Plant: White oak, black cherry, white pine, sycamore
Benefits: White oak is the very best at sequestering carbon, holding water on the landscape for watershed management and producing many vital ecosystem services such as supporting 557 species of caterpillars (bird food) and producing acorns that help support food webs. These trees also serve as habitat and nesting sites for a lot of mammals and birds.
Don’t plant: Gingko, dawn redwood, blue Atlas cedar, Norway maple, Norway spruce
Problems: In contrast to white oak, dawn redwood supports no caterpillar species and does not produce food for anything.
Plant: Ironwood, river birch, American plum, red cedar
Benefits: Red cedar provides great cover in which birds can nest and spend the night and makes juniper berries that birds eat during the wintertime. The other plants listed also rank highly in terms of supporting food webs through their ability to support caterpillars.
Don’t plant: Callery pear, goldenraintree, zelkova, crape myrtle
Problems: Callery pear and zelkova are invasive species, while goldenrain tree is becoming invasive. Crape myrtle, while nice to look at, supports only three species of bird food.
Plant: Any of the native viburnums such as arrowwood, hydrangea arborescens, highbush blueberry, sweet pepper bush
Benefits: Arrowwood supports 103 species of caterpillars. Hydrangea arborescens flowers even in the shade, while sweet pepper bush blooms in midsummer and is very valuable for pollinators.
Don’t plant: Burning bush, bush honeysuckle, privet, forsythia, butterfly bush
Problems: Burning bush, bush honeysuckle, butterfly bush and privet are all highly invasive. Butterfly bush is confusing to some people because it is a good nectar plant and butterflies use it, but it is not a larval host plant for butterflies, so it doesn’t produce any new butterflies.
Plant: Wild ginger, green and gold, woodland phlox, violets
Benefits: We have several species of native violets, and it is important to get them back into our landscapes; otherwise, we could lose our fritillary butterflies. Violets are the only plants on which true fritillaries develop.
Don’t plant: Pachysandra, English ivy, vinca or periwinkle
Problems: Vinca and English ivy are highly invasive, and while pachysandra is not, it does not support anything.
Support your local ecosystem
ON THE GREEN | When it’s time to plan and prepare our gardens each spring, there is a tendency to plant what looks prettiest without taking into account how those choices affect our ecosystems, says Doug Tallamy.
The professor of entomology and wildlife ecology has long championed the cause of native plants—those that are natural to a given area and therefore help support that area’s ecosystem—and offers some suggestions on what to plant and what not to plant this spring. He also stresses the importance of planting in all the different layers of a landscape, from the canopy down to the ground covers.
“Right now, most landscapes just have two layers: trees and grass, with almost nothing in between,” says Tallamy, the author of Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants. “Real plant communities are not like that here. There are animals that live in each one of these vertical strata, so we’re losing ecosystem services by not getting the plants that we could into our landscape.”
Last year, Tallamy’s expertise and the importance of his message were recognized by the Garden Club of America, which awarded him its Margaret Douglas Medal for notable service to the cause of conservation education. In discussing the award, he thanked the organization for helping him spread the word about native plants, saying:
“You can make a beautiful garden that also supports local food webs, sequesters carbon, improves your watershed and helps pollinator populations all by yourself if you choose productive plants. And your contribution to local ecosystem function plays an important role in sustaining this planet.”
Here, he offers some advice about plants, most of which belong in the mid-Atlantic area, with some ranging as far as the Mississippi. The native plants he has highlighted provide many ecosystem services, while the nonnative species provide few, if any, such services, and several can also invade surrounding habitat, degrading our natural areas.