Sunday, March 18, 2012

Finding native plants that are appropriate

“Right plant, right place” is a well-worn phrase that is as true today as it was the first time it was spoken.  It’s also every bit as true when selecting native plants for your garden or a restoration area.  After all, you want your plants to thrive, your investment to be worthwhile, and your labor in planting them to have been useful!

A thriving clump of Coreopsis auriculata

The goal then is to research choices so that you choose a plant that will get the right amount of light, the right amount of moisture, and is situated in a soil (alkaline/acidic, well-draining/clay, etc.) that is appropriate for it.  Oh, and it’s native.  Wait – native to where?  You see, that makes some difference.  Consider 3 situations:

-         Plants native to the western United States aren’t always going to do well in the eastern United States and the insects and animals that benefit from it certainly aren’t in the area.  I have an Arizona cypress (Cupressus arizonica) in my yard but I consider it just another ornamental, not a “native”.
-         Yet, plants native to the eastern United States are not necessarily native to Georgia.  Balsam fir (Abies balsamea) is not naturally found (that is, it is not indigenous) to south of Virginia.
-          Plants native to one area of Georgia are not necessarily native to the area in which you live.  Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) is indigenous to the Coastal Plain of Georgia.  When relocated to the Piedmont (the area in which Atlanta resides), it can actually thrive too well and become an aggressive pest in natural areas.

Native range in Georgia of Magnolia grandiflora

Now, I’ll leave it up to you to decide how regionally native you want your plants to be, but you should give it some consideration.  Researching your choices is the best thing you can do – for both of you!  That still leaves you the question of determining what native plants are indigenous to your area of the country, your state and even your county.  For the sake of brevity (and the very name of this blog!), I’ll just consider how to determine when plants are native to Georgia.

First consider the physiographic regions of Georgia: the Coastal Plain, the Piedmont, the Blue Ridge, and the Valley and Ridge (note: the area shown as Valley and Ridge includes a small portion of another region called the Appalachian Plateau in Dade county).  Each region has a variety of plants, many of which do overlap between regions, as well as differences in soil type, elevation, moisture and land forms.

Once you understand what region in which you reside, your search can begin. Your native plant society can be an excellent source of information.  The Georgia Native Plant Society has partial plant lists for the Piedmont and the maritime section of the Coastal Plain.These lists provide just a portion of the plants naturally found in these areas, but in general they are the most common or available plants in the landscape trade.  Another source of information is the USDA PLANTS database found on the web.

The USDA database has been populated based on information reported and entered on a county by county basis by knowledgeable people.  While it is not 100% accurate (and some counties have downright skimpy information!), it is a good place to start.  When searching the county records, you might also consider looking at the information for counties adjacent to yours.

Here is how you find county level plant details in the USDA PLANTS database:

-          Select the “Advanced Search” selection on the left hand side under the general search box.  This will bring you to a page of options.
-          Only select the boxes that matter.  In the third box under Distribution, scroll down to the Georgia section and select your county.  You can only pick one at a time.  You can click “display” if you want the output to display the county name.
-          From here, make selections that are meaningful to you – I like to select the following in the Taxonomy section: under Scientific name, choose “Accepted names only”; for the box “rank”, choose “Only species epithet” and unclick all display boxes except genus and species; then also check display for “national common name”
-          If you only want to see native plants, in the Ecology section, choose “L48 Native” under “native status”.  If you want a particular type of plant (like “shrub”), make a choice in “growth habit” in the same section.
-          Scroll all the way to the bottom of the page and click the button “Display results”

Here is an example showing the output from choosing all native tree plants in Fulton County, Georgia and choosing to display the common name.  This would give you a good idea of what trees naturally occur in your area. Copy and paste your list into a document to save.  Again, you may also want to search counties around you.  Use your back button to go back and modify your search and then run it again.  Play around with it until you get the output that works for you.

I hope this helps you figure out what native plants are candidates for your area. Once you have some lists of plants, either from the above search or from plant lists already put together, you can research the sun/shade, moisture, and size conditions for where you want to plant.  However you get there will help you find the right plants for the right place so that everyone is as happy as this clump of trillium that the deer have not yet found in my yard:

Trillium cuneatum with Pieris phillyreifolia


  1. Your Trillium is lovely, good luck protecting it!

    The USDA PLANTS lists have been very helpful to me too, especially for hints to which plants that might thrive in my difficult conditions.

    Although maybe not as thorough, Pollinator Partnership can also give you a helpful list of native plants based on your zip code, and they have a smart phone App.

  2. A PARTICULARLY good one this time, and applicable to those in other areas. I am SO proud of you!

  3. It is tricky and it does come down to what resources you use and how you define your native area...I too use the maps and a few websites that are for my state..I just read about the Pollinator Partnership app and will be looking into it...thx

  4. Great post! I have never used the actual search function at USDA Plants... will rectify that immediately!

  5. El, Is the Trillium a plant that was purchased, rescued, on the property before you arrived or...didja jes dig it up in the woods and take it home;) Just curious because I have never seen it for sale.

  6. Jeff, the Trillium in the picture is a group that I found on the edge of my property but I did relocate them closer to the house because the deer tend to eat them and then eventually they would diminish and go away. But the native plant society does occasionally rescue trilliums from construction areas and sell them at our April plant sale. They take 7 years from seed to reach that size so not many nurseries propagate them.

  7. 7 YEARS!! Now I know why we never see them for sale. We will, however, be on the lookout at our local plant society sale. (I also see you responded to my question at 4:16 AM...are you a Vampire? Get some sleep!)

  8. Way to go. It's not easy finding plants native to your region. I'm lucky to have two native plant nurseries about 15 minutes from my house that offer plants native to the county I live in.

  9. We garden in two different worlds in the same state.

    Back when I was still identifying what plants grow on my property, it was my understanding that the Georgia NPS had given this part of the state (between the Chattahoochee and the Flint just north of Lake Seminole) to Florida NPS.

  10. Well, plants recognize no state boundaries and southwest Georgia is probably a lot like the area just across the state line - and FNPS was/is more active there. I hope that a Georgia chapter will form one day in that area. One is finally forming in the southeastern area now (Brunswick).

  11. This was such a helpful post. I've used the USDA plants database before, but mostly to look up specific plants (to see, for example, whether they are native or are invasive in my area), but I've always been intimidated by the search functions. Thanks for walking me through it. -Jean

  12. I was wondering if you were available to do a workshop for my church. We are in the process of developing our backyard as a Certified Wildlife Garden and Habitat. We are focusing on using native plants that attract butterflies/moths, birds, and bees. We'd like to educate our congregation on native plants and also have someone suggest possible plants for our garden. You can contact me at