Cranesbill has long been a staple plant of New England gardens for its pretty spring flowers and low ground-covering habit, but despite common names such as New Hampshire Purple, most of our garden cranesbills hail from Europe and Western Asia.
If you’re looking for easy and non-aggressive native plants to fill your garden with color and seasonal interest, our eastern native species Spotted Cranesbill/Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) is worth growing if you have an area with moist soil and a bit of late-summer shade.
Wild Cranesbill blooms with cheery pink flowers in late spring, and its distinctive toothed lobed foliage add texture to a cottage or rock garden, a woodland edge, or nestled into gaps between shrubs in a border. With a long history of medicinal usages, this plant belongs in every modern herb garden.
Wild Cranesbill was once abundant along country roads in central Massachusetts, but the steady invasion of aggressive non-native plant species means its cheerful spring presence may become a thing of the past. By growing it in your own gardens, you can help maintain local populations of this hardy and (hopefully) resilient plant that (like many other native plants) is under threat in the wild.
Several years ago, I collected seeds from these roadside plants and grew them in my own gardens, where they thrive tucked between larger shrubs in the leaf-enriched soils along the stream’s edge. Now that the dreaded invasive plant Garlic-Mustard has reached our neighborhood, I’m not sure if the wild roadside geraniums will survive the onslaught.
Garlic-Mustard: Another Threat to Woodland Biodiversity
Garlic-Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) was rarely seen in this part of Massachusetts even 10 years ago. Introduced into the USA from Europe and Asia as an edible plant and kitchen herb, this plant has spread across the North American continent, seeding itself quickly into disturbed areas to form dense colonies. Garlic-Mustard is especially dangerous to eastern forests, because of its shade tolerance, and because its roots produce chemicals that kill the microbial soil life essential to the growth of native trees and understory plants.
I first noticed Garlic-Mustard growing on a roadside in our neighborhood in 2007, and since then have watched in dismay as it has quickly spread (by seeds distributed by wind and wildlife) through our river valley. If you see this plant on your property, act quickly before it can spread further. It is a biennial plant, so it blooms in its second year from seed, which is when most people tend to notice it. The best approach is to pull up any plants by the roots if they are first-year plants. If the plants are flowering or have already bloomed, cut off their flower heads before their seeds can disperse. Each plant can contain up to 6000 seeds which remain viable for at least 5 years, so throw these away in the trash and do not compost them! Click here for more pictures and information on Garlic Mustard.