As we approach another Arbor Day celebration, I am reminded of how I developed my love of native plants. Growing up in Northern Virginia, I was raised by a father that loved working the soil and watching the fruits of his labor grow into landscapes both edible and aesthetically pleasing. Few pastimes brought him more pleasure than planting trees, shrubs, vines, flowers and vegetables.
After leaving government service, he started a landscaping business, involving his sons and daughters and further instilling a love of plants and nature in us all. It was said that he never saw a plant he didn’t love and this philosophy translated into bringing back to our yard any plant removed or replaced at each landscaping site. While many of the trees, shrubs and vines were quite beautiful and attracted abundant wildlife, they also included a number of plants that were non-native and in some cases invasive, such as English ivy, yellow bamboo and five-leaf akebia.
Most readily available landscape plants are non-native, originating from countries with similar climates such as parts of Asia, Europe, South America and other far flung places. Many of these non-native plants are not invasive and pose little risk to the environment, while others are moderately to highly invasive, escaping from cultivation, colonizing both disturbed and undisturbed habitats and outcompeting existing native species.
Unfortunately, many of these invasives are still readily available in the nursery trade. You can usually check with your state’s natural heritage program, department of forestry or native plant society to determine which species are considered invasive in your state.
Instead of planting a Callery pear, Norway maple or other non-native tree for Arbor Day, plant a native species instead. Native plants provide all the benefits of non-native species (flowers, fruit, fall color, screening) with additional benefits including:
- Shelter and food for native mammals, birds, and insects;
- More resistant to insect pests and diseases
- Little to no need for pesticides;
- Adapted to local soil and climate conditions;
- Less need for water/fertilizer once established; and
- Nutrient removal capabilities.
While Arbor Day focuses on tree planting, remember that in addition to native trees, native shrubs, perennials, biennials and annuals also play an important role in maintaining animal and plant diversity, soil stabilization, clean air and water. So if you can’t plant a tree for Arbor Day, plant common milkweed for monarch butterflies or other native plants for pollinators.
Sources of native plant information include:
- Guide to landscaping with native plants in the Chesapeake Bay watershed
- Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center – searchable menu of native plant species by state, habitat requirements, size, etc., and map with links to native plant suppliers through U.S.
- American Horticultural Society’s list of state native plant societies
- Information on invasive plants and native alternatives (Invasive Plants and their Native Look-Alikes and Plant Invaders of Mid-Atlantic Natural Areas).
- Use Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s online tool YardMap for an easy, interactive way to design your backyard.