Natives: The New Garden Ornamentals

Ornamental plants are very pretty and make landscapes very attractive. However, many ornamental trees that are planted in yards and cities are not native to the region. Non-natives can become invasive, though not all are, but also can have a harder time growing in our climate or soil types. Planting native plants is a better option for not only maintenance but also for the environment.

Natives are the next popular plants for gardens. Are you up to date on the newest trend?
Natives are the next popular plants for gardens. Are you up to date on the newest trend?


Have you ever seen a Japanese maple tree? They are gorgeous trees but as the name suggests, they are from Japan and not native to the U.S. Not all non-natives become invasive but most of them do not provide anything for the local ecosystems. Some do end up outcompeting native species and can even be hazardous as they age such as the Bradford Pear tree. Planting native plants provide shelter and food for local fauna and can even tolerate local soils. Being from Ohio, I’m going to be talking about native plants from the Midwest and the Eastern United States.

Native Trees

Not every native plant is beautiful or exotic looking but we do have some pretty spectacular native trees that are absolutely beautiful.

Redbud (Cercis canadensis)


The redbud tree is a tree that can grow to 20-30 feet tall and are low maintenance. Every spring they have beautiful purple-pinkish flowers that attract butterflies and bees. I mean, just look at those flowers! They do well in yards and can tolerate full sun to partial shade. After the blossoms have passed and leaves begin to grow, the trees become filled with medium-sized heart-shaped leaves. Redbuds are a great alternative to the invasive Mimosa tree (Albizia julibrissin) and the Princess tree (Paulownia tomentosa).

Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)


The dogwood is another showy spring tree with large white flowers. They grow to 15-30 feet tall and need a little more maintenance than redbuds. They do well in full sun to partial shade and will attract birds, butterflies, and bees. Their bark is also neat as it has a fish scale texture that can be kind of flaky. The buds are also pretty cool in winter as they look like little onions or cloves of garlic sitting on the end of the twigs. Flowering dogwood is a beautiful tree year around. There are some other native dogwoods that are great to plant as well including Gray dogwood (C. racemosa) and Alternate-leaf Dogwood (C. alternifolia). Dogwoods are a great alternative to the Bradford Pear (Pyrus calleryana).

Sumac (Rhus spp.)


There are a couple of different types of sumacs but some of the most common include smooth sumac (R. glabra), winged sumac (R. copalling), and staghorn sumac (R. typhing). They can grow up to 15 feet tall and have very showy flowers that produce a large cluster of red berries that can actually be used to make lemonade. They tolerate full sun to partial shade and attract butterflies and birds. Sumacs are a great alternative to the nasty invasive Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima).

Flowers & Vines

Trees aren’t the only non-native invasive plants that have been planted as ornamentals. There are many flowers, vines, and grasses that have been introduced into the landscape that are not native to the U.S.

Turk’s Cap Lily (Lilium superbum)


I grew up with daylilies lining the side of my childhood home not knowing that these common daylilies (Hemerocallis fulva) were invasive exotics. Turks Cap lily is an orange spotted lily that likes full sun to partial shade. It likes a decent amount of water so it does well in rain gardens. It attracts hummingbirds and some butterflies. This lily is a great native replacement for not only daylilies but also tiger lilies (Lilium lancifolium) that are native to Asia.

Virgina Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)


This viny plant is often confused with poison ivy but it will not cause any rashes like poison ivy. Virginia creeper will grow across the ground as well as climb up trees and buildings. It can get up to 50 feet long and is not recommended to be allowed to grow up wooden or shingle walls as it can damage the walls. It likes full sun to partial shade and the leaves will turn shades of red and purple in autumn. Birds are attracted to this plant for its small berries. Virginia creeper is a good alternative to English ivy (Hedera helix).

Trumpet Vine (Campsis radicans)


This beautiful flowering vine likes full sun to partial shade but flowers best when it is in full sun. The vine can grow 25-40 feet long and the showy flowers attract hummingbirds. The trumpet vine is a bit high maintenance as it grows rapidly and produces large colonies if not contained. This is a good native plant to replace Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), or Exotic Wisterias (Wisteria sinensis, W. floribunda).

There are so many exotic plants in the U.S. that can be replaced with equally as many native plants. This is just a small glimpse into what we have that grows naturally in the Eastern United States. Before planning your garden or landscape project, research what native plants are available that you could plant instead of exotics. Many nurseries will have a selection of native plants that you can choose from. If you are hiring a landscaper talk with them about planting natives instead of exotics. Planting natives can provide food, shelter, and more for the local wildlife as well as preventing the spread of invasive species.


Native Alternatives to Non-Native Invasive Plants in your Landscape
Native Alternatives to Commonly Planted Invasive Plants
Missouri Botanical Garden