Nothing makes the case for native plants like fall color. I was checking out the gardens today with horticulturist Mike Startup. On a rare occasion we’ll take a stroll taking stock of how the growing season went. This year, we agreed, was a very good year.
We meandered out to the top of Hilles Hill. Over the years it’s had a couple different names. When the KINSC was first built it was grass covered and a bear to weed wack. We started installing boulders trying to give it some definition. Bill, the arboretum director, stood at the bottom directing the grounds crew on where he wanted them to go. Hence its first name “Boulder Bill Hill.” Over the years it slipped back into Hilles Hill, something you don’t have to explain on arboretum tours.
As an avid backpacker I love the Pennsylvania landscape. Fall in Pennsylvania is eye popping especially in the northern part of the state. After the boulders were installed on Hilles Hill we started planting species of plants that were native to the Eastern Deciduous Forest, similar to what I had seen on my excursions. At the time I wasn’t choosing plants for fall color, I was thinking more along the lines of size and texture. We started with larger trees, Oaks, White Pines, Tulip Trees, Birches, Redbuds, Silver Bells, Eastern Red Cedar and Amelanchiers and complemented with shrubs such as Sumac, Snow Berry, Viburnum and Winterberry. Mike Startup came in several years later and added hundreds of native perennials giving the hill the “Wow” factor.
While planting natives for fall color is a great argument, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the other reasons to go native. Considering it took thousands of years for our natives to adapt here you are likely to get a better success rate when planting them. They are used to our soils and climate. Wildlife are able to digest native berries better. A local landscape architect equated it to “good for you food” vs. junk food. The most compelling argument came from entomologist and author Douglas W. Tallamy. In 2007 he released his latest book entitled Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens. He explains there is an unbreakable link between native plant species and native wildlife. Most native insects cannot, or will not, eat non-native species, therefore creating a break in the food chain. We also depend on these insects to pollinate our food and keep other insects in balance.
Fall is Haverford’s best season and the natives are giving it their all. The warm days and cool nights and ample amounts of moisture promises a spectacular display. The Sugar Maples at the cricket field are in their crimson glory, the Honey Locusts are showing off their golden hues and Hilles Hill is at its peak. So during Fall break take a walk around campus and enjoy show. Working and going to school at Haverford gives you a front row seat.