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Three natives to plant (or encourage) this fall for spring blooms
Copper iris, witch hazel, and violet.
By Lisa Brunette
There’s nothing so hopeful as an early spring flower, defiantly emerging out of the deadened winter landscape and signaling a renewal of life. Here in the St. Louis area, that usually means daffodils. These cheery trumpets sound off in early March to lift our collective spirits.
But as much as Anthony and I like our daffodils, we have to admit they don’t do much to provide food for pollinators and other insects here in the U.S. Most ornamental bulbs originated in Europe or elsewhere; they did not evolve alongside our native fauna, which tends to find them either outright toxic or regard them with indifference. These bulbs are not a viable food source; they’re just pretty little statues, really.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. A few tulip, daffodil, gladiolus, and other blooms in the spring garden can give you beauty and joy.
But if you want to help turn back the tide on habitat loss—one of the major factors cited in pollinator decline—you might add more natives to your landscape. While a lot of people think of native summer wildflowers first and foremost, I want to turn you on to a few spring bloomers you might not know.
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Copper Iris - Iris fulva
With long, slender, light green leaves topped by an audacious tuba spray of copper, I’m surprised every time I take a native-plant tour that this early spring bloom isn’t in more gardens. Native to the Midwest, copper iris is slow-growing at first, like a lot of native plants, but then explodes in its third year to give you stunning flowers.
It’s thrilling to see the bud begin to open in late May.
I put in one plant from a nursery seedling in 2019, and by spring of 2021, it had already divided and spread, giving me a little corner of audacious spring flowers. The blooms are pretty astounding!
Ozark Witch Hazel - Hamamelis vernalis
The very first bloom of the spring is something of an oddity. Ozark witch hazel blooms as early as late February, with crinkled orange streamers around a yellow center. Besides the funky-looking bloom, the odd factor comes in two other ways: 1) the early bloom time and 2) the fact that what pollinates this late-winter flower is a bit of a mystery. February is bad timing for most pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, as they tend to emerge later in spring. So what pollinates witch hazel? Perhaps hoverflies, which take advantage of warm winter days to forage for pollen.
Ozark witch hazel is also a rare plant: Out of the entire world, it’s found in only five U.S. states: Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. We added three Ozark witch hazels to our garden, one from a nursery and two seedlings from the Missouri Department of Conservation (costing only $1 each, yo, through Wild Ones). They suffered some initial damage from rabbits at first, but then all three thrived… until the utility company cut back foliage, which removed the shade on our biggest bush. It perished, tragically, during the drought in the summer of 2022. RIP, witch hazel, which was once tall and robust enough to support squash vines clambering up its branches. You might want to give yours more reliable shade!
Witch hazel is a great permaculture plant because of its dual role as a support for native animals and insects and its popularity in the medicine cabinet. You can make an astringent from the bark, and it’s historically been used to treat hemorrhoids, sore muscles, coughs, and other ailments1. Removing the bark kills the tree, however, so sources recommend using only pruned or fallen limbs.
Violets - Viola sororia
I’ve sung praises about violets before, in our post on making use of the petals on spring ephemerals.
They’re also valuable in the home landscape as a host plant for fritillary butterflies, and as a ground cover to replace turf grass, they can’t be beat. With so many beneficial aspects, and pretty little white- or royal purple-and-yellow blooms to boot, how could you not desire violets in your home landscape?
In some regions, the violets are likely to show up of their own accord, too. Yeah, that’s right; this is one flower you might not have to plant yourself! Our ubiquitous violet ground cover is 100 percent volunteer and lasts from spring to fall. So maybe all you have to do is not dig them up.
I hope these three suggestions for spring-blooming flowers you can plant this autumn inspire you to the possibilities in your own garden. Hopefully, you can take advantage of the many fall plant sales in your region. Here in St. Louis, we’re lucky to have offerings sponsored by the St. Louis Audubon Society, Wild Ones, Missouri Botanical Garden, and other non-profits with a mission to promote native-plant landscaping.
What spring-blooming natives are your favorites?