Monday, May 30, 2016

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"Swamp Dwelling" Plants

There's a creek bed running through my property that's as apt to have standing water throughout the year as it is to be dry. With the rain we've had lately the creek has jumped its bank at the lower end and flooded what I call the "delta". This, unfortunately, is not an unusual occurrence. It's a big area of soil adjacent to gardens so leaving it unplanted isn't an option.

Before going on let's underline there's a big difference between wet and periodically flooded. There are many plants that will perform and please in wet soils (defined as often saturated, but rarely with standing surface water). Floodplain sites, on the other hand, will have standing surface water for one or more days at time, multiple times per year.

I'm always entertained by customers, who upon questioning, smilingly say: "Well, water does stand in that area for more than a day at a time- but it's only a handful of times a year." That's like saying you can only drown in the bathtub if there's water in it :) It's as important for roots to get oxygen as it is for our lungs. So, always go for the worst common denominator and realize that if you have these delta-like sites you need to use flood-tolerant plants, such as:

Swamp White Oak
Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor) -  A majestic shade tree that eventually forms a broad spreading crown. Leaves are like green polished leather, most often with yellowish fall color. 50-60' tall at maturity. Moderate growth rate.

Baldcypress leaves, tree pictured at top
Baldcypress (Taxodium distichum) - A very defined ship mast-like central trunk that supports a very predictable conical silhouette. The foliage is citrus green and hangs on late in the fall before turning flaming rust. Interesting orange fissured trunk with age. A floodplain tree that grows really, really fast and yet has strong durable wood. 60-70' tall, 20-30' wide. Dwarf and columnar varieties exist as well.

River Birch
River Birch (Betula nigra) - One of the first plants to sulk when soil gets dry, just loves moisture. Glossy green leaves, yellow fall color. Year 'round interest with the buckskin colored peeling bark. Check out the cultivars 'Heritage' and 'Fox Valley' (a cute shrub form that gets 10-12' tall and wide).

Arctic Blue Willow
Arctic Blue Willow (Salix purpurea ' Nana') - A naturally domed shrub with fine-textured silvery blue leaves on slender stems. Grows like a son-of-a-gun when wet. It is, after all, a willow. Have seen them 7' tall and 8' wide when moist, but can be pruned frequently to contain.

Black Chokeberry
Viking Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa 'Viking') - White flowers, glossy summer leaf, striking red fall color and large black fruit that are edible! Expect 5' tall, 6' spread. It widens by suckering.

Red Sprite Winterberry
Winterbery (Ilex verticillata) - A hardy deciduous holly. Small white spring flowers are produced on both males and females. The female flowers that are pollinated produce green berries that ripen to bright red by late August/early September. The beautiful berries really stand out against the clear gold fall color. Birds gobble up the ripe berries. Consider the dwarf varieties such as 'Red Sprite' or 'Berry Poppins' that reach only 4' or so. Must have a male for every 3-5 females if you want the awesome berries. Will tolerate part shade.

Royal Fern
Ferns - Many ferns will tolerate periodic flooding and standing water. My particular favorite is Royal fern (Osmunda regalis). Perfectly happy with some sun/some shade, as well as damp (or even wetter) soil, Royal can grow into magnificent clumps 3' or more tall and wide. Clear pale gold fall color. A beauty!

The Rocket Ligularia
Ligularia - If you've ever tried Ligularia and found it lacking maybe it was sited in too much hot afternoon sun and a soil that was perhaps too well-drained. Some morning sun, for example, will enhance the varieties with colored foliage and those big leaves thrive in constantly wet sites. Check out: 'Britt-Marie Crawford', 'Desdemona' and "Bottle Rocket' to name a few for your swamp situation.

Sweet Caroline Hardy Hibiscus
Hardy Hibiscus (Hibiscus moscheutos) - The colors of these dinnerplate-sized mammoths can only be described as luscious. Brilliant red, raspberry, pink and white (often with colored center eyes) grace the summer perennial garden with their cool demeanor. Do know that Hibiscus is one of the last things to wake up from winter and show signs of life. maybe not dead, just dormant until early June.

Over the years I've tried and lost a lot of plants in the delta. The above have all survived flood "tides" with flying colors.  


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