NEWS, Va. — Helen Hamilton championed native plants
long before the average homeowner even knew they
past president of the John Clayton Chapter, Virginia
Native Plant Society, Helen helped spread the word about
native species in southeastern Virginia — evergreen
shrubs like wax myrtle (sometimes called bayberry) and
flowering perennials like Joe-pye weed — to anyone who
would listen and learn.
that hard work is now paying off because native plants
are finally getting their due respect.
are beginning to realize that native plants require less
care," says Helen, 80, who lives in Williamsburg,
may also be more awareness, thanks to Dr. Tallamy, of
the connection between native plants as food and habitat
for insects and birds."
chairman of the department of entomology and wildlife
ecology at the University of Delaware in Newark, Del.,
is author of "Bringing Nature Home," which
spotlights the many ways insects interact with plants,
especially native species, and how these interactions
benefit our environment. His website,
www.PlantANative.com, explains how home gardeners can
sustain wildlife with native plants.
further the knowledge and use of native plants in home
gardens, Helen has written a new book, "Wildflower
and Grasses of Virginia’s Coastal Plain." The
book’s 288 pages profile wildflowers and grasses that
can be commonly seen along roadsides, in meadows,
gardens and yards. The plants are arranged in the book
by flower color, and include descriptions that outline
habitat, range and growing conditions, as well as
interesting facts about uses in folk medicine.Many are
also native to other U.S. states.
book is a great ‘menu’ for gardening for
wildlife," says Kathi Mestayer, a habitat gardener
of the book’s content comes from articles Helen wrote
over the past seven years for newspapers; Dr. Gustavus
Hall, professor emeritus at the College of William and
Mary, edited and rewrote parts of the text for botanical
accuracy. The book, $25, can be purchased at
wildflowersofvirginia.com or at www.amazon.com.
plants are beautiful and can fill a garden," says
Helen, 80, a lifelong casual gardener.
require the protein from insects that feed on native
shrubs and ornamental grasses are really underutilized,
so hopefully the public will learn to use them
Helen worked as a high school teacher 1966-1997,
teaching earth science, biology and chemistry. For the
next three years, she volunteered as a plant technician
with the National Park Service.
favorite resources for learning about native plants
include the United States Department of Agriculture’s
Natural Resources Conservation Service at
purple muhly is among her favorites. The ornamental
grass is cold hardy in zones 6-11, and is commonly sold
as a summer annual in other growing zones.
love the way the stems bend, indicating a flower is
emerging," she says.
favorite plant group is the grasses because they are
solely wind-pollinated and their flowers are very basic
— only stamens and pistils — no pretty petals with
fragrances and colors."
attention to detail and little-known attributes is why
her book works so well for the novice gardener as well
as the master green thumb. For instance, she explains
how the pollen from common sneezeweed is distributed by
insects, not the wind, and how seashore mallow attracts
butterflies and hummingbirds.
book an easy book for beginners to navigate and since it
has many of the most common plants, identifying plants
out in the wild should be fairly simple," says
Phillip Meritt, president of the John Clayton chapter
are also lots of interesting facts about the various
uses for the plants as well as occasional information on
where the plant names originated. Even if you never take
it outside, it makes for interesting reading."
a winter-interest native plant Helen suggests for your
cold-weather garden. Wintergreen is also grown and sold
by Monrovia, www.monrovia.com, a brand available at
garden centers nationwide; the plant is cold hardy in
leaves of Wintergreen, or Gaultheria procumbens, have
been the source of wintergreen flavoring for chewing
gum, teas, candies and medicines. The low, evergreen
shrub features underground stems that creep, forming
colonies, and produce short erect branches 4-16 inches
tall. Glossy, thick and shiny, the 1-2-inch leaves are
slightly toothed and fragrant, according to Helen. In
spring, tiny bell-shaped white flowers dangle from the
leaf axils, followed by bright red fruits with a spicy
grows in oak woods, under pines, in clearings, in light
to moderate shade. Soil should be acid, and rich in
organic material. Scattered across Virginia, the plant’s
range is from Newfoundland to Manitoba, south to
Virginia, Kentucky, northern Indiana, and Minnesota and
in the mountains to Georgia and Alabama. It blooms
June-August, and fruits September-December.
common related species, Spotted Wintergreen (Chimaphila
maculata) has leaves conspicuously striped with white,
salicylate produces the wintergreen flavor. While this
plant was once a commercial source for wintergreen
flavoring, methyl salicylate is now produced
synthetically. The chemical has anti-inflammatory and
antiseptic properties. Leaf tea was used in the past to
treat many ailments such as headaches and fevers, and as
a wash for sore muscles and rheumatism, she says.
fruit has been used in salads and pies. Many birds and
mammals feed on the fruits and deer browse both the
leaves and fruits, says Helen.