buttonbush, Cephalanthus occidentalis

Buttonbush. (Photo: Will-travel/Flickr)

In an attempt to help homeowners achieve the same aesthetic goals with native plants as they do with more commonly available non-natives, we’ve been working with plant experts to point to worthwhile natives for each region of the country. This time, we’re digging into native plant choices for the Northeast.

It all started with a story about Doug Tallamy, a professor of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware and a leading proponent of landscaping with native plants, asking American homeowners to adopt a new definition of curb appeal. Tallamy’s definition of curb appeal reduces lawns by 50 percent and features groups of diverse native trees, shrubs and flowers lining each side of the lawn with a small, central grassy area that guides the eyes of passersby through the landscape to a focal point on the house, such as a door. His goal is to convince homeowners to substitute native plants for exotics in their landscape. His challenge is to get them to understand that they can do this without making their yards look wild and messy.

The Northeast, as defined by the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map, extends from Kentucky and Virginia through Indiana to Michigan on its western edge to Maine along the East Coast. The USDA zones in the Northeast range from 3a (coldest in the region) in the northernmost areas of Michigan and Maine to 8a (warmest) on the Virginia coast below Norfolk.

Tallamy characterizes non-native “exotics” as anything that evolves outside of a local food web. “Food webs are typically large, and plant provenance usually becomes limiting before the food web does,” he said.

Exotic introductions have become popular in the nursery trade, the landscape industry and with many homeowners for a variety of reasons. They are not so appealing to insects, however. That's because there's a good chance insects won't recognize exotic plants as a source of food or a place to lay their eggs. Tallamy wants homeowners to understand this is important because the entire food web begins with insects.

Our thanks to Tallamy for providing the plant list below. It contains commonly seen exotic introductions and native plant alternatives for a variety of landscape uses — canopy, understory, shrubs, and ground covers. It is not meant to be a complete list, just a good starting point for the conversation. We invite you to join the conversation by offering your comments and sharing the series with your friends and neighbors.


Commonly seen introductions: Norway maple, Norway spruce, sawtooth oak, dawn redwood, purple beech, Little leaf linden, Chinese elm.

Readily available natives:

persimmon tree

Photo: ATIS547/Flickr


sugar maple

Photo: geneva_wirth/Flickr

Sugar maple

white oak, northeast native

Photo: Bob Gutowski/Flickr

White oak

white pine

Photo: geneva_wirth/Flickr

White pine

American beech

Photo: Tim Ross/Wikimedia Commons

American beech

Benefits of these natives: Unlike the non-natives, the native species support more than 700 species of caterpillars alone. These in turn support migrating and breeding birds. Their seeds and fruits also support many mammals.



Commonly seen introductions: Golden raintree, Katsura tree, Bradford pear, Kuanzan cherry.

Readily available natives:

Alternate leaf dogwood

Photo: Distant Hill Gardens/Flickr

Alternate leaf dogwood


Photo: Jason Sturner/Flickr


ironwood, Carpinus caroliniana

Photo: Phillip Merritt/Flickr

Ironwood (Carpinus caroliniana and Ostrya virginiana)

wafer ashPhoto: Wikimedia Commons

Wafer ash

Benefits of these natives: The non-natives are used for aesthetics but contribute little to nothing to local food webs. Moreover, Bradford pear is highly invasive. Alternate leaf dogwood, in contrast, supports pollinators and has a copious berry set in midsummer. The ironwoods supply valuable seed for wintering birds and support many caterpillar species. Wafer ash is the host to the giant swallowtail butterfly, and fringetree supports several species of sphinx moths.



Commonly seen introductions: Burning bush, privet, bush honeysuckle, Japanese barberry.

Readily available natives:

swamp-haw viburnum, Viburnum nudum

Photo: Viridis13/Flickr

Swamp-haw viburnum (Viburnum nudum)


Photo: Eleanor/Flickr


Clethra alnifolia, sweet pepper bush

Photo: Kingsbrae Garden/Flickr

Sweet pepper bush

filbert grove

Photo: jacki-dee/Flickr


Benefits of these natives: Whereas burning bush, privet, bush honeysuckle and barberry are all highly invasive, native Viburnums and filbert together support hundreds of species of caterpillars and produce fruits and nuts for wintering animals. Sweet pepperbush and buttonbush are both superior targets for nectaring butterflies.


Ground cover

Commonly seen introductions: Pachysandra, English ivy, periwinkle.

Readily available natives:

wild ginger, asarum

Photo: J Brew/Flickr

Wild ginger


Photo: U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Northeast Region/Flickr


Phlox divaricata, woodland phlox

Photo: Joshua Mayer/Flickr

Phlox divaricata

Tiarella cordifolia, heartleaf foamflower

Photo: stevbach1/Flickr


Benefits of these natives: The non-native English ivy and periwinkle are invasive species and, as with Pachysandra, contribute nothing to local food webs. The natives listed form dense ground covers and are all attractive spring ephemerals that support native bee populations.

Related stories on MNN:

Live in the Northeast? Try these native plants in your landscape instead of exotics
Support your local ecosystem and have an attractive yard with these plants in your canopy, understory, shrubs and ground covers.