Eloise Butler


Cultivation of Native Plants

by Eloise Butler, 1912

In planning a home, comfort, utility and the essentials for healthful living - light, air, drainage - must be provided for; but all these can be obtained without the sacrifice of beauty, about “the best thing God invented.” To observe the principles of good taste does not entail greater expense but merely forethought. The laws of artistry are well known to lovers of the beautiful. Why cannot they be followed by everyone, and why should anything ugly be tolerated? Every home should be a joy to the eye, every block a harmonious picture, every street a visa of enchantment, the horizon framing a scene of splendor. To make this ideal possible, a duly qualified art commission should be appointed to supervise the buildings of the city, and all owners of adjacent grounds should consult one another and submit their plans to this commission for approval. As it is, everything is done at hap-hazard, and harmonious results are achieved, if at all, by happy accident.

Wild cucumber
Wild Cucumber
Echinocystis lobata

A house should be adapted to the site and the environment, harmonizing in color and mode of architecture with the neighboring buildings. The living rooms should be so arranges as to command the most beautiful prospects, including, if possible, sunrise and sunset. But what has all this to do with the cultivation of plants? Everything, for the decorative features of one’s grounds should not be meaningless tags, but a part of an integral whole.

Strive to retain the natural features of the site, for you can seldom improve upon nature. In the clearing of land for building, notable plants are often destroyed that cannot be restored for a price. The best intentioned efforts in grading and planting have the taint of artificiality and are stiff and commonplace compared with the inimitable graces that nature, the greatest landscape architect, has for so many years perfected. Instead of staling the infinite variety of nature by reducing the land to a monotonous level, we should cherish the native plants, boulders and outcropping ledges - the harbors of ferns, mosses and lichens - and irregularities of surface that afford differences in light, exposure and moisture, and thus make possible a greater variety of vegetation.

Unfortunately, most people cannot begin anew, but can improve only or make the best of what they have. It is not necessary to call to your attention certain principles of planting, too often disregarded: that trees and shrubbery should harmonize with the lines of architecture and connect the buildings with the ground, and be confined in the main, especially in restricted areas, to the vicinity of the walls of the building and to the borders of lawns and paths. Shrubs and flower beds otherwise placed have a patchy effect and dwarf the space. If privacy were no object, spaciousness would be best attained by treating adjacent lawns as one. Plants should also be selected with reference to color, form, size, beauty of foliage, flower or fruit, for succession of bloom and all the year-around effects - for winter is not cheerless and devoid of color. A landscape with the delicate tracery of deciduous trees against the sky, gleaming with the red, green and gold stems of shrubs hung with fruit ranging from white to blue, red and purplish black, set off by snow and the dark green foliage of evergreens, I, for one, would not exchange for perpetually blooming roses.

Avoid, above all, imported plants of unusual color, like the copper beech and the weeping trees, or plants trimmed into formal or fantastic shapes. In general, native species should be used, for plants torn from their natural setting may strike a false note in the landscape. There are many plants just as effective as the cultivated canna, castor bean, crimson rambler, fall hydrangea, golden glow, admirable in themselves, that now pall upon the taste by reason of monotonous reiteration.

Red Maple
Red Maple
Acer rubrum

Outside of the city there is no excuse for ugliness. If you own a tract of land in the country that you can afford to keep for a pleasure ground, you have a source of perennial pleasure. The most attractive adjuncts of a place are always the native ones. You will never go astray if you endeavor to maintain the indigenous flora of brook, pond and lakeside, bog, meadow, rocky slope, wood and prairie, since each is beautiful and peculiar to itself and exemplifies unity in variety, an essential of good art. Your favorite plants can be introduced and will flourish if properly placed. You will learn what to transplant and where by observing the conditions under which the species grow most luxuriantly. Many plants, however, can adapt themselves, within certain limits, to different life-relations. You can often better the conditions, for seeds scattered by accident may have germinated where the wind, or other agent of dispersal, listeth [where it chose]. Besides giving your transplants the environment they prefer, you can enrich the soil, discourage competition by thinning out and improve the breed, or produce new varieties, by grafting or cross-pollination.

It would be impossible to enumerate in this paper the native plants desirable for cultivation, so great is their number. I have prepared, therefore, for publication in your official periodical, a lists (sic) to which you can refer, if interested in the subject.

In regards to trees, much depends upon the space available. They should be selected with an eye to scenic effects and for durability. Keeping these two points in mind, since each species has individual merit, one will make no mistake if he indulges his preferences in habit of growth, foliage, flower, fruit or autumnal coloring. Evergreens are admirable in winter but must be placed discretely to avoid somberness. Oaks, elms, hackberry, basswood, hard maple are all splendid trees. The red maple (Acer rubrum), although a soft wood species, well repays cultivations. It glows like a torch in the spring with its vivid flowers and fruits, and turns a gorgeous red even before frosts set in. Another small tree, black alder or holly (Ilex verticillata), is extremely pleasing by reason of its wealth of red berries.

As for small trees or notable shrubs, their name is legion: the wild crab, plum, cherry and Juneberry, decorative in flower and in fruit and of culinary value, as well; the wahoo, a veritable burning bush; the wild roses and dogwoods, whose bright stems warm the snow and display together the national colors in their fruit; and the viburnums, among them the high bush cranberry with its large flower clusters made up of blossoms that produce the scarlet, acid drupes, rimmed by a row of larger, neutral blooms. Man has transformed these clusters entirely into neural flowers, making the snowball, uninteresting and pompous with its big heads, that are of no use to him or birds and of much less beauty than those of the wilding.

In plant decoration, vines are especially important. Picturesque and graceful, they disguise faults of architecture, cover bare, unsightly places, relieve stiff formality, and furnish shelter - and often food - for birds. Room can always be found for vines on wall, fence or screen, and if one is not over-precise or neat, he will leave here and there an upstanding trunk of a dead tree to support them and for homes for wren or bluebird - delightful songsters with endearing ways. As one recalls the luxuriant growth of the wild grape, the resplendent autumnal coloring of the Virginia creeper, the persistent, brilliant berries of the bittersweet, the profuse white flowers and grayish, fluffy plumes of the clematis, he will want them all.


Above: Boneset, Eupatorium perfoliatum

For the most part, perennial herbs are to be preferred to annals, for, when once established, they will require but little care. Some annuals, however, will seed themselves. Of especial value is the sensitive, or partridge, pea (Cassia chamaecrista) [now Chamaecrista fasciculata ]. The foliage is refined, the flowers large, of bright, clear yellow with brown centers. Cleome serrulata, [Spider flower or Rocky Mountain Beeplant] another annual - although the odor of the foliage is somewhat rank - is sure to please, because it attains a large growth and produces for more than a fortnight a profusion of pink, feathery blooms.

Partridge Pea
Partridge Pea
Chamaecrista fasciculata

Your choice of herbaceous plants should be regulated by the light exposures, for you can change the soil and provide the needed moisture if you care to take the trouble. On the north side of buildings, or wherever there is shade, ferns can be planted. They will take the place of the early flowers, which are chiefly shade plants. All are delightful, from the tall, lush osmundas to the tiny crevice, or rock, ferns, with their exquisitely cut foliage and their cool, restful tones of green. With herbs on small grounds, a succession of bloom must be planned for. On a large estate, where conditions are varied, this point does not need to be considered. nature will attend to it.

By all means leave some grasses and sedges unmown. They soften hard edges, and nothing is lovelier in winter than their waving plumes, transfigured at times with hoar frost, ice crystals or snow.

The early flowers are usually delicately tinted - far otherwise are those of mid and late summer. Then, nature uses blues and white to tone down the garish reds and yellows and to harmonize discordant colors. White flowers in succession, of all heights and adapted to different situations, can easily be obtained. Among them - to mention only a few - are the Canadian anemone, the filmy northern bedstraw, starry campions, larkspur with ethereal wands, the stately late meadow rue, the late-blooming eupatorium and the huge cow parsnip (Heracleum lanatum) [Heracleum maximum preferred today]. Photo below.

Cow Parsnip

For other perennials you can consult the printed list. [This list is not repeated here but covered 4 pages in the original journal.] I would mention particularly our native phloxes, blue and pink - social plants, excellent for massing; the pale-leaved bright-flowered Aster sericeus, [now Symphyotrichum sericeum, the Silky Aster] and the better known New England aster, of especial value on account of its height and large, richly-colored flowers; the cardinal flower, of incomparable hue; the wondrous orchids; our glorious lilies; the unique closed gentians; the wild sunflowers; the tall, profusely flowered sneezeweed; and the great St. Johnswort, whose large blossoms are as lovely as yellow roses by reason of their innumerable stamens.

To procure these plants I should deplore a reckless despoliation of the wilderness. Many of them can be found in neglected places, or where it is the intention to till the soil, or to lay out roads in the march of improvements. They are also cultivated by a number of nurserymen and florists, who offer them for sale.