Native plants provide spring color
By JIMMY WILLIAMS
Special to The Messenger
Spring and fall are the times most attention is focused on native wildflowers. There are summer ones, to be sure, plenty of them, but I feel they are most appreciated early and late in the growing season.
In spring, a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of love, it is written. Wildflowers can’t be far behind. The yearning, even for non-gardeners, for color in nature around us is overwhelming. After brown and gray all winter, we’re hungering for more excitement.
In autumn, on the other hand, we are savoring the last great blast of color, this time of an even more flamboyant substance, before those grays and browns settle in again.
The spring pallette consists mostly of cool colors: white, pale blue, mauve, pink and the cooler yellows. These show up in such as Jacob’s ladder, spring phlox, spring beauties, Virginia bluebells and many others.
Yellow is most pronounced in daffodils, primarily old-fashioned “buttercups.” The latter are not native but have escaped from cultivation since the pilgrims brought them from Europe. They have become such a part of our spring that they could be considered native.
I have found Jacob’s ladder, Polemonium reptans, to be of exceptionally easy culture. From a few collected plants among the hundreds of acres of them in Stewart County, mine have naturalized throughout our woodland and even in mixed borders, proving them to be adapted from conditions of poor soil and neglect to nutritious border conditions under extensive cultivation.
Jacob’s ladder produces wan blue blossoms that would disappear unless enhanced by neighbors such as those “buttercups” and other, hybrid, daffodils. Jacob’s ladder will increase at the root and by seeding, but is never harmfully invasive.
The quickest way to spread it around is by root division, but seedlings keep our plantation going without any effort on my part. The flowers are produced in clusters atop 8-inch stems with opposite leaves which are remindful of ladder rungs, hence the common name.
There are named varieties and hybrids of Jacob’s ladder with larger and more colorful blooms and others with variegated leaves, green neatly outlined in white. The latter are attractive plants and you can’t resist them in nurseries, but I have utterly failed with them in several tries.
Blooming at the same time is our native woodland phlox, sometimes called sweet william, though that common name also is used for domesticated forms of biennial dianthus, just another example of the confusion resulting from common names.
Wild sweet william is Phlox divaricata, and it is probably the most recognizable of spring wildflowers. Rife in middle Tennessee and common in West Tennessee, one should have no qualms about harvesting a few plants from a large expanse of it. It moves easily in damp weather and generally proves to be reliable in shade or part sun.
Spring phlox is a short-lived perennial, the parent plant surviving for a few years, but producing abundant seedlings to keep plantings going. It, like the Jacob’s ladder, has naturalized in our woods and borders. Blooms are pinky-mauve to pale purple and appear in March and April some 10 inches or so above the foliage.
Congratulations to the Paris Garden Club, which celebrated its 80th anniversary with a tea recently. Until sometime in the 1930s it was known as simply the Garden Club, and indeed it was the only one here.
Other garden clubs were formed later until there was a plethora of them well into the 1990s. Some are no longer in existence.
In any event, there is no telling the beautification that has resulted from the 80 years of activity by the ladies of the Paris Garden Club, both at the homestead level and on public grounds. I am sure they are good for at least 80 more.
Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is production superintendent at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he also writes this column.
Published in The Messenger 2.19.08
Garden Path, Jimmy Williams