Carlos Montoya's Favorite Native Plants

A renowned expert on indigenous flora on Martha’s Vineyard, Carlos Montoya has been interested in native plants since he began landscaping here some twenty years ago. Early on, he learned that the “native” plants he was importing from off-Island – little bluestem grass grown in Midwestern nurseries, for example – behaved differently from those that naturally seeded themselves here. The true natives survived better and often looked a little different from the imports. So Carlos began harvesting and planting seeds from indigenous native plants, selling the seedlings through what eventually became Pitch Pine Nursery in West Tisbury. If you wanted an authentic Vineyard meadow in your backyard instead of a lawn, Pitch Pine was the place to go.

Last June, Carlos sold Pitch Pine. “I got tired of meeting a crew every morning at 7:30,” he says, though he continues to design and consult, “especially if it focuses on what I love, which is natives.”

Here are six of his favorite indigenous plants.

Little bluestem grass
(Schizachyrium scoparium)

“I love it,” says Carlos of the favorite that tops his list, “because it does different things across the year.” In spring, it comes up green; in late fall and winter, it changes to light cinnamon. After dying back to the ground, it emerges green in spring. “It’s got the most beautiful seed heads,” Carlos says. “They’re fluffy; when the sun hits them, they glisten.”

A tough and drought-hardy plant, little bluestem is the core grass of sandplain grasslands – a habitat surviving on only one percent of the globe, but still found at Katama and in the shrubby grasslands in the state forest. It can grow to twenty-four inches in the wild or up to thirty in a tended garden. Lawn grass spreads laterally; little bluestem grows in contained clumps. It can be planted in clusters as a stand, singly as an ornamental piece, mixed in with other indigenous plants as part of a coastal heathland, or – as at Carlos’s house in Aquinnah – it can be allowed to seed itself and grow randomly amongst the paving stones of a patio.

“It’s nice to mow it once a year,” says Carlos. “It keeps the process of new growth from being masked by the old growth.”

Blue-eyed grass
(Sisyrinchium angustifolium)

Not really a grass at all, blue-eyed grass is a member of the iris family. It loves sandy conditions and prefers to cohabit with other clump-forming plants, so that there is always a bit of space between it and others.

Blue-eyed grass has long, narrow leaves around a flower stalk that bears, in July, a single, purplish-blue blossom that is no more than three-eighths of an inch across. Growing to a maximum height of eight inches, the plant, after flowering, might be mistaken for a bluish grass.

“It’s a dainty plant,” says Carlos, “and it’s listed as rare or infrequent. When you come upon it in the wild, it’s the unexpected discovery that’s half the pleasure.”

(Sassafras albidum)
“I love the chartreuse green and the unique, almost fleur-de-lys shape of the leaves of the sassafras tree,” says Carlos. The leaves stay light green
until the fall, unlike the leaves of maples, oaks, and other trees, which emerge light green but darken with age. Sassafras bark is “gnarly, in an unusual, almost cork-like way,” Carlos says, “and when you dig its roots, the smell is like root beer, delicious.” He also admires the tree for its ability to grow both out in the open and as an understory tree beneath oaks and other larger species.

Sickle-leaved golden aster
(Chrysopsis falcata)

An important flowering plant of the sandplain grassland, golden aster is another species that Carlos says “prefers a really wild, sandy, sterile area where it cohabits with a bunch of other tough-as-nails plants.” In such conditions, it grows to only three inches tall, but in the relatively uncompetitive conditions of a garden, it might reach eight to ten inches. It flowers in August, which is early for native plants.

“I love its dusty, silvery green leaf,” says Carlos. “Anything silvery reminds me of the ocean.” Shaped like a sickle, its leaves are profuse but dainty. Its flowers have yellow petals and, says Carlos, “once flowering is over, it’s covered in spectacular seed heads – a hundred little tufts containing 300 seeds each, all knit together into a ball of fluff.”

Like bearberry, this plant does not do well in improved conditions, and it dislikes over-watering. “There’s something about its independence and strength, combined with its beauty, that I just love,” says Carlos. “You will kill these with kindness.”

(Nyssa sylvatica)

Called sweet gum and tupelo in other parts of the country, the beetlebung tree gets its Island name from its usefulness, in colonial times, as a material for making corks (also known as bungs) and mallets (or beetles). Beetlebungs grow in groves, as at the eponymous corner in Chilmark. “It’s like fifty lollypops,” says Carlos, “growing up narrowly because they’re so close to one another.”

The beetlebung is a slender tree under any circumstances. It will never take on the spreading sprawl of an oak. Instead, it assumes what Carlos calls a “layered, Japanese look,” with its short, twiggy branches that stick out straight like the bristles of a bottle brush.

The leaves of the beetlebung are leathery and notable for the bright crimson they turn in the early fall. They prefer clayey conditions and are ideally planted near ponds and streams.

(Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)

A woody, evergreen ground cover, bearberry has abundant small leaves that are glossy and green until winter, when they turn maroon. It also sports red berries in the fall and winter, which makes it interesting to look at in the off-season. “It is just beautiful to come upon a carpet of it,” says Carlos, “a drift of it, a cascade, just rolling up and down the topography, maybe even hanging over the edge of a bank.”

Despite the way it proliferates in certain spots, bearberry cannot tolerate much competition, particularly from plants that spread, such as sweet fern or huckleberry. It has no problem with sandy, infertile ground, though, perhaps because little else grows in such an inhospitable environment. It prefers full sun and sloping ground, because, as Carlos says, “it doesn’t like water that settles and sits.”

While it is sometimes seen growing atop stone retaining walls, over which it hangs attractively, it would be ideal in a rock garden, planted in rugged, sterile, spare soil. Carlos suggests combining it with very low thymes, particularly the silvery gray-green varieties, which offer a nice contrast in colors.