If you have a wet place on your property, maybe alongside a pond or a small stream, or just a place where the soil never seems to dry out, you probably know that the roses and hydrangeas found in so many East End landscapes don’t thrive there. The standard directive for many plants is to give them soil that is “moist but well drained.” But what do you do if your moist soil is decidedly not well drained? Luckily, a host of special—and quite beautiful—plants like it wet. Here are some candidates for your landscape.
If you’re looking for a tree, one to consider is the shadbush or serviceberry. A native that can be seen growing wild on the East End, shadbush covers itself in white flowers in spring, which are followed later on by small fruits attractive to birds (and reportedly delicious in pies for people, too). In fall the leaves turn orange, gold and red. Another native that likes moist conditions is the stately red maple or swamp maple (not to be confused with the widely planted red-leaved Japanese maples), which is found in moist forest areas across Long Island and sports glowing fall foliage that can be greenish yellow to bright scarlet to deep red. An especially beautiful tree is the Heritage river birch, which often grows as a clump of slender trunks, featuring beautiful shaggy bark that peels to reveal smooth, creamy beige bark underneath.
A good shrub for a damp place is easy-to-grow clethra, also called summersweet and sweet pepperbush, which sends out wands of lightly fragrant white or pink flowers in late summer. Clethra will form a clump of stems over time. The flowers attract bees and other pollinator insects, performing an important service since bees have become endangered. Two bushes in the holly family –winterberry and inkberry—also appreciate moisture. Inkberry produces black berries, and winterberry lines its stems with brilliant red fruits in fall. Neither has the prickly leaves of the holly we use in Christmas wreaths and decorations. Pussy willow is another good candidate for a wet spot, and welcomes spring with its soft, fuzzy catkins.
And, of course, you need flowers for added color and texture. Some traditional flower garden favorites do just fine in a very moist bed or border. If you have a large space, big beautiful rose mallow, a type of hibiscus, is a showstopper. Taking the form of a clump of tall, thick stems, in midsummer the plant decks itself out in huge saucer-shaped flowers of delicious rosy pink. At the end of the growing season you may need lopping shears to cut back the stems for winter, but the flowers are worth the effort. The elegant calla lily, sometimes seen in florist bouquets or given as gift plants, can grow in wet soil or even at the edge of a pond or garden pool. The flowers take the form of a spathe, a white leaflike structure that wraps around a vertical column of minute yellow flowers, called a spadix. You can dig up the bulb in fall and store it in a cool place indoors to plant again next year. For dramatic, bold texture, plant elephant’s ear, a tropical plant with huge heart-shaped leaves. This plant also grows from a bulb and you can find bulbs in spring or plants in summer at many local nurseries. For a shot of fiery color try the water-loving Longwood varieties of the canna lilies that ignite East End gardens in summer with their tall, sturdy spikes of large lily-like flowers in hot shades of red, orange and yellow.
Some more traditional and familiar garden flowers that appreciate plenty of moisture include astilbe, with its branched, lacy clusters of tiny pink, red, lavender or white blossoms in early to midsummer. New England aster is another good choice. An American native plant that was widely hybridized by English plant breeders, you can have their daisy flowers in shades of pink, rose, purple, red and violet, along with white. Beebalm, or bergamot, an herb garden favorite that lends its flavor to Earl Grey tea, bears shaggy flowers of red, pink, purple or white in mid to late summer. Clip off the old flowers when they fade and the plant will produce more. Good varieties include Cambridge Scarlet, Croftway Pink and Violet Queen. A smaller plant, cardinal flower, packs a visual punch with its brilliant red flowers contrasted against deep green foliage. A tall plant for the back of the garden is filipendula, or meadowsweet, which can grow as high as 4 feet and has dense clusters of tiny white flowers in summer.
Plant some of these water-lovers in your wet spot, and be glad that you don’t have to worry about watering the garden!