Starting Out with Native Plants

Every gardener who uses native plants has had an  “Aha!” moment when they realize how important it is that they, personally, focus on ecological gardening. Mine resulted from a lecture I heard by Rick Darke, organized by Chatham’s then-Conservation Agent Kristen Andres.  His lecture, and reading his and Doug Tallemy’s book Living Landscape, showed me that:

  • There’s not a whole lot of wild land left to nurture the insects, birds, and other species that serve as the foundation of our ecology.
  • But if more homeowners did their part by planting native species and using ecological practices, we can replace that lost wildness with good species habitats. For instance, a pollinator garden and a couple of oak trees can probably support enough insect life for a rich bird population.
  • A native-plant garden can look beautiful in the hands of a skilled designer, and it ultimately results in less work for the gardener.

If this has happened to you, there are lots of classes you can take and reading you can do to become more knowledgeable about native plants.  I recommend the classes at the New England Wild Flower Society in Framingham as a great starting point.  And any book by Rick Darke and Doug Tallemy will be inspiring. The two most recent books I’ve learned from are Planting in a Post-Wild World by Claudia Schmidt and Thomas Rainer, and Garden Revolution by Larry Weamer and Thomas Christopher.

At the same time, I’d suggest you jump right in, go to your local nursery, buy some native plants and incorporate them into your existing garden.  You will begin to learn about the specific plants, and you will be doing good for the environment by providing food and habitat for your insect and bird populations.

How do you know which plants are natives?  There are several good sources of plant lists for Cape Cod native plants – I would recommend the Grow Native Massachusetts web site – click on the “Our Commonwealth” tab to find the resource page for “SE Mass, Cape & Islands”.  As with non-native plants, pick the ones that suit your conditions – sun/shade, moist/dry.

Here are some that have succeeded in my own Cape Cod garden. I have given the botanical name and in parentheses the common English name.

Plant Type Sun Shade
Perennials Agastache (Anise hyssop)

Amsonia (Blue star)

Eupatorium purpureum (Joe-Pye weed)

Gaillardia (Blanket flower)

Helenium  (Sneeze weed)

Penstemon (Beardtongue)


Actaea(Bugbane, baneberry, or black cohosh)

Aquilegia (Columbine)

Heuchera (Coral bells)

Tiarella (Foam flower)

Grasses Sporobolis heterolepsis (Prairie drop seed)

Schizachyrum scoparium (Little blue stem)

Carex pensylvanica (Pennslvania sedge)

Deschampsia fluxuosa (Wavy hairgrass)


Shrubs Hypericum (St. John’s Wort)

Itea virginicana (Virginia sweetspire)

Ilex verticillata (Winterberry)

Hydrangea arborescens (Smooth hydrangea, not ‘Annabelle’)

Hydrangea quercifolia (Oak-leaf hydrangea)

Viburnum dentatum (Arrowwood viburnum)


Clethra (sweet pepperbush)


Ilex glabra (Inkberry)

Vaccineum angustifolium (low-bush blueberry)



Note, a few of these plants are native to the mid-Atlantic or southeast but do well here. Also, there are other local natives available, such as Echinacea and Liatris, but they have not done well in my garden due to rabbits; the plants listed have survived for at least 2 years for me.

When you go to the garden center, the staff should be able to help you with either the botanical or the English name, so don’t be intimidated by the names!  Also, many of these plants come as both the plain species, or with a named cultivar, such as Agastache ‘Blue Fortune”.  If you have a choice, the plain species will be better for pollinators, but most of the named cultivars should be OK, certainly better than non-natives.

So enjoy your native plants, and feel good about doing your part to help the environment!


Photos by C. Weston

  • Top: Helenium ‘Moorheim Beauty’
  • Middle: Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’ and Eupatorium purpureum ‘Little Joe’