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From Culver’s Root to Spiderwort, Virginia remains a garden paradise

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Virginia has a long and rich horticultural history. From Native Americans teaching early Western settlers about important food crops to the plant hunter John Tradescant, sent by King Charles the First of England, horticulture in the Virginia colonies is heavily documented starting in the 1600s. Specifically, plants collected in the colony were a source of wonder for Europeans experiencing American native plants of all kinds for the first time. So much so, that when Linnaeus began publishing his new, improved taxonomic system for naming plants in 1735, many American plants native to the East Coast were named after Virginia.

How can you tell if a plant is named for the Commonwealth? The clue is in the second part of the two-word Latin plant names. The first word in a botanical name indicates the genus the plant comes from and the second word is the “specific epithet.” A specific epithet is an adjective that describes that specific member of the genus. It can describe anything from a leaf characteristic to a flower color, but in some instances it describes the location of discovery, like Virginia.

Today many of these “Virginia” plants are terrific ornamental garden additions and, as you might have guessed, are happy to grow in the conditions found in the state for which they are named. These plants are also great functional additions to your garden. As native blooming plants, they can provide pollen and nectar for pollinators throughout the growing season. While the complete list of Virginia plants is too long to include here, the sampler list below may help you find a few to try in your own landscape.

Spring Blooms:

Mertensia virginica (Virginia Bluebells): A beautiful spring ephemeral with pinkish blue blooms that arrive in late March just when early moving bumble bee queens need a nectar source.

Chionanthus virginicus (Fringe Tree): A large shrub or small tree, this Virginia native delivers gorgeous white, fringe-like blooms and is a great substitute for, and a major upgrade from, the highly invasive Bradford pear tree.

Tradescantia virginiana (Spiderwort): With blooms from May through August, this front of the border perennial provides a lot of flower power for very little maintenance.

Chrysogonum virginianum (Green and Gold): A great ground cover in shade, the cheery yellow blooms on this plant have made it the ‘Favorite Native’ of the executive director of the Charlotte Botanical Garden.

Summer Blooms:

Itea virginica (Virginia Sweetspire): A shrub that begins blooming in June, varieties like ‘Henry’s Garnet’ have been bred to heighten the gorgeous red color of the foliage in fall.

Veronicastrum virginica (Culver’s Root): Tall candelabra-like blooms are mobbed by bees while strong stems help these perennials avoid any flopping in the back of the border.

Physostegia virginiana (Obedient Plant): The common name of this plant may be a bit deceptive. While the flower buds will obediently stay in the position you arrange them in, the species itself may spread from any spot you initially plant it in. Select varieties such as ‘Miss Manners’ if you really only want a small patch.

Fall Blooms:

Hamamelis virginiana (Witch Hazel): Smelling and seeing these blooms as most other plants are fading is delightful. With the right weather patterns, you can cut a few blooming branches for your Thanksgiving table centerpiece.

To find the detailed cultural needs and dimensions of each of these plants, visit the Missouri Botanical Gardens Plant Finder database at www.mobot.org/plantfinder. And when shopping for your very own ‘Virginia’ plants, please make sure you check the specific epithet to ensure you have the right one. Some of these genuses are enormous and include Asian invasives, so you want to see the ‘virginica’, ‘viriginicus’, ‘virginiana’, or ‘virginianum’ to know you’ve got the correct plant. Before long, you will have your very own piece of Virginia horticultural history in your own backyard.

Cathy McCarthy is a certified Master Gardener through the Virginia Cooperative Extension and a member of the Goochland Powhatan Master Gardener Association. If you are interested in learning more about GPMGA programs or how to become a master gardener volunteer please visit gpmga.org.

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