparts. Its deep blue-purple flowers on nearly black stems make it one of the most beautiful of the perennial salvias. Its vertical structure makes it an excellent companion for yarrows, with their horizontal flower heads that also are deer-resistant and excellent sources of nectar. An old-fashioned plant that is coming back into fashion, yarrows (achillea) are available in pink, yellow, and terra-cotta. 

Thanks to recent breeding efforts, coneflowers (echinacea) now come in a wide range of colors and hues, except blue. Solar Flare is described as the best red of all on dark stems with a large brown cone and an ultra-long flowering season. To be any better, one observer noted, it would have to be made of plastic. Cheyenne Spirit, in a mix of hot colors with some soft yellows, is a popular stalwart at the Mimi Meehan Native Plant Garden behind Clinton Academy on East Hampton’s Main Street. The species E. paradoxa, sometimes called the yellow coneflower, is the most fragrant of them all.

For plant lovers, we’ve plenty of interesting things to challenge your budget. At the top of the list is the newly popular Itoh peony, a cross between the familiar garden peony and tree peonies. They have flowers and leaves like those of tree peonies (which means large) on a plant that behaves like a herbaceous perennial. Bartzella has very large, bright yellow double flowers with a slight red stain in the center. 

Demand is always high for repeat-blooming iris and fortunately new colors are regularly being developed. In addition to the icy white with a hint of blue of Immortality, Again and Again is yellow with a white blaze, and Feedback, deep violet.

Breeding work has also been devoted to making astilbes more adaptable to our climate, meaning improved performance in sun and high humidity and requiring less water. I yanked mine years ago, but am ready to give them another go. Diamonds and Pearls is white; Boogie Woogie, light pink, and Drum and Bass, deep pink.

Three plants I’m looking forward to trying are an anemone (windflower), geranium, and brunnera. Unlike Japanese anemones that flower in late summer into the autumn, Anemone Wild Swan flowers prolifically from late spring until frost. Its large white flowers with lavender on the reverse of the petals are so beautiful it won a top award at a recent Chelsea Flower Show in London. It is said to be vigorous and hardy, but someone told me she had lost hers. I’ve grown a few plants that were such flowering machines they were exhausted and died during the winter. If that should be the case, and I very much hope it will not be, Wild Swan will give plenty of pleasure while it is with you.

Some people in our area have luck with the white variegated Brunnera Jack Frost, but others do not and it melts and disappears. Brunnera are in the borage family and have large heart-shape leaves with generally blue forget-me-not flowers. A plant for shade, its leaves give it interest throughout the season. I saw a new cultivar, Sea Heart, last week at a nursery in Connecticut, and its leaves were very thick and leathery with green-on-silver veining. It definitely looks like it would hold up better in our heat and humidity. 

Many perennial geraniums, including the blue ever-flowering Rozanne, also have a tendency to melt and disappear, at least in my garden. With that in mind I’m eager to try the new Dreamland. It has pastel pink flowers with darker pink veins and is said to flower from early summer until frost. Let us hope.

Monarda bradburiana Lisa Roper/Chanticleer
Echinacea Cheyenne Spirit Abby Jane Brody