It's easy & fun but proceed with intention!
To plant native, it's helpful to think ahead. I have learned this the hard way ... again and again. Blue spruces (Picea pungens) and Nellie Stevens hollies (Ilex Nellie R. Stevens), I'm looking at you!
What Are You Looking For?
First, it's helpful to know the type of native plants you want.
Local ecotypes only
If you are searching for the absolutely highest ecological value, you will want to look for a native plant nursery that specializes in local eco-types like Nature by Design in Alexandria and Chesapeake Natives in Upper Marlboro.
Local ecotypes, regional natives and cultivars too
If you are looking for plants generally native to our region, you might add native plant nurseries that carry regional natives and cultivars of natives like Unity Church Hill Nursery to your list of places to go. These nurseries typically include plants like oak leaf hydrangeas, native to the southeast, and northern white cedars, native a bit farther to the north.
They also sell cultivars of native plants. These are straight species natives that have been bred to improve on a plant trait such as bloom or size. Dr. Doug Tallamy's research shows if the color of the foliage or the structure of a flower of a straight species plant is changed, the plant will not be as ecologically beneficial. On the other hand, changes to plant size do not seem to affect the ecological value of the plant.
A Garden Center with Everything
If you have a favorite large garden center, like Homestead or Merrifield Gardens, you will want to go prepared to do a bit of double checking. The majority of plants sold at large garden centers are ornamental, not native. Those listed in the "Where to Buy" page have either a native plant section or a labeling system to identify native plants.
You can't rely solely on sections or labels though. Customers move plants around and plants get re-shelved to the wrong locations amidst the hustle and bustle of busy days. Your phone and the latin name on the plant tag are your best allies. I'm not suggesting learning botanical latin but those latin names are often the only way to determine whether a plant you are looking at is native. Googling the latin name along with "Missouri Botanical Garden" will quickly tell you where the plant originates from.
To be sure, the large garden centers has staff with expertise and can advise about native plants. They also have seasonal employees who may be extremely well intentioned but not as familiar with native plants. That's how I got those Nellie Stevens hollies long ago. A staff member assured me the hollies were cultivars of American holly leading me to believe that since the fruit and leaf color had not been altered, they were reasonably ecologically valuable. It turns out Nellie Stevens holly is a hybrid of Chinese and English holly and provides far less ecological benefit than an American holly. A quick check by phone could have told me that!
Also, please note a plant will sometimes be labeled "US Native." This really doesn't tell us anything useful. Long ago, I purchased two blue spruces labeled "US native" thinking the blue color would add contrast in our garden. They are native to Colorado -- a mere 1600 miles from here!
Another way to find natives at a larger nursery is to look for American Beauties plants -- easy to spot in their mint green pots. These plants are always native to the Chesapeake region. All Meadows Farm Nursery locations stock these plants though inventory may vary significantly depending on the time of the year.
Mail order is a great option if you are time constrained, looking for plug size plants or searching for a particular plant you can't find at the nursery.
One Time Plant Sales
Numerous organizations across the Chesapeake Watershed hold seasonal or one time plant sales. Adkins Arboretum on the Eastern Shore holds spring and fall plant sales and the US Arboretum holds a plant sale in conjunction with its annual native plant symposium, to name just a few. These are excellent sources for native plants. I use the current happenings section at the end of the weekly e-mail to let you know of those I am aware of.
Can't Find What You Are Looking For
Larger native plants and evergreens can sometimes be harder to find. Most garden centers will order a particular plant or tree for you. It does help to contact them at a less busy time of the year or less busy time of the week.
All of these nurseries need our support. Plants are a commodity, just like any other. They are marketed; trends come and go; and nurseries compete with big box stores and on-line retailers too. One independent nursery manager recently told me he would love to sell only native plants but the revenue from sales of popular ornamentals, like crepe myrtles and mop head hydrangeas, and mulch, generate the income needed to cover the relatively lower volume of native plant sales. Obviously, there are nurseries who make a go of it selling only natives, but this helps explain why there is so much momentum behind ornamental plants. So, to the extent you are able, supporting nurseries selling native plants helps grow their market which is good for the Chesapeake Watershed!
Please know I have no financial connection to any of these nurseries. I do post a lot of information about nurseries because knowing about the benefits of native plants isn't all that practical if you can't actually find the plants!
Thank you for gardening for the Chesapeake!