You can find native plants for sale in regular stores if you know how to recognize them. All you really need is a scientific name and a smartphone to identify them. I have often said both of those statements. This week I decided to see if they are still valid statements. I visited 4 places in my area to get a sense of what stock is out there: a large nursery that specializes in shrubs and trees (Buck Jones Nursery); a large all-purpose nursery (Pike); Home Depot; and Lowe’s.
The best of the 4 places was Buck Jones. I found a good selection of native shrubs and trees. It is consistently one of the only places that I have found mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) in the spring, plus sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus), Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica), summersweet (Clethra alnifolia), oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), Florida hobblebush (Agarista populifolia), blueberry (Vaccinium), Rhododendron and native azaleas, and even buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis). They also have a small selection of perennials (lots of Phlox this time of year), but the native ferns selection is poor (one species only but none of the other places had even one). Many of these are cultivars associated with a dwarf form for smaller landscapes. The following photos are from Buck Jones.
Pike Nursery has native plants to be found, like Buck Jones, tucked among the much bigger selection of non-native plants. They have a better selection of native perennials than Buck Jones (plus two native grasses and even one native annual, Salvia coccinea), but they are all cultivars and many are hybrids. I could not find native Juniper virginiana here (or anywhere), but they had weeping forms of white pine (Pinus strobus) and Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis). A real surprise was finding something as unusual as Magnolia acuminata 'Yellow Bird' in bloom there.
I was disappointed that when I said I was looking for native plants, the Pike employee showed me a Vitex agnus-castus. I said that is not native, and he replied that “Plants that have been here a while are considered native.” I immediately replied that is absolutely not true! To his credit, he asked what is considered to be the proper definition of nativity after I said that. The following photos are from Pike.
I was especially disappointed with Home Depot and Lowe’s. Their tree and shrub selection has almost exclusively gone to non-native selections, perhaps because they are buying from a list that features few natives. I feel like they have changed for the worse over the last 10 years. At both places, much of their inventory is the ‘Southern Living’ collection, an ill-named suite of plants that has nothing to do with Southern ecosystems. Where they once carried the evergreen Ilex vomitoria ‘Nana’ for foundation plantings, now Home Depot only has Japanese holly (Ilex crenata); Lowe’s did have a few Ilex vomitoria among the sea of I. crenata. The following photos are from Home Depot.
The following photos are from Lowes.
At best, these big box stores offer a seasonal selection of perennials that include a few native species: Phlox, black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia), Coreopsis, as well as shrubs like blueberries (Vaccinium), and evergreen Rhododendron and native trees like red maple (Acer rubrum), flowering dogwood (Benthamidia florida, formerly Cornus florida), and redbud (Cercis canadensis is the native redbud). Vines may include Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) and native wisteria (Wisteria frutescens ‘Amethyst Falls’). Many of their plants are cultivars or hybrids.
A word about recognizing hybrids (examples below): If the name on the tag has an ‘x’ in the middle then it’s a hybrid (Rhododendron x aromi ‘Tipsey Tangerine’ – note it is wrong to call this a native azalea as its genes include more than just native ones). If the name on the tag lists only the genus name (Paparazzi Jagger Phlox), it is most likely a hybrid. If the name of the tag includes both genus and species (Cephalanthus occidentalis 'Bailoptics') then it is a selection of a species (in this case, for dwarf form).
The downsides of shopping in big box stores include: seasonal inventory (once spring stock is gone at Home Depot and Lowe’s, they move onto summer color); the potential that plants are raised with pesticides (Home Depot is good about labeling for that); poor signage (‘native’ is usually not indicated or the name provided may be insufficient to do research); and employees are there for stocking not plant knowledge.
Please know that I absolutely recommend that you first shop at dedicated native plant nurseries. They offer a reliable and dedicated selection of native plants year-round, many grown without pesticides, and are run by families who are dedicated to the cause of native ecosystems.
If those nurseries are not available to you, these other stores may be your only option. I would encourage you to get to know the staff, ask them to order specific plants that you want, and get the selection improved by demand for more native choices. Education is key and some people just don’t know; tell them why having native plants in their selection matters. These places do stock invasive plants: English ivy, privet, nandina, mahonia, butterfly bush. Ask them to consider reducing their stock of known problem plants and adding native plants (and signage) instead. Change won’t happen without our input.