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Native & Ornamental Plant Look A-likes: How to Tell the Difference!

Making sure your plant is the native one.

white flowers
Native Dogwood Blooms

Nature is amazing and I guess it should not be surprising a plant native to the eastern U.S. might have a look a-like in a foreign land. Interesting! Distinguishing among them can be a challenge. Here is how to tell the difference between common natives and ornamental look a-likes.


shrub with purple berries
Native Beautyberry Shrub in Early Fall

Beautyberry shrubs are coveted for their bright purple berries in fall. Both native beautyberry and several types of Asian beautyberry (Callicarpa dichotoma,  Calllicarpa japonica, and Callicarpa bodinieri) are commonly sold in local garden centers. The Asian shrubs are quite similar to the native though slightly more uniform in growth habit.

You can distinguish between the two by looking at the berry clusters. Berry clusters of native beautyberry form directly on the branch. Berries on the Asian shrub are attached by short stems.


native white flowers on vine
Native Clematis Growing with Virginia Creeper

Clouds of white blooms covering fences and trellises in fall are a fresh sight. From any distance, it can be hard to tell the difference between our native clematis (Clematis virginiana) and the invasive Asian clematis commonly sold as sweet autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora).

You can distinguish between the two by looking at the leaves.  The leaves of native clematis are grouped in threes and are a lighter green as seen above right. The leaves of sweet autumn clematis are darker green and more leather like in texture as shown in the lower right. .

Dogwood Trees

tree with pink flowers
Native Dogwood

Dogwoods in bloom signal spring is truly underway. Both native dogwood (Benthamidia Florida) and Asian kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa) trees are sold and planted throughout our area.

For a time in the mid-Atlantic, native dogwoods were particularly prone to anthracnose, a fungal disease affecting native dogwoods.  In our area, some nurseries stopped carrying native dogwoods because of the disease but then began carrying them again as the threat of disease seemed to have lessened and disease resistant varieties became available.

Native dogwoods bloom in April and ornamental Kousas bloom in June. Kousa dogwood has a more uniform flower with pointed petals and mottled bark.

Native dogwoods have small seed like fruits. Ornamental dogwoods produce gumball sized fruit.   

Fringe Trees

Tree with white draping blooms
Fringe Tree in Bloom

Fringe trees are easy to grow sun loving trees with amazing flowers that look like, well, fringe! Fringe trees flower just as foliage unfurls and the effect is ethereal. Add to that, the subtle fragrance and blue fruits on female trees later in summer and wow! Great tree. Native fringe trees (Chionanthus virginicus) bloom in mid to late spring. .

To tell the difference, look at the flowers. The native fringe tree flowers grow on old growth and emerge behind the leaves. The flowers on the Asian fringe tree emerge at the tip of the branch. This post from Clemson has good photos of the two types of trees.

Honeysuckle vines

vine with orange flowers
Native Honeysuckle

Native honeysuckle (Lonicera sempivirens) is a versatile vine — grow it on a mailbox post, train it to cover a fence or let it climb a wall.  If you can think of it, it will probably do it. It blooms prolifically in spring and then throughout the summer and is quite manageable with a little pruning from time to time. It holds on to objects with tendrils, It is nowhere nearly as aggressive as its asian alternative, Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica). Japanese honeysuckle is an aggressive vine that twirls around anything it can. The Missouri Botanical Garden calls it a “dreadful weed.”

Native honeysuckle has lighter green foliage and pink, coral or orange flowers. Japanese honeysuckle has darker green foliage and white and yellow flowers.

Please note there are also shrub honeysuckles form Europe and Asia that are also quite invasive. This four minute video from Penn State Extension gives an excellent overview of those.


vine with purple flowers
Native Wisteria at Mt. Cuba Center

Wisteria flowers draping from a pergola or trellis is a classic. Wisterias from China and Japan are aggressive growing vines considered invasive in Maryland. American wisteria (Wisteria frutescans) is equally beautiful but not nearly as aggressive a grower.

The flowers tell the difference. American wisteria flowers are shorter and almost pine cone shaped. Asian wisteria have long drooping flowers.

There are so many similarities between these plants yet their origin makes a world of difference!

Happy gardening.


We want you to be as excited about planting Chesapeake natives as we are. “Plant This or That” gives you a native alternative to popular plants. Other posts highlight really fabulous fauna native to the Chesapeake.

Nuts for Natives, avid gardener, Baltimore City admirer, Chesapeake Bay Watershed restoration enthusiast, and public service fan.

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