Nanking cherry (Prunus tomentosa)

Nanking cherry (Prunus tomentosa)

Plants that are good for eating or good for pollinators dominate the list of new plants that nursery professionals in southern Maine are recommending as this gardening season begins. Some of the best plants are good for both.

It makes sense. Edible landscaping has been a growing trend over the past decade. And I read articles online every day urging gardeners to grow plants that help struggling bees or monarch butterflies. Garden centers make money by giving gardeners what they want. So what plants are exciting nursery professionals this year?

PAW PAW: Michelle Martin of Springvale Nurseries is pleased to be selling the native paw paw trees, which she discovered on a trip she and her husband took to the Carolinas.

“We tried the paw paws cold-hardy to this zone (Zone 5), also absolutely delicious,” she said. The tree (Asimina triloba) usually requires two different varieties to produce fruit. Martin said Springvale Nurseries is importing wild plants that are genetically different from each other, so customers can buy two of the same variety and expect fruit with two or three years.

MULBERRY: Another fruit Springvale Nurseries is selling is grafted dwarf contorted mulberry, which is native to China. The dwarf version gets only about 10 to 15 feet tall and produces a fruit that is tasty and high in antioxidants.

HAZELNUT: Jeff O’Donal of O’Donal’s Nursery in Gorham is offering a red-leaved hazelnut tree that is everything gardeners could want: It is native, attractive, provides food for bees and produces fruit.

“It has purple leaves from spring into summer, but loses color later,” O’Donal said.

The tree will grow to about 8 feet tall. Of all the new offerings in this column, it is the one I am most lusting for. While the beaked hazelnuts are small and the local wildlife usually gets to them before humans find them, it just sounds like a fun plant to own. Now, to make room for it.

HYSSOP: O’Donal – who favors trees and shrubs over perennials – said his perennial supervisor recommends a new hyssop, called Tango.

“It blooms all year and is a great pollinator, which is going to be a big deal this year,” he said. “It’s short and compact with gray-green foliage and produces an array of fiery orange flower spikes.”

APPLE: Sue McIntyre of Longfellow’s Greenhouses in Manchester is high on two Colonnade apple trees, Flamenco and Polka, that get only 2 feet wide but grow 8 to 10 feet tall and are hardy to Zone 4. They are ideal for people who don’t have much room in their yard and have limited sun.

MILKWEED: For pollinators, McIntyre likes two different milkweeds – perennial plants that are prime food for butterflies, especially monarchs – depending on the type of soil the gardener has.

“In the Kennebec Valley we have clay, and more clay on top of clay,” McIntyre said. “That can be difficult to work with, but swam milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) loves it. Pink Cinderella is a new variety that we like.”

Asclepias tuberosa prefers dry soil, and it is the only milkweed that female Monarch butterflies feeds on – so Longfellow will be offering many of that variety.

Sometimes customers complain that the butterfly bushes look good for a while, but get eaten to the ground late in the season. “I just tell them, ‘That’s what is supposed to happen. They are food for the butterflies.’ ”

An Asclepias tuberosa that Jim Masse of Estabrook’s Farm and Greenhouse in Yarmouth loves is “Hello Yellow.”

“It’s a yellow form of native orange butterfly weed, an excellent food source for Monarch butterflies and great nectar source for bees.”

BIDENS: Phil Roberts of Broadway Gardens in South Portland spent some time wandering his greenhouses looking at annual seedlings before returning my call for new plants.

The Beedance biden series from Suntori, including Red Stripe and Painted Red, looked good, he said.

“They grow well with just water – you don’t need fertilizer,” he said. “The original bidens was aggressive and could take over, but these new hybrids stay more in control.”

These are just a few ideas to consider when visiting your local garden center. They are multipurpose plants, feeding you as well as bees and butterflies, and feeding the part of you that likes to look at beautiful things.

Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at [email protected].

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