Category Archives: native plants

American Pokeweed: Weed, Ornamental, or Herb?

mature pokeweed berries

A common sight in Virginia now are the purple berries hanging from green shrubs along the roadside. American pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) is an herbaceous perennial, considered a weed by most gardeners. Pokeweed is easy to find on roadsides, fields, and ditches. From summer to fall, pokeweed blooms small white flowers on peduncles (stems) making them stick out.

In the fall, the berries appear first as flatten green balls with a dimple in the center on hot pink racemes. Later, they inflate to deep purple, ¼-inch balls on red racemes. The contrast of purple and red or green and pink is so pretty that pokeweed is often used for fall floral arrangements.

immature pokeweed berries

The plant itself lends to a small tree shape. It could be shaped into a striking, well-branched miniature “tree.” There are variegated varieties which are especially ornamental. I discovered ‘Silverstein’ at the outdoor gardens of the U.S. Botanic Garden in DC.

Pokeweed berries are attractive but it is important to know that all parts of the mature plant are poisonous. Some people even get rashes from touching the plant. If you have children or see pokeweed in areas where children frequent such as school playgrounds, you should remove the plants so they are not tempted to eat the purple berries. Pull the thick stems after a rain when the soil is loose and when the plants are young. Mature plants develop taproots, making them difficult to remove completely.

American pokeweed is a native American herb. Native Americans used the plant for medicinal purposes such as a cardiac stimulant, for cancer treatment, and for rheumatism, epilepsy, and neurological disorders. The young green shoots and leaves can be cooked and eaten like spinach or asparagus (only the young part, not the mature parts). The ink from the fruit was used as writing ink or clothes dye. The plant is an excellent source of food for birds, which is why it “pokes” up in so many places. This native American plant has a fascinating history in our American culture.

When pokeberry appears in your garden, consider its many uses. You can treat it like a weed and remove it or keep it as a native plant and let the birds enjoy the berries.

A variegated form called “Silverstein’ at the U.S. Botanic Garden

Native Paw Paw Trees

Paw paw flowers in the spring

Paw paw season is around the corner! Paw paws (Asimina triloba) are native trees that bear fruit in August, September, and October. Fruit of cultivated trees look very similar to mangos—green, kidney-shaped, and about 6 inches long and 3 inches wide. They have a variety of common names such as Indiana banana, poor man’s banana, and bandango.

When cut in half, the interior of a paw paw fruit reveals a yellow, custard-like pulp with two rows of large seeds. Paw paws can weigh from ½ to 1 pound. Technically a berry, they are the largest North American edible fruit. Paw paws taste like a cross between a banana and a mango with a splash of pineapple. They can be eaten raw or used in ice cream, pudding, smoothies, butter (such as apple butter), baked goods like cookies and pies, and even beer, brandy, and wine!

From Florida to Texas, north to New York, and west to Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska, paw paws are native to 26 states and grow as understory trees in hardwood forests near streams and rivers. In the wild, the trees grow to 15 to 30 feet and sucker, creating colonies. Reminiscent of cucumber magnolias, they have foot-long, dark green leaves. Unlike other fruit trees, paw paw trees are not subject to a high level of pests and diseases.

Paw Paws in American History and Folklore

Paw paw trees are part of American history and folklore. Jamestown colonists wrote about them in the 1600s. John Lawson, an Englishman, described them in his travels in the Carolinas in the 1700s. Danielle Boone enjoyed eating them. Members of the Lewis and Clark expedition ate paw paws for pleasure as well as sustenance. George Washington grew paw paw trees at Mount Vernon and ate the fruit as dessert. Thomas Jefferson grew them and sent seeds to his colleagues in Europe.  William Bartram, a naturalist, described the trees in Bartram’s Travels. His father, John Bartram, a botanist, sent seeds to Europe. During the Civil War, soldiers as well as African American slaves collected the fruit in the wild to supplement their meager diets. There is even a popular folk song called “Way Down Yonder in the Paw Paw Patch” about collecting ripe paws paws from the ground and putting them in a basket.

Paw paw fruit develop in clusters

Finding Paw Paw Trees and Fruit

Currently, Washington DC residents can see paw paw trees in the wild along the C&O Canal and Potomac River and as native plant representatives in public gardens. There are paw paw trees at the Smithsonian Pollinator Garden, next to the National Museum of Natural History, and at the U.S. Botanic Garden’s Bartholdi Park and their National Garden’s Regional Garden of Mid-Atlantic Native Plants. 

Although paw paws are part of American heritage, you may not find them in grocery stores. When the fruit is ripe enough to eat, it drops to the ground and is highly perishable. The thin skin bruises easily, discoloring to black. Paw paws are best eaten immediately or preserved by removing and freezing the pulp. You may find them at local farmers markets in peak season and you will definitely find them at paw paw events across the country in the fall.

Growing Paw Paws in the Home Landscape

Paw paw fruits can be eaten raw

“There is a paw paw renaissance now,” said Michael Judd, owner of Ecologia, an edible and ecological landscaping service in Frederick, MD. Author of Edible Landscape with a Permaculture Twist and For the Love of Paw Paws, Michael hosts an annual paw paw festival in September  as well as other paw paw related events (see his website). “I call the paw paw an edible landscape all-stars because the tree is very attractive, low maintenance, and very fruitful.”

As native, hardy trees, paw paws can be grown in typical suburban plots. “Paw paws grow easily here,” said Michael. “This is paw paw country.” Although they are not self-fertile, that is, there must be two trees to cross pollinate to produce fruit, one can trim the trees to fit in residential properties. Michael recommends growing the trees in full sun, 10 to 12 feet apart, and cutting the central leader back to keep the trees at 8 feet. This shorten stature also makes them easier to harvest the fruit. Therefore, homeowners could have two 8-foot trees in the yard producing 50 pounds of fruit each year. If full sun is not possible, they can grow in part shade but will produce less fruit.

Paw paw trees have a pyramidal shape

Michael recommends purchasing either a grafted tree, a select seedling, or a specific cultivar. Starting from seed takes years to produce fruit. Also starting from a wild paw paw seed will result in less than desirable fruit. The taste of wild paw paws varies plus the fruit is small with a poor pulp to seed ratio.  Breeders spend years selecting desirable characteristics such as large fruit, a high pulp to seed ratio (more pulp, less seed), and good flavor.

You can’t go wrong planting paw paws. They are native, deer resistant trees that provide fruit and pretty yellow fall color. “Paw paw trees are very ornamental, they have a beautiful pyramidal shape,” explained Michael. “The leaves turn to a beautiful yellow golden color in the fall and when the leaves drop they reveal a tree with nice architecture in the winter.”

All photos taken by Michael Judd.

New Maryland Native Plants Program

Buttonbush, a Maryland native plant

Good news for Maryland! The Maryland General Assembly passed HB950 which is legislation designed to establish the Maryland Native Plants Program. The goal is to encourage and promote the use and sale of plants native to Maryland at certain businesses and to educate the public on native plants. The Department of Agriculture will administer the program in coordination with the University of Maryland Extension (UME). The UME will hire an extension agent to serve as a native plant specialist for certain educational purposes. The UME also will create a specific website on native plants. A commercial Maryland native plant list will be established as well as a voluntary certification program for growers and retailers to be identified either as a Maryland Native Plant Grower or a Maryland Native Plant Retailer or both.

The bill has been approved by the governor and will take effect in July 2024. Here is a current list of Maryland Native Plants on the UME website.

Carolina Allspice: Native, Deer-resistant, Summer-flowering Shrub

I have always admired Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus), a deciduous shrub that flowers in the summer.  This is such a beautiful plant I don’t know why other people don’t grow it more often. Native to the southeast region, Carolina allspice grows 5 to 8 feet tall, is deer resistant, and has no major pests and/or diseases.

The green leaves are relatively large for such a small bush. The mahogany red flowers bloom all summer long.  Pollinated by beetles, the 2-inch flowers look like a cross between a star magnolia (outer strap-shaped petals) and a lotus (curved inner petals with a central, raised button). In the fall, the leaves turn golden yellow.

These are understory shrubs meaning that they prefer to grow under the shade of tree canopy. Mine is under mulberry trees, or rather weeds, so it receives partial sun. They are well branched and respond well to pruning. They do not seem to be fussy about the soil other than wanting well drained soil.

Since 2016, my cultivar ‘Aphrodite’ has performed well and is in full bloom this month. The flowers are redder than the species and are supposed to smell like apples. I don’t detect this outside but if I were to cut them and bring them inside, the heat of the house seems to make them more fragrant.

The flowers can be cut for arrangements or for water bowls. When it was young, the flowers did not have a scent but I had read that young plants do not always have a fragrance. Apparently this attribute comes with maturity. The flower scent varies with plant so the other cultivars below may have a slightly different fragrance although they are all pleasant.

The leaves, bark and root are equally fragrant but more like camphor. If you crush the leaves or scratch the bark, there is a pleasant, almost lemony, camphor scent which reminds me of a friend who would put eucalyptus branches in her car for the heat to release the pleasant scent.

Mark Catesby, an English botanist who traveled the New World is credited with introducing the shrub during his colonial explorations. He said the bark was as “odoriferous as cinnamon” although I think the scent is more like a cross between lemon and camphor.  The dried flowers, leaves, and branches can be used for potpourris.

Carolina allspice is a great shrub for the Washington DC metro area. I recommend ‘Aphrodite’ but there are other cultivars on the market as well such as:
Athens: yellow chartreuse flowers
Burgundy Spice: burgundy colored flowers and leaves
Venus: white flowers and is more compact
Hartlage Wine: red blossoms with small yellow markings and larger at 12 feet.

Look for this at your local garden center and add one or two to your garden. You will be pleasantly surprised!

Virginia Bluebell Season Is Almost Here!

Virginia bluebell season is around the corner so plan now to see carpets of this ephemeral wildflower here in Virginia. Although mid-April has been the peak time in the past, it may come earlier since we had such a mild winter. Here are a few places in Northern Virginia to view colonies of bluebells; some places are already reporting blossoms now in March.

Bluebells (Mertensia virginica) are synonymous with early spring. Their blue trumpet-shaped flowers bloom above the green foliage in deciduous woodlands before the trees leaf out. These perennials emerge early in the year, bloom for a few weeks in March or April, and then die back to become dormant in the summer. The plants like the moist soil of the forest, high in organic matter. They self-seed and create colonies which is why you will see carpets of blue in the parks below. If you look closely, you will see that the buds are pink opening up to blue but the overall effect is a blue haze. These are native wildflowers, but you can purchase the plants from nurseries.

Balls Bluff Regional Battlefield Park (Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority), Balls Bluff Road, Leesburg.

Bull Run Regional Park (Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority), 7700 Bull Run Drive, Centerville. This park has a Bluebell Trail just off the Bull Run Occoquan Trail near the Atlantis Waterpark.

Great Falls Park (National Park Service), 9200 Old Dominion Drive, McLean.

Manassas National Battlefield Park (National Park Service), 6511 Sudley Road, Manassas. Best view is from the Stone Bridge.

Merrimac Farm (Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries), 15014 Deepwood Lane, Nokesville.

Riverbend Park (Fairfax County Park Authority), 8700 Potomac Hills Street, Great Falls. Riverbend Park is celebrating bluebells on Saturday, April 8, 2023, from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm. There is a fee for attending this family event; however, the public can visit anytime to view the bluebells.

Scott’s Run Nature Preserve (Fairfax County Park Authority). 7400 Georgetown Park, McLean.

Turkey Run Park (National Park Service), George Washington Memorial Parkway, McLean.

Deer-Resistant, Fall-Blooming Obedient Plant

Obedient Plant

Obedient Plant

A familiar fall bloomer in this area is obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana). These remind me of early American gardens: Thomas Jefferson grew these Native American perennials at Monticello, and George Washington had plantings at Mt. Vernon. Philadelphia plantsman John Bartram also grew them and sold them in his catalog. They are passalong plants, easily divided and shared.  My plants came from a friend who pulled a clump from her garden several years ago. My original plant has thrived and spread via rhizomes (underground stems) but only a few feet in the same garden bed. Not too much but just enough to provide extra plants to share and abundant flowers to cut for an arrangement. Continue reading

A Little Patch of Wildflowers

wildflowersThis spring I had an opportunity to create a wildflower meadow on my property. It is rare to have a blank slate to be able to start a wildflower meadow: an area with good soil and no plants, including no weeds. I was inspired by Mike Lizotte who showed photos and gave step by step instructions on Instagram. Owner of American Meadows, an online seed company, Mike wrote a book called Mini Meadows: Grow a Little Patch of Colorful Flowers Anywhere Around Your Yard. He shows how easy it is to sow wildflower seeds and grow a patch of beautiful flowers for the summer. Continue reading