As a gardener who likes to use as many native plants as fit (both physically and aesthetically) in my urban yard, Alan Branhagen’s new book will be an often consulted guide. Branhagen, who is director of operations at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum and former director of horticulture at Powell Gardens in Kansas City, has two previous books on native plants and gardening for pollinators. The Midwest Native Plant Primer (Timber Press, 2020) is geared toward gardeners who want to create a sense of place in their gardens, to create landscapes that are rooted in the soils, weather and plants of our region.
“Native plants were the original ornamental flora of this land,” he says in the book’s introduction. “They define the aesthetics of the Midwest and help differentiate it from the East Coast, the South, or the Pacific Northwest.”
Branhagen’s Midwest is a broad area from the western edge of the Appalachian Mountains across the Great Plains. Its territory includes woodlands, such as Minnesota’s Big Woods area, savannas and tall grass prairies. In The Midwest Native Plant Primer, Branhagen begins with a discussion of the spirit of the Midwest and its various bioregions. Beautifully illustrated with photographs, this section describes the essences of forests, prairies and wetlands, highlighting iconic plants for each of those environments. He then offers solid advice for choosing native plants for your particular landscape (hint: buy local), encouraging gardeners to consider soil, light and moisture needs as well as plant functions before diving into “which plants do I think look pretty?” Even in the section on design, Branhagen asks gardeners to look at plant form, foliage, bark, berries and other aspects of interest besides bloom color and form.
There is a helpful section on garden design incorporating Midewest native plants, including a discussion of how native plants fit in various garden styles. The heart of the book, however, are the plant profiles of 225 garden-worthy Midwest native plants, starting with trees and shrubs, then moving to perennials, vines and groundcovers. Each plant is listed alphabetically by common name and includes a photograph. These listings will be incredibly helpful for those choosing plants for their home gardens. They define the plant’s native habitat, its sun needs and which wildlife it supports. They also offer tips on where it will grow best and what it brings to the home garden. For instance, Branhagen describes eastern redbuds as “the right-sized tree to grace an entryway, porch, deck or patio,” and the berries on American highbush cranberry as “a rare hot note in a bitter cold, snowy landscape.”
For those who love native plants and all they do for our landscape as well as gardeners who want easy-care, good-looking plants, The Midwest Native Plant Primer is well-worth adding to your library.