South-central Pennsylvania Native Plants
July 17th, 2008
Here’s the gist of the problem.
We’ve been knocking down forests and prairies to build houses, then replacing bird-, butterfly- and bee-essential plants with paver patios, asphalt driveways and lawns.
Then we’ve overused the same few landscape plants that supply little or no benefit to the local wildlife and ecosystem.
Some of the non-native plants we’ve brought in have become invaders – seeding into the dwindling woods and prairies to further elbow out what’s left of the native vegetation.
And to top it off, we got hooked on an arsenal of pesticides that we routinely spray to control pest bugs and diseases – many of which also hitched rides here on non-native plants and related importing activities (i.e. Japanese beetles, hemlock woolly adelgids, Dutch elm disease, chestnut blight and most recently, the emerald ash borer).
What to do?
Some say the answer is obvious – start restoring the bulldozed flora by planting native Pennsylvania plants in our yards.
Just out to help home gardeners identify Pennsylvania natives is a new “Gardening for Nature” database, developed by the Hummelstown-based Manada Conservancy under a grant from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
Ann Bodling, a Lancaster horticulturist who led the research, said the goal not only was to identify exactly which plants are native to Pennsylvania but to list ones that are “garden worthy.”
Several of these lists are now posted on Manada Conservancy’s web site at www.manada.org.
In addition, Bodling has put together two PowerPoint programs on landscaping with Pennsylvania natives and has teamed up with Manada to offer on-site consults and written plans for native-leaning home gardeners.
More details on both services are available by calling Bodling at 717-367-8340 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bodling says this concept isn’t as radical as some might think because many Pennsylvania natives already are commonly planted in home gardens, such as black-eyed susans (Rudbeckia fulgida), garden phlox (Phlox paniculata), New England asters (Aster novae-angliae) and beebalm (Monarda didyma).
On the other hand, the research turned up a few surprises.
“Some things we thought were native to Pennsylvania really aren’t,” Bodling says. “Like purple coneflowers. That surprised me. It doesn’t mean coneflowers aren’t a good plant… just that they’re not native to Pennsylvania.”
The research also found that oakleaf hydrangeas and fothergilla – two superb flowering shrubs that commonly show up on native-plant lists – are U.S. natives but not Pennsylvania natives.
Why should we even care about a plant’s ancestral roots? Manada lists three key reasons:
1.) Plants that evolve naturally in a given area are adapted to that area’s soils and climate and can roll with the punches without depending on supplemental water and fertilizer.
2.) Local natives have built up natural defenses to local bugs and diseases, reducing the need for pesticides.
3.) And native plants and native wildlife are interconnected and depend on one another for food, survival and shelter.
“Insects are very specific about what they’ll eat,” says York County native plant landscaper Andy Smith. “Our native insects are ones that our native wildlife depend on, and they don’t eat most exotic plants.”
In other words, interrupt the habitat, and a whole chain of trouble can result. Plant yards as locally as possible, and the chain can be restored.
Because we’ve built over so much native habitat and clogged much of the rest with non-native invaders such as mile-a-minute weed and Japanese honeysuckle, native wildlife is having a rough time.
“We can’t rely on native areas to support our native wildlife anymore,” Smith says.
But we can think about healing habitats and helping wildlife when we make our landscape plant choices, he adds.
“I try to find ‘pretty’ plants that are local AND serve a useful purpose,” Smith says.
Nancy Cladel, Manada’s president, says it’s amazing how much wildlife returns when you build a landscape with plants familiar to them.
She replaced lawn and invasives with large swaths of natives at her suburban Hummelstown house and now has a bird count of 180 species.
She says most gardeners like the idea of attracting birds and butterflies, but most also don’t want to rip out their peonies and rhododendrons and start over.
“When something dies or when you take out something that’s invasive, replace it with something native,” Cladel suggests.
Smith says it would be a huge benefit if homeowners could even focus on just two main goals:
1.) Reduce the size of lawns, which provide no value to wildlife, and replace them with communities of mixed native plants.
2.) Remove and stop planting landscape plants that can seed into the wild and choke out natives, especially Norway maple and Bradford pear trees, burning bush, barberry, purple loosestrife, butterfly bush and miscanthus grass.
Just because you choose a native species doesn’t mean you can plant it anywhere you want, points out Janet Getgood, owner of Meadowood Native Plant Nursery, a new South Hanover Twp. nursery that carries 350 species of native perennials, trees and shrubs (hours by appointment, www.meadowoodnursery.com or 717-566-9875).
“Any plant has to be in the right spot,” she says, mentioning sunlight and soil moisture as examples. “If a plant is not happy, it’s not going to show up in your yard the next year.”
In general, though, most natives tolerate fairly poor soil and seldom require fertilizer, spraying or watering once they’re established.
That doesn’t mean natives take no care. As with any garden, you’ll still need to do some deadheading, trimming, mulching, bed-edging and weeding.
And the look is going to be different, too.
Getgood says it might take some change in mindset to appreciate something different than the neatly balled-off lines of yews and azaleas that have become the norm in so many housing developments.
“What I used to strive for every day of the week now looks sterile to me,” she says.
She finds a meadow-like perennial border much more beautiful than clipped boxwoods with impatiens. And when she sees caterpillar holes in her spicebush leaves, that’s cause to rejoice, not to reach for the Orthene-armed sprayer.
It’s a case of beauty being in the mindset of the beholder.
Says Bodling: “We can’t recreate a prairie or a native forest, but we can increase the biodiversity and use plants that our ecosystem makes use of.”
A selection of garden-worthy Pennsylvania native plants on Manada Conservancy’s new local database:
* Perennials for sun to part sun
Beebalm (Monarda didyma)
Black-eyed susans (Rudbeckia fulgida)
Blazing star (Liatris spicata)
Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
Eastern blue star (Amsonia tabermontana)
Garden phlox (Phlox paniculata)
Moss phlox (Phlox subulata)
New England aster (Aster novae-angliae)
New York aster (Aster novae-belgi)
Northern blue flag (Iris versicolor)
Oxeye sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides)
Showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa)
Smooth aster (Aster laevis)
Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale)
Swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius)
Sweet-scented Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum)
Tall white beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis)
Wild blue indigo (Baptisia australis)
Wild geranium (Geranium maculatum)
Woodland stonecrop (Sedum ternatum)
* Perennials for shade to part shade
Alum root (Heuchera americana)
Black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa)
Blue wood aster (Aster cordifolius)
Cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea)
Crested iris (Iris cristata)
Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia)
Goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus)
Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea)
Goldenstar (Chrysogonum virginianum)
Great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica)
Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans)
Marginal wood fern (Dryopteris marginalis)
Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris)
Smooth Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum)
Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica)
White turtlehead (Chelone glabra)
White wood aster (Aster divaricatus)
Wild bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia)
Wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata)
Wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)
* Trees and shrubs for sun to part sun
American cranberry bush (Viburnum trilobum)
American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)
American holly (Ilex opaca)
American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana)
Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa)
Bush honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera)
Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)
Common ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius)
Coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus)
Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana)
Highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum)
Lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium)
New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus)
Northern bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica)
Northern red oak (Quercus rubra)
Possumhaw viburnum (Viburnum nudum)
Red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia)
Red maple (Acer rubrum)
River birch (Betula nigra)
Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis)
Shrubby St. Johnswort (Hypericum prolificum)
Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus)
Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina)
Sugar maple (Acer saccharum)
Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica)
White oak (Quercus alba)
Winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata)
* Trees and shrubs for shade to part shade
American dogwood (Cornus florida)
American fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus)
Arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum)
Blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium)
Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis)
Inkberry holly (Ilex glabra)
Mapleleaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium)
Pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia)
Red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea)
Rosebay rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum)
Sourwood (Oxydendron arboretum)
Smooth azalea (Rhododendron arborescens)
Smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens)
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia)
Swamp azalea (Rhododendron viscosum)
Sweet bay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana)
Sweetshrub (Calycanthus occidentalis)
Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)
(Source: Manada Conservancy, www.manada.org)