A Few of Rick Darke’s Favorite Nonnative Plants

Last weekend I attended Rick Darke’s wonderful talk about “Balancing Natives and Exotics in the Garden” and promised to report back from this special fund-raising event for Annapolis’s Unity Gardens.  So here are some Hot Tips for Plant Choices from someone who knows plants, knows ecology, and sees the big picture. (More about Rick’s big-picture thoughts in a later blog story.)

Choosing Nonnative Plants

  • Choose plants that grow well in your garden without inputs from you, the gardener (at least after they’re established).  These are the durable plants that are as close to self-sustaining as you can get.  His rule is if a plant can’t survive without his help after the first couple of years, he gets rid of it.
  • Ask what eco-services the plant provides.  No matter whether they’re native or not, most plants provide many services to the local ecology – like helping to prevent erosion, and providing cover for wildlife.
  • Just don’t introduce plants that are pests. 

So here are some of his favorite plants in his New Jersey garden, despite the fact that they’re not native to that part of the country.

Nonnative Plants

Shown in the photo above is ‘Arnold Promise’ Witch Hazel.  It blooms when we need it the most – winter – and is a hybrid of two Asian plants.  It’s the variety of witch hazel recommended most often for our region.


Viburnum carlesii, or Koreanspice Viburnum, Rick calls a “wonderful, highly functional exotic – and for cover, the birds can’t tell the difference.”  I grow them myself and really for fragrance, they CANNOT be beat. 

A Katsura tree has been growing in Rick’s garden for ages now, and he’s noticed that Orioles love nesting in it (wish I had the Oriole photo he showed us!).  Here’s more about Katsura from the New York Botanic Garden.

Oakleaf hydrangeas, which are commonly grown in Rick’s New Jersey region as a native,” are actually not.  They ARE native to the Southeast (the Carolinas and farther south) and they’re fabulous landscape plants here in the Mid-Atlantic region and in New Jersey, too.  In this photo you see their awesome fall foliage but after the leaves drop, we see their lovely exfoliating bark.  The bottle-brush-shaped flowers look good for about six months as they gradually dry.

Similarly, Amsonia hubrichtii is a fabulous perennial that’s native to the Southeast but grows extremely well farther north.  It’s loved for its foliage, especially in the fall.  (I’ve included three Amsonias in my new garden.)

The conifer Cryptomeria, common name Japanese cedar, is trouble-free, relatively fast-growing, and great for screening.   (I agree – it’s my favorite conifer and I have three in my small garden quickly providing privacy.) In these photos of a Cryptomeria in my former garden notice the nice pyramidal shape, and the unusual needles.  They’re actually soft to the touch!

Rick remembered for us when he was working at Longwood Gardens and they tried out the new import Sky Pencil Holly.  Because it’s such a highly functional addition to our landscapes, it’s now grown widely.  After all, how many plants – evergreen, no less – will grow to 8 feet tall but stay so narrow?

 Two plants often considered weeds – Chicory and Queen Anne’s Lace – have been here for over 300 years, grow only in disturbed areas, and are just fine with Rick.  And here the audience learned a new term – “ruderal.”  That means they’re the first species to colonize disturbed lands – exactly what Chicory and Queen Anne’s Lace accomplish.

Photo credits:  Arnold’s Promise Witch Hazel, Katsura, Viburnum carlesii, Queen Anne’s Lace, Sky Pencil Holly photo by and (c)2006 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man) at the Chanticleer Garden.