Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping:
Chesapeake Bay Watershed


“Conservation landscaping” refers to landscaping with specific goals of reducing pollution and improving the local environment. In the Chesapeake Bay watershed (the land that drains to the Bay and its many tributaries), this style of landscaping is sometimes called “BayScaping,” or beneficial landscaping.

Conservation landscaping provides habitat for local and migratory animals, conserves native plants and improves water quality. Landowners also benefit as this type of landscaping reduces the time and expense of mowing, watering, fertilizing and treating lawn and garden areas, and offers greater visual interest than lawn. Beneficial landscaping can also be used to address areas with problems such as erosion, poor soils, steep slopes, or poor drainage.

One of the simplest ways to begin is by replacing lawn areas with locally native trees, shrubs and perennial plants. The structure, leaves, flowers, seeds, berries and other fruits of these plants provide food and shelter for a variety of birds and other wildlife. The roots of these larger plants are also deeper than that of typical lawn grass, and so they are better at holding soil and capturing rainwater.

Benefits of conservation landscaping

Americans manage approximately more than 30 million acres of lawn. We spend $750 million per year on grass seed. In managing our yards and gardens, we tend to over-apply products, using 100 million tons of fertilizer and more than 80 million pounds of pesticides annually. The average homeowner spends 40 hours per year behind a power mower, using a quart of gas per hour. Grass clippings consume 25 to 40% of landfill space during a growing season. Per hour of operation, small gas-powered engines used for yard care emit more hydrocarbon than a typical auto (mowers 10 times as much, string trimmers 21 times, blowers 34 times). A yard with 10,000 square feet of turf requires 10,000 gallons of water per summer to stay green; 30% of water consumed on the East Coast goes to watering lawns.

The practices described in this guide reduce the amount of intervention necessary to have attractive and functional landscaping. Conventional lawn and garden care contributes to pollution of our air and water and uses up non-renewable resources such as fuel and water. Many typical landscapes receive high inputs of chemicals, fertilizers, water and time, and require a lot of energy (human as well as gas-powered) to maintain. The effects of lawn and landscaping on the environment can be reduced if properties are properly managed by using organic alternatives applied correctly, decreasing the area requiring gas-powered tools, using native species that can be sustained with little watering and care, and using a different approach to maintenance practices.

With conservation landscaping, there is often less maintenance over the long term, while still presenting a “maintained” appearance. Conservation landscapes, like any new landscape, will require some upkeep, but these alternative measures are usually less costly and less harmful to the environment. New plants need watering and monitoring during the first season until they become established. Disturbed soil is prone to invasion by weeds - requiring manual removal (pulling) instead of chemical application. Over time, desired plants spread to fill gaps and natural cycles help with pest control. Garden maintenance is reduced to only minimal seasonal cleanup and occasional weeding or plant management. The savings realized by using little or no chemicals, and less water and gas, can more than make up for initial costs of installing the landscaping. Redefining landscaping goals overall and gradually shifting to using native species provide even greater rewards in terms of environmental quality, landscape sustainability, improved aesthetics, cost savings, and bringing wildlife to the property.

Why use native plants?

Native plants naturally occur in the region in which they evolved. While non-native plants might provide some of the above benefits, native plants have many additional advantages. Because native plants are adapted to local soils and climate conditions, they generally require less watering and fertilizing than non-natives. Natives are often more resistant to insects and disease as well, and so are less likely to need pesticides. Wildlife evolved with plants; therefore, they use native plant communities for food, cover and rearing young. Using native plants helps preserve the balance and beauty of natural ecosystems.

This guide provides information about native plants that can be used for landscaping projects as well as large-scale habitat restoration. All of the plants presented are native to the designated areas, however not all of the native species for that area have been included. Rather, plants have been included because they have both ornamental and wildlife value, and are generally available for sale. This guide covers the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed, including south central New York; most of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia; the District of Columbia; Delaware, west of Delaware Bay; and the eastern panhandle of West Virginia.

The region’s wildlife, plants, habitats and network of streams and rivers leading to the Bay are tremendous resources. As the human population throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed grows and land-use pressures intensify, it is increasingly important to protect our remaining natural areas and wildlife, and restore and create habitat. By working together, these treasures can be conserved for future generations. Individual projects are great, collective measures are even better, yet every action helps no matter what size.

Conservation landscaping elements

We can incorporate elements of natural systems into the existing areas where we live, work, learn, shop and play. Landscaping provides valuable opportunities to reduce the effects of the built environment. These areas can be both aesthetically pleasing and functional. Use of native species will make your garden or landscaping more environmentally beneficial. By combining plant selection with some of the other concepts below, you can achieve more environmental benefits.

Reduce disturbance. Carefully decide where new development will occur to avoid destruction of existing habitat as much as possible. Take advantage of the site’s existing natural features.

Reduce lawn or high maintenance areas. Replace turf or ornamental plantings by adding new landscaping beds and/or enlarge existing ones with native plants.

Think big, but start small. Draw up a plan for your entire yard but choose one small area for your first effort. Trial and error with the first project will help you learn without being overwhelmed. Phase in the whole project over time.

Use native plants. Start by using natives to replace dead or dying non-native plants, or as a substitute for invasive non-natives in existing gardens or landscaping. Plan to use native plants in new landscaping projects.

In certain conditions, some native plants can also become aggressive spreaders, though their spread is more limited by natural controls than non-native aggressors. Plants that seed readily (such as black-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia species), or that spread by later roots (such as mint family plants Monarda or Physostegia species) should be used sparingly or controlled in gardens. Certain native species that are difficult to control or show up uninvited should not be planted, such as cattail (Typha species).

Avoid invasive species. Non-native plants can be invasive. They have few or no naturally occurring measures to control them, such as insects or competitors. Invasive plants can spread rapidly and smother or out-compete native vegetation. Invasive, non-native plants are not effective in providing quality habitat. A copy of the publication “Plant Invaders of Mid Atlantic Natural Areas” can be downloaded from

Improve water quality. Native species planted on slopes, along water bodies and along drainage ditches help prevent erosion and pollution by stabilizing the soil and slowing the flow of rainwater runoff. To collect and filter runoff, depressions can be created and planted with native plants suited to temporary wet conditions. These “rain gardens” will capture water and hold it temporarily for a day or two and remove pollutants washing off of the surrounding land.

Enhance and create wildlife habitat. An animal’s habitat is the area where it finds food, water, shelter, and breeding or nesting space, in a particular arrangement. If we want our gardens to have the greatest ecological value for wildlife, we need to mimic natural plant groupings and incorporate features that provide as many habitat features as possible.

Plants are one of the most important features of an animal’s habitat, because they often provide most, or even all of the animal’s habitat needs. Animals in turn help plants to reproduce through dispersal of pollen, fruits or seeds. Consequently, plants and animals are interdependent and certain plants and animals are often found together. So, it is important that plants be selected, grouped, and planted in a way that is ecologically appropriate.

Each plant prefers or tolerates a range of soil, sunlight, moisture, temperature and other conditions, as well as a variety of other factors including disturbance by natural events, animals or human activities. Plants sharing similar requirements are likely to be found together in plant communities that make up different habitat types - particular groupings of plant communities commonly recognized as wetlands, meadows, forests, etc. Some plants may tolerate a wider range of conditions than others, and therefore can be found at more than one type of site, in association with a different set of plants at each. By matching plants with similar soil, sunlight, moisture and other requirements, and planting them to the existing site conditions, the planted landscapes will do a good job of approximating a natural habitat.

Instead of isolated plantings, such as a tree in the middle of lawn, group trees, shrubs and perennials to create layers of vegetation. A forest has, for example, a canopy layer (tallest trees), understory layers (various heights of trees and shrubs beneath the canopy) and a ground layer or forest floor. These layers provide the structure and variety needed for shelter, breeding or nesting space for a diversity of wildlife.

To provide food and cover for wildife year-round, include a variety of plants that produce seeds, nuts, berries or other fruits, or nectar; use evergreens as well as deciduous plants (those that lose their leaves); and allow stems and seedheads of flowers and grasses to remain standing throughout fall and winter.

All animals need water year-round to survive. Even a small dish of water, changed daily to prevent mosquito growth, will provide for some birds and butterflies. Puddles, pools or a small pond can be a home for amphibians and aquatic insects. A larger pond can provide for waterfowl, such as ducks and geese, and wading birds such as herons. Running or circulating water will attract wildlife, stay cleaner and prevent mosquitoes.

Rock walls or piles, stacked wood, or brush piles provide homes for insects, certain birds and small mammals. Fallen logs and leaf litter provide moist places for salamanders, and the many organisms that recycle such organic matter, contributing nutrients to the soil. Standing dead tree trunks benefit cavity-nesting wildlife such as woodpeckers.

Consider naturalistic planting, or habitat restoration. It may be feasible to create a more natural landscape instead of a formal one. Naturalistic landscaping uses patterns found in nature, and allows some nature-driven changes to occur. Plants multiply, and succession or gradual replacement of species may take place, with less human intervention. A property located near natural areas, such as forests, wetlands and meadows, is a good candidate for a habitat project. Expand existing forest by planting trees and shrubs along the woods line, using native species that grow in the area, and allow birds and wind to bring the understory plants over time. Wet sites, areas with clay soils, or drainage ditches can be converted to wetlands. An open piece of ground or lawn can be planted as a meadow or grassland. Schools, homes, small businesses, large corporate sites, municipalities, military installations, recreational areas and other public lands can all include habitat plantings.

How to choose plants

Finding ready information about what plants “go together” for habitat restoration, enhancement, or creation projects is difficult. Often, the professional will examine a nearby natural area and try to mimic the combination of plant species found there. That may not be possible for individuals unfamiliar with natural areas. Fortunately, by following some simple guidelines, you will have garden spaces that grow well on your site and mirror the plant communities found naturally in your area. The plant lists found at the end of this guide will also help give you a start at planting appropriate groupings.

Where to find native plants

Most nurseries carry some native plants, and some nurseries specialize and carry a greater selection. As the demand for native plants has grown, so has the supply at nurseries. Some plants will be more readily available than others. Here, we’ve focused on species most appropriate for planting and available through the nursery trade. A limited number of species included here are not commonly available but are able to be nursery grown. Take this guide along with you when you visit nurseries and if you need help, ask for nursery staff familiar with native plants. If you see a plant you like, check to see if it’s included in the guide for your state and physiographic region. For those species that are more difficult to find, the hope and intention is that this publication will spark a demand, and hence a greater supply. If you have a favorite plant that you can’t obtain, be sure to ask your local nursery to consider adding it to their stock. A list of some of the many retail and wholesale native plant nurseries in the Chesapeake Bay region is available from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Chesapeake Bay Field Office at

For the greatest ecological value, select the “true” native species, especially if planting for wildlife benefit. There are cultivated varieties (cultivars) available for many native plants. These are named using the scientific name (Latin genus and species, such as Rudbeckia fulgida) plus the cultivar name, a third word in single quotation marks (such as Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldsturm’). These varieties have been grown to provide plants with certain physical characteristics, perhaps a different flower color, different foliage or a compact shape or size. Although these are suitable for gardening use, use true species (not cultivars) if you are planning a habitat project to provide food for wildlife. These plants are most suited to use by the native wildlife, and will increase your chances of attracting them.

Native plants should never be removed from the wild unless an area is about to be developed. Even then, it is difficult to transplant wild-collected plants and to duplicate their soil and other growth requirements in a home garden. Plants that are grown from seed or cuttings by nurseries have a much greater tolerance for garden conditions. Help to preserve natural areas by purchasing plants that have been grown, not collected.

Ask nurseries about the source of the native species sold. Did they come from seed or cuttings of plants found growing locally, or are they from another region? Ideally, the plants you use should come from stock from the same region, say, within about a 200-mile radius in the same physiographic province (coastal plain, Piedmont, or mountain). Differences exist from region to region even in the same plant species, due to differences in climactic conditions between distant locations. For example, a plant grown in Maine may flower at a different time than the same species grown in Maryland. They may have slight physical differences. These characteristics make a difference in designing gardens and they matter to wildlife seeking food sources. The more consumers ask for locally grown plants or seed, the more likely it is that nurseries will carry local stock.

Once you begin to explore and experiment with native plants, you’ll soon discover that many of these plants go beyond just replacing worn out selections in your yard. Native plants will eventually reduce your labor and maintenance costs while inviting wildlife to your yard helping to create your own sense of place.

How to use this guide

Plant Names and Types

Plants are organized within each section alphabetically by scientific name. All scientific plant names used are based on names accepted by ITIS, the Integrated Taxonomic Information System. Plants are indexed at the back of the book by scientific as well as frequently used common names. Scientific names are changed periodically as new information is gathered; for those commonly recognized names that changed during development of this guide, the new names are used here, with a cross reference noted in the index. For example: Aster divaricatus is now Eurybia divaricata, so the plant is listed in the index under both Aster and Eurybia.

Plants are grouped by botanical categories: Ferns; Grasses & Grasslike Plants (includes grasses and plants with long slender leaves that may appear similar to a grass); Herbaceous Plants (includes flowers and groundcovers); Herbaceous Emergents (plants that grow in moist to wet soils, wetlands or in standing water with roots and part of their stems below water but with most of the plant above the water); Shrubs; Trees; and Vines.

A note about groundcovers: English ivy, periwinkle, creeping lily turf and Japanese pachysandra are some commonly used groundcovers, particularly for shade. However, these species are non-natives that are invasive in the landscape, so they should be avoided. What native alternatives can be used instead? A groundcover can be any plant that would physically cover or hide the bare ground from view. For the purposes of environmentally beneficial landscaping and habitat enhancement, any plant in the “herbaceous”category would make a good groundcover. For those gardeners and landscapers still seeking a low-growing, creeping, spreading, or clump-forming plant for a groundcover, these plants are marked with a GC symbol in the Notes column and a list is included at the end of the guide.


Growth Conditions

For each plant in this guide, we include a description of habitats in which that plant may be found. Several habitat types may be mentioned as each plant is rarely found in one and only one habitat type. There are dozens of forest types, several types of wetlands including forested wetlands and even wet meadows. The habitats described include those that provide the conditions most preferred by each plant species. To help with planning projects, sample lists of plants to use in certain habitat types, or certain site conditions, are given in the back of this guide. More technically detailed information on plant communities can be found in resources listed in the references section.

Native To (Where To Use) - States and Physiographic Regions
From the sandy dunes of the coast to the rocky slopes of the mountains, the rich variety of habitats found throughout the region is strongly linked to its geology, topography and climate. For this guide, the states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed have been divided into three regions or provinces: (1) the coastal plain (C), an area with fairly flat topography and more southern climate; (2) the Piedmont plateau (P), with its rolling hills; and (3) the mountain zone (M), a more northern climate (see map). For simplicity, the mountain category combines all of the more specific higher-altitude provinces (Blue Ridge, Ridge and Valley, Allegheny or Appalachian Plateau). Some native plants are common throughout these provinces, while others are adapted to the unique conditions found only in one or two.

Physiographic province mapBased on the existing literature and expert input, the physiographic regions and states in which each plant species naturally occurs is noted. However, plants do not follow the political boundaries that define our states, so matching ecological boundaries with political ones is difficult. Certain plants may occur in different regions in different states. For example, the range of a species could extend throughout all of Pennsylvania, but be limited to the mountain and Piedmont regions of Maryland. An effort has been made to be as accurate as possible, while erring on the side of inclusion to cover the widest range of possibilities throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed as a whole. This same approach has been used for other characteristics, such as height and bloom period, which may vary slightly from region to region.

Note: Some species native to a state but not commonly found may be officially designated and legally protected as “rare, threatened, or endangered” (RTE). This may be because the plant is at the edge of its natural range there, or its population has declined due to loss of habitat caused by various natural events and/or human activities in that region. Species that are listed in a state as RTE should generally not be planted there, because importing species from elsewhere could potentially lead to damaging alteration of the gene pool of the remaining population. This guide lists only those states in which a plant is common and recommended for planting. As a general rule of thumb, if a plant you like is not designated in this guide for your state or your region of the state, we strongly encourage you to forego planting that and select another plant suited to your site.

Wildlife Value
The notation “high wildlife value” is based mainly on the value of the fruits, seeds and/or nectar used as food for wildlife, and the relative number of species using the plant for food. But remember that animals use leaves, twigs, roots and shoots for food or nesting material, and every plant has value as cover and/or nesting sites. In that respect, although we’ve marked those of higher wildlife (food) value, every plant in this guide has value to wildlife, as well as other environmental values.

Songbird symbol Songbird
Waterfowl symbol Waterfowl
Hummingbird symbol Hummingbird
Butterfly symbol Butterfly
Beneficial insect symbol Beneficial insect
Small mammal symbol Small mammal

Providing the basic habitat structures described earlier and planting a diversity of plants (and therefore food sources) will bring a surprising and beneficial array of life to your property.

The types of wildlife noted here are those desirable species that are likely to use the plants for food, including pollinators which are critical to plant reproduction, for gardens, natural areas and agricultural crops. The information here is fairly general. The songbird icon indicates use of a plant by small usually migratory birds, but may include upland game birds. The waterfowl icon may include shorebirds and wading birds along with ducks and geese. The hummingbird icon has been indicated separately because many people are interested specifically in attracting them. The butterfly icon may refer to the adults or to the larval stage that uses the plant as a host. The beneficial insect icon, besides butterflies, includes ladybugs, bees (essential pollinators) and other insects that serve as a pest control or other desirable role. The small mammal icon is noted for plants used by any of a variety of small animals, such as raccoons, opossums, foxes, etc., depending upon location and surrounding habitat.

Absent but not forgotten: Certain wildlife species are not represented, due in part to a lack of available information for every plant related to all types of animals. However, these are all likely to inhabit or occasionally visit a native plant garden or habitat planting, and their importance in the web of life should not be underestimated. Many insects have not been represented here, though they certainly use a wide variety of plants throughout their life cycles and are an integral part of the ecosystems we’re trying to protect, conserve and enhance. Reptiles and amphibians, particularly salamanders, frogs and turtles, inhabit our yards as well as natural areas. They use plants for food and cover, and especially need water sources such as lakes, ponds, streams, puddles or even a small dish of water (aerated or changed daily to prevent mosquito breeding). Bats provide a valuable service as insect pest controllers and pollinators.

This catchall includes pertinent information that bears emphasizing or is not reflected in the other categories. It may include additional notes or clarification about the plant’s characteristics, growth, and spread; tips or suggestions on cultivation; cultivars; or general use of the plant.

By providing these characteristics for each plant species we hope to provide you with a variety of choices to meet the conditions of your property as well as your personal preferences. Whether you are replacing a few individual plants, designing a new bed or planning for an entirely new look, this guide can help narrow the choices to plants most likely to thrive in your environment and create the landscape you desire.

 Publication by USFWS BayScapes Conservation Landscaping Program
Last updated: 7 October 2004