Skip to main content

 Natural Awakenings Lancaster-Berks

Healing Pennsylvania’s Ecosystems One Native Plant at a Time

Mar 31, 2023 09:31AM ● By Sheila Julson
A visit to a garden center or a nursery yields myriad choices in plants, bushes and trees. While it’s easy to be attracted to plants based on size, color and aesthetical appearance, choosing native plantings—trees and plants that have historically existed in a particular region, habitat or ecosystem without human intervention—provide food for insects, birds, bats and other wildlife. They are generally lower maintenance, help minimize flooding and filter pollutants from waterways.

Non-native plants and trees comprise exotic species from other parts of the world or those cultivated by humans that are not indigenous to a region. While they can add beauty to a yard, non-natives don’t have the same conservation benefits as native plants. Local naturalists, ecological landscapers and nurseries tell how and why they use plants and trees native to Pennsylvania.

Native plant expert Lydia Martin has transformed her nine-acre property, aptly named Hidden Valley, from a standard lawn surrounded by invasive species to a habitat teeming with native plants and wildlife. Native plants and trees she commonly uses include varieties of oak trees; pawpaw, an excellent groundcover that stabilizes the soil and produces edible fruit; milkweed varieties to support monarch butterflies; Jacob’s Ladder to attract bumblebees; and spring ephemerals.

“Native ephemerals are some of my favorite plants. Species like bloodroot, Virginiana bluebells, mayapple, Jack-in-the-pulpit and trilliums provide nectar and pollen to early emerging pollinators, especially bee species, gnats, flies and early butterflies,” says Martin. “The fruit of spring ephemerals like mayapple fruit and Jack-in-the-pulpit berries develop later in the season to feed turtles, birds, and other wildlife.”

Martin also uses edible wild ramps, but cautions they can take years to mature. The tasty treats are also a hot commodity among chefs and popular with foragers. She says, “If foraged in the wild, be sure to harvest responsibly, and never over-harvest.”

Elyse Jurgen, of Waxwing EcoWorks Co., adds that grass-like sedges are reliable in a wide range of planting conditions. They function as a green mulch in the garden, creating a living layer that can be used in lieu of wood mulch. “They also offer a beautiful aesthetic texture along a trail, tucked under the shade of a tree, as a staple in a rain garden or simply planted in a porch pot. Sedges stack a lot of function in the garden, including being a host plant to the adorably photogenic skipper butterflies,” she advises.

Plant It and They Will Come

Native plants and trees increase the biodiversity in any area they are present, emphasizes Tim Seifarth, of Earthbound Artisan landscaping. “Birds and insects will always find them. Also, native plants provide more effective nutrition. Non-native plants typically take on the form of junk food for wildlife, as opposed to the healthier native options.”

Sherrie Moyer, of Hungry Hook Farm, affirms that native plants have myriad environmental advantages: they are adapted to survive in Pennsylvania’s climate and need no additional fertilizer or water once they are established. “Also, native plants have evolved alongside native wildlife, which means they support and are supported by native animals, including insects and birds,” she says. “Native plants will never become invasive species, and they are historically accurate. Putting them back into our landscapes helps heal the ecosystems that humans have destroyed.”

While saving our entire ecosystem may seem daunting, Katrina Lefever, of the Mennonite Central Committee, notes that even one small yard that incorporates native plants has a significant impact. “Since many of our insect and plant relationships are specialists, the phrase ‘plant it and they will come’ is true if that insect population is still viable near the area. I had not experienced a blue-winged wasp before planting boneset or mountain mint. They’re beautiful to watch, mild and focused on their job.”

Wildlife aren’t the only beings that benefit from native plants and trees. Jurgen points out that enlivening living spaces with native plants will provide the joy and anticipation of seasonal shifts. “Each season will welcome a new series of blooms that will entice a diversity of winged wildlife to observe,” she says. “Creating a biodiverse natural habitat pays back in dividends.”

Right Plant, Right Place

While the aforementioned plants and trees are natural to Pennsylvania’s ecosystem, thought and planning is still required to transform property into a native habitat. “There are native plants that can take on an aggressive growth habit. That is something to keep in mind if you are trying to do a lot in a little space,” advises Seifarth. Serviceberries, redbuds, witch hazels, geraniums, liatris (blazing star), butterfly weed and spicebush are good choices for smaller yards.

“The term ‘right plant, right place’ applies to native plants, too,” says Moyer. “Gardeners need to do their research or hire a knowledgeable designer just as they would with non-native plants. The biggest problem I see is that gardeners try to take a native species that is better suited to a large meadow and expect it to fit into a small yard.”

Moyer also recommends buying plants from nurseries or garden centers that don’t use pesticides and offer seed-grown plants, which are genetically diverse, rather than cultivars propagated through division and cloning. Gardeners should also leave native plant stalks and leaves alone over the winter, which provide critical habitat and food sources for birds and insects during colder months.

Martin recommends a garden refresh to review and identify existing landscape plants. If the ratio of plants indicates few native plant species, start by removing the least beneficial non-native plants, especially if they are an invasive species like Japanese barberry, burning bush or tree of heaven, and incorporate three to five native plants in an outdoor space.

“Perhaps add native asters, goldenrods, sunflowers, mints, violets and grasses like little bluestem in your outdoor space,” Martin recommends. “For shrubs, consider adding native hollies, moisture-loving buttonbush and summersweet, and viburnums that provide flowers, berries and attractive foliage through the season.”

The National Wildlife Federation Native Plant Finder ( lists native plants by ZIP Code.

Building Relationships With Nature

“Ecological landscaping is about relationships,” affirms Lefever. “Ecological landscaping seeks a balance between the needs of both nature and humans in relationship.”

Martin says adding native plants and trees is a win-win for people and nature. When we choose to use a native tree or incorporate native plantings into outdoor spaces, we are collectively sustaining biodiversity locally and globally.

Seifarth sees native plants as a great first step in healing our environment. “But as the ecological health grows, it will take on different forms that as a community we should be ready for,” he says. “We plant to promote insects, birds and butterflies, but the next step is to be getting larger mammals in these spaces, too.

“The backyard needs to turn into a new marginal space that can support all wildlife. We as people need to rebuild that relationship so we don’t demonize larger animals like skunks, racoons and possums. We need to find ways to coexist to support the whole system.”

Hidden Valley Environmental Ecological Design Consulting, 717-475-3964, [email protected].

Waxwing EcoWorks Co., 717-676-1045,

Earthbound Artisan, 717-507-6267,

Hungry Hook Farm, 717-216-0136,

Mennonite Central Committee, Katrine Lefever, [email protected].

Sheila Julson is a contributor to Natural Awakenings magazines throughout the country.