Do you know what native plants in your area are the best? You may have a hard time finding out at your local nursery and landscape center. Many of the plants U.S. nurseries sell are "exotics," plants that aren't native to your region or even the United States.

While people passing by homes landscaped with plants from half a world away may find the yards attractive, many insects won't. That's because there's a good chance they won't recognize exotic plants as a source of food or a place to lay their eggs. And that will hurt the entire food web.

As a guide to help environmentally conscious homeowners know which native plants will meet their landscaping needs, here's the first in an occasional series about native plant alternatives to commonly offered exotics. We'll examine each of the regions in the USDA Plant hardiness Zone Map.

Let's begin with the Southeast, which includes USDA zones 6a-9a. (Even though the USDA includes Florida in the Southeast, we are treating the Sunshine State separately because its climate ranges from tropical to humid sub-tropical.)

Our thanks to Doug Tallamy, a professor of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware and a leading proponent of landscaping with native plants, for providing the plant list below. It contains 10 commonly seen exotic introductions and 10 native plant alternatives for a variety of landscape uses. It is not meant to be a complete list — just a good starting point for the conversation.

The canopy

Commonly seen introductions: Ginkgo, Zelkova and Norway maple

Readily available natives:

Shumard oak

Photo: F. D. Richards/Flickr

Shumard oak

Southern sugar maple

Photo: Tim Ross/Wikimedia Commons

Southern sugar maple

Live oak

Photo: Chris Pruitt/Wikipedia

Live oak

Benefit of these natives: The commonly seen plants support very few caterpillars, which provide food for birds. Zelkova supports none. The natives, on the other hand, support several hundred species of insects.

Understory

Commonly seen introductions: Crape myrtle, Kousa dogwood, and Brazilian pepper tree

Readily available natives:

Southern hackberry

Photo: Richard Murphy/Wikimedia Commons

Hackberry

Flowering dogwood

Photo: ©Derek Ramsey/Wikipedia

Flowering dogwood 

Zebra swallowtail butterfly near pawpaw tree leaves

Photo: Jessica Lucia/Flickr

Pawpaw

Benefit of these natives: The aliens support very few caterpillars, and pepper tree is highly invasive. Each of the natives supports specialized butterflies (e.g. hackberry supports the hackberry emperor, tawny emperor and snout butterfly; dogwood flowers support the spring azure; and pawpaw supports the zebra swallowtail and pawpaw sphinx).

Shrubs

Commonly seen introductions: Privet and bush honeysuckle, both of which are highly invasive

Readily available natives:

Hazelnuts on a hazelnut tree

Photo: klugi/Flickr

Hazelnut 

Arrowwood viburnum flowers

Photo:John B./Flickr

Arrowwood viburnum

Benefit of these natives: Hazelnut supports 134 species of caterpillars and Viburnum supports 104 species.

Groundcover

Commonly seen introductions: English ivy or Vinca, both invasive species that support nothing

Readily available natives:

Phlox

Photo: Michael Head/Flickr

Phlox

Butterfly weed flower

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Butterfly weed

Benefit of the natives: Phlox supports eight species of moths and supplies nectar for hummingbird moths. Butterfly weed is a host plant for monarch butterflies, which need all the host plants they can get!

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