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'The Northeast Native Plant Primer' is a gem of a gardening book

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Uli Lorimer’s new book, "The Northeast Native Plant Primer: 235 Plants for an Earth-Friendly Garden."

So many gardening books appear every year, the bulk of them rehashing familiar topics, that it’s easy to become jaded. Among the more routine offerings, though, occasionally you find a gem. That’s how I’d classify Uli Lorimer’s new book, "The Northeast Native Plant Primer: 235 Plants for an Earth-Friendly Garden."

First, about the author, Lorimer is the former curator of native flora at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and currently the director of horticulture at the Native Plant Trust in Framingham. During his 14-year tenure at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Lorimer assisted in an acclaimed expansion of his garden, helping to create displays of habitats such as tallgrass prairie that thrived in the region before its development as a metropolis. He gave the collection special authority by growing the plants from seed he collected in surviving scraps of local flora.

At the Native Plant Trust, Lorimer has supervised the further enrichment of its flagship public display garden, as well as the management of its nursery operations in which he continues to emphasize growing plants from locally collected, wild seed.

Lorimer has made the knowledge he’s acquired in these endeavors available to the public in this new book. That alone would be a significant contribution to gardening literature. What I find most intriguing about Lorimer’s book, though, is the new context in which he presents this information.

Right up front, for example, in the introduction, he shocked me with a statistic: a recent survey of the flora of the Northeast has revealed that fully a third of the species of plants growing in wild and uncultivated settings there are of foreign origin. That has a huge impact on the native wildlife, which because it evolved in partnership with native plants typically derives much less benefit from the foreign, introduced ones. Gardeners need to do their part in reinforcing native plant populations with their plantings.

Lorimer also makes a persuasive case for avoiding the use of cultivars of native plants. These, because they commonly have qualities favored by those schooled in traditional gardens fill a disproportionate share of the shelves at garden centers. Many of the native plant cultivars bear extra-large or double flowers, or blossoms of unusual color that appeal to our love of novelty. Sometimes they have unusually colored foliage, and frequently they are more compact in their growth than most specimens you would find in the wild. These supposed advantages tend to make the cultivars less appealing to pollinators and to caterpillars and other insects that serve to feed birds and other animals further up the food chain.

The worst deficiency of the cultivars, however, is their genetic impoverishment. To perpetuate their special qualities, nursery growers have to propagate them by cloning, so that every one of the offspring is genetically identical to all the others. By robbing the plants of their genetic diversity, this practice has a drastic impact on the population’s ability to adapt to changing conditions such as a warming climate, and makes it more vulnerable to diseases and other pests. Gardeners, Lorimer notes, by demanding native plants grown from locally sourced seed, can encourage nurseries to change their business model.

Most of the book, however, is devoted to practical information about how to plan and plant a garden with native plants. The “Getting Started” section guides readers through the process of assessing a site or existing garden to identify what will flourish there, and offers invaluable information on techniques that will make planting more successful.

I also appreciated the plant profiles, which occupy the latter three-quarters of the book. These offer information about the preferred habitat of the plant under consideration as well as a description, tips about its horticultural needs, and the types of wildlife it supports. The photographs included with each profile, almost all taken by the author, feature many portraits of special attractions such as the brilliant fall foliages of smooth sumac and black tupelo, or the sculptural spring fiddleheads of the ostrich and cinnamon ferns. Particularly useful was the section profiling native annuals, a group of plants too often overlooked in our enthusiasm for the more lasting display of native perennials. Providing quick cover and color, native annuals are especially useful in a young garden, and for filling gaps that might otherwise become an opportunity for weeds.

To learn more about "The Northeast Native Plant Primer," listen to a conversation with Uli Lorimer on the Berkshire Botanical Garden’s Growing Greener podcast at bershirebotanical.org.

Thomas Christopher is a volunteer at Berkshire Botanical Garden and is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books.

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