How to tell Native Plants from Non-Natives
As you wander from one plant location to another, you may wonder which plants are native and which are not native and how to tell which is which. The simplest way is by comparing the plant stakes labels which contain the botanical name and habitat conditions for each plant.
The botanical name of a native plant is always going to be the genus name (which is always capitalized) and the species name. If it’s a cultivar, the variety will follow the species name. For example, Symphyotrichum Novae-angliae is the botanical name for the native New England Aster. If you add “Honeysong Pink” to the botanical name, it refers to the non-native pink cultivar Aster Honeysong Pink.
Examples of Native Alternatives to Non-Native Plants
The next thing you might ask yourself is what native plants could I use in place of non-native plants to get the same effect. Here are a few examples.
Early Spring Plants
In place of early-blooming tulips (Tulipa spp), daffodils (Amaryllidaceae spp), Bergenia (Saxifragaceae bergenia) and Common Bleeding Heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis), use Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium), Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis), Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum), Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Heartleaf Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia), Cutleaf Toothwort (Cardamine concatenata), Shooting Star (Dodecatheon media), White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) and Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica).
Early Sun-Loving Perennials
In place of early sun-loving perennials such as Bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla), use Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum), Prairie Phlox (Phlox pilosa) and Foxglove Penstemon (Penstemon digitalis).
In place of non-native ground covers such as Periwinkle (Vinca minor), Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis), Ajuga (Ajuga reptans) and Pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis), use Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense), Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) and Three-leaved Stonecrop (Sedum ternatum)
In place of non-native vines such as Chinese bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) and English Ivy (Hedera helix), use Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana), Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) and American Bittersweet (Celastrus scandens).
Summer Sun-Loving Perennials
In place of summer blooming sun-loving perennials such as Ditchlily (Hemerocallis fulva), veronica (Veronica filiformis), salvia (Salvia officinialis), Shasta Daisy (Leucanthemum superbum) and Dame’s Rocket (Hesperis matronalis), use Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Yellow Coneflower (Echinacea paradoxa), Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Prairie Phlox (Phlox pilosa), Beebalm (Monarda didyma) and Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata).
Also give Wild Indigo (Baptisia leucantha) or Sweet Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia subtomentosa) a try in place of non-native astilbe (Astilbe spp).
Summer Shade-Loving Perennials
In place of summer shade-loving plants such as hosta (Hostas spp), ligularia (Ligularia spp) and camipanula (Campanula spp), use White (Actaea pachypoda) and Red Banberry (Actaea rubra), Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum), Woodland Phlox (Phlox divaricate) and Early Meadowrue (Thalictrum dioicum) and a variety of native ferns such as Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) or Lady Fern (Athyrium filix-femina).
Late Summer Sun-Loving Perennials
In place of late summer blooming sun-loving perennials such as Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), dianthus (Dianthus caryophyllus), Blanket Flower (Gaillardia pulchella), Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), scabiosa (Scabiosa spp), chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum spp) and the multitude of non-native aster (Symphyotrichum spp), use Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum), New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Calico Aster (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum), Sky Blue Aster (Symphyotrichum oolentangiensis), Prairie Blazingstar (Liatris pycnostachya) and Wild Quinine (Parthenium integrifolium).
In place of non-native Maiden Grass (Miscanthus spp) and Fountain Grass (Pennisetum spp), use Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Side Oats Grama (Bouteloua curtipendula), Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepsis), Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) and Tussock Sedge (Carex stricta).
Trees and Shrubs
In place of non-native trees and shrubs such as Amur Maple (Acer ginnala), Norway Maple (Acer platanoides), Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), Bradford Pear (Pyrus calleryana ‘Brad’), Barberry (Berberis spp), Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus) and Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii), use Red Maple (Acer rubrum), Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum), Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis), Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea), Winterbery (Ilex verticillata), Witch Hazel (Mamamelis vernalis), Pagoda Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia), Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) and Golden Currant (Ribes odoratum).
For more information about alternatives to non-native and invasive plants go to:
Landscape Alternatives to Invasive Plants from the US Forest Service
Native Plant Alternatives from the US Fish and Wildlife Service
Alternative Species by the Missouri Prairie Foundation’s Grow Native program
Or invest in a copy of Charlotte Adelman’s books Midwestern Alternatives
B. Hamaty says
Indian blanket grows wild around here. It’s not native? I’ve always been told that salvia is native. I know my big red sage is native. I’d love to use little bluestem. Any idea where to buy it?
Donna VanBuecken says
Dear B. Before I can respond to your inquiry, I will need to know your approximate location in the USA. If you’re from the Midwest, you might check out my post Native Plant Nursery Notices Mean Spring is on Its Way
Native range in the US and where it is found may not be the same.
Quita Sheehan says
Nice info Donna. Can I recommend as a ground cover Packera aurea? The leaves make a nice evergreen ground cover and lovely flowers in spring. Normally found in moist forests – but I’ve got it growing well in an open sandy soil area with mulch. Grows across WI. I was reading about a landowner in Illinois using it to combat garlic mustard, so it can be aggressive.
Donna VanBuecken says
What a darling plant. Especially so if it competes with Garlic Mustard. I’ll have to do some more research on Golden Grounsel (Packera aurea).
i live next to a busy Highway where I would like to plant something that grows quickly and is fairly thick to block traffic noise and the snow in the winter time, can you recommend something? I live in Northeast Wisconsin along Hwy 47. We have clayish soil, very sunny, fairly dry except for rain, 60’ off of Highway.
Donna VanBuecken says
Hi! Brian — If we’re talking shrubbery, I guess I’d recommend Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius). It is fairly fast growing and gets quite tall. It does sucker quite readily, however, but you could probably keep that in check simply by mowing.
If we’re talking prairie plants, nothing is really fast growing because they put all their effort into growing sturdy root systems first. But if you start with plants instead of seed, you’ll have a head start. Then I’d recommend Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and Oxeye Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides). If you’d like to make the mixture more diversified, I’d substitute Sweet Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia subtomentosa) for the Oxeye Sunflower and add Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)and New England Aster (Aster novae-angliae). Adding a border of Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepsis) and a few Cream False Indigo (Baptisia bracteata) would create a nice view from the house. Although you’d see some results right away if using plants, you’d likely not get the desired overall affect for about 3 years.
Actaea pachypoda, baneberry, is poisonous!
Donna VanBuecken says
According to Susan Mahr, University of Wisconsin – Madison, “the entire plant is toxic but the roots and berries are the most poisonous. The cardiogenic toxins have not been identified. When ingested, the berries have an almost immediate sedative effect on the human heart and can lead to cardiac arrest if enough are consumed. However, since the berries are very bitter, this is unlikely to happen. It was used medicinally by Native Americans.”
“Although this plant is highly toxic, there have been no records of human or livestock fatalities,” from Gordan Mitchell of Indiana Native Plants