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Going native in the garden
State Botanical Garden promotes Georgia plant species
Jennifer Ceska's Gainesville garden features many native Georgia plants such as the butterfly weed.

Some plants get no respect.

Though she has an appreciation for all things flora, Jennifer Ceska would like Georgians to show more love to native plants and shrubs. In some places, native plants are widely available and proudly put on display, but that isn't the case in Georgia.

In 2008, Ceska, conservation coordinator for the State Botanical Garden of Georgia in Athens, expressed a desire to promote plants that are native to Georgia, for both public and private use.

"We had a board member of the state gardens say, ‘I want to do this. I want to see this garden reach out and help growers, homeowners, and even people with patio gardens to use more native plants of Georgia,'" recalled Ceska, who lives in Gainesville. "‘I want to see (Georgians) have that pride like what goes with the bluebonnets of Texas.'"

It has taken a while, but Ceska says a statewide plant initiative that officially started last fall is finally at a point where ideas are being turned into results.

"In November, we had our first statewide gathering of the Native Plant Initiative," Ceska said. "The State Botanical Gardens is hosting it, but it is a network of growers, users and (representatives of different state agencies)."
Currently, the group is in the research phase, testing various seeds before dispersing them to growers.

"Growing plants is their livelihood, so before we ask them to take a chance by planting these seeds, we have to be able to prove to these growers that they will have success," Ceska said.

There are many reasons why home and professional gardeners should consider planting native plants. When it comes to physical beauty, natives can be neck-in-neck with nonnative species, but there are areas where native plants stand head and shoulders above the rest.

"A lot of native plants have the leg up because they have that genetic variability within them to handle (local) changes in temperatures and other conditions," Ceska said.
"Plant your nonnatives, but let's throw in something lovely like Georgia aster that will hold the soil and is a long-lived perennial. It has beautiful, bright purple blooms in the fall."

Although their genetics give them a slight advantage for survival, Ceska warns planting native plants doesn't always guarantee a lush landscape.

"You've still got to put the right plant in the right place for success," Ceska said.

Growing native plants not only creates a "sense of place," it is also beneficial to local wildlife.

Plants like paw-paws, which make "sweet flowers and cute fruit," are important as food for birds and for several butterfly species, Ceska says.

"When you add native plants to your landscaping, you're creating a backyard habitat."

Natives species like the cardinal flower is known to attract hummingbirds and grows well locally. Other, natives that thrive in Hall are swamp marsh mallow and butterfly weed.

Planting natives also helps to build regional pride, proponents for the initiative say.

"As Southern gardeners, we have plants that we remember and that our grandmothers remember, plants that you don't see anymore. We'd like to see those plants again," Ceska said.

"There are lots of icons of the South. Things like pines, magnolias and oaks. A lot of our oaks are falling over after the drought so you don't see as many large, white oaks.

"I've called nurseries and those long-term growing trees aren't often available in the nursery because people want faster results. They want to get canopy quickly, but we need more oaks. They take a long time to grow, but what a gift they are when they mature."