Prime Plants for Nature: Backyards for Nature 2016 Native Plant Awards

By Edie Parnum

Every year we feature two superior native plant species.  One of the Prime Plants for Nature is a Tree or Shrub and the other is a Perennial.  Prime Plants are selected based on these criteria:

  1. Be native to southeastern Pennsylvania.
  2. Offer high wildlife value and contribute significantly to your property’s web of life.
  3. Provide food for wildlife.  Nutritious fruits, seeds, nuts, nectar, or pollen are produced by the plant.  Most host insects that are eaten by birds or other animals.
  4. Offer shelter and places to raise young.
  5. Be easy to grow and make an attractive addition to your landscape.
  6. Sold at native plant nurseries and native plant sales.  (See list at end of article.)

Our selections for the 2016 Prime Plants for Nature awards are:

Black Cherry, Prunus serotina                                                                         

Wildlife Value: This medium-sized deciduous tree delivers exceptional wildlife value.

When the young caterpoillars emerge, the eat the cherr leaves.  © Barb Eliot.  Click to enlarge.

When the young caterpoillars emerge, the eat the cherr leaves. © Barb Eliot. Click to enlarge.

Red-spotted Purple butterflies lay their eggs on the tips of Black Cherry leaves.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Red-spotted Purple butterflies lay their eggs on the tips of Black Cherry leaves. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

According to Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, it hosts 456 species of moths and butterfly caterpillars.  The foliage-eating caterpillars include Red-spotted Purple butterflies and moths such as Luna, Polyphemus, and Cecropia.  The tree is not defoliated because many migrating and breeding birds including warblers, vireos, and thrushes feed on these caterpillars.  Yellow-billed Cuckoos will eat Eastern Tent Caterpillars.

Luna Moth is another of the 456 lepidoptera species caterpillars that eat Back Cherry.  Photo © Adrian Binns.  Click to enlarge.

Luna Moth is another of the 456 lepidoptera species caterpillars that eat Back Cherry. Photo © Adrian Binns. Click to enlarge.

In late summer Black Cherry produces a copious crop of berries that are enjoyed by 33 species of birds including American Robin, Gray Catbird, Northern Mockingbird, Baltimore Oriole, Cedar Waxwing, and various woodpeckers.  Native bees and flies pollinate the flowers.

Many birds eat these Black Cherry fruits in late summer. Click to enlarge.

Many birds eat these Black Cherry fruits in late summer. Click to enlarge.

Growing Conditions: Adaptable to a variety of situations, sun or part sun, dry to moist soil.  Seedlings can be transplanted.

Appearance: Medium to large fast-growing deciduous tree with dark, peeling bark.  White flowers bloom in May on drooping stalks called racemes.  The reddish-black fruits ripen in late summer.

Cardinal Flower, Lobelia cardinalis 

Wildlife Value: If you want to entice hummingbirds to your yard, this is a must-have perennial.  Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are attracted to the Cardinal Flower’s brilliant red flowers and are its primary pollinators. The nectar is very sweet, twice as sweet as a soda.  A hummingbird’s bill is long enough to reach the nectar deep inside the tubular

The Ruby-throated Himmingbird is the primary pollinator for Cardinal Flower.  It's long bill and tongue can reach the nectar deep inside the blossom.   It's head feathers pick up pollen from the anther.  Photo © Barb Elliot.   Click to enlarge.

The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is the primary pollinator for Cardinal Flower. It’s long bill and tongue can reach the nectar deep inside the blossom. It’s head feathers pick up pollen from the anther. Photo © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

flower.  The feathers on the head pick up the pollen and carry it from one plant to another. Cardinal Flowers bloom for six weeks in the late summer during the hummingbirds’ southbound migration. Bees rarely visit these flowers because their proboscis is too short to access the nectar.

The Spicebush Swallowtail's long proboscis can reach the nectar, but the pollen remains untouched. photo.  Click to enlarge.

The Spicebush Swallowtail’s long proboscis can reach the nectar, but the pollen remains untouched. photo. Click to enlarge.

Large swallowtail butterflies can reach the nectar with their long proboscis but are unable to pick up and transfer the pollen.

Growing Conditions:  Cardinal Flower is a trouble-free perennial that enjoys moist soil.   It will grow in average soil in a shady location. Not a true perennial, the plant and roots die after the growing season. However, the next spring it produces off-sets that will flower or can be transplanted to new locations.  The parent plant also produces seedlings that can be transplanted.  In the late fall, lay the flower stalk on the ground where you want seedlings to sprout in the spring. Appearance:  The striking red flowers are arranged along 8” spikes called racemes.   The plant grows 2 ½ -3 feet high.  The flowers are attractive additions to flower arrangements.


Complete List of Backyards for Nature’s Prime Plants for Nature


Betula nigra, River Birch

Juniperus virginiana, Eastern Red Cedar

Prunus serotina, Black Cherry

Quercus alba, White Oak


Asclepias incarnata, Swamp Milkweed

Lobelia cardinalis, Cardinal Flower

Monarda fistulosa, Wild Bergamot

Pycnanthemum muticum, Short-toothed Mountainmint

For information about each plant, see Previous Posts


Sources of Native Plants

Collins Nursery, 773 Roslyn Avenue, Glenside, PA 19038.  Native trees, shrubs, and some perennials.  Spring and fall open houses.  Otherwise appointment necessary.  215-715-3439 or

David Brothers Native Plant Nursery, Whitehall Road, Norristown, PA 19403.  Native trees, shrubs, and perennials.  610-584-1550 or

Edge of the Woods Nursery, 2415 Route 100, Orefield, PA 18069.  Native trees, shrubs, and perennials. 610-393-2570 or

Gateway Garden Center, 7277 Lancaster Pike, Hockessin DE19707. Native trees, shrubs, and perennials.  302-239-2727 or

Jenkins Arboretum, 631 Berwyn Baptist Road, Devon, PA 19333.  610647-8870 or Outdoor plant shop open daily 9-4 late April through mid-October.

Redbud Native Plant Nursery, 643 West Baltimore Ave., Media, PA.  Native trees, shrubs, and perennials. 610-892-2833 or

Russell Gardens Wholesale, 600 New Road, Southampton, PA 18966. Wholesale perennials, many native, sold to public. Pre-order for convenient pick-up. 215-322-4799 or

Sugarbush Nursery, 4272 Morgantown Road, Mohnton, PA 19540. Native trees, shrubs, and perennials.  610-856-0998 or

Yellow Springs Farm, 1165 Yellow Springs Road, Chester Springs, PA 19425.  Native trees, shrubs, and perennials. Landscape design and consultation services available.  Spring and fall open houses. On-line and phone orders available.  Otherwise call for appointment.  610-827-2014 or

Native Plant Sales

Bartram’s Garden, 5400 Lindbergh Boulevard, Philadelphia, PA 19143. 215-729-5281 or Spring and fall sales.

Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, 1635 River Rd. New Hope, PA 18938.  215-862-2924 or Spring and fall plant sales.

Brandywine Conservancy, Routes 1 and 100, P.O. Box 141, Chadds Ford, PA 19317. 610-388-2700 or  Mother’s Day weekend.  Seeds also available.

Delaware Nature Society, Cloverdale Farm Preserve, 543 Way Road, Greenville, DE 19807.  302-239-2334 or  First weekend in May.

Pennypack Ecological Restoration Trust, 2955 Edge Hill Road, Huntington Valley, PA 19006. 215-657-0830 or Spring and fall plant sales.

Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, 8480 Hagys Mill Rd., Philadelphia 19128. 215-482-7300 or  Spring and fall plant sales.

New Books on Gardening for Nature

Reviews by Edie Parnum

Want to become a better steward of nature on your land? These two books will inspire and guide you.  Doug Tallamy’s popular book, Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, taught us to love native plants for the leaf-eating insects they host.  Tallamy has now teamed up with landscape architect Rick Darke on a new book that helps us create aesthetically pleasing landscapes for our native creatures.  Heather Holm’s book teaches us to garden for insect pollinators and appreciate the ecosystem roles they play.  We can help the environment by what we plant in our yards.  These books tell us how.

The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Diversity in the Home Garden by Rick Darke and Doug TallamyLiving Landscape Book Cover

  1. This book is beautiful—so beautiful you can display it on your coffee table.   The photographs show landscapes, combinations of native plants, and the creatures who live there.  These images inspire us to create esthetically pleasing wildlife habitats that are alive with biodiversity.
  2. The pictures and text explain how to design for beauty using native plants.  Instead of planting them haphazardly, we learn to position and combine natives to create an alluring garden.
  3. The authors teach us to imitate natural habitats by planting in layers:  ground, herbaceous, shrub, understory, and canopy.
  4. Instead of photos of individual plants, the book illustrates native plants as part of the landscape and showcases the birds, butterflies, and other creatures living there.

    Edie's meadow landscape, September, 2014.  © Edie Parnum.

    Edie’s meadow landscape, September, 2014.         © Edie Parnum.

  5. A practical book, low maintenance gardening is emphasized.  It recommends pleasing combinations of plants that don’t out-compete each other or require excessive weeding. We learn to anticipate changes in our landscapes over time, especially when planting trees and shrubs.
  6. The plant lists, organized by geographical area, are superbly designed to help us make plant selections.  Symbols concisely indicate the ecological functions for each plant, e.g., nest sites, pollen, nectar, seasonal foods for birds, and food for caterpillars.  Other symbols represent landscape functions such as seasonal flowering, fall foliage, fragrance, or groundcover.
  7. The plant lists also specify the ecological benefits to humans.  Not normally emphasized, these paybacks include carbon sequestration, shading and cooling, watershed protection, moderation of extreme weather, and air filtration.

Pollinators of Native Plants: Attract, Preserve and Identify Pollinators and Beneficial Insects with Native Plants by Heather HolmPollinator Book Cover

  1. Like flowers?  You surely love pollinators, too!  You can’t have one without the other.  Plus, flowers and their pollinators create seeds, fruits, and nuts—actually a third of the food we eat.  Of course, animals of all kinds require these food products, too.
  2. Butterflies, the most charismatic of the insects attracted to flowers, already have fans.  Now, with this book, we also learn to value pollinating bees, wasps, moths, flies, and beetles—really!
  3. The bulk of the book describes the best pollinator-attracting plants and the interactions between their flowers and the pollinating insects.

    Gray Hairstreak, a pollinator of Short-toothedd Mountain Mint, a Backyards for Nature Prime Plant.  © Edie Parnum

    Gray Hairstreak, a pollinator of Short-toothed Mountain Mint, a Backyards for Nature Prime Plant. © Edie Parnum

  4. Insect pollinators are fascinating.  We can easily observe and identify them by watching the book’s featured flowers and examining their insect visitors. The excellent photographs in the book help us identify these bees, flies, and other insects.  Then we can observe each insect’s strategy as it probes for nectar and/or collects pollen.  We may see insect interactions like predation, copulation, and parasitization, too.

    Bumble Bee pollinating Obedient Plant.  © Edie Parnum

    Bumble Bee pollinating Obedient Plant. © Edie Parnum

  5.  Using this book we home gardeners can select pollinator-attracting plants for the various growing conditions on our properties.
  6. By planting Holm’s recommended pollinator plants and observing pollination in action, we will revel in the flourishing ecosystem we’ve created.

I highly recommend both of these books.  They will help you beautify your garden and increase its ecological value for all the creatures who inhabit it.

Fall: Time for Planting Trees and Shrubs

By Edie Parnum

I thrust my spade into a patch of my lawn.  It’s fall, and I’m planting a 4-foot Chestnut Oak.  As I dig, I imagine this young tree next spring with its new green leaves.  Even as a young sapling, it will host insects and birds.  Looking into the future, I imagine this stately native tree a century from now.  It has given life to thousands of birds and other animals.

Edie planting a Chestnut Oak (Quercus prinus) sapling. Photo © Barb Elliot

My neighbors, I’ve noticed, aren’t thinking about spring.  They are clearing their yards of leaves and the dead vegetation from last year’s ornamental plants.  They are putting this unwanted garden debris out on the curb along with the cocoons and eggs of next year’s insects. They are getting ready for winter. Fall is the best time for planting trees and shrubs, any time before the ground freezes. During the autumn rains, the new plants aren’t asleep. They’re putting energy into their roots for a spurt of growth next spring.This fall, as usual, I will plant several trees and shrubs.  When I bought this ¾-acre property five years ago, it was mostly grass with just a few trees, mostly non-natives.  Since then I’ve planted 39 native trees and 45 native shrubs. It’s still not enough.

I keep planting native woody plants because they support wildlife.  Certainly non-native woodies offer fruits birds will eat—witness the bird-spread proliferation of invasives like Multiflora Rose, Burning Bush, and Japanese Barberry.  Natives, however, offer fruits of optimum size and superior nutrition. The fruits of the dogwoods, blueberries, winterberries, viburnums, spicebush, and sassafras I’ve planted ripen just in time to nourish hungry migrating birds in fall. Now in late October most of the berries are gone—consumed by thrushes, catbirds, mockingbirds, waxwings, and warblers.

The main reason I plant native woodies, however, is for the caterpillars and other insects these plants support.  I’m inspired by Doug Tallamy, Professor and Chair of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware.  His research shows

The caterpillar of the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly uses Spicebush or Sassafras as its host plant. USFWS Photo by Ryan Hagerty.

that native plants host 29 times more of the native insects essential for our birds. After all, 96% of terrestrial birds feed their young exclusively insect food.

This year to augment what I’m already growing, I’ll plant ten small trees and shrubs.  I’m planting the Chestnut Oak, Quercus prinus (according to Tallamy, oaks host 534 species of caterpillars); American Elm, Ulmus Americana (hosts 213); and Pawpaw, Asimina triloba (host plant for Zebra Swallowtail butterfly, a species I covet for my yard butterfly list).

Planting a tree or shrub is easy.  For my Chestnut Oak and the other trees and shrubs, I don’t need to dig a huge hole.  I make my hole only as deep as the soil in the plant container and twice as wide.  After putting the plant into the hole, I make sure the soil line of the plant is level with the ground. Then I use the soil that was removed from the hole to fill in around the plant.  Because my oak is a local native adapted to our soil, I am not tempted to add special topsoil, fertilizer, or any other enrichment.  That would stimulate fast but weak growth.   A hole filled with artificially enriched soil encourages the roots to stay confined rather than to reach into the ground below for nourishment.  Next, I push down on the loose dirt with my hands, but avoid stomping on it with my feet.   I spread a one-inch layer of my compost (last year’s leaves and garden debris) on top to provide some extra humus not available in the turf grass.  Then I give my oak a good watering.  That’s it for this tree.  I’m ready to plant more.

Three-year-old Black Gum (Nyssa sylvatica) with cage to prevent deer browse. Photo © Edie Parnum

Newly planted trees and shrubs may need extra water.  During any week without significant rain, I put a leaky watering can next to each plant and let the water drip slowly into the soil.  A 1-2” layer of mulch will help retain the moisture, but I never let the mulch touch the trunk.  Once established, these woody plants, situated appropriately for light and moisture, should thrive without any additional help from me.

The trees and shrubs I plant are usually small.  They are cheaper and suffer less transplant shock than a big tree or shrub.  These smaller saplings start to grow more quickly and in a few years usually out-compete larger nursery stock.  To save money, I also frequently transplant volunteer trees and shrubs in my yard to more appropriate locations.  Some of my shrubs—virburnums, for instance—send out shoots that I dig up and plant elsewhere.  I also accept gifts from my native plant gardening friends.  As I say, there’s always room for more.  Anyway, I’m not growing ornamental specimens.  The plants can touch each other and offer extra shelter, just as they do in the wild.

Nannyberry (Viburnum lentago) – flagged shoots are ready to transplant. Photo © Barb Elliot

My trees and shrubs are still small, but they already support birds and other wildlife.   Next spring I’ll see warblers and other hungry migrants eating caterpillars on the leaves of my native woody plants.  The remaining areas of grass are begging to be planted with additional native trees and shrubs.  Next fall I won’t resist planting more.


For Doug Tallamy’s list of woody plants supporting butterfly and moth caterpillars, click here.

 Trees and Shrubs on  Edie’s Property
Botanical Name Common Name Wildlife Value
Acer rubrum Red Maple L, F
Aesculus pavia Red Buckeye L, N
Amelanchier canadensis Serviceberry/ Juneberry L. F
Asimina triloba Pawpaw L, F
Betula lenta, B. nigra Sweet Birch, River Birch L, F
Celtis occidentalis Hackberry L, F
Cercis canadensis Eastern Redbud L, N
Cornus alternifolia, C.florida Pagoda Dogwood, Flowering Dogwood L, F
Ilex opaca American Holly L, F
Juniperus virginiana Eastern Red Cedar L, F
Liriodendron tulipifera Tulip Poplar L, N, F
Magnolia virginiana Sweetbay Magnolia L
Nyssa sylvatica Black Gum/ Tupelo L, F
Pinus strobus Eastern White Pine L, F
Prunus serotina Black Cherry L, F
Quercus   alba,Q. coccinea, Q. pinus, Q. rubra White Oak, Scarlet Oak, Chestnut Oak, Red Oak L, F
Sassafras albidum Sassafras L, F
Tsuga canadensis Eastern Hemlock L,F
Aronia melanocarpa. Black Chokeberry L, F
Clethra alnifolia Sweet Pepperbush N
Cornus racemosa, C. amonum Gray Dogwood, Silky Dogwood L, N, F
Hydrangea arborescens, H.   quercifolia Wild Hydrangea, Oakleaf   Hydrangea N
Ilex verticillata Winterberry Holly F
Myrica pensylvanica Bayberry L, F
Rosa virginiana Wild or Pasture Rose L, F
Sambucus canadensis American Elder L, F, N
Vaccinium corymbosum Highbush Blueberry L, F, N
Viburnum   dentatum, V. lentago,V. nudum, V. prunifolium Arrowwood Viburnum, Nannyberry,   Possumhaw,  Black Haw L, F
L   = Leaves support moth and butterfly caterpillars and other leaf-eating   insects that are eaten by birds
N   = Nectar for hummingbirds, butterflies, and other pollinators
F   = Food products such as berries, seeds, nuts, buds, and pollen for birds,   mammals, and pollinators

Places to buy native plants:


Create a Living Legacy: Plant an Oak

By Edie Parnum


Planting an oak is the single most important thing we can do to support wildlife.

As a birder who loves spring migration, I have long noticed that my beloved warblers and other colorful birds prefer the native oak trees.   On May mornings, just when their foliage is emerging, I scan the oaks.  That’s where I find American Redstarts, Blackburnian Warblers, Scarlet Tanagers and other favorites in their resplendent spring plumage.  Only recently have I learned why these birds are in the oaks.  I credit Doug Tallamy, Professor of Entomology at the University of Delaware and author of Bringing Nature Home.  Oaks, according to Tallamy, support 534 species of lepidoptera (butterfly and moth) caterpillars– more than any other native tree or plant. These caterpillars are not only the primary food source for migrating and breeding birds, but are essential food for baby birds. Other native plants support caterpillars, too, but non-native plants host very few at all.

Double-lined Prominent caterpillars can be found on oaks. Photo by Jon Rapp

I’ve always known that acorns are important food for turkeys, woodpeckers, jays, nuthatches, squirrels, chipmunks and other animals.  However, birds and other animals are even more dependent on the insects that munch on the oak leaves.  According to Tallamy, in addition to myriad lepidoptera species, oaks host aphids, leafhoppers, thrips, and other bugs–all target foods for animals throughout each growing season.

Professional landscapers may try to dissuade you from planting an oak.  They’ll tell you it grows too big for the average-sized yard, though most yards are big enough to support a full-sized mature oak. 

Eastern Bluebird with caterpillar to feed its young. Photo by Jake Dingel, PA Game Commission.

Perhaps, without any sense of irony, they will say that an oak will grow too slowly.  Certainly most oaks will be small for many years, but even young trees will support lots of insects.

While there are many local, native oaks to choose from, the handsome White Oak (Quercus alba) is my personal favorite.  From my childhood days in Salem County, NJ, I have fond memories of a nearby magnificent, ancient White Oak.  John Fenwick, an early settler, signed a treaty with the Lenape Indians in 1676 under this tree, now approximately 425 years old.  This species grows slowly (about a foot per year), but can live for centuries.

White Oak, Quercus alba, Edie's favorite oak

Other recommended oak species include Scarlet Oak (Q. coccinea),  Chestnut Oak (Q. montana),  RedOak (Q. rubra), and Black Oak (Q. velutina). These oaks are available at native plant nurseries and native plants sales. Since oaks have long tap roots, choose a small specimen (4’ or less) or grow your own from an acorn.  Because they are adapted to our soils and climate, no fertilizer or other amendments are needed.  However, regular watering during the first year helps the root system get established.

An oak is your personal legacy.  Your oak can live for centuries. It will host an inestimable number of birds, insects, and other wildlife during your own lifetime and for generations to come.