A Letter from Kellen

Rising sea levels, climate change, and more frequent and intense threats of severe weather have more than just water creeping up our ankles. It also has native plants and salt tolerance creeping up faster than ever, in conversation and urgency for our gardens, parks, and home landscapes. This is especially true for those of us in the coastal areas of the southeastern United States with increasingly volatile summers and hurricane seasons.

It has also made it more critical than ever to select and utilize native species that thrive with wet feet and can help mitigate flooding and erosion through rapid root absorption and soil holding capacity. 

Native trees, shrubs, and perennials establish massive root systems in depth and breadth. This not only helps them access water in periods of drought, but the increased surface area of roots also helps them absorb more water faster in times of deluge and minor flooding. 

These root systems also help sequester atmospheric carbon and store it deep in the soil. Trees are the most efficient at this process, but many of our native grasses and forbs are also effective. These plants are also vital for native wildlife, providing food, shelter, and other necessities for birds and insects.

Some particular wet-loving species are even more adapted and specialized in these consistently moist, flood-prone, and often anaerobic environments. Trees in this category include Black Gum, Bald Cypress, and Red Maple. Buttonbush, Wax Myrtle, and Swamp Hibiscus are some shrubs that thrive with wet feet. Cord Grass, Iris, Switch Grass, Swamp Sunflower, Bushy Bluestem, some Milkweeds, and Spider Lily are softer, herbaceous plants that thrive in wet soils. 

Most of these plants like full sun, though some can perform in a part sun setting. For the home landscaper, and depending on your yard or garden size, the most effective strategy is to have 1 to 3 of the tree layer, 5 to 7 of the shrub layer, and then fill out your remaining square footage with the herbaceous and ground covering layer. Turfgrass and lawns are less effective at absorbing excess water.

For part sun and shadier spots, there are a variety of native shrubs, ferns, and sedges to offer color, texture, and functionality. A few examples are Red Buckeye, Southern Wood Fern, Cinnamon Fern, and Cherokee and White-Topped Sedges.

Like many things in life, it does not have to be all or nothing. The 80/20 rule is a good one to adopt, using 80% regionally native plants and 20% non-invasive plants that will fulfill a particular bloom window, a difficult microenvironment, or cherished and sentimental plants.

It’s no surprise that we have a real-time case study of many of these principles and species at Colonial Lake Park in downtown Charleston, SC, with this key balance of beauty, resiliency, functionality, safety, and accessibility. Renovated in 2016 and one of 24 parks managed by the Charleston Parks Conservancy, this beloved park, and its plant life has already taught gardeners, neighbors, and the community so much. If these plants can grow well and perform through all of the challenges faced in a large park environment, they can bring all that and a little more to a more private and controlled home landscape.

After what was claimed to be a 100-year storm, surge, and saltwater flooding happened once, twice, and then a third consecutive autumn, it was time to reevaluate many of the park’s plant selections. This meant replacing the Asian species that have become Charleston garden staples, such as Japanese Maples, Azaleas, Podocarpus, and Camellias, with a mixture of regionally native and functional workhorse plants.

The loss of six mature, native trees and their root systems over these years to wind, salt damage, and decay has only made further renovation and addition of native plants more imperative.

As the park and neighborhood increasingly face severe weather and flooding, we must keep learning and combating these challenges using nature itself, particularly through the use of native plants.

Our native coastal plain and a lap around Colonial Lake are already great resources for gardeners who wish to discover which plants will be most resilient and perform in the face of climate change. All the while, they offer vital resources to wildlife and aesthetic beauty and manageability in a park or home landscape setting. It has never been more crucial to understand that native plants are going to be the ones to stand up and out as the water continues to come rushing in.

Kellen Goodell is a Horticulture graduate from the University of Florida who has been gardening in Charleston Parks Conservancy’s parks since 2010. He has led staff and volunteers in the day-to-day management of Colonial Lake and its clean-up and restoration efforts following storms and flooding events. To learn more and to find out ways to get involved, click below.

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