When I built a house on a mountain in the Blue Ridge Mountains, I hit the jackpot—in wildflowers. It took me several years to realize this because when we first arrived at the site, I was ignorant about wildflowers. I remember the contractor’s wife exclaimed, “Look at all these wildflowers!” I looked, but my untrained eye registered nothing. (Surely the wildflowers weren’t blooming at the time.)
As a landscape architect, I was keenly focused on how to site the house to maximize the views and the light and how to protect the trees during construction. I negotiated with the contractor on how much area he needed to build the house, store supplies, etc. We fenced off all the remaining area to protect the trees and soil from compaction and contamination. And, as it happened, in saving the trees and the original soil, we unknowingly saved the wildflowers too.
When the house was finished, I walked the site with an experienced plantsman. Astounded, he said, “I have never seen such density and diversity of wildflowers in one place!” By then I was starting to pay attention.
I had already experienced the thrill of discovering unusual flowers on the property and identifying them with a wildflower guidebook. As with everything else in the garden, you don’t know the wildflower until you know its name. Then you can read several different wildflower guides to find out more: how the Cherokees used the plant, how the pioneers used the plant, and sometimes how modern science uses the plant. Every guidebook gives a little additional information that makes it fun to keep reading and learning.
My curiosity about wildflowers became the gateway to interest in native trees and shrubs. What emerged from this study was a deep appreciation for my homesite, for the spirit of the place, for the land ethos of the Blue Ridge Mountains. This area is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world, largely because the glaciers did not come this far south during the Ice Age. The Blue Ridge Mountains are rich in wildflowers, many of which have healing powers, both traditional and scientific.
All around me, I see homeowners who buy a wooded lot, scrape off everything in the understory they don’t recognize, and import plants they like from their past gardens, whether it be from California or New York or Texas. What do these plants have to do with the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina? Nothing. Everyone appreciates the views of the mountains and the cool summer temperatures, but what about the authentic spirit of the place, with its authentic native plant palette.
I think of a friend whom I saw spraying Roundup on a large area of mayapples on her property. “Stop! Don’t kill these—they’re mayapples, beautiful native wildflowers! They’re used today in treatments for cancer. They’re the perfect ground cover for your slope.” No, she wasn’t persuaded: She wanted the unusual plants gone and the area cleared and neatly mulched, the look she was used to. I told her if she bought mayapple, she would pay $7.50 a plant (I’ll bet she had 800 thriving there). I didn’t convince her; she killed them all.
When embarking on a new landscape project, recognizing and preserving what botanical gems we already have requires a shift not only among home gardeners, but also landscape contractors and designers who might suggest clearing out all the “weeds” and understory in order to plant something “nice” purchased from a nursery. And until recently, not many native plants have entered the nursery trade. Fortunately, native plant nurseries and native plant catalogues are gaining popularity now as gardeners discover the benefits of native plants.
In his landmark book Bringing Nature Home (Timber Press, 2009), Douglas W. Tallamy makes the case for appreciating, preserving, and planting native plants in your garden. He explains how they support the native fauna in the food chain of the ecosystem. If there are mostly exotic (not native) plants in the area, the ecosystem collapses because there is not enough food for the birds, insects, and other animals. Development in the United States has resulted in the destruction of native habitats on such a massive scale that it is critical that gardeners plant and preserve native plants.
Full disclosure: While my garden is an astounding treasure trove of native wildflowers, as you can see in these photos, I also grow six tea roses and a collection of daylilies and daffodils. I say this to illustrate that growing native plants in your garden doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. It is possible to grow a few exotics and to grow native wildflowers and native plants too. I have even discovered four different kinds of native orchids growing naturally in my garden, which as a horticultural boast is the equivalent of saying I have four Lamborghinis in my garage.
Every gardener can do something to support the ecosystem, according to Tallamy: If you already have an established home landscape, the next time a tree or shrub dies, replace it with a native. Reclaim a portion of your property for natives by creating a natural area mulched with leaves. Convert a part of your lawn to an informal area mulched with leaves and planted with natives, including wildflowers.
In addition to supporting the ecosystem, what is the benefit for gardeners? Native plants are low maintenance. Once they are established, native wildflowers and plants require much less water and little or no fertilizer because they naturally grow in the area and are therefore adapted to it. The most important thing is to stop spraying pesticides indiscriminately: Spray only in a limited spot for a specific problem.
Wherever you live in the U.S., you have the opportunity to create in your garden informal areas (large or small), mulched with leaves and planted with native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers. Consult your county extension agent or local wildflower society to find out which wildflowers and plants are native to your area. Select wildflowers that naturally grow in the conditions you have. Trying to grow a wildflower that does not naturally grow in your conditions leads only to disappointment and wasted time and money.
In planting native wildflowers and plants, you are helping the birds, the insects, the ecosystem—and you are helping yourself.
Continue the Wildflower Tour
Click the arrows (or swipe if on a mobile device) to see more
Shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia)
Paleleaf Woodland Sunflower (Helianthus strumosus)
Large-flowered Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum)
Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta). The pearl crescent butterfly frequents this flower.
Common blue violet (Viola sororia) is the host plant for the fritillary butterfly.
Yellow Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium calceolus). Never pick wildflowers on public property.
Text and photography Mary Walton Upchurch © 2021
Garden writer Mary Walton Upchurch grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, and earned a degree in landscape architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. For more than 30 years, she practiced in Montgomery as an award-winning landscape architect and wrote garden articles for a local publication. Now retired, she lives in western North Carolina where she built a home and garden on top of a mountain with panoramic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Follow her on Instagram at @marywaltonupchurch.