The South's Most Iconic Plants
Camellias are among the South's icons—right up there with Elvis, cornbread, and kudzu—but these flowers are actually native to Asia. André Michaux, botanist to King Louis XVI of France, brought camellias (Camellia japonica) to Charleston, South Carolina, in the late 1700s, and they've graced our gardens and tables ever since. Sometimes called "common camellias," they have uncommonly beautiful glossy, evergreen leaves and luscious blooms in shades of pink, white, and red. Some even have yellow flowers. "I'm always partial to pink blooms," says JoAnn Breland, horticulturist for the City of Charleston. "I also like the forms of camellias; the flowers of "Professor Sargent" resemble folded crepe paper. They're so perfect that they don't even seem real."
Pictured: sasanqua camellias (Camellia sasanqua)
If the South had a beauty pageant for shrubs, azaleas would take the crown. In peak bloom, they are simply stunning, adorned with frilly flowers in reds, pinks, purples, whites, oranges, and yellows. Evergreen azaleas (most are from Japan) are popular and have swept the South. Deciduous azaleas are native. They all offer bright blossoms, and many are fragrant. Buy plants while they're in bloom to ensure you get the colors or combinations of colors you prefer. Keep things simple: Use masses of the same selection for a bold display. Spring-blooming bulbs such as daffodils, Spanish bluebells, and snowflakes make great partners for azaleas; but don't worry—they won't upstage the queen.
Pictured: 'Pink Ruffles' azalea
Also known as bigleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla), French hydrangeas are favorite plants that Southerners love to clip and share with friends and family members. In the warm days of summer, big balloons of delicate blooms in blues, pinks, purples, and white seem to float up like magic from the lush green foliage of these shrubs. Despite the variety of colors available, most people associate them with one classic hue. "French hydrangeas have tremendous appeal because of the heavenly blue color of their blooms," explains Dr. Michael A. Dirr, author of Hydrangeas for American Gardens. "What other shrub fills that void in the garden?"
Pictured: 'Endless Summer' hydrangea
If your garden needs a lift but you're not ready for a total redo, train a rose to climb. Few ornamentals can change the look and mood of a garden like a climber. Adding height, dimension, and color, climbing roses fill voids more gracefully than most other plants. One well-placed rose is capable of softening the corner of a porch, perfuming a doorway, blanketing an arbor, or adding even more charm to a picket fence. "All of the great gardens of the world include roses," says Dr. William C. Welch, author of Antique Roses for the South. "They add elegance wherever they're used." Old or antique roses have thrived in Southern gardens for years with minimal care. We love them (and you will too) because they are tough and relatively disease and bug free.
Pictured: 'New Dawn' rose
Nothing says summer in the South like crepe myrtles. They grow so easily and bloom so long that we love them like family members—except in late winter and spring, when they are routinely chopped down to thick, ugly stumps (a crime known as "crepe murder"). A big reason people do this is because they'll buy a crepe myrtle only for its color without checking how big their plant will get. So when it inevitably blocks the upstairs windows, out comes the pruning saw. Let's put a stop to this terrible practice now by choosing crepe myrtles according to color and size and by reading labels when you shop. Regular watering will be key to the survival of your crepe myrtle once planted. Make sure the roots stay moist as long as it's warm. Next year, your plant will need much less water.
No other tree conjures up images of the region like Southern magnolia. Its glossy, dark, and evergreen leaves with bronze, velvety undersides are durable and drought tolerant. In spring and summer, the beautiful, large white flowers perfume the evenings. In fall and winter, its leaves become indispensable holiday decor when fashioned into elegant wreaths and garland. Many might not realize that there's an equally regal cousin of the Southern magnolia called saucer magnolia (also known as tulip magnolia) that produces bright pink blooms in early spring. Both of these trees are icons of the Southern landscape and are right at home in your yard, too.
Pictured: Saucer magnolia
Pansies & Mums
There's a sure sign that it's fall in the South, and no, it doesn't have anything to do with football. When our garden centers start to fill up with pansies, violas, and mums, you know cooler temps are just around the corner. These colorful annuals have long been favorites of ours. "They bloom prolifically and don't ask for much," says Hilton Head horticulturist Carol Guedalia. "They are always happy plants—an ideal choice for both new and experienced gardeners." Great in containers, these plants look beautiful when displayed on their own or mixed with ornamental cabbages and kale.
Pictured: 'Matrix Yellow Blotch' pansy (with dark centers) and 'Penny Clear Yellow" viola
Elegant tulip blooms grace spring gardens with a variety of colors and forms.
Each spring at Moss Mountain Farm in Roland, Arkansas, the stars come out twice—once at night, like everywhere else, and again in the daytime, when innumerable daffodils illuminate hills and meadows from horizon to horizon. The plantings are the handiwork of the farm's owner—author, designer, and TV personality P. Allen Smith—who has loved these flowers since he was a boy. Smith believes the impact of a display depends on more than just sheer numbers. How and where you plant bulbs is just as important as how many, whether you have an acre or a 20- by 10-foot border.
Pictured: 'Jetfire' and 'Carlton' daffodils
Streets across the South lined with cherry trees put on quite a show in peak color. Thousands of glorious pink or white blossoms adorn its leafless branches in early spring. During fall, the tree bears striking fall foliage with stunning bark. Not only do cherry trees grow easily with full sun and well-drained soil, but they come in many shapes and sizes. Another beloved spring-flowering tree is the dogwood (Cornus florida). It's native to the Eastern U.S. and grows from New England to Central Florida. White is the typical flower color, but named selections also come in shades of pink to nearly red. Plant dogwoods in sun to light shade in moist, well-drained soil.
Pictured: 'Okame' cherry trees
Both graceful and versatile, Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) are the chameleons of the plant world. Some leaf out in brilliant reds in spring, change to green by summer, and finish the fall in yellows and oranges. Others start red and stay red till their leaves drop in autumn, revealing their sculptural forms. Leaves can be palm-shaped or lacy, almost feathery, and their available color palette includes red, green, orange, purple, white, and pink. William B. Shell of Auburn, Alabama, is an expert on growing Japanese maples. He planted his first tree in 1967 and now has more than 1,000 in his yard. "Japanese maples are an excellent choice for the beginning gardener, as they are essentially carefree once established," he says. "They offer year-round interest with their ever-changing beauty."