Lake Barcroft  


Springing Into Bloom in the RPA Garden and Budding with Wildlife

By Betsy Washington – May 2008

Spring is a glorious time to be out walking and boating around the lake, and if you are in the Beach 5 area, be sure to stop by the RPA Demonstration Garden and check out the succession of spring blooms and the wealth of wildlife that is attracted by these native plants. 

The delicate, fleecy white flowers of our native Serviceberries are among the earliest bloomers to grace our woodlands, typically opening around the first of April. Serviceberries or Shadbushes dot the shores of local streams and rivers blooming at the same time that the shad are migrating upstream to spawn. They are also called Juneberries in reference to their sweet, juicy berries that ripen in June attracting over 42 species of songbirds that relish the fruit. My son and I often find ourselves surrounded by fearless robins and mockingbirds as we all gobble down the berries shoulder to wing.

Our lovely Redbud begin blooming shortly after the serviceberries with soft lavender-pink blooms that stud the bare trunk and branches in mid-April. This lovely small tree has large heart shaped leaves often opening a smoldering reddish purple color and dangle graceful on long stems like little valentines. There are many stunning new cultivars including the small weeping ‘Covey’ and ‘Forest Pansy’, with smoldering purple leaves.  Both are featured in the RPA garden. Redbuds provide seeds for migrating birds and provide nectar to hummingbirds and butterflies. Our native dogwoods bloom around the same time and are considered by many to be the most beautiful of all flowering trees. In fall glossy clusters of crimson fruit attract over 53 species of migrating songbirds. In fact, our native Flowering Dogwood supports over 117 species of wildlife! The garden features the new cultivar ‘Appalachian Spring’ which is resistant to the deadly dogwood anthracnose. 

In mid- May the fleecy white flowers our native Fringetrees, (or Old Man's Beard) grace the shoreline of the lake in several locations. Be sure to sniff their honeyed fragrance. Female Fringetrees produce showy crops of small blue fruit in fall that attracts numerous species of songbirds.  

Another stunning native tree, the Tulip Poplar, or tulip tree, a magnolia cousin, has some of the most beautiful flowers of all, but they are seldom seen because they are held on branches that can tower more than a hundred feet overhead.  Be sure to look for these tulip-shaped flowers during May. They  grade from vivid orange at the base to yellow and lime green extending up the petals, all surrounding a central orange cone of stamens.  The flowers are stunning and like many magnolias are very fragrant.  Tulip poplars provide food for Swallowtail butterflies, bees, as well as many songbirds, including hummingbirds and turkey. 

Several native shrubs and vines burst into bloom in May, beginning with the Pinxterbloom and Florida azaleas, both with spicily fragrant pink and orange flowers, respectively, that resemble honeysuckle. They are pollinated by hummingbirds and attract several species of showy butterflies including tiger swallowtails.  Our beautiful Mt. Laurels turn entire hillsides around the lake in to a fairy land of gorgeous blooms in late May attracting hummingbirds and butterflies. 

A couple of our showiest native vines also begin to bloom in May. The beautiful Coral Honeysuckle has slender tubular red flowers tipped in yellow and is a virtual hummingbird magnet, while the American Wisteria has fragrant racemes of sky blue flowers that bloom for weeks in May and June and provides nectar for butterflies.

Many spring wildflowers provide colorful and often fragrant groundcover to the garden. The bright yellow Marsh Marigolds planted right along the water’s edge are among the earliest to bloom and in the shady parts of the garden you can find large drifts of fragrant blue woodland phlox, pinkish white spires of starry foamflowers, rosy pink lockets of wild bleeding hearts, pink and blue Virginia Bluebells, and bright yellow Woodland Poppies. The round, heart shaped leaves of our Wild Ginger hide curious, maroon flowers that look like “little brown jugs” that lie just above the ground.  The curious flowers are pollinated by ants and beetles and the aromatic roots of this groundcover par excellence, have been used as a ginger substitute. Violets, often considered a nuisance, are the sole larval food of the beautiful fritillary butterflies.  Without violets, there would be no more fritillaries, so be sure to leave a few violets in your lawn and garden for the butterflies! 

By late April, the Wild Colmbine begins to bloom for weeks on end with graceful red and yellow flowers with dainty spurs. They are pollinated by hummingbirds and provide some of the earliest nectar for them.  All of these early spring treasures are easy to grow in any partially shady to shady gardens with woodsy soils amended with organic matter. Be sure to add a few to your garden.  

One of the main goals of the RPA garden is to coax you to fall in love with some of our dazzling native plants and to invite some into your own garden.  Our native plants support many more species of wildlife than commonly grown ornamental plants from other parts of the world.  Consider that gardens planted with a diversity of native plants support 35 times more birds than those planted with common exotics like Japanese cherries, Bradford pears, burning bushes and lawn grass. Many of these birds nest in gardens with natives and include a number of imperiled species. Gardens planted with a number of native plants, support 14 times more caterpillars (larval butterflies and moths). Over 96% of baby songbirds eat only caterpillars.  A single pair of bluebirds feeds their young over 300 caterpillar each day!  Without healthy populations of caterpillars and other insects, our songbirds cannot successfully raise their young, No wonder our songbirds populations have declined by 50% in the last 50 years!  

If you are interested in learning more about the vital connection between native plants and wildlife, and how to help support wildlife in your own garden, check out the fascinating new book, “Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in our Gardens” by Doug Tallamy.  It will change the way you garden and think about plants, wildlife, and insects! For lists of native plants and some of the wildlife they attract, you can also check out: