Today I’m thinking of my friend Linda, who recently moved from Virginia to New England, and I’m wondering what sort of weather she is enjoying in her garden today. We’ve had a few storm systems speed up the coast since she left, bringing rain and wind from well south of us to New England and Canada. We heard that Hurricane Ida actually ended up as a blizzard in Greenland.
While the calendar may promise cooling temperatures, we continue baking in the late summer heat and high humidity here in coastal Virginia. The plants are tired. We find freshly fallen leaves each day now, and the dogwood trees have already begun to turn towards their scarlet finale. Spiderwebs shimmer across pathways and openings as the zipper spiders grow fat and shiny. There are plenty of smaller prey for them to feast on, still.
So many leaves on trees and perennials grow ratty in September as insects eat holes in them and dry days leave them with crispy edges. Perhaps that is why the elephant ears stand out so beautifully in these closing weeks of the growing season.
I listened to landscape designer, ecologist, author and U.VA professor Cole Burrell lecture for the International Master Gardener College this past week about planting ecologically responsible landscapes in our home gardens. After talking about carbon cycles and nitrogen cycles and water cycles and improving the soil, he turned to the matter of native plants vs. imported ones. He is as steeped in the wisdom of fellow ecologists and designers like Dr. Doug Tallamy and Rick Darke, Piet Oudolf and Ken Druse as the next expert. It was good to hear him speak about the importance of the emotional connection that the gardener has with certain plants as an important consideration in deciding what to plant around one’s home.
We understand how important it is for our gardens to support a wide variety of insect life. When you welcome insects, you also support birds. You support reptiles and other small animals. When you welcome insects, you allow the caterpillars that grow into beautiful butterflies and moths. You allow for the decomposers so important to producing new soil. Insects are crucial in supporting the life of our gardens, and most insects, especially butterflies, need native plants as the host plants for their larvae.
But as important as it is to build our gardens around native plant species, we also have space to include plants that bring us joy; even when those plants originated elsewhere around the globe. And those imported plants can also fill important niches in our garden’s ecology. Burrell noted that as the season extends into earlier springs and later autumns, sometimes it is the imported plants, like spring flowering bulbs from Europe and Western Asia, that bloom early enough to support emerging bees and other insects. Butterflies and hummingbirds will visit a huge variety of flowers to sip nectar, native or not. I appreciated Burrell’s sensible and sensitive approach to this hot topic.
It is often the native trees- the oaks, maples, black cherry, tulip trees, redbuds and others, that support the most insect species. Preserving native woody species in our yards can allow us to indulge in some favorite herbaceous plants for color and fun.
Which brings me back to elephant ears. By early autumn, they have come into the height of their beauty. They thrive in heat and humidity. Their bold leaves and bright colors bring me joy. There is nothing ‘native’ about the bold Caladiums, Colocasias and Alocasias I crave, and maybe that gives them a bit of protection from the critters that would otherwise eat them.
I’m learning it is easier to grow them in pots than to try to plant and dig them every year. They aren’t crowding out some native something or spreading invasively. Their pots will come back inside before Thanksgiving, unless the record heat of 2021 hangs on even later than we expect. If so, these tropical beauties won’t mind a bit. They handle the heat far more gracefully than I, and they are far more forgiving of climate change than many other familiar garden plants that can’t take the extended heat.
Their huge leaves filter pollutants from the air, including carbon dioxide, and provide shade to other plants nearby. Even if an insect isn’t eating them, they have purpose and beauty.
I hope my New England friends will enjoy a beautiful autumn soon, if they aren’t, already. And I hope that we have at least a few days of beautiful clear September skies with cool breezes and chilly evenings soon. But if that is too much to hope for, I’ll still take comfort in the beautiful tropical elephant ear plants we can grow deep into the season, the lingering flowers and butterflies, and all of the beauty Virginia offers during Indian summer.