Native plants bring a Virginia landscape to life

In the garden Betty Truax has built around her home near Charlottesville, Va., there are plenty of places to sit and observe.

That’s by design, because without taking the time to stop and look closely, you might miss all the action.

It’s through close observation that Truax has witnessed and photographed some of her most exciting gardening moments, most of which demonstrate the amazing ways that the insect and animal worlds are reliant on native plants.

There’s the wavy-lined emerald moth caterpillar, which Truax noticed hanging out on her Solidago odora (sweet goldenrod). As she observed more closely, she realized that the inch-long caterpillar was using its silk to affix the plant’s tiny yellow petals to its body, camouflaging itself to protect against predators.

The detailed notes she keeps within her Plants Map plant pages offer ample evidence of why she calls Solidago odora a “wildlife magnet.”

On one occasion, she saw yellow finches removing 2-inch pieces of the plant’s new growth. A little research led her to conclude they were weaving the stems into their nests, because their anise scent repels mites. During another garden walk, she witnessed a Goldenrod Crab Spider sitting on the plant’s yellow blooms, waiting to catch its dinner.

An evolving garden vision

Truax has been around gardening all her life.

“I come from a line of women that have gardened,” she said. “My mother was from Poland, and she and all of her sisters have always loved flowers.” Her mother and sisters have passed down many plants over the years.

In her current landscape, Truax has established what she calls a “Tribute Garden,” where plants that remind her of people and places that are dear to her reside together. She uses a collection within her Plants Map page to document many of these stories, like that of the yellow iris passed down to her from her Aunt Edie.

Truax started gardening, as many people do, when she became a homeowner for the first time. She became a Master Gardener while living in Northern Virginia, and enjoyed the network of knowledgeable people the program put her in touch with.

 

As she began to learn more about plants, she started learning about the importance of native plants and their role in supporting wildlife and the wider ecosystem.

When she and her husband moved to Charlottesville and built a new home, she decided to make native plants the focus.

“In Northern Virginia, I had been gardening with iris, peonies, Sweet Williams, … I had this tiny little bed of treasured native plants that I had gotten at native plant society sales,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is the reverse of what it should be.’”

She set out to create what she calls a “Native Cottage Garden” in the yard around her home. Today, her garden is mostly native plants, with a few non-natives mixed in for special reasons.

Natives create habitat

One of the most exciting aspects of native gardening, Truax says, is the added dimension of interest it brings to the garden.

“Most of my garden has become habitat,” she said. “The birds are here, there are plentiful insects. I no longer get upset when I see leaves getting eaten because I know something is getting dinner. It kind of excites me.”

Truax is active in the Jefferson Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society. She helped put together the Piedmont Native Plant Guide, a valuable guide for selecting plants for gardens and landscapes in Virginia’s piedmont region. The guide is distributed through area master gardener and native plant groups. She also serves as secretary at the state level of the Virginia Native Plant Society.

Her garden will be included on a June 3 (2018) Virginia Native Plant Society field trip, so that others can see how native plants can add just as much beauty as non-native ornamentals to a residential landscape.

Native plants are gaining popularity in many areas of the United States, as awareness grows of their importance as a food source and habitat for wildlife.

Truax sees that in her own community, with the growing success of plant sales by her chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society. Sales are growing every year, she said, and this year’s sale was a record-breaker.

Tracking the garden on Plants Map

Truax has installed Plants Map tags in her garden. She keeps dedicated garden records and uses the collections feature to organize her plants. She even has a separate collection to keep track of all the critters she finds amid the plants.

She loves taking photos in the garden, and finds it helpful to be able to look back on her plant profiles at what a certain plant looked like a year ago.

The process of documenting her garden ultimately helps her to enjoy it more, she says.

“I think it teaches you about your garden and keeps you aware of it.”

It also helps her to keep her store of knowledge at the ready, so that she can share it with others.

“I feel very strongly that you can’t love what you don’t know, so teaching people about plants and the critters that love them, whether friends, neighbors, people I see on Skyline Drive or folks buying plants at our native plant sale, is a priority for me,” she said. “The more little ‘bits of interesting,’ as I call them, you can teach folks, the more they will understand why fighting for our native plants and the places they live matters.”

To learn more, follow Betty Truax’s profile on Plants Map.

Cover photo: Coreopsis lanceolata