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Native Plants for Fall: Four Faves

How to Avoid Their Oh So Close Ornamental Look A Likes!


Would y0u welcome clouds of lavender and purple flowers billowing through your garden in fall? It's totally doable by adding drifts of any of any of the dozens of native asters! There are asters for shade and asters for sun. There are tall asters and short asters. Mt. Cuba compared 56 of the more common native aster and their cultivars if you want to check them out.

For shade or part shade, a highly rated aster also frequently available at garden centers and nurseries is white wood aster (Aster divaricatum or Eurybia divaricatum). White wood aster for shade or part shade is available by mail from Plant More Natives.

For sun, Mt. Cuba's top choice is aster laevis "Bluebird.' It is available here from Plant More Natives. Also highly rated for sun is Raydon's Favorite Aromatic Aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium). In a small garden like mine, I like to give these the Chelsea chop, cutting them back by a third or so in late June, to keep them on the shorter side. If they have room to grow though, they can all be left to do their thing.

How to tell the native from the ornamental:

Ornamental look a likes include Japanese aster 'blue star' (Kalimera incisa 'blue star') and Japanese aster 'Daisy Mae' (Kalimeris Integrifolia 'Daisy Mae,') frequently sold by garden centers at this time of year. Some gardeners prefer Japanese asters because they tend to have a longer bloom period.

With loads of asters lining the nursery tables, it is a good idea to check the latin name if you want a native. To complicate things, there are a number of latin classifications for aster and some have recently changed. Best bet -- google the one you like to determine if it is native or, better yet, shop at a native plant nursery.


A fall blooming perennial vine can add a whimsical touch to your fall garden. Clematis virginiana, is the way to go. Typically only available at native plant nurseries, Clematis virginiana, grows all summer and blooms first, with small white flowers, and then the magical seed heads appear. From start to finish, it may be just a couple of weeks but totally worth it in my book!

native clematis
Clematis virginiana in full bloom growing along with Virginia creeper vine along our fence

I have frequently read you can cut native clematis back to the ground in late fall or spring because it blooms on new growth each summer. I have tried both cutting it back and just letting it be. For me, it seems we get more blooms by not cutting it back but I also haven't tracked other factors like temperature and rain, which might also affect the number of blooms. For now, I'm letting it be. If you have more experience with this, please do share in the comments!

How to tell the native from the ornamental:

Sweet Autumn Clematis (Clematis terniflora) is the fall blooming vine often sold by garden centers. Sweet autumn clematis, despite the charming name, is classified as invasive in this part of the U.S.

From afar, the native and the ornamental blooms look so much alike! The small white flowers, the growth habit and the time of bloom for both plants are very similar.

It's all in the leaves. The native has lighter green leaves that are more delicate on the left. The ornamental has darker green leaves which are more leathery as in the lower right. The edges are also smoother. If you are looking for this plant at a nursery, the latin name on the tag is the way to go. Clematis virginiana!


Clusters of purple berries in the fall garden? Yes, please! There are two types of beauty berry shrubs out there in our garden centers -- Asian and American beautyberry (Callicarpa Americana).

I think Asian varieties became popular because they have a neater, more compact growth habit and tend to have more, though smaller, clusters of berries along each stem. American beautyberry can easily be kept to a smaller size and neater if that is your preference. If you cut your American beauty berry shrub back each spring to about 6 inches, your native shrub will grow in a much more contained shape. These shrubs bloom on new wood so cutting them back does not affect berries. These shrubs also bloom with the smallest of pale pink flowers in summer. You would never envision bold, purple berries materializing form such dainty blossoms but they do!

How to tell the native from the ornamental:

Ornamental beautyberry has darker green leaves. American beautyberry leaves are lighter green, almost chartreuse in color.

The berry clusters are also different on the two plants. Non-native shrubs have berry clusters attached to a thin stem between the branch and the berry cluster. The berry clusters of the native form directly on the branch. There is no connector stem.

Native beauty berry also tends to have larger clusters of berries and larger leaves. If left to its own devices in its favored growing conditions, it will become a very large shrub with huge sprays of berries!

Witch Hazel

native with hazel tree in bloom
Common Witch Hazel in Bloom at the US Botanical garden

Native witch hazel, also called common witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) in bloom is bewitching! Yellow papery blooms on bare branches sometime in October to December, depending on where in the Chesapeake you live, are something to behold.

Witch hazel grows in sun or dappled shade and can be grown as a shrub or small tree. It takes well to whatever pruning you may want to give it.

The native can be hard to come by. There are lots of hybrids and ornamentals. Many hybrids are crosses between our native witch hazel and those from Asia creating all sorts of bloom colors from orange to reds and, in many cases, blooms in mid to late winter.

How to tell the native from the ornamental:

The lemon colored flowers in fall are the key. And, as always, the latin name on the tag. Hamamelis virginiana!

Direct Native plants currently has native witch hazel in three sizes by mail. Bona Terra has it available and you can pre-order for pick up at one of two northern Virginia nurseries or make an appointment to visit. Kollar nursery in northern Maryland also has native witch hazel in stock.

These four plants are all sleepers through most of the growing season. They are pretty inconspicuous through spring and summer. Once the beauty of summer's end and fall arrive, the contrasting colors of lavender, purple and white flowers set off the reds, oranges and yellows of foliage. Common witch hazel brings more color even after most of fall has passed. Unique colors add to the majesty of fall in your garden.

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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