A chat with Dr. Richard Porcher about native plants

betsjukofsky@aol.comApril 29, 2012 

Spring garden news is all about new introductions of old favorites; the annuals, perennials and shrubs that have proved popular with gardeners. Many have catchy names, the better to get our attention.

Who could fail to ignore the yellow and orange new daylily varieties, "Going Bananas" and "Primal Scream"? Or in this crazy-for-hibiscus-corner of the Lowcountry, the new yellow and orange "Tequila"?

No surprise that there are new varieties of "Encore" azaleas coming out in late summer; "Encores" might turn out to be the most popular plant introduced this decade.

There are always many colorful, flowering plants available at our garden centers; but the gardeners seeking to add a few native flowering plants to their gardens will need to find a grower that specializes in natives, or, as I've done, seek identification advice from experts when a strange-looking plant pops up in my patch of woods. This, only after consulting my garden bible, "Wildflowers of the Carolina Lowcountry," by Dr. Richard Porcher.

Imagine then, my excitement on learning that Porcher, a learned field botanist, was to speak at the Plantation House in Hilton Head Plantation in April and that I would have the opportunity to meet and speak with him.

Question. In your book, you identify 437 species of wildflowers and give this explanation of the term wildflower: "a species growing without cultivation, some with showy flowers, some with small flowers that are aggressive and often designated as weeds." How would you describe wildflowers today?

Answer. "Wildflowers of the Carolina Lowcountry" was published in 1995 and is out of print. We now have a diversity of habitat as there are native plant species moving down from the North. Much land that was once wetland is now dry. The more than 50,000 acres that were once cleared for the growing of Carolina rice are reverting back to fresh water rivers and tidal marshes.

Q. I've heard that there are maritime shell forests found here. What are they and where are they found?

A. They are Native American shell deposits in a deciduous forest. Large deposits can be found at Hutchinson and Pig islands. The once-common Indian Maiden Morning Glory is rare here but can be found in Florida.

Q. Our Native American Indians used many of our still common wildflowers for medications. Could you name some of these?

A. Indian Pink was used to rid the body of worms; they chewed twigs of Black Willow as we use aspirin, to rid themselves of headache. As a small child I smoked Rabbit Tobacco as did they; Common Trillium was a cure for sore throats and used as a love medicine by the Cherokees.

Q. I was given some trillium plants by a grower who lives on Spring Island. Despite careful attention, they did not live. Do you have an answer?

A. Easy question. It's the soil. Trillium grows and spreads in clay soil. Here on Hilton Head your soil is sandy. Added factor is that trillium seed is dispersed by ants. How could they get to the island?

Q. Are there other books you've written that are available?

A. Yes. "Sea Island Cotton" was published in 2005. And I'm working now on a book, "Market Preparation of Carolina Rice."

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