Native Plants for Sun

     Planting native plants is one of the easiest ways to help save the bees and combat habitat loss! While we have already gone over the importance of native plants in the article titled "Why Native Plants?" and have lists of native trees, shrubs, perennials, and grasses and sedges to add to your garden, it can be tough to decide which plants to add where. Each of the previously listed articles has the conditions in which each plant survives listed alongside it, however in the interest of convenience and the opportunity to present even more native plants, the decision has been made to list plants by condition, as well. The plants on the following list have not been mentioned in the previous articles. Perhaps you will find the perfect plant to fill that empty space in your landscape or replace that non native or invasive shrub...

     The following plants are concentrated in the Pittsburgh area, though some have very extensive native ranges. It is always best to double check the native range of a plant before you invest in it, just to find out after you plant it that you are outside of its native range. If the specific species listed does not extend into your area, there is a high chance another closely related species will!


A hummingbird visiting a scarlet bee balm flower.

1. Scarlet Bee Balm Monarda didyma

Zones: 4-9

Size: 2-4' tall, 2-3' wide

Sun: 4-6+ hours

Wildlife: bees, humminbirds, butterflies, moths, specialized bees

     This showstopping plant is also known by the common names bergamot, oswego tea, and chrimson bee balm. The flowers are reminiscent of fireworks which begin blooming in late June and continue into late August or early September, just in time for the fourth of July. This plant is susceptible to powdery mildew, but this fungus is easily mitigated if planted in full sun and the plant is pruned to increase airflow throughout the plant. Monarda didyma is both deer and rabbit resistant, as well as tolerant of clay soils and that pesky juglone toxicity that makes it tough for certain plants to grow beneath or near walnut trees.

You will find scarlet bee balm growing naturally along waterways, in forest openings, and in prairies. The Audubon lists Monarda as a wonderful plant to add to hummingbird-friendly gardens, as hummingbirds of all kinds, but especially ruby-throated hummingbirds will be a frequent visitor of these flowers! Monarda didyma also is the a larval host plant of several species of moths. Three specialized bee species utilize the flowers as a main food source.



a close up of red oak leaves and their fall color

2. Red Oak Quercus rubra

Zones: 3-7

Size: 50-75' tall and wide

Sun: 4-6+ hours

Wildlife: caterpillars, birds, mammals, other insects

     Red oak trees are a stately medium sized tree that can get to be 75 feet tall and wide. They have the ability to grow two feet per year in their first decade of life, though that growth rate tends to decrease as they age and reach maturity towards the end of their 300 year lifespan. Red oaks are named such for their fiery fall color that will fade to a reddish brown just before the leaves fall from the tree in autumn. This low maintenance tree will need the usual once a year clean up that comes with deciduous trees. Fallen leaves can be added to compost or raked into garden beds as a form of free mulch. Raking leaves into garden beds or doing what you can to leave the leaves will help to provide much needed space for our pollinators to overwinter!

     Oak trees as a group are keystone species, or species that have a disproportionate beneficial affect on the ecosystem. Without keystone species, the ecosystem would look very different. Oak trees support over 530 species of caterpillars, as well as other insects such as gall wasps, beetles, and acorn weevils. The acorns dropped by the tree also feed animals such as deer, ducks, ruffed grouse, bears, turkeys, woodpeckers, other small mammals and birds. Nooks in mature trees provide housing for small animals such as bats, woodpeckers, squirrels and more. There is no denying how important oak trees are in our ecosystems!


Close up of pussy willow flowers

3. Pussy Willow Salix discolor

Zones: 4-8

Size: 6-20' tall, 5-12' wide

Sun: 4-6+ hours

Wildlife: butterflies, specialized bees, birds, mammals, turtles

     The pussy willow (Salix discolor) prefers moist soils and do well in rain gardens, areas in the landscape that tend to stay wet after rain, or along bodies of water, as most willows do. This species in particular tolerates average to dry soil better than most other species of willow. Typically, this multi-stemmed shrub will be found anywhere from six to fifteen feet tall, however it is possible, though less frequent, for these shrubs to reach 25 feet tall. Deer will often help to keep this shrub a more manageable size, though it may still need additional pruning, occasionally. Male and female flowers occur on separate plants. Male flowers have the large, fuzzy catkins, pictured above. Female flowers are smaller, more greenish. If fertilized by male flowers, the female flowers will be replaced by interesting teardrop-shaped fruits, giving each sex their own fascinating visual interest. Salix discolor also tolerates the juglone produced by black walnut trees. 

     Some birds, but especially hummingbirds will use the fuzzy catkins to line their nests. Due to their early spring blooms, this is a vital source of food for pollinators. After the flowers begin to release their nectar, the insects will begin their feast after a long winter or migration. At least 11 species of specialized bees will join the feast, as well as a variety of other pollinators. This will, in turn, draw songbirds to your landscape, as they need to feed, as well! Winter can be hard on wildlife and the pollinators will provide some valuable protein. Several species of butterflies will use pussy willows as a larval host plant. Viceroy and mourning cloak butterfly caterpillars can be found munching on the lush foliage.

     The catkins are often used as decor inside the home. If stems are desired for this purpose, be sure to cut them before the pollen shows and place them in an empty vase. This will allow them to dry and be used for year-round decor or to be brought out year after year without severe impact to the wildlife who rely on this plant.



4. Fringed Sedge Carex crinita

Zones: 3-8

Size: 1-3' tall, 1-2' wide

Sun: 4-6+ hours

Wildlife: pollinators, grasshoppers

     Fringed sedge is an evergreen sedge that does best in moist to wet soils. It is a wonderful addition to rain gardens or along waterways. Carex crinita grows in dense tussocks that spread via short rhizomes. The seed heads droop elegantly as they mature in summer to fall. You will find this plant growing naturally in a variety of wetlands ranging from wet meadows and prairies to bogs and swamps. This is an excellent choice for areas at high risk of erosion, as the roots of Carex crinita will assist in soil stabilization. Fringed sedge is best utilized in the landscape as a mass planting, especially if soil stabilization is one of the goals. Fringed sedge is rabbit and deer tolerant.

     A large variety of caterpillars will utilize fringed sedge as a host plant, including eyed brown butterflies and skippers. Grasshoppers will also feed on this plant. Grasses, sedges, and rushes provide habitat and shelter for a wide variety of insects, including lightning bugs and solitary bees, should they be caught outside the nest during a rainstorm or hunkering down for the cold winter.



5. New York Ironweed Veronia noveboracensis

Zones: 5-9

Size: 4-7' tall, 3-4' wide

Sun: 6+ hours

Wildlife: Pollinators, songbirds, specialized bees

     There are several species of Veronia, all of which have characteristic purple blooms easily spotted among the mix of other fall blooming plants. They are often found in meadows, fields, along river beds, and recently disturbed areas and tolerate a wide range of soils. Growing most often to a height of 5 feet tall, after the purple flowers are spent and seed production is finished, the seeds are carried away by the wind in a similar manner to the dandelion, if they are not eaten by birds first!

     As a fall bloomer, this is a vital species that helps pollinators prepare for winter. Butterflies and bees and several other pollinators will frequent the flowers, including one species of specialized bee, Melissodes denticulatus.


Looking up the shagbark hickory from the base

6. Shagbark Hickory Carya ovata

Zones: 4-8

Size: 70-90' tall, 50-70' wide

Sun: 4-6+ hours

Wildlife: caterpillars, including Luna moth larvae, small and large mammals, birds

     Shagbark hickory not only sports edible nuts and bark that is frequently brewed into tea, but is also a thing of majesty. This is a large, deciduous tree that turns a beautiful golden yellow in the fall before the leaves drop. Mature trees will have trunks 2-3 feet in diameter with interesting, shaggy bark that will catch snow for some unique winter interest. This tree is one of the hardiest hickory species and doesn't have any serious disease or insect pests. This slow-growing tree species is will easily live to 300 years of age, but often will not begin producing nuts until the tree has reached 40, which plenty of wildlife rely on and enjoy.

     Hickory nuts make up 5-10% of the diet of the eastern chipmunk, though the nuts are enjoyed by a wide variety of mammals ranging from the large black bear to the medium fox, all the way down to the small white footed mouse. A single tree can support 100 different species of insects, and some smaller animals will take cover in the small nooks the bark creates, like the Indiana bat.


7. Hearts A-Bustin' Euonymus americanus

Zones: 6-9

Size: 4-6' tall and wide

Sun: 2-6+ hours

Wildlife: Deer, songbirds, turkey, small mammals

     Many of us are familiar with a different species of Euonymus, Euonymus alatus, winged euonymus, or burning bush. Unfortunately, this species, while common in the home and business landscape, is invasive in much of the USA. Fortunately, there are some native species of Euonymus that we can substitute them with! Hearts A-Bustin', or Euonymus americanus is one. Also known as strawberry bush, this is a medium, multi-stemmed, suckering shrub that has just as beautiful of a fall color as the burning bush we are familiar with, but has something else up its sleeve as far as beauty goes. The fruits of this plant are fascinating, they have bright red, spiny husks that open and barely hold onto the orange seeds that are often enjoyed by wildlife. This shrub can be found in the wild on wooded hillsides, moist forest understories, and along streambanks from Florida, north to Pennsylvania and New York, west to Illinois, Oklahoma, and Eastern Texas.

     The foliage and twigs are browsed by deer. An abundance of wildlife will dine on the showy seeds, including turkey, small mammals, and songbirds. Pollinators will visit the flowers. The shrub also provides cover for birds, and nesting sites for birds.



8. Purple Love Grass Eragrostis spectabilis

Zones: 5-9

Size: 1-2' tall and wide

Sun: 4-6+ hours

Wildlife: birds, small mammals, caterpillars

     Purple love grass is an iconic grass found in sandy soils in most of the USA. It is a warm season bunchgrass characterized by its airy purple florets that almost look like a cloud. This grass can be found in dry locations, even with poor soils and roadsides where they can experience the winter salts. It tolerates even the poorest of dry sites. It can tolerate black walnut, though still does best with at least four hours of sun. The deep root system can help prevent erosion of dry slopes.

     Purple lovegrass provides nesting cover for ground-nesting birds and cover for other small mammals. Butterflies and moths are attracted to this species, and caterpillars and leaf hoppers will use it as a host plant. Herbivorous wildlife may graze the foliage in spring and summer. Deer have been seen digging up a portion of the stem in winter.


9. Midland Shooting Star Dodecatheon meadia

Zones: 4-8

Size: 1-2' tall, 8-12" wide

Sun: 4-6 hours

Wildlife: bees and other pollinators

     This species of shooting star is native to the eastern half of the USA. This is a spring ephemeral, meaning they complete their full life cycle in the spring. The flowers will bloom in early spring, in April and May, but the plant is totally dormant once more come summer. They can be found naturally in open woods and glades, rocky wooded slopes, and meadows and prairies. While shooting stars can tolerate full sun in cooler areas, they do best in part sun. This is a great substitution for lily of the valley.

     Because shooting stars bloom so early in the season, they provide nectar and pollen to the bees and other pollinators just waking up from their winter slumber. This is an incredible important time for pollinators to have food!



A native bee feeding on a sneezeweed flower

10. Sneezeweed Helenium autumnale

Zones: 3-8

Size: 3-5' tall, 2-3' wide

Sun: 4-6+ hours

Wildlife: caterpillars, bees, butterflies, and other pollinators

     Though Helenium autumnale commonly goes by Sneezeweed, there is no reason to fear this plant aggravating your fall allergies! It came by this name because the dried leaves were used as a snuff to induce sneezing to treat colds. The pollen is too heavy to be carried by the wind and must be transported by insects from flower to flower. This species is native all across the US and can be found in wetter areas, such as along streams and ponds, or in swamps and other wetlands, though it can also occur outside of wetlands. This is an easily grown plant that can thrive in medium to wet soils. Prolific, daisy like flowers appear from late summer to fall all over this plant.

      The flowers are a hot spot for pollinators of all kinds that are gearing down for winter. The plant itself almost seems to buzz with all of the bees and other pollinators! Fall is an important time for pollinators, as they are doing everything they need to in order to prepare for either a long migration or a long winter. Butterflies and moths will lay their eggs on the foliage for a caterpillar host plant. dainty sulphur butterflies and rigid sunflower borer moths are two examples.


     It can be hard choosing which plant to go where in the landscape. There are so many factors that go into what can make a plant thrive, do okay, or just barely hang in there. Sometimes, breaking things down into the basic light requirements can be a huge help. While it may seem like adding a few native plants to your landscape isn't doing much to help the ecosystem, if everyone in your neighborhood added a few, there would be a lot more resources for our pollinators and other wildlife. The more native plants in your landscape, the more you are helping the planet to recover and the more you are helping to restore the ecosystem. Together, we can make a change!