Written by: Laura Menyuk, AWS Summer Stewardship Intern
With heat indexes hovering in the triple digits in the Washington region -- which Washington Post readers have affectionaly called the “sweat ceiling” -- it seemed a better day to contemplate a garden, then to actually be out in one... the kind of garden that can beat the heat and looks nice as you contemplate safely from your air conditioned home.
Here at AWS we've had many indoor activities to keep us busy as we prep our historic office home, the George Washington House, for the bicentennial celebrations of the War of 1812. This home is beautiful and serves the important purpose of helping us restore the Anacostia Watershed and its natural historic heritage. Unsurprisingly, the flowers in our front yard rain gardens, with less hype and t-shirts, do the same. Here is some information about four amazing wildflowers we have in our two raingardens that are currently in bloom.
First the names entice: Bee balm, Swamp milkweed, Rose Mallow and Cardinal Flower. But these are just a distant scent on the wind to describe the modern uses and historical importance of these plants.
Well, we actually have Wild Bergamot, but many people call it Bee Balm. Either way: who knew this large, bright bulb of a flower is also a symbol against tyrannical government? After the Boston Tea Party one could just not be seen consuming English tea, but you certainly weren't going to stick to straight water (then as today, with sewage in the water, they knew not to drink it). Taking the idea from the various Eastern Woodland Indians, post tea party colonists, made Oswego tea from this local plant. The plant allegedly has many medicinal properties and if you aren't sweaty enough this weekend, you could even use it as a sweat-inducer. Better idea: take a couple of its sweet smelling leaves for perfume.
If you'd rather save it for the birds and the bees of which it attracts many... know that it's adaptable: full sun or part shade, acidic to limey soils, moist or dry tolerant, and most importantly: heat tolerant.
A member of the milkweed family, this plant can be an important home-base over expanding suburbia and filled in swamps along the 2,000 mile trans-continental odyssey for the Monarch. The caterpillars only eat leaves of milkweed plants and must get pumped up enough on it to fly from your backyard to Mexico every year. The plant also attracts aphids- and therefore the birds that eat those. And finally, as my suburban mom will be glad to hear: deer do not like it. I'm sure she will now plant her garden full of this moisture loving, but drought tolerating, highly adaptable plant.
These gorgeous plants which look like they belong on Hawaii, are actually native to the Coastal Plain region. And they befit the current tropical weather... This plant's historical fame comes from it's cousin: the sweet, sweet marsh mallow which early colonists made a tasty treat of.
Now we prefer our marshmallows with a dash of corn syrup and gelatin, but we can use the plant to treat our run-off. Along with other plants in your flowering rain garden, treat yourself to the knowledge that if the garden captures at least an inch of rain, it may prevent that much more land from eroding streambanks where buried sewer lines get exposed and cracked- or from mixing with the sewage itself and getting dumped directly into the Anacostia River.
It's bright red (named for Spanish Cardinals rather than for British Red Coats) gives it its name, but this flower is actually for the hummingbirds. Each flower is a long tube and only the hummingbird's beak can reach its nectar. This flower is not just a beauty or part of rain absorbing mechanism: It is a demonstration of nature's mysterious tendency to have plants and animals need one another. Without the existence of the hummingbird, returning again and again to drink from this plant and spread its seed, the tall red spikes couldn't exist. The flower is also a signal: when it's the last one flowering- it's beginning to herald the end of swimming pools and the coming of school buses...
Cardinal flowers don't need much water, but will tolerate plenty in the soil. And while the soil must be humus-y, they'll happily take full sun or shade.
Don't yet have a rain garden? Don't break a sweat over it: spend some time indoors this weekend looking up the financial benefits because of local stormwater run-off grant funding in DC and Montgomery County. Or look up the environmental and garden beautification benefits as these bright flowers will help hold the rain water otherwise flushing pollutants and litter directly to our streams. Or look up gardeners who'll build one for you if, like me, you're more of the look at and read about gardens kind of person. Or, finally, sign up for a class to learn how to be steward of your precious watershed: Watershed Stewards Academy
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