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LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: Useful knowledge, tips and garden additions will bloom at the 2016 Native Plant Festival

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Gwenyfar brushes up on horticulture with the Native Plant Sale this weekend.

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remember sitting in Valerie Robertson’s kitchen a few years ago trying to muster the courage to take a spoonful of the dark brown semi-frozen fruit that was lying on a plate before me like a deformed and abused slug. There were a variety of thoughts rushing through my head:

Be adventurous and give it a try—you will probably like it.

It’s probably a lot like corset (a food from the Passover Seder): looks awful but tastes great!

Most notably: How much do you trust Valerie that she got this right and isn’t going to accidentally poison you?

NATURAL NATIVES: Kitty Bass, Bonni Cutler, Mary Jane Lehman, and Nancy Leone pose in masks they’ve made for young sprouts (kids) heading to the 2016 Native Plant Festival. Courtesy photo.

NATURAL NATIVES: Kitty Bass, Bonni Cutler, Mary Jane Lehman, and Nancy Leone pose in masks they’ve made for young sprouts (kids) heading to the 2016 Native Plant Festival. Courtesy photo.

My friend Valerie Robertson is a person who surprises those who take the time to get to know her. Most people make a variety of assumptions about the quiet, thoughtful lady with bright, big eyes and very long hair. Once time is invested, she turns out to be anything but what’s first expected—and friendship with her is a constant source of unexpected delight. Whether she is launching Cape Fear’s Going Green, a magazine dedicated to environmental awareness and uplift, or dropping by your house with a basket full of avocados to cheer up a bad day, she is guaranteed to enroll you in whatever has her excited at the moment. That is how I found myself on another adventure with her, trying pawpaw for the first time.

I decided I trusted her enough to call 911 in the event of disaster and managed to get the first spoonful into my mouth. It tasted like piña colada!  Well, if I was going to die, at least this would be enjoyable. I joke. It was awesome. Valerie had brought home several varieties of frozen pawpaw to eat and we had one of the best afternoons I can recall sampling each (one tasted like custard pudding and another like ice cream) and discussing how we were each going to grow pawpaw trees so we could enjoy this all the time.

Pawpaw trees are native plants for the area, but the fruit is so delicate it doesn’t ship well and consequently is rarely seen in markets. Occasionally, at events like a native plant festival or a pawpaw festival, folks can find someone selling frozen fruits. My advice: If the opportunity arises, buy some­—they are heavenly.

I was reminded of all of this when Valerie asked if I was going to the Native Plant Festival this year. I confessed I didn’t know we had one. Apparently, it is in year two and is the brainchild of master gardener Catherine Nesbit and Charley Winterbauer, president of the Cape Fear Audubon Society. Valerie recounts that Nesbit’s house is “on a bluff, overlooking one of our waterways, and her whole garden is nothing but native plants. She opened her house for the Master Gardeners’ Garden Tour, and found many shared her interest in natives and wanted to learn more.”

Naturally, I wondered why native plants are so important. More over why should they be a factor in the decision of what goes into one’s yard?

Valerie says, “Once established, native plants require very little attention; they don’t need fertilizer, insecticides or pesticides, and rarely need additional water. They’re perfect for those who want beautiful plantings that are low maintenance.”

She added from a homeowner’s standpoint, spending less on watering is a plus, as is not buying new plants every year. “Most natives are perennials or reseed every year—and they’re so resilient, I can relax when neighbor kids accidently run through the flowers. If damaged, they’ll come back like new next year with no effort on my part.”

She adds that from a homeowner’s standpoint, spending less on watering is a plus, as is not buying new plants every year. “Most natives are perennials or reseed every year…. and they’re so resilient, I can relax when neighbor kids accidently run through the flowers—if damaged, they’ll come back like new next year with no effort on my part.”

Valerie already had me convinced, but the larger picture she described seemed even more appealing. She began with the innerworkings of ecosystems.

“Wildlife depends on a rich and diverse ecosystem, not only for food, but for shelter and nesting habitat,” she noted. “Native plants in the wild form a healthy and biodiverse ecosystem that is stable, resists pest outbreaks and supports a variety of species.” 

All good points. Once Valerie began speaking about trees—appealing to my love for them—I was all ears.

“As our local population has grown, we have cut down trees and cleared brush that sustain native birds, reptiles, mammals, butterflies and bees and all manner of beneficial insects,”  she stated. “If you hope to feed the birds, there’s no better way than to plant natives that attract the beneficial insects they depend on for food for themselves and their young.”

Just to give the rest of us a little help, Valerie provided examples of native plants that we can grow ourselves:

Native plants for ornamentals:

Yellow and purple coneflowers (Rudbeckia and Echinacea species), summer-blooming perennials rich in nectar for pollinators.

American wisteria (Wisteria frutescens), a lovely slower-growing (not invasive) wisteria whose flowers are shaped like elongated snowballs. It’s also a larval plant for skippers.

Joe pye weed (Eutrochium species) is a late summer bloomer for moist soil—a good candidate for rain gardens.

Native plants for food (of course, all native plants are food for critters of one sort or another, but if we’re talking about food plants for humans as well):

Pawpaw. Most of us haven’t tasted pawpaw because the fruit of this tree is so delicate when ripe that it cannot be shipped to grocery stores. (Imagine trying to ship a perfectly ripe peach without destroying it.) But I’ve seen it growing near water in Brunswick and Pender counties.

Persimmons. We are accustomed to the large Asian persimmons available at the market, but the smaller native persimmon fruits can be very tasty. There are trees along College Road that bear delicious fruit, especially after a cold snap.

Blueberries are native to North Carolina, and there is actually a blueberry bee that has evolved specifically to pollinate blueberry plants.

Muscadine grapes. I grew up eating Muscadine jelly, which my grandmother made from native grapes.

Native plants for herbs:

Bee balm; its dried flowers are used to make a calming tea.

Echinacea is very high in vitamin C; its roots and flowers can be dried and used to make into a tea—good for fighting viruses and colds.

Plantain (the leafy kind, not the kind that looks like a banana) grows as a weed. It can be eaten as a salad green or used as a cooked green. It tastes a little like spinach.

For anyone interested in learning more about useful and sometimes delicious native plants—and even buy a few—the second annual free Native Plant Festival is coming up on September 10, 9 a.m. – 4 p.m., at New Hanover County Arboretum, 6206 Oleander Dr.

Come celebrate native plants of the Cape Fear and learn how to incorporate them into a garden. There will be activities for adults and children, native-plant vendors, a seed swap, and displays and presentations by local experts. Susan Savia will provide the tunes, while a food truck will be onsite offering vegetarian options. There will also be a series of guest speakers:

9:15 a.m. – 10:15 a.m.: John Taggart’s  “Coastal Plant Communities”

10:15 a.m. – 11:15 a.m.: Roger Shew’s “Medicinal and Other, Uses of Native Plants from Southeastern NC”

11:15 a.m. – 12:15 p.m.: Sam Marshall’ Landscaping with Native Plants

12:15 p.m. – 1:15 p.m.: Melanie Doyle’s “Invasives”

1:15 p.m. – 2:15 p.m.: Evan Folds’ “Grow Soil, Not Just Plants!”

2:15 p.m. – 3:15 p.m.: Beth Sheppard’s “Pollinators”

3:15 p.m. – 4 p.m.: Jill Peleuses and Charley Winterbauer present “Birdscaping: Landscaping for Birds”

For more on the Native Plant Festival, call 910-547-4390 or visit www.arboretum.nhcgov.com/events/native-plant-festival.

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