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
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.
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,”
Plant It and They
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
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
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.
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.
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
National Wildlife Federation Native Plant Finder (nwf.org/nativeplantfinder)
lists native plants by ZIP Code.
Relationships With Nature
landscaping is about relationships,” affirms Lefever. “Ecological landscaping
seeks a balance between the needs of both nature and humans in relationship.”
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.
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.
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.”
Valley Environmental Ecological Design Consulting
, 717-475-3964, [email protected].
Sheila Julson is a contributor to Natural
Awakenings magazines throughout the country.