Native Plants

Getting ready to plant? Consider natives in your landscape

By Krista White

Spring is still a way off here in Western Pennsylvania, but as snippets of warm air begin to hit the region, it’s time to start thinking about the upcoming planting season. While mulling over the thousands of plant choices available, you might want to consider how natives fit into your landscape. 

Fletcher Wildlife Garden Annual Native Plant Sale – Welcome to Rockcliffe  Park
A monarch butterfly collecting nectar from milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).

So, what exactly is a native plant, why should you plant them, and what do you need to know about non-native plants?

Shenango River Watchers spoke with Wendy Brister, marketing director for Cavano’s Perennials, to get the inside scoop on natives. Brister has a landscape architecture degree from Temple University, has worked for wholesale nurseries and high-end residential design, owned and operated a native plant nursery, and was the steward of the Millersville Native Plants in the Landscape Conference for many years. See below for excerpts from the conversation. 

Q: When someone hears the word “native” plant, what does that mean?

A: Technically, it is something that was here when the settlers arrived. But, you have to take in context as well. The current environment was not the same when the settlers came – soils are different, we have massively constructed and destroyed soils, we’ve got different climatic events happening regarding air and water quality, etc. 

Q: Why is it important to include native plants in your yard?

A: We need to start rebuilding ecosystem services and biodiversity, and that is certainly lacking when we have turf lawns that go for miles and miles. There are a lot of services that natives provide. Native plants help reclaim water, allow for infiltration and purification, attract pollinators and wildlife, etc. Does that mean that everyone’s backyard needs to look wild and unruly? No, you can accomplish a lot of those native plant benefits with a more manicured look. Not every homeowner is going to restore their small backyard to a wetland or an eastern deciduous forest, but if we can get some of those (native) plants in there, we are doing more than we were before.

Q: Should non-native plants be removed from yards?

A: You need to manage invasive plants. My approach to homeowners is that when you are doing conversions, don’t feel like you must wipe everything out to a clean slate. There are exotic plants that aren’t detrimental to the environment, and they are still capturing carbon, still creating oxygen, and still have other benefits, so you can phase them out. It’s not an all or nothing kind of approach. If you have something like a Bradford Pear tree or Japanese Knotweed, then yes, I recommend removal. But, if you have a Beech tree that is not native, it’s not causing significant harm to the environment, so don’t focus your efforts on there. You need to pick your battles. Don’t get overwhelmed – do it in phases and do what you can manage. 

Q: Does a plant have to come from oversees to be considered non-native?

A: Not necessarily, plants from other parts from the U.S. may also be considered non-native. We have such a large population of non-native plants in the U.S. that we’ve realized that some of them, like barberry and burning bush, really like it here and spread on their own. But, there are other plants that aren’t as bad, such as shrubs that don’t spread and cause the (environmental) issues that the invasives do. Non-native plants are already here. We’ve already done the “bringing it over from other countries,” and we aren’t making it much worse. Right now, it’s about managing the ones that like it a little too much here and are causing issues. Likewise, we are seeing the same thing in Europe. They took our natives because they liked them and didn’t have them, such as some of the asters and goldenrods, and they have become super aggressive, and they are trying to get rid of them. 

Q: If you are going to remove a non-native plant, is there a particular way you should do it to ensure they don’t repopulate?

A: If you are going to remove a non-native, you need to look at the growth pattern first. Just like you are picking the right plant for the right place, you have to think of the right removal for the right plant because they all have different modes of action on how they spread, etc. For example, take a pear tree. It’s pretty simple that if you cut it down and grind the stump, you are probably good. But, then you have things like a Burning Bush that is going to keep sprouting out of the base, and you may need to introduce chemical applications to help with that management. For most people dealing with a traditionally landscaped property, many times the management is relatively simple. It gets more complex when people buy larger acreage and there are a lot of woodlands to clean up– that’s where it can get more costly and time consuming. Some plant may require professional help to get rid of if they are sizable, but something like a barberry, you can just yank it out and throw it in the trash.

Q: Where can people go for help in identifying which plants in their yards are native vs. non-native vs. invasive?

A: There are apps you can use for plant ID, or you get a professional to do a walk through, such as a master gardener. The USDA also offers a website that allows you to plug in plant names and see what is native or not. Once you see where a plant is endemic to, then you also need decide if you are limiting yourself to exact local native region, or are you okay with the whole U.S. With climate change, we might need to start considering some plants that are from farther south because we are not in the same climate anymore. 

Resources for Plant Identification

• PennState Extension, Trees, Lawns, and Landscaping,

• USDA Forest Service, Invasive Species Maps,

• Seek by iNaturalist (App),

Local Seedling Sales by County

• Crawford County Conservation District’s 2022 Seedling Sale. Order deadline March 25.

• Lawrence County Conservation District’s 2022 Seedling Sale.

• Mercer County Conservation District’s 2022 Seedling Sale. Order deadline March 25.

Native Plant Resources

DCNR Native Garden Templates