December has been a stormy month in a lot of places. California was pounded with heavy rains and mountain snows, Atlanta experienced a white Christmas, many areas near the Great Lakes were buried in lake effect snow, and now a raging nor'easter is pounding the New England area. Burlington, Vermont appeared to have missed the storm but in the last hour or two, we have been pounded by heavy snow, howling north winds, blizzard conditions and a wind chill of well below zero Farenheit. It looks like we'll end up getting several inches of snow (though mostly piled in drifts) but nothing like what is happening closer to the coast.
It's important to enjoy the stark beauty of winter, but it is also important to remember that spring is waiting on the other side of it. In the midst of all this cold, and with the dead of winter still ahead of us, it seems like a good time to think about flowers. So, below are a few plants native to the northeastern United States that do well in rain gardens.
Iris versicolor - blue flag iris - photo from Sylvania Natives in Squirrel Hill
Blue flag iris (above) is a beautiful perennial herb (meaning that the underground parts of the plant survive the winter) that does well in shady, wet rain gardens. It is known for its stunning blue flowers (in late spring/early summer) and attractive grasslike leaves. It may need a bit of extra summer water (from your rain barrel) if there are long dry periods. The rhizomes and sap may be toxic (according to Wikipedia), so make sure not to plant this somewhere that kids or pets may eat it.
Eupatorium perfoliatum - Boneset - photo from Sylvania Natives in Squirrel Hill and taken by Chris Tracy
Boneset is an interesting perennial herb with clusters of white flowers and angular leaves. Unlike blue flag iris, boneset prefers lots of sun. It blooms in mid to late summer. Like blue flag iris, it can be poisonous if consumed. It has also been used medicinally, but opinions differ on whether or not it medicinally does more harm than good, so I can't really recommend it (or at least, do some research on your own).
Mimulus ringens - monkey flower - photo from Sylvania Natives in Squirrel Hill
Monkeyflower is one of my favorite rain garden plants. It looks amazing, is easy to grow, tolerates a variety of conditions (as long as it is moist), blooms for most of the summer, and is definitely as showy as any 'conventional' landscape plant. Like most rain garden plants, it is a perennial herb. This plant is a mainstay of raingardens and also great for other sorts of landscaping.
If you live in California, and have a wetland garden (with summer water), try yellow monkeyflower (Mimulus guttatus) or scarlet monkeyflower (Mimulus cardinalis). Both are beautiful. I had more luck growing yellow monkeyflower in southern California, but my friend who lived in Marin County tells me he had more luck with scarlet monkeyflower. Keep in mind though that these need summer water, so they aren't necessarily the right choice for an unirrigated rain garden.
Aster novae-angliae - New England Aster - photo from Sylvania Natives in Squirrel Hill
New England Aster is a very vigorous native plant that likes wet areas, but can tolerate dry conditions as well. This is a good choice for the drier parts of a rain garden. The flower heads are beautiful and the flowers can bloom well into the fall. It is a very fast-growing and vigorous plant, so it might not be best for a 'manicured' sort of garden. Like all herbaceous rain garden plants, it can be cut back in the fall after the stems dry out.
So, while watching the snow fly by, don't forget that in a couple of months (okay, maybe more than a couple) it will be time to get back outside and plant native plants (or vegetables, or whatever else you enjoy planting...)! As mentioned above, Sylvania Natives in Squirrel Hill is a great place in Pittsburgh to get native plants. I still haven't figured out where the best native plant nursery in northwestern Vermont is so if you have ideas, let me know!