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Gardening with Native Plants This Spring

April 29, 2020 12:00 AM

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​With May on the horizon, the time to plant in Pennsylvania is fast approaching.

Interest in gardening is booming right now as Americans staying at home pick up new hobbies and look to make sure they have a supply of fresh produce.

If you’re looking to spend some time improving your yard, remember that landscaping choices can have meaningful impacts on maintaining wildlife diversity. Give native plants a try!

Choosing Native Plants for Landscaping

Red Maple

Native plants, shrubs, and trees have evolved or occur naturally in an area without human intervention.

The benefits of native plants include:

  • Many offer beautiful flowers, colorful fruits and seeds, and change with the seasons
  • Low maintenance
  • Little watering 
  • Provide habitat and food sources for pollinators and wildlife
  • Require less chemicals

Will You Be Able to Buy Native Plants This Spring?

There are differences in whether sources that grow and sell plants and trees are able to operate under Pennsylvania’s required closings for non-essential businesses depending on their classification -- so you should check directly with your nearby supplier.

In-person native plant sales for this spring have been cancelled as part of the COVID-19 mitigation efforts.

Many native plant suppliers in Pennsylvania are doing curbside pickup or delivery.

There also are opportunities to order native plants online and have them shipped to you.

DCNR maintains a list of some native plant suppliers in Pennsylvania.

The Pennsylvania Native Plant Society advocates conservation of native plants and their habitats; and promotes the increased use of native plants in the landscape. It also has an online list of native plant suppliers.

There are several native plant sales that occur in state parks in the spring. Their status is:

  • The nursery at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, part of Washington Crossing Historic Park, is providing online ordering and curbside pickup.
  • Kings Gap Environmental Education Center is making arrangements for either online ordering and pickup; or rescheduling it’s native plant sale later in the summer.
  • Ohiopyle State Park is currently working on alternative arrangements for their native plant sale. Updates and information can be found on the Ohiopyle State Park Facebook page.

Finding the Right Native Plants for Your Area

Common Milkweed

One thing to consider when working natives into your landscape is attempting to have something flowering each month of the growing season, especially if you want to benefit butterflies and pollinators.   

DCNR has some sample native plant garden templates that show how natives could work together in a specific environment, such as moist and shady or dry and sunny.

The department’s brochure on Landscaping with Native Plants (PDF) includes a list of species.

Audubon has a native plant database that allows you to insert your zip code and get a list of suggestions to help attract birds to your yard.

The National Wildlife Federation has a plantfinder where it’s possible to learn about native plants and the pollinators they support according to zip code.

If you want to go big for pollinators, check the suggestions from the National Pollinator Garden Network, which has registered more than a million pollinator gardens.

Native Plant Favorites from DCNR Staff

Bee Balm

Bee Balm

Bureau of Forestry Botanist Chris Firestone likes Bee Balm, (Monarda didyma), which she propagated from seed. It is easy to grow and will spread because it is a mint.

The color is outstanding, and it attracts butterflies and hummingbirds. A few more favorites include:

  • Joepye weed
  • Swamp milkweed
  • Daisy fleabane
  • Blazing star

Oak Trees
Red Oak Seedlings

Riparian Forest Specialist Kelsey Miller says oak trees are her favorite. There are more than 15 different oak species native to Pennsylvania. Want a shady tree near your stream? Try swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor), pin oak (Quercus palustris), or willow oak (Quercus phellos).

For something large and stately you can’t go wrong with a white oak (Quercus alba), which can live hundreds of years -- talk about a legacy!

Or, do you want something a little more interesting? Bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) is also known as mossycup oak for its unique acorns. Bear oak (Quercus ilicifolia) is a short, scrubby oak, reaching up to about 20 feet.

Oak leaves are food for more than 550 different species of caterpillars.

Oak acorns are enjoyed by lots of wildlife like deer, turkey, bear, and blue jays. Be sure to research each species to make sure it will grow where you live.


Eastern Redbud

Bureau of State Parks Recreation and Interpretation Program Coordinator Christine Ticehurst says without fail one of the earliest pops of color in the spring is often the burst of amethyst -- the flower of the native Eastern redbud (Cercis Canadensis).

These small but mighty native flowering trees give an instant jump start to spring. Not only are they visually appealing, they serve as an early pollinator source for bees.

Redbuds are a perfect option to plant in honor of a life event, whether it’s the birth of a child, the loss of a loved one, or the purchase of a new home.



Program Coordinator for the Pennsylvania Plant Conservation Network Kristi Allen likes Lupine (Lupinus perrenis).

This plant, which is popular as a landscape cultivar, is considered vulnerable in Pennsylvania, with limited range and small populations. Lupines have beautiful radiating leaves and tall stalks covered in blue flowers.

As part of the Pea family (Fabaceae), these plants are beneficial to soil health, converting nitrogen into organic compounds. Lupine has numerous pollinators, including the endangered Karner Blue Butterfly.



Director of the Office of Communications Chris Novak says Turtlehead (Chelone obliqua) is not only pretty, but provides color and attracts pollinators later in the season. Turtlehead -- which can be white or pink -- blooms for three to six weeks.

The flower gets its name because it resembles a turtle’s beak. The plant favors boggy areas but can be grown in a partially shaded home garden.

Find more information about DCNR’s role in wild plant conservation and Pennsylvania native plants on the DCNR Wild plants web page.

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