Native plants are in the news these days, and we're being encouraged by environmental groups to include them in our garden. Why? Of all the reasons given, the best case for growing native plants is made by University of Delaware professor Doug Tallamy in his popular book Bringing Nature Home, recently released in paperback. He certainly convinced ME that with overdevelopment has come loss of habitat and the need for suburban and even urban gardeners to help preserve wildlife by choosing plants that feed and house our beloved critters. Fortunately for us nature-loving gardeners, it isn't only native plants that help wildlife - Tallamy explains that about half of all insects are generalists and can feed on either native or nonnative plants. So my garden is chockful of great sustainable plants from Maryland and all over the world.
The tricky part is to figure out which native plants do well in the garden - because not all of them do. Often it's because our gardens are so different from the plant's historic conditions, perhaps sunnier or lacking any native soil (thanks to developers who remove and sell topsoil before construction). Native plants sometimes fail because the animal population has changed over the years - with the introduction of new insects (like the wooly adelgid killing our native hemlocks) or the overpopulation of deer. And some native plants simply don't tolerate being moved, not to mention the rough-and-tumble existence of the nursery business. Others don't have the aesthetic qualities that most homeowners look for in a landscape plant.
But without further ado, here are my recommendations for native plants that do well in Maryland gardens, all of which I've grown and loved myself. I've included links for many of them to plant profiles on my website.
Tallamy's recommends using native perennials for the Mid-Atlantic and I think the best are: Solidago (goldenrod), Phlox, Evening primrose, Rudbeckias (black-eyed Susans), Tradescantia virginiana (spiderwort), and New England asters. Tallamy actually studied how many species of butterflies and moths are attracted to each plant and the winner was goldenrod, which attracts 115 species, and then aster at 112. Very impressive!
Another great garden plant often thought of as native here in the East is the Echinacea purpurea or purple coneflower, though most experts say it was brought east from the Plains by Lewis and Clark. (We're still waiting for the experts to sort out that disagreement among themselves.)
And for a fast-growing perennial vine that's actually evergreen - and gorgeous - you can't beat Bignonia capreolata, also known as Crossvine.
Shrubs and Trees
Among shrubs, my absolute favorite is Hydrangea quercifolia (Oakleaf Hydrangea), which is native to the Southeast as far north as Georgia. Dwarf varieties are now available that make this four-season winner right for almost any spot in the garden - even full sun or full shade. More compact shrubs are the ‘Winterthur’ variety of Viburnum nudum, and Itea virginica 'Little Henry', both of which are native to Maryland.
For larger woodland sites you can't beat Aesculus parviflora ( Bottlebrush buckeye), which colonizes to form a sizable mass. Among small understory trees, my favorite native is the Amelanchier (Serviceberry) for its stunning fall color.
Luckily, my garden came with dozens of large mature trees, all of which are still thriving, but what was missing altogether were conifers, a glorious group of evergreens no garden should be without. One native conifer I can recommend unconditionally is the dwarf white pine. I also grow several Canadian hemlocks and I'm watching them carefully for signs of that wooly adelgid pest because there are effective treatments.
Know of others? If you’ve had success with other native plants in your garden, let me know and this list will grow. And to find out how well native plants perform in gardens all over the U.S., Daves Garden can’t be beat. Just put a plant name in the “Search Plants” function you see on the right.