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Native Plants for the Chesapeake: Biggest Eco-bang for the Buck

Best tree, shrub, perennial and ground cover to grow

the best native plants to grow for ecological value

One silver lining of our recent times is the opportunity to learn from experts who have shifted from occasional talks in relatively far flung locales to webinars available to all and this has been true in the gardening world as well. This isn't scientific by any means but from listening recently to noted experts in native plants like Doug Tallamy, staff from the Mt. Cuba Center and others, I think these four plants are, or are among, the very best plants to grow if you want the highest ecological return for your investment of time, money and effort.

Best Tree

native high bush blueberry

You likely already know that the white oak tree (Quercus alba) supports, by far, the most butterflies and moths and all those caterpillars mean a lot of well fed birds. This is according to a list of the top woody plants for supporting insects developed through research led by Dr. Doug Tallamy at the University of Delaware. Alas, many of us might not be able to add a mighty oak to our gardens. If you can, please help us all out and plant one. If not, number 7 on that same list of woody plants that support the most insects is not a tree at all; it is the blueberry bush (Vaccinium). High bush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) shown above in an image from shutter stock and low bush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium) are commonly available here and both grow well in our conditions. Blueberries make such great shrubs but it isn't always apparent as they are often sold in the fruit section of nurseries. Flowers in spring, berries in early summer and brilliant red fall color make blueberry something to consider. They need acidic soil and sun to thrive.

Best Shrub

native possumhaw viburnum

Blueberries are a good choice. Another shrub that comes up again and again among experts is the native viburnum and there are four: maple leaf (Viburnum acerifolium), arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum), possumhaw (Viburnum nudum) and blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolium). These are large shrubs with white flowers in early summer, plentiful berries in late summer and fall, and a variety of festive fall foliage color. Possumhaw and blackhaw are the largest, growing 10 to 20 feet tall. Arrowwood grows to 9 feet and Mapleleaf to 6 feet. All take part shade and all but maple leaf can take full sun. I have several possumhaw and they are easy to grow. I can't decide whether the umbrellas of berries which morph from minty green to pale pink to dark blue or the red and green foliage in fall is the strongest feature of this shrub. They are pretty awesome.

Best Perennial

native goldenrod

It's goldenrod (solidago). With 100 species of goldenrod in North America; it is blooming everywhere right now. It gives huge support to lots of pollinators who still need nectar sources to do their thing. Doug Tallamy describes it as "one of nature's greatest gifts to wildlife." He notes goldenrod feeds 181 species of caterpillars as well as breeding and fall migrating birds.

With goldenrods, the key is to choose the type best suited for your light conditions, sun or shade, and height, based on the location in your garden. I planted a taller growing one in the space between the sidewalk and street in front of our urban home and it was too tall and floppy. It would have looked phenomenal in a larger garden in a drift at the edge of a tighter urban space. Little lemon (Solidago 'Dansolitlem') growing to 18" tall has worked great in that smaller space. There are many in between. This list from the Missouri Botanical Garden highlights the features of the most commonly available types.

All goldenrods are drought tolerant, can withstand sun and wind and are easy to grow. If you were so inclined, you could grow different goldenrods and have them blooming from July through October.

Best Ground Cover

native green and gold ground cover

There are many native ground covers and each has specific attributes. Many lists of native ground covers also include plants like ferns and other shorter perennials. I think most people, when they think of ground cover, are looking for something short and evergreen, like the ubiquitous and invasive English ivy and vinca. Ecologically speaking, the best choice would be to select several native ground covers and create a mosaic, each plant fulfilling its own niche.

native ground cover green and gold
green and gold mid-winter

If you can add only one, I would choose green and gold (Chrysogunum virginianum) as it does well in moist and dry areas and handles shade, part sun and sun. It flushes with blooms in late spring and blooms sporadically for the rest of the season. It is also semi-evergreen meaning it loses some, but not all of its foliage in winter.

Fall is such a great time to plant. Cooler temperatures allow root systems of plants to establish before winter and get a head start for the following spring and gardeners won't be as parched either. All of these plants are now readily available in local nurseries and through mail order.

For high returns, plant oaks, viburnum, goldenrod and green and gold! Check out the Where to Buy page if you are looking for these top plants.


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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