Plants that grow in the wild have adapted to their environments in ways that may make them unsuitable for other locations. Many wild outdoor plants of the Northeastern United States must tolerate thin rocky soil, long subzero winters and hot humid summers. Some have adapted to the polluted air and soil of urban environments, providing summer shade and reminders of greener days gone by.
No wild plant encompasses the glory of the Northeastern United States more completely than the sugar maple (Acer saccharum). These magnificent hardwoods, says the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, attain heights of more than 100 feet. Their widely spreading branches provide shade. Their green foliage produces the brilliant yellows, scarlets and oranges synonymous with New England autumn.
Sugar maples are highly prized for their wood, a staple of the furniture and flooring industry. The Native Americans were the first to boil down sugar maple sap for syrup and sugar. The sap rises in early spring before the trees begin flower and leaf out.
Sugar maple produces shaggy yellow and green blooms without petals between March and May. Wing-like seedpods appear in late summer and fall, dropping from the trees after about two weeks. Sugar maples will grow from seed stored in wet moist sand for two to three months. Young trees are widely available from nurseries. They like rich, well-drained soil and moderate watering.
The wild highbush blueberry ( vaccinium corymbosum) grows in oak forests, swamps and bogs throughout the Northeast, where it feeds birds, rodents, bears and deer. People prize wild blueberries for preserves and pie filling.
Highbush blueberry grows to 12 feet, producing springtime clusters of white or pale-pink flowers and blue-black berries at mid-summer. Leaves progress from a red-green in spring to blue-green in summer, before changing to autumnal yellows, oranges and reds. The highbush blueberry is an attractive garden addition in any season.
Bushes grow from springtime softwood cuttings or seeds started in a slightly acid planting mix. They tolerate a wide range of soil from rocky and acidic to organically rich peat but suffer from alkaline soil (pH lower than 6.8). They do well in both sun and shade.
Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) is a broadleaf evergreen growing to 20 feet. It forms dense thickets on forested slopes, covering the hillsides with breathtaking clusters of pink bell-shaped flowers in early and mid-summer. From spring to fall, mountain laurel's glossy leaves progress from pale to dark green, becoming purple in the fall.
Mountain laurel's spectacular blooms have earned it a place in many of the Northeast's public parks and gardens. It needs moist rocky or sandy soil and partial shade. The single drawback to this stunning shrub is that all of its parts are severely toxic if ingested.