Tennessee Smart Yards Native Plants

A comprehensive database of Tennessee native plants

Ten Native Shrubs Possessing Great Fall Leaf Color By: Dr. Hugh Conlon

Some native U.S.  landscape shrubs are not only great spring/summer flowering shrubs, but their fall foliage color(s) are an added attraction. Here are ten of my favorites listed alphabetically by genus:

Bottlebrush Buckeye (Aesculus parvifolia) – foliage of this summer flowering shrub turns bright yellow in fall. (zones 4-8)

Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) – under-planted native shrub that grows 6 – 10 feet high. White flowers appear in early spring; recommend compact cultivar ‘Brilliantissima’ with attractive glossy red berries and red fall foliage color. (zones 4-9)

Fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii) or (F. x ‘Mt. Airy’)  both selections are among the finest spring flowering shrubs along with red fall leaf color. (zones 5-8)

Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) – is a highly variable flowering shrub, available in a range of sizes from 3-25 feet. Some varieties exhibit exceptional red or bronze foliage in autumn. (zones 5-9)

Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica) – blanketed with fragrant blooms in May and dependable red-purplish leaf color in autumn (zones 4-8)

Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) – grow 2-6 feet tall (depending on variety planted). Plant two or more different varieties for more berries.  Blueberries require a highly acidic soil pH around 5.0-5.5. Its bluish-green summer foliage turns bright red in autumn. (zones 5-8)

Arrowwood Viburnum (Viburnum dentatum) – an under- planted native viburnum that blooms in May. Fall foliage turns yellow to red to burgundy along with dark blue fruits. (zones 3-8)

Witherod viburnum (Viburnum nudum ‘Winterthur’) –white flowers in late spring are followed by bluish black fruits and red to reddish-purple  fall foliage. (zone 5-9)

American cranberry bush (Viburnum trilobum) – tall 12 feet high shrub deep burgundy-red fall leaf color and bright red drupes often persist through winter. (zones 3-7)

Blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) – flat white cymes (flowers) with numerous yellow stamens and purple-red fall foliage color. (zones 3-8)

About Dr. Hugh Conlon

I am a gardener, one who actually enjoys his addiction for plants.  I have been a horticultural educator for 30+ years.  Beginning my retirement years provides me with more time in my garden and more time to share my profession with those whose company I enjoy the most—you who till the soil.
Once Upon a Time…
Over the past 33 years, I have worked as the University Extension Area Horticulturalist in east Tennessee and in southwest Iowa. Over the past 23 years I have organized hundreds of educational meeting for commercial nursery and greenhouse growers, landscapers and garden center employees. I continue to teach training classes for the University of Tennessee Master Gardener program.  From 1974 to 1977, I served as Home Ground Extension specialist at the University of Rhode Island and taught plant identification courses at Michigan State University.
I continue to write garden features and articles for magazines and newspapers. I am a frequent contributor to various landscape and nursery trade newsletters as well as to the Southern Appalachian Plant Society newsletter. I have written over 40 Extension garden fact sheets under the “Tennessee Great Gardens” logo.
I have organized over 25 commercial industry and home gardening tours throughout the Southeastern and Northeastern U.S. I continue to lecture at commercial, horticultural and gardening events.  In 1994 I organized the first UT Master Gardener class in the Tri-Cities region of Tennessee, and I continue to play an active role in the Master Gardener program today.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, I pursued a PhD degree in Ornamental Horticulture for five years at Michigan State University. I earned a BS degree (Pomology) from Cornell University in 1967 and a MS degree (Plant Sciences) from the University of Delaware in 1969.
My wife Jane and I are proud parents of four children. Hobbies include photography, writing and traveling.


*Update: Thanks to all who participated in this event, all seed packets have been distributed. :)

Free Seed Give-a-Way!! Extended to March 15th, 2018!

Receive a FREE package of Purple Coneflower seeds when you leave a comment on a native plant featured on our website!*

We still have Purple Coneflower seed available! Therefore, we are extending the end date to March 15 while supplies last. Tennessee Smart Yards is giving away a packet of Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) seed (350 seeds) when you post a comment on a plant in the TNSY Native Plant databaseLimit 1 packet per comment and two comments per person.  This is a wonderful chance to get a free package of native seed to try in your garden plus a chance to help others learn more about native plants based on your own experience. Please post the comment directly on the specific plant (not on this seed give-a-way blog) and provide helpful information or observations about the plant to assist other people who are viewing your comment.

First post a comment on the website then e-mail us your mailing address to tnyards@gmail.com, and we will send you a free seed packet!  Your information, address, and email is never shared with any other party.  If you are not familiar with this plant be sure to read about it here: https://tynnativeplants.wordpress.com/flowers/common-name/purple-coneflower/

* This offer is only available to U.S. residents while supplies last. Unfortunately international shipping is not available at this time.

Buttonbush Offers Year-round Interest


Buttonbush Is Large Shrub

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), aka Button-willow or Honey Bells, is a medium to large native shrub with many fine landscape attributes. This unique flowering shrub is a favorite in attracting beneficial wildlife. It populates bogs, swamps and pond areas, as well as dry limestone bluffs in the eastern U.S. and southeastern Canada (USDA hardiness zones 5–9).

White pompom flowers are the unique ornamental asset. Tiny fragrant flowers appear in creamy white balls that are 1 – 1 ¼ inches in diameter in late spring (in Philadelphia, PA) to early summer (northern New England). Long projecting styles from the flower

Cephalanthus occidentalis at Chicago Botanical Garden

heads gives it a distinctive pincushion appearance. Flower heads mature into hard spherical ball-like fruits containing tiny two-seeded nutlets. Dried seed balls persist all winter long.

Give the buttonbush room to grow. This multi-stemmed deciduous shrub grows 6-12 feet tall and 4-7 feet wide. On older shrubs stems and trunks appear twisted when twigs are bare of leaves in winter. Pruning is usually unnecessary and is done in early spring to shape or reduce plant dimensions. Old neglected plants may be revitalized by cutting them back near to the ground in late winter.

Buttonbush has year-round garden interest with late spring flowers, summer and fall foliage, and fall/winter fruits. Narrow oval green deciduous leaves emerge in spring and turn shades of red in fall. It has no serious disease or insect problems. Foliage is poisonous to humans and livestock; deer may snack on new spring growth.

Buttonbush is best planted in wet, humus-rich soils and in full sun to part shade. Favorite landscape sites include in rain gardens or the edge of ponds. Established plants after 1-2 years are moderately drought tolerant.

Fragrant flowers attract butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds for nectar. Leaves are the larval host for some butterfly species. Waterfowl, quail, and other birds feed on the nut-like seeds. Cut flowers look great in fresh summer bouquets or in dried arrangements.

This blog is taken from “What Grows There”– a website created by Hugh Conlon. It provides a host of helpful information on a wide range of gardening topics, from many species of flowers, trees, shrubs and grasses to practical hints on garden maintenance, garden problems and lawn care. Hugh has worked for 30+ years as a horticultural educator. Before retiring, he was most recently horticulturist for University of Tennessee Extension, Washington County.

Link to original post on ” What Grow’s There” here.

Native Plants I Wish I Hadn’t Planted!

I always like to diversify my native plants as much as possible, and even though I try to research each species ahead of time, some of them always come back to bite me.  Here is my list of regrets.  If anyone has had a different experience with these plants or has found a way to deal with them, please post a response.   Also to help out the rest of us, please consider posting your own list.

Here is my list from worst to “least worst”:

Virginia Wild Rye (Elymus virginicus)

1.   Virginia Wild Rye (Elymus virginicus).  I can’t find a single good thing to say about this plant except that it is a cheap and very easy-to-grow grass.  Since it is a cool season grass, it dries to a crispy brown in Tennessee’s summer heat and looks like a farmer’s field ready for harvest.  It can’t stand up by itself in a storm and takes everything around it down with it when it goes.   It is listed as “short-lived” but that is inaccurate.  I have been pulling and dead-heading it for five years.

2.   Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii).  Generally, this is considered a very desirable meadow grass.   Tall at 6-7’, it is sturdy and generally stands straight even after a storm.  But it RE-SEEDS to the point of taking over and driving out everything else in just about 3 years.  I complained to my seed source, but I don’t think they believed me, saying only that they had never heard of such a thing.  I did buy my seeds from a northern state, so maybe I got a northern “ecotype” of the plant that just goes nuts in Tennessee’s warm climate.  What are other people’s experiences with this plant and where did you get your seed?

3.   Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana).  Although it is a charming, attractive groundcover, its ability to spread puts Bermuda  grass to shame, especially if planted in sun.  It works fairly well in dry shade, but it is almost like something from outer space if put in full sun with plenty of water.  It is often on rain garden plant lists, and I made the mistake of using it in my rain garden.  In less than 3 months, a total of 6 plants had buried every other plant in the garden, and when I pulled it all out, I had rooted plants about every inch to half inch.

Wild Petunia (Ruellia humilis)

4.   Wild Petunia (Ruellia humilis).  This plant is a darling, small purple petunia that makes a great groundcover.  I read that it shoots its seed up to 10 feet through the air, which at the time sounded rather charming.  In reality, it is a huge headache if you have any areas within 10-15 feet where you don’t want it or if it is planted among less aggressive plants.   Since it blooms the first year from seed, those plants will then send their seed out another 10 feet..…kind of an exponential explosion.  Even though it is a small plant, you cannot hand pull it by the roots .  I am no longer sure that I want it, but it is too late.  Once planted, it is so invasive that it is here to stay.

Sweet Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia subtomentosa)

5.  Sweet Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia subtomentosa).   This plant is both pretty and a huge headache.   It is a great rain garden plant with bright yellow flowers.  However, it is a giant plant at 5-6’ that sprawls in all directions by mid-summer, burying everything around it.  It re-seeds with abandon, popping up everywhere in the yard.  If you don’t have too many, the only solution is to cut it back to at least half its height in early June, which turns it into a somewhat manageable bush by the time it blooms in late July.

My Top 10 Native Plants

I have spent 19 years  growing native plants in my yard, a little over 5 years of which has been in northeast Tennessee.   So I thought it would be fun to post a list of my favorite plant species in case they will be helpful to someone else.  My favorites are those plants that are dependable, good on a modest budget, and easy to grow from seed applied on bare ground.  They give me quick results that make me feel  like I know what I am doing and that I don’t look back on with regret, thinking I should have known better.

As a preface to the list, I should mention that I like to grow natives in a meadow-like setting as a replacement for lawn.  So I am not necessarily recommending these plants for use in a groomed, formal flower bed, which is a whole different creature.  I like to do larger areas from seed for a natural setting that draws lots of birds, butterflies and bees.

Here are my dependable favorites and why:

Purple Cone Flower (Echinacea purpurea)

1.   Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).   This is my top pick.  It is spectacular en masse, blooms for a long period, reseeds well on its own, and beloved by butterflies.  It is also a favorite food of goldfinches, who are so impatient to eat that they start checking for seed ripeness as soon as flowers appear.  When fall arrives, a flock of goldfinches hangs out in my yard for about two weeks while they stuff themselves.  The seed is also inexpensive.  You can get it for $2 an ounce (6,600 seeds).

Smooth Penstemon/Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis)

2.   Smooth  Penstemon/ Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon  digitalis).   This is a charming, white flower that is a very strong re-seeder so you need to be a bit careful in the amount of seed you use.   For such a tiny seed (130,000 per ounce), it has an amazingly successful germination rate.  You can depend on it to quickly cover bare ground (perhaps a little too quickly).  But again it is spectacular en masse, and a large, mass bloom comes alive with the hum of hundreds of bees.  It is also an inexpensive seed at only $5 per ounce.

3.  Lanceleaf Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata).  This is an easy coreopsis from seed and gives quick bloom in the first year.  I like its bright dependable color.  It makes a good nurse crop while other plants are getting started.  I find it does tend to decline after a few years.

Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea)

4.  Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea).   This is a dependable, bright yellow flower for spring.  Seed has a high germination rate, and plants re-seed readily so it is easy to get too much of it.  However, it is a favorite food of swallowtail caterpillars, so I don’t mind if I have a solid field of it in April and May.  (Even though prolific, it doesn’t seem to crowd out other plants.)  Seed is only $5 per ounce (11,000 seeds), but be careful how much you use.

Nodding Pink Onion (Allium cernuum)

5.   Nodding Pink Onion (Allium cernuum).  Personally I love the cute nodding heads of pink flowers.  Its dainty height and shape is a nice contrast to the large plant species. Given its small size, it is better placed along the garden edges.  This is another bee plant, and as far as the bees are concerned, you can’t have too much.  It is more expensive at $10 per ounce (7,600 seeds) but you can buy a ¼ oz. and depend on just a few plants to nicely reseed themselves over time.

6.  Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa).  This plant is the old-fashioned native from which many cultivars have been produced.  Unfortunately it has a bad, and in my opinion undeserved, reputation for mildew.  I find the bees like it better than the cultivars, and the flowers are unique and beautiful.   It is a little on the coarse side, but I wouldn’t be without it.  When you plant the seed, be forewarned that it will feel like every single seed that you planted germinated.   $10 per ounce (70,000 seeds), which is definitely an amount I do not recommend, so simply adjust the amount according to your needs.

7.  Bradbury’s Monarda (Monarda bradburiana).  If Wild Bergamot is too coarse for you, this is a tamer and smaller species that is easy from seed and spreads well.  It has lovely flowers and deep green leaves.  The bees and butterflies like it too.  Very expensive seed at $50 per ounce (35,000 seeds), but you only need a small fraction of an ounce and some patience.

Slender Mountain Mint ( Pycnanthemum tenuifolium)

8.  Slender Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium).  This is a mid-summer bloomer with many, small white flowers with purple-tinted edges.  It is not a spectacular flower from a distance but extremely pretty close-up.   It is very easy from seed, re-seeds readily, and very popular with butterflies and bees.  It will provide a mass bloom just after the Alexanders have finished.  Expensive seed at $30 per ounce (378,000 seeds), but you are better off with a fraction of an ounce.

9.  Side-oats Gramma (Bouteloua curtipendula).  This is a charming 2 foot tall grass that I have been told is a not a strong survivor in Tennessee.  Granted it will never replace Little Bluestem as a “backbone” grass species for a meadow garden, but I love the ease of growth, the cute teeny red flowers that line the grass stalks, and its simple charm.  So far mine are hanging in there for their 3rd succeeding year.  Cheap seed at only $2 an ounce (6,000 seeds).

Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica)

10.  Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica).  This is my “surprise plant.”  It has very small seeds, at 500,000 per ounce.  I have planted seed off and on over several years with very modest results.  But it only takes a few plants, and once you have them, Blue Lobelia will move quickly into the areas that it likes.  Although the books specify that it tends to be a wetland plant and likes wet to average moisture, it has planted itself on the steep, rather dry slope behind my garage.  When things are turning brown and straggly in the fall, the bright blue of this lobelia is most welcome.  After about 3 years, I have it scattered here and there across the entire slope.  When I went back and looked at my original seed mix for this site, I found that it didn’t even contain Blue Lobelia.  Although the seed is more expensive, you can buy 1/4 oz for $8, which is 125,000 seeds.

 P.S.  With all these quoted prices and amounts, I anticipate questions on where I buy my seed.  I get it from Prairie Moon Nursery in Winona, Minnesota.  While I am very happy with their quality and service, I am sure there are also other outlets with competitive prices.

Welcome to Tennessee Yards & Neighborhoods TN Native Plant Database

We are compiling a list of native plants in Tennessee with the help of Master Gardener Joy Stewart!  This blog will serve as a TN native plant database with images and growing information as well as a place where you can come and provide feedback and ask questions about plants in your garden!