Monday, February 20, 2012

Book Review: Armitage's Native Plants

Today I am joining HolleyGarden at Roses and Other Gardening Joys for Garden Book Reviews.

Armitage's Native Plants for North American Gardens is a book of encyclopedia-style listings of perennials native to North America.  In general this style of book strikes me as rather dry but I find it useful to have a few reference books in the garden "library".  I tend to start wanting a plant when I see a great photo or read someone's personal  account of it.  Usually, it's when I read "I love this plant for its fragrance" or "it's covered with butterflies" or "brings back memories of grandmother's garden," rather than "this plant lived through deer browsing and survived poor drainage over the winter."  So most of the plants I fall in love with in theory are not necessarily well-suited to whatever conditions I have to give them.  It's useful to have a comprehensive listing where I can specifics.  Armitage's Native Plants is particularly useful to me in this way because Allan Armitage also talks about his experiences gardening in different climates and frequently describes why a certain plant did better in one location than another.

This book also particularly appeals to me because I am already committed to a love of native plants.  I have both natives and non-natives in my garden, but I am always eager to add more native plants.  In fact, I think I am more into native plants that the author of the book, who includes 6 pages of thought provoking musings on native plants in the preface.  Here he explains that the book is "not written for native plant enthusiasts" but for "my daughters ... who would love to try some native plants but don't know where to start."  I believe this distinction is aimed mainly at explaining Armitage's choice of which plants to cover.  He mostly limits his selections to plants that are relatively easy to obtain (although a few rarer ones are thrown in that he particularly likes), and also covers popular cultivars and hybrids between native species in the species accounts.  I definitely understand why some native plant enthusiasts may be put off by the inclusion of cultivars and hybrids, but from the standpoint of availability I agree that it's practical to include them, and I have found this information very useful when trying to determine the species of incompletely-labeled plants I see in catalogs or the nursery.

The entries in this book have all the standard information you would expect to have in such a book, including the basics like sun and soil requirements and USDA hardiness zones.  Additionally, every entry also includes information about the native habitat, which I find even more useful for making an educated guess whether a particular plant will do well in my garden.  The organization of the book is alphabetical by genus, with detailed entries about the most available species in the genus and then a briefer listing of additional less-available species and hybrids.  Each species account is chock full of information excluding extensive lists of cultivars or selections (as well as the straight species) with notes on their garden performance.  Entries also include usage or design tips.  For example Vernonia noveboracensis (New York Ironweed) is described as "a knockout" in bloom but its seven-foot height makes it "more at home in an informal setting" or as "an architechtural feature."  An eye-opening description (for me) accompanies his description of Aster divaricarus.  I had tried to grow this plant already and had already noted that its small blooms would work better in combination with another plant than as a stand-alone garden feature.  However, the extreme floppiness of the stems had put me off and left me beginning to understand why not everyone likes native plants as well as I do.  However, I experienced a minor epiphany when I read Armitage's account and found that he values it specifically for its prostrate habit.  He explains, "since they are prostrate, plants may be placed in the shade of larger plants, and they will grow up and out from the plant."  Now I envision planting it beneath a shrub where it will serve as a "shoes and socks" plant in the fall the way small bulbs do in the spring.

Finally, another great feature of each entry is propagation tips, often by more than one method.  After reading this book, I'm going to try propagating my amsonia by cuttings this year.  It sounds very easy and and I think I'm more likely to actually do this than propagate it by seed, but instructions for both are included.  Instructions for propagation by division are also included, and probably would be easiest of all, except that I don't think my plant is mature enough, which is why I think it's useful to have all the options listed.

One of the best things about this book is Armitage's sense of humor.  I once was lucky enough to see Allan Armitage in person, presenting a talk and slideshow at a local garden event.  His humor and love of plants made this a memorable talk.  In Armitage's Native Plants, his sense of humor pokes out over and over again, even in such a nuts-and-bolts kind of book.  Here is the listing for propagation of Gentiana andrewsii (Bottle gentian) by division:"If a fine colony is established, leave it alone."  And a usage tip (sort of) about yuccas,  "Without a doubt, if they make a Mexican food joint look better, think what they will do for your garden."  In fact, Armitage is unabashedly opinionated and I like that even though I don't always agree with him.  For example, Armitage makes it clear that he doesn't really like milkweeds (Asclepias) but does a good job covering them anyway.  

The only real disagreement I have with this book is with some of the points in the prologue.  Armitage rants "The way some people equate natives with godliness is scary....  If you are going to lecture me about natives behaving themselves, do so while you help me get rid of milkweed and northern sea oats.  They must have missed that lesson."  While I agree with Armitage that natives can be annoyingly aggressive or even destructive to a garden bed (I would add "obedient plant" to the examples he gives), I think it's hugely important to make a distinction between plants being aggressive in a garden setting and plants that are invasive.  Invasive plants can spread into wild areas and crowd out native vegetation, doing irreparable harm to local ecosystems.  If you plant a locally native plant and it spreads out of control in your garden like a weed, it still is not harming local ecosystems, because it is already there along with its natural checks and balances.  However, this is a complex topic probably for another post, and a disagreement with a comment in the prologue is really is neither here nor there in terms of the enjoyment and usefulness I get out of this book.  Like I said, though, the musings he shares in the prologue are all thought provoking.  Anyone who has an opinion on native plants, one way or the other, would find it interesting to read these pages.  The frustrating thing is that it's like half a conversation, and it's hard to talk back!

Still, it's Armitage's personality that makes this a great book.  Unlike most encyclopedia of garden plants, this book is fun to actually read (maybe not cover-to-cover, but in chunks at least).  Like I said at the beginning, personal descriptions of plants tend to draw me in, and this book has those too.  Here's how Armitage describes Pycnanthemum incanum (hoary mountain mint).  "This was the first species [of Pynanthemum] I encountered, and immediately I had to have it for my garden... I never walked by it without giving a leaf or two a gentle rub between thumb and forefinger.  Nor did any visitors to the garden escape un-minted."  After reading this enthusiastic description, I had to have it too, especially when, armed with the information I had read in this book, I was able to recognize it at a local plant sale shortly thereafter.  This is one of those plants (probably like many in this book) that don't look like much in a pot at a plant sale, but it was even better than I hoped in my garden.  Here are three views of it.  The closeup shows that the flowers are not really showy, but it's actually a powdery white texture on the leaves surrounding the blossom that really make this plant awesome.  You can see in the long view how it glows against the dark background of the shady part of my yard.  In the mid-range view, you can see how it combines with the bright magenta of bee balm.

On the other hand, Armitage's exhortation "As soon as you read this, put down the book and purchase this plant [Vernonia lettermannii]" didn't do it for me, although it made me laugh.  Maybe another year....

One final note: I used the word encyclopedia in my initial description, but I was referring to the individual entries for each plant that are systematically packed with information.  However, the book is not comprehensive in scope and that may bother some readers.   It is, obviously, limited to North American natives and, as mentioned above, leaves out most species that are difficult to obtain.  It seems to me that the book may also have an Eastern bias, but I'm not sure about this.  I myself have an eastern bias and am really only interested in plants that I have a chance of growing well in Southeastern Virginia.  I have very little familiarity with native plants from the southwest, the Rockies, or very cold regions of the north.  As mentioned above, Armitage's speaks of his experiences in Montreal and Georgia, and I have a suspicion that readers in the West may not be as happy with the book as I am.  On the other hand, there are certainly entries for western and southwestern natives here, like Agastaches, Camassias and Aquilegias, so I may be wrong.  Western readers should probably try to get a look at the book before buying it.  Personally, I wish Armitage would write a comparable guide to North American native shrubs.  Does anyone know a really good book about native shrubs?


  1. A garden guide book with humor? Sounds fabulous! I think I would really enjoy having this book on my shelves, and reading it in spurts, as you say. Thanks for the review! I especially enjoyed your example of his description of the hoary mountain mint, and your pictures of it. I want to rub it between my fingers now!

  2. I enjoyed your book review, and it sounds as though the book is an excellent very readable introduction to native plants. I am trying to incorporate a few natives into my garden. I have a few salvias and just yesterday I planted a California Wild Grape. I only wish our natives were a little prettier!

  3. It does indeed sound like a great book that would be best taken in small doses. With the wealth of information provided, there would be no other way.

  4. Thanks for visiting and commenting. Sage Butterfly: yes, it's a bit much to read all at once, but it's nice to have a reference book that isn't too dry. Dorothy, I know what you mean. Some of the native plants are really pretty though. I guess the exotics that are popular in gardens are specifically the ones that are pretty, but sometimes it drives me crazy to see the Asian version of something over and over when the native version looks just as good or better to me, like beautyberry. You might like this book, because Armitage really doesn't have any patience for anything that isn't "garden worthy". HollyGarden, the mountain mint turned out to be so much better than I expected (and I expected to like it). Turns out it's really nice in Lemon verbena and mint tea. The mountain mint flavor is different from more familiar garden mint, earthier, and lends itself nicely to tea.