There’s a rocky streambed behind my house that I’ve always appreciated but rarely interacted with. With a young child home all summer, that has changed, as the stream has become a refuge and a place for adventures. There’s a secret agency among the rocks and pools where my daughter and I are superheroes and practice flying. We have a net and a microscope that looks under water. We catch frogs and watch out for lobsters (crayfish) that will bite our toes. She scrambles up and down the rocks like a goat and I try not to break a hip.
Being a gardener, I’m also studying the vegetation. The banks are dominated by a mix of cultivated escapees and invasive plants, including Japanese barberry, ferns, garlic mustard, vinca, forsythia and spicebush with sugar maples of all sizes taking up most of the sun. All the invasive plants signal to me that what should be growing here has been displaced and disturbed.
I’ve been familiar with plants that appreciate a good puddle for a long time but haven’t had many opportunities to work with them. Now a plan is forming. I have two sites in mind for projects I wouldn’t call restoration but more like repopulation.
Without the native streambed plants that should be growing along these banks, the ecosystem lacks habitat and plants that would support insects which the frogs, salamanders and birds need. Except for the maples and spicebush (Lindera benzoin), none of the vegetation has anything to offer. Riparian plantings are also crucial for cleaning water, preventing erosion and helping prevent flooding. Strong-rooted plants stabilize stream banks.
Here’s my first round of ideas for native plants for stream banks and rain gardens:
- Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum)
This tall, strong-stemmed perennial grows up to 7 feet and forms a mass. It needs space. Pollinators love it and it will be covered in bees and butterflies during its bloom time in July and August.
- Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
This plant is also known as the “pink one.” Common milkweed is taller and has light pink flowers. Butterfly weed is a native milkweed that has orange flowers. All three are necessary for the monarch butterfly’s survival and swamp milkweed, as the name indicates, prefers soil that doesn’t dry out. It will thrive in muddy clay soil and deer won’t eat it. Add in beautiful butterflies and you can’t lose with this one.
- Pussy willow (Salix discolor)
This small tree/woody plant is a power species when it comes to birds that eat caterpillars. In his book, Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, Douglas Tallamy ranks the Salix species as one of the top three woody plants that support butterflies and moths. Nearly 500 types of insects use Salix for food and habitat. These caterpillars are in turn important food sources for birds. Like a shrub, the pussy willow has multiple stems, but it can grow up to 20 feet tall, so give it space when planting.
- Swamp rose (Rosa palustris)
This favorite of native bees will slowly spread by tipping a branch to the soil and rooting. It is thorny but, as with most roses, I expect the deer would snack on it and it would have to be protected in my woods.
- Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus)
This plant can be the first sign of spring. It has a remarkable ability to heat the soil and melt snow so it can emerge. It has a strong smell when disturbed and it attracts early-season pollinators with an interesting, deep-purple “flower.” It has deep roots and will grow in spots where most plants can’t. It isn’t widely available commercially, but it’s worth trying to populate from seed.
- Turtlehead (Chelone spp.)
This is a late-summer/fall bloomer that supports pollinators. It appreciates wet conditions and will naturalize along the stream banks. I have it in another area of my yard, and the deer and groundhog love it, so I’m not sure I could protect it in a scattered planting here.
- Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris)
This plant’s yellow flowers will brighten the landscape in early spring. Pollinators love it and ducks eat its seeds. I’ve read that deer and rabbits will leave it alone due to toxicity. While it can be grown from seed, be patient. It will take three years to flower. It spreads by rhizomes.