Wild Ideas: Choosing native plants to grow

The Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) is a common native wildflower. It is often planted with another native, Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), offering a lovely contrast in color. Both attract butterflies, bees, other beneficial insects and songbirds.Courtesy U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
The Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) is a common native wildflower. It is often planted with another native, Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), offering a lovely contrast in color. Both attract butterflies, bees, other beneficial insects and songbirds.

As I’m writing this in the second week of March, Spring Peepers are chorusing in the lowlands, mornings are filled with songs of birds declaring their territory and looking for mates, spring ephemeral flowers are starting to emerge and trees are budding. The planting season is rapidly approaching and, for those interested in incorporating native plants into their landscaping, the pressure is on.

In selecting native plants to use, you can develop a plan and find plants that fit, or you can check out species to see your options first and then incorporate them into your plan. In either case, it’s good to consider your naturalizing goals and the conditions where you want to plant natives. To ensure success and habitat value, it’s best to use plants that are native to your particular area. If you live in the Blue Ridge region of Virginia, species that evolved on the Coastal Plain may not survive or offer much value to wildlife where you are.

Fortunately, several great databases have been developed by government and nonprofit organizations and through partnerships of both that offer a wealth of information about individual native plants – their growing requirements and habits, their aesthetic qualities, their uses to wildlife and even their uses to humans, such as for food and medicine. Many databases are specific to a particular state or region or allow you to narrow searches to them.

For those who prefer the low-tech approach to learning about plants, good print publications are also available. One of the best is the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s “Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping: Chesapeake Bay Watershed.” Most of the plants in the guide apply to areas adjacent to the bay as well, depending on the physiographic region. Virginia’s five major regions are simplified into three based generally on the ecosystems in them: Coastal Plain, Piedmont, and Mountain.

The guide begins with information on the value of native plants and other information and then lists the specific plants and their characteristics. The characteristics include usefulness to wildlife, which are organized into broad categories, such as mammals or songbirds. Plants are grouped into botanical categories, such as trees, herbaceous plants (most of what we think of as “wildflowers”), vines, shrubs, and grasses.

The back of the guide has a list of “Plants with a Purpose” that groups plants into the communities and conditions in which they normally grow and specific purposes for which they fit, such as naturalizing a freshwater wetland or finding plants that are deer resistant. Really helpful to those who want to learn more about native plants are lists of more information resources and native-plant sources.

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis), a striking native biennial, likes damp places, grows up to six feet high, blooms from July through October and is used by a variety of native wildlife.H. Zell via Wikimedia Commons
Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis), a striking native biennial, likes damp places, grows up to six feet high, blooms from July through October and is used by a variety of native wildlife.

While the USFWS guide is really useful, easy to use and great for browsing, the companion online database (see sidebar below) offers a way to search on specific plants. The site also has a link for downloading the print guide as well as links to other sources of information. Some other online and print resources are listed in the sidebar.

In checking with native-plant experts and with organizations that have lists of top native plants, I came up with an informal list of 15 of the ones most mentioned because of their habitat value, beauty, easy maintenance or a combination of factors (also in the sidebar). These are just a drop in the bucket when it comes to the wide range of great native plants that are available. In the final column in this series on native-plant resources, I’ll focus on how to pick plants on the basis of their value to wildlife.

Information resources


USFWS Native Plant Center (nativeplantcenter.net): Includes a searchable database along with loads of other information on native plants, along with great photos.

Va. Dept. of Conservation and Recreation Natural Heritage Program (dcr.virginia.gov): The Native Plants for Conservation, Restoration, and Landscaping page includes a link to the searchable Native Plant Finder database, loaded with information on native plants.

NatureServe Explorer (natureserve.org/explorer): Information on more than 50,000 plants, animals and ecological communities of the United States and Canada; more technical than some of the other sites.

Natural Resources Conservation Service Plants Database (plants.usda.gov): This searchable database has information about the vascular plants, mosses, liverworts, hornworts, and lichens of the U.S. and its territories, with lots of photos. 

The University of Texas at Austin Lady Bird Johnson Wildlife Center: Has a Native Plant Database (wildflower.org/plants) that includes distribution and other native-plant information.

National Wildlife Federation (www.nwf.org): Lots of information on habitat, including the value of native plants, descriptions of them by geographic region and interesting factoids. Search on “native plants” on the site.


“Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping – Chesapeake Bay Watershed,” by USFWS (downloadable from nativeplantcenter.net, among other websites, or call 1-800-344-WILD)

“Flora of Virginia” (coming fall 2012), Flora of Virginia Project; preorder at floraofvirginia.org or call 817-332-4441, ext. 232

“Gardening with Native Plants of the South” by Sally Wasowski and Andy Wasowski

“Native Gardening in the South” by Bill Fontenot

“A Field Guide to Eastern Forests: North America” (Peterson Field Guide) by John C. Kricher

“A Field Guide to Wildflowers: Northeastern and North-Central North America” (Peterson Field Guides) by Roger Tory Peterson

“National Audubon Society Field Guide to the Southeastern States” by Peter Alden

“Native Shrubs and Woody Vines of the Southeast: Landscaping Uses and Identification” by Samuel B. Jones, Leonard Foote

“Woody Plants of the Blue Ridge,” Lance, Ron

“Woody Plants of Maryland, Brown,” Russell G.; Melvin W. Brown

15 great native plants

Arrowwood Viburnum (Viburnum acerfolium)

Blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolium)

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

Butterfly Weed (Asclepia tuberosa)

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)

Downy Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea)

Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana)

Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)

Paw-paw (Asimina triloba)

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia or Photinia pyrifolia)

Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia)

Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens)

Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata)

For more information on native plants, including links to other sites, go to nighthawkcommunications.net and click on the tab “Nature Resources,” then the link “Virginia Wildlife Habitat.” I’ll continue to add information to this page. If you have a suggestion, please leave a comment on the website or contact me directly.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 329 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”

1 Comment

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