Native Plants at Home

Native plants are awesome! You’re likely aware of the many fantastic reasons to use native plants around your home – they’re easy to care for, essential for hundreds of native pollinators, and provide food for a huge quantity of wildlife – just to name a few. Yet choosing the native plants that are best for you can sometimes be challenging. How do you know which plants are native? Where is the best place to plant different varieties? Where do you even find native plants? While many of the usual large spring plant sales have been cancelled, many nurseries are still open and available for folks to place orders. The Pennsylvania Native Plant Society maintains a current list of native plant vendors along with their COVID-19 procedures and contact information.

The scientific names of plants are key to helping you find the correct species. Many species look visually similar or have almost identical common names. Knowing the specific name of which one you want helps ensure you get the species that fits your needs and space. For example, there are three very common but wildly different species of dogwood, all with different characteristics from how tall they get to the color of their leaves. Planting a silky dogwood (Cornus amomum) when you expected a flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) can lead to a very confusing spring when your new plant produces tiny flowers instead of the large four-leafed ones you expected.

Each species also has different preferred conditions. Like any experience gardener can tell you, “the right plant in the right place.” DCNR has an excellent guide to plants in the 4 basic zones: sunny and wet, sunny and dry, shady and wet, shady and dry. With these 4 basic groups you should be able to narrow hundreds of species down to around 10 that should work for your area. From there you can base your decision on available space and what you hope to get out of your plants.

Many established landscaping areas around homes and gardens contain non-native ornamental species. In some cases they may be invasive varieties that can wreak havoc on native populations when they propagate outside beds. Usually, you can find native species that offer traits similar and equally desirable to invasive plants. Below are common invasive or non-native plants and natives you can use to replace them.

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If you are interested in propagating your own native plants, it’s important to not try to transplant ones you find in nature. These plants often do not take well to transplanting, and the opening left by the original plant could become the opportunity for an invasive one to take its spot. Seed collection for personal use, on the other hand, does not harm the plant. In fact, it can be fun and relatively easy! Also, please note that most native plants make for poor houseplants. Homes stay relatively constant temperatures throughout the year, depriving the plants of a true dormant phase and confusing their yearly cycle.