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TideWriters Tales
Denise Greene of Sassafras Farm Grows Native Plants for the Garden
By Zack Loesch

     One sunny day recently I visited with Denise Greene of Sassafras Farm located at Hayes, Virginia, where she resides with her two young children and her husband, Wesley, a garden historian employed by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. I found her with her dog, Cedar, working by her greenhouse, loading flowers onto the back of a pickup truck. 

     Denise, who holds a horticulture degree from Virginia Tech, explained that these were summer annuals and then named each. The morning glory flowers might be familiar to many gardeners, however the “foxy” foxglove represents a new variety of a plant once feared for its use as a poison. This particular type is a repeat bloomer and will produce several flower stalks throughout the summer and fall. Several colors are available including rose purple, white and pink. Denise feels that the average gardener is not really in any danger from cultivating this beautiful plant. Yet be advised gentle reader, do not use this plant in any fresh garden salads. The flowering tobacco plant features a red flower although white and green blooms are also available. Nearest to the truck’s cab and the first items loaded are the larkspur with their distinctive feathery foliage. According to Denise, larkspur is a traditional garden plant popular in the 1800s. 

     Denise seeks to promote the use of more flowering native species in gardening, plants that are by virtue of their native origin better able to survive the extremes of weather conditions found in our region such as drought preceded or followed by flooding. Plants with extensive root systems often do well in these conditions. Denise is especially interested in growing new varieties of flowering native perennials, although she has selected some imported plants that she feels naturalize well. She showed me some beautiful Carolina Lupines, a native perennial that blooms in May and June. 

     I viewed some firepinks or Silene Virginica that I thought were quite nice. In areas of dry shade Denise recommends the use of columbine, a plant so tough according to Denise, it will grow on the side of a rocky cliff. It has some foliage throughout the year and produces pink blooms. The white wood aster blooms in early fall and does well in poor soil conditions. Whorled rosinweed grows to be six feet tall and does well in the sand and clay often found in the garden soils of our region. It features a pale yellow flower. Fringed bleeding heart is a native plant with pink flowers said to be drought tolerant. 

     Denise recommends a number of plants for sunny sites such as butterfly weed which feeds caterpillars and provides them with a natural chemical defense against birds that might otherwise eat them, bergamot which provides hummingbirds with nectar, horsemint, blue star which Denise claims is the next best thing to a plastic plant, poppy mallow with its red mid-summer flower, grass-leaved blazing star, branched coneflower, wild petunias and the ox-eyed sunflower which provides seed for birds and will grow just about anywhere but the driveway. 

     Solomon’s seal is an alternative to hostas and is not readily eaten by deer. There is a variegated variety that Denise recommends. She emphasizes that the plants we select must suit the environmental conditions found at the site they are planted. Planting in groups creates focal points of plant communities, similar to those occurring in a natural setting. Denise uses varieties of ironweed and Joe Pye weed in her garden as well as snapdragons, larkspur, cleome and portulacas. She has a beautiful garden by her house as well as a smaller spontaneous garden by the side of her barn where flowers may be found growing in an old washing machine. Her hobby has grown into a small business. Just about every plant she sells is priced at five dollars. Denise does some design consultation also. For more information, please phone 804-642-0923.

© 2001 Zack Loesch. All rights reserved.

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