Native Plants

Native Plant Focus: Butterfly Weed

I’ve never been one to love orange. As a University of Georgia graduate and diehard Bulldog fan, I learned to despise orange early in life. And the good state of Georgia is surrounded by collegiate orange: Tennessee, Clemson, Auburn, and Florida. More’s the pity.  Despite this fact, I’ve recently found myself nearly taking out mailboxes and street signs while trying to catch a better glimpse of orange alongside the road. I’m talking about butterfly weed. A wonderful Alabama native perennial, butterfly weed (Asclepis tuberosa) is one of the relatively few plants in the Southeast that boasts an orange bloom. Even for someone that bleeds red and black, this color is worth noticing.

Butterfly weed growing alongside a road in Birmingham.

Butterfly weed growing alongside a road in Birmingham.

Butterfly weed is a clump forming perennial that grows between 12 to 24 inches in height and has alternate, green leaves between 2 to 3 inches. The blooms, which range between yellow to reddish orange, occur in mid spring and last throughout the summer. The flowers give way to seed pods that eventually release parachute-like seeds that are scattered by the wind. The species prefers well-drained, moist sites but it will tolerate a wide range of soils. It needs full or partial sun to thrive.

With the plant’s name comes some unfortunate misconceptions. This plant is only a weed if you don’t want it on your property or garden---but I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t! It’s relatively easy to maintain, and like many natives, it’s well-suited to our Alabama soils and climate. It occurs naturally on the edges of fields and roads but it can easily be grown in gardens and residential areas.

Clump forming habits of butterfly weed

Clump forming habits of butterfly weed

As with all natives, butterfly weed has an important place in our local ecosystems. True to its name, this plant is a major hit with insects and butterflies, including the monarch and queen species. Monarch butterflies even use the plant as a host for laying eggs and rearing caterpillars. Expect to see more life and activity in your garden if you use butterfly weed. And expect to see more orange…


Cahaba Design Studio is a landscape architecture studio located in Birmingham, Alabama that provides landscape design, land planning, and ecological design. As a division of Richter Landscape Company, the design studio is experienced in native plants, gardens, arboriculture, land preservation, and wildlife habitat design.

 

Our Native Azaleas

The sound of leaves crackling beneath my shoes filled the woods as I tried in vain to slip quietly into the creek bottom. I paused to listen for a distant gobble as I squeaked out another amateur hen yelp from a mouth call. Greeted with only silence, it was clear that the afternoon would be better spent searching for something other than a wild turkey. I suddenly noticed a bright pinkish bloom in the distance and knew I had located something just as remarkable as the bird I was chasing. A cluster of piedmont azaleas were bursting out a showy display of flowers, a signal to everyone that spring has arrived. This past weekend I was reminded why I love getting out into the woods in Alabama.

One of the many native azalea blooms dotting the creek bottom

One of the many native azalea blooms dotting the creek bottom

With the Masters just around the corner, many of us are eagerly anticipating spring and the showy azalea flowers that always seem to coincide perfectly with the legendary southern golf tournament (props to the maintenance team there in Augusta). While I love the imagery and picturesque scenes, I can't help but be a little sad that most people will assume these are our native southern azaleas. Over the last few centuries, azaleas from Asia have been brought to America and have become the dominate azalea species found in ornamental landscapes and gardens. While I appreciate these foreign species for their own value, they have taken the place of our of native flora. Sadly, our native azaleas have been all but forgotten. But maybe we can help bring them back to the spotlight!

Piedmont azalea, or wild azalea, (Rhododendron canescens) is a deciduous shrub that enjoys moist sites along streams and bogs. Typically the flowers are white to pink in color and bloom from February to May (depending on region). If you've ever seen one of these shrubs in person, you can attest that they have some of the most exquisite flowers you'll ever see--they're also slightly fragrant. The plant can grow as tall as 15 feet, but typically I think of it in the landscape as a 5 to 8 foot shrub. 

Rhododendron canescens 'Phlox Pink' - a nice selection from my garden

Rhododendron canescens 'Phlox Pink' - a nice selection from my garden

In addition to being the showiest bloom in the neighborhood, the piedmont azalea is also a good attractant for butterflies. In particular, swallowtails, Gulf fritillaries, and Monarchs will frequently visit the flowers. If you like the idea of bringing more life into your garden, give these native azaleas a try. Just as warning though, you probably won't find them at most box-store garden centers. While they are proven plant, they just don't meet cookie-cutter approach that most garden centers have adopted.

It probably won't ever be the signature plant for the 14th hole in Augusta, but hopefully it will find it's place back into our gardens and properties. If not, you might have to get out in the woods to find one these beauties. Maybe on a day when the turkeys aren't talking... 


Cahaba Design Studio is a landscape architecture studio located in Birmingham, Alabama that provides landscape design, land planning, and ecological design. As a division of Richter Landscape Company, the design studio is experienced in native plants, gardens, arboriculture, land preservation, and wildlife habitat design.

Native Plant Focus: Yaupon Holly

While there are many native Alabama plants that can be used as ornamental shrubs, there tend to be less evergreen options than deciduous ones. For whatever reason, many homeowners simple don’t want plants near their house that aren’t evergreen. For those people, I would recommend a closer look at yaupon holly. Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) is a great evergreen plant that has many benefits to both gardeners and wildlife. It’s found throughout the southeast, mainly along the coastal plain and certain locations in the lower piedmont regions. In Alabama, yaupon holly occurs naturally in the lower two-thirds of the state. It is especially valuable to gardeners in that it will tolerate a wide range of soil conditions and thrives in swamps, sandy dunes, fields, and the edges of forests.

Yaupon holly is also unique in that it has multiple growth forms including columnar, weeping, and dwarf varieties. Typically, in the wild you will observe a broad, branching form with dense canopy. It can be left alone to form thickets and informal hedges, or pruned tightly for topiary and formal gardens.  While the dwarf variety is often used the most in residential and commercial landscapes, I think the larger form is an underutilized plant that should be used as a small tree. At mature height, yaupon only grows to about twenty or twenty-five feet. This makes it an ideal tree for powerline easements or other places where shorter tree heights must be considered.

The multi-trunked, tree form of yaupon is excellent in powerline easements.

The multi-trunked, tree form of yaupon is excellent in powerline easements.

The bright, red berries that mature in winter are often the most famed asset of yaupon holly. They make for a nice accent color to the grayish-green foliage and will be quite showy. If you’re planting a yaupon holly for the berries, there are a couple of considerations before selecting a location. First is the exposure. As with many holly species, the more sun a plant gets, the more flowers it forms—and consequently, the more berries it produces. The other consideration is ensuring that you have both female and male plants present for pollination. I’m not aware of any cultivars that are specific to the plant sex, so grouping multiple yaupons is the best way to ensure that you have both males and females.

The bright, red berries add nice pop of color to any space and will be used heavily by birds.

The bright, red berries add nice pop of color to any space and will be used heavily by birds.

As with most native plants, one of the greatest benefits of yaupon holly is its use by wildlife. The dense tree makes excellent nesting locations for birds. The berries are consumed by many species of birds including cedar waxwings, turkeys, Northern bobwhite, Eastern bluebird, brown thrasher, American robin, hermit thrush, red-bellied woodpecker, northern mockingbird, eastern towhee, and blue jay. A number of small mammals will also eat the berries. In addition to the fruit, the leaves are an important browse for whitetail deer.  So, if you like a garden that’s full life, then yaupon is a great property addition.


Cahaba Design Studio is a landscape architecture studio located in Birmingham, Alabama that provides landscape design, land planning, and ecological design. As a division of Richter Landscape Company, the design studio is experienced in native plants, gardens, arboriculture, land preservation, and wildlife habitat design.