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Georgia born and bred

Native plants are well-adapted to state's summers

If plants went to high school, the Virginia sweetspire would be voted most popular. It'd probably also win most likely to succeed, most attractive and also most native.

But since flowers don't go to high school, the Virginia sweetspire will have to settle for being the Georgia Native Plant Society's plant of the year. Highly adaptable, moderately sized and unabashedly fragrant, the plant is native to Georgia soil and is a favorite of area gardeners.

"The Virginia sweetspire is practically bomb-proof," said Eddi Minche, president of the Georgia Native Plant Society. "This is a plant that is so versatile. Like almost all native plants, it is very tough, but also really beautiful."

The sweetspire will be one of dozens of plants on sale this Saturday at the Georgia Native Plant Society's plant sale, which will be held in Piedmont Park. Other plants included at the sale will be the traditional favorites like azaleas, hydrangeas and irises, as well as more unusual and rare plant species.

"You'll find a lot of plants at the sale that you won't find anywhere else," Minche said.

For first-time gardeners and tried-and-true green thumbs alike, using native plants is the optimal solution for successful gardening. Because these plants grow naturally in the area, they are hard to kill and can survive in harsh growing conditions, such as long, dry Georgia summers. Georgia gardeners are lucky: The state's flora is among the most diverse of any state in the U.S., according to the State Botanical Garden of Georgia.

"Native plants are very hardy and adaptable," said Randy Kucera, owner of Randy's Perennials and Water Gardens in Lawrenceville. "Georgia is famous for those unforgiving summers, but native plants can grow in nature, without our help. That means they can also grow in your garden. There are people who kill silk plants, but even they can do well with native plants."

Using native plants also helps support area wildlife, as native animals, namely birds, feed off native plants, Minche said.

The best time to plant native species is from mid-February to the end of April. Area gardeners "have about three more weeks to get out and get those plants in the ground," he said. "There aren't really any mistakes you can make with native plants. The number one thing is to just get them in the ground now."

The Georgia landscape in broken down into four planting regions, with each section producing its own segment of native plants. Species native to the coastal region, for example, would be out of place in the Piedmont region. The state's northern-most sector, the Appalachian region, is home to the largest variety of native plants.

"You'll find different species in different zones. Overall, there are a lot of plants that do well in Georgia," Kucera said.

Plants native to the state are widely available, and can be bought at most local nurseries as well as specialty plant shops and garden sales. In the 20 years he has been in business, Kucera has found that varieties of native azaleas, hydrangeas and dogwoods are the top sellers, he said.

Ephemerals are also a plant that is high on Kucera's list of recommendations. Species under this variety include the yellow root, jack in the pulpit and ginger. Blooming from February to April, the plants are native to the area and thrive under Georgia's warm temperatures.

"Well, usually warm weather," Kucera added. "These last few weeks have been tough. But, I think we'll pull out OK. As long as you got everything covered, you should be OK."