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Monday - May 23, 2011

From: White Stone, VA
Region: Mid-Atlantic
Topic: Invasive Plants
Title: Plants that will do well in a water retention basin in White Stone Virginia
Answered by: Leslie Uppinghouse


I am looking for plants to grow under pine trees in a water retention basin. The pine trees line the basin. When it rains it will hold water for about two to three days before evaporating. I have planted hosta and azaleas around the edges but would like to find something that will grow directly in the sometimes very wet area filled with layers of pine needles and mud but also drys to be moderately wet at times. Someone advised trying elephant ears and I planted several varities. They are surviving but not flourishing. Any suggestions on how to make this ugly area look better? Thanks so much!


First off, we will start by thanking you for reaching out to us. As Mr Smarty Plants provides folks with advice on utilizing native species, steering them away from planting non native and invasive species. We will give you some native ideas and options for your particular situation.

This is the part where we scold you for planting the Elephant Ears. There is only one genus native to tropical America and that is Xanthosoma. This is not however native to Virginia. Elephant Ears can become terribly invasive, especially along waterways. You only receive a light scolding, as this came as a recommendation from a friend and it sounds like the water in your area is fairly contained. If it is along a broader waterway you might want to think about removing the Elephant Ears.

The good news is that you are blessed with a bounty of good options for your situation that are native to your state. Here is how you can use our website to find a list of good plants to plant in acidic spoil that will be happy with intermittent standing water. On the web site click on the recommended species pull down option in the EXPLORE PLANTS tool bar at the top of the page. You will see a map of the United States. Click on the state of Virginia. This brings up a large list of recommended species for your state, meaning these plants should be available for purchase locally. From this list you can narrow your search by general appearance, lifespan, light requirement, soil moisture, bloom time, bloom color and height. For your particular situation of finding a plant that could grow in standing water, let's narrow the search with soil moisture only. This will give us the largest pool to choose from. This should give you twenty species and with this list, when you see a plant that interests you, click on that plant and read all about it. Pay particular attention to the growing conditions. This will give you the light requirements, which were not mentioned in the email, as well as the soil conditions. What we are looking for here, are plants that will do well with the acidity the pine needles provide.

Here are a couple of options to check out:

Asclepias incarnata (Swamp milkweed) is an upright perennial with a showy flower that is a favorite of butterflies and hummingbirds. Aptly named, Swamp Milkweed does very well in boggy conditions. It prefers slightly acidic spoil so it should be happy with the pine. As this plant is not terribly large you might want to consider this in accompaniment of some larger plants.

Cephalanthus occidentalis (Common buttonbush) would be a nice companion to the milkweed. This bush is typically around six feet tall, although it can reach up to twelve feet. It can take standing water and a variety of soil conditions including clay which is handy as it sounds as though your drainage isn't the best. This plant has an unusual spherical cluster of flowers resembling a pincushion. it is a honey producer and the seeds are eaten by local wildlife.

Helianthus angustifolius (Swamp sunflower) is a cheery sunflower which loves bogs and poorly drained areas in acid based soil. It is a perennial but would be best planted with multiple plants by seed to receive the full effect of naturalization.

Monarda didyma (Scarlet beebalm) is a spectacular bright red beebalm that is very showy and upright. Again best if planted in large groupings. You can grow this by seed or purchase plants. Hummingbirds love this plant. It grows best with water nearby along banks and streams. It does like acidic soil so it would be worth trying for its showy flower, to see if it can tolerate standing water. If you do try and grow this plant by seed, start it out in a pot or in a flat, then transplant the seedlings to the area. This way the seed won't wash away with the first rain. Once the plant is established, it will spread by rhizome.

You mention that you had planted azaleas around the edges. Some azaleas and rhododendrons can have their roots submerged once established. If you look into the woods in your area, you might find some of the biggest rhododendrons are so close to the banks that they actually have their feet wet. Rhododendron viscosum (Swamp azalea) is a flood tolerant azalea that grows in bogs and swamps. It has deep green foliage and white to light purple flowers. It likes acidic soil and should do fine in the retention basin.

Monarda didyma

Asclepias incarnata

Cephalanthus occidentalis







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