Blooming Natives: Gardening in Cape Fear

By Paige Brown |

Their feathers flash emerald and ruby as the sunlight reveals tiny hummingbirds moving from flower to flower on a red honeysuckle vine. A cherry laurel tree vibrates with the movement of a host of honeybees, and the cardinals are feeding their young amongst the creamy white blossoms of the dogwood tree. Many of the blooming natives to our area put on quite the floral show in spring in our woodlands and, increasingly, in our landscapes. Their beauty is only one of many reasons to include these plants in your landscape.


Native plants are well adapted to our coastal soils and climate, display a high immunity to the insects and diseases common to our area, and, once established in the landscape, require minimal care and maintenance. Given the proper amount of space to grow, pruning requirements are close to nonexistent. However, many natives are very tolerant of pruning, making them excellent choices for sheared hedges.

The flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) is a small deciduous tree that is found native in much of the country. Our state flower, the dogwood blossom, has four creamy white petals surrounding a cluster of tiny yellow flowers. In the spring, soft clouds of creamy flowers cover the branches. The layered habit of the tree is a standout in winter; the fall colors are some of our region’s best and the pale green foliage makes the tree a soft accent in the summer months. The flowering dogwood requires a slightly acid, well-drained soil and prefers light shade. Try ‘Constellation’, ‘Cherokee Princess’ or ‘Stellar Pink’ hybrids.

Perhaps our showiest flowering tree of the blooming natives, the redbud (Cercis Canadensis) is also found in much of the country. Groups of vibrant pink blossoms burst forth from every nook and cranny, even directly on the main trunk of the tree. The nectar is an important source of food for hummingbirds, the pollen for honeybees. New heart-shaped leaves, reddish in color, begin to emerge as the flowers fade and turn green during the summer months.

If you are looking for an evergreen tree or a large shrub for a hedge, consider Carolina cherry laurel (Prunus caroliniana). This small, adaptable tree provides a dense canopy of glossy green leaves and abundant clusters of small white flowers in spring. The nectar and pollen from the blossoms are an important source of food for honeybees, and birds feast on the berries. The foliage, however, is toxic if ingested, making it a poor choice if you keep livestock or horses.

blooming nativesWith residential lot size shrinking, vertical gardening has become quite the rage. Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) – not to be confused with jasmine – is a twining vine perfect for sunny arbors and trellises. A harbinger of spring, this vine explodes with small bright yellow flowers as early as mid to late February. Carolina jessamine is adaptable to a variety of soils. While it performs best in plenty of sunshine, it will tolerate some shade. Other options include cross vine (Bignonia capreolata), trumpet vine (Campsis radicans), and coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), all producing tubular shaped flowers in shades of orange and red that attract the ruby-throated hummingbird.

Azaleas are part of the coastal region’s heritage, so celebrated that they have had their festival in Wilmington for over 65 years. The evergreen azaleas like Formosa, George Tabor, and Coral Bells are what most people think about when azaleas come to mind. While these lovely shrubs originated mainly in Asia, North Carolina has its own native azaleas. There are fifteen species of deciduous azaleas native to eastern North America. Their flowers are typically much smaller than the evergreen azaleas, but what the flower lacks in size, it makes up for with fragrance. The sweet azalea (Rhododendron arborescens), swamp azalea (Rhododendron viscosum), and the flame azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum) are three examples that make a great addition to the landscape.

The sweet azalea is a highly ornamental shrub that reaches five feet in height and width, blooms later in the season, and has clusters of highly fragrant white flowers with pink stamens. Azaleas do not like ‘wet feet,’ but the swamp azalea is an exception. This loose, open shrub grows an average five feet and thrives in wetland areas. Clusters of white and lavender flowers bloom in May, providing a sweet fragrance in the garden. The most spectacular of the native azaleas, the flame azalea, grows from six to twelve feet and has large flowers in shades of orange, red, and yellow.

For more information on native plants, contact your local cooperative extension service or visit the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center also provides a wealth of information.


Paige Brown is a landscape designer and consultant, gardener, photographer, and freelance writer. She holds a degree in horticulture from Brunswick Community College and has been a master gardener for close to twenty years.