Gardening Goes Native

Nancy Marie Brown
January 01, 2000
butterfly on pink flowers
Claire Spampinato

Native plants "provide beauty within a framework of responsible and sustainable gardening practices," says Claire Spampinato. For Pennsylvania gardens, she recommends 68 native plants, including the New England aster above.

Poison ivy was one of the native plants of Pennsylvania that John Bartram suggested Europeans should plant in their gardens in 1783.

Not surprisingly, when Claire Spampinato compiled a list of Pennsylvania Native Plants for the Garden in 1998, poison ivy was one she left out.

She did include, however, maidenhair fern, rue anemone, jack-in-the-pulpit, and dutch-man's breeches (for woodland gardens); nodding onion, columbine, sneezeweed, and thrift (for more open sites); cardinal flower, turtlehead, joepye weed, and Quaker ladies (for wetlands); and wild ginger, doll's eyes, partridgeberry, and foamflower (for pine woods).

Altogether, she recommends 68 "garden-worthy" plants, ones that are both attractive and easy to grow. For each, she lists its scientific name, common name, and family; information on where and how to grow it (hardiness, soil, sun, and pests); its color and shape and when it blooms; descriptions of its cultivars and related species and how they're propagated; and a drawing or photograph. "The plants had to be available in the trade," says Spampinato, who completed the project as part of her master's degree in horticulture at Penn State. "If I wasn't familiar with the plant, I called around to nurseries to check. I wanted to avoid plants that were difficult to propagate—I didn't want to risk people going out and digging them up from the woods."

In fact, one of her reasons for promoting native plants as garden flowers is to help mitigate the loss of habitat these species suffer as woods and meadows are turned into shopping malls and interstates.

"The plants and animals of our region evolved together and depend on one another for survival," Spampinato notes. "Native plants attract and feed native birds and butterflies, as well as other beneficial insects. They provide habitat for birds and other small animals, which are the predators of many garden pests as well as the food source for majestic predators like hawks and eagles." In addition, she says, "They contribute to regional identity, and help separate a place from other regions around the country and the world."

Yet, she adds, "With urban sprawl, people often don't even recognize what's native and what's not. Blackeyed susan, for instance: is that native or not? How about purple coneflower?

"Flowers that used to be so common in people's back yards are now rarer than the 'exotics' like Asian lilies. The pink coreopsis, for example, is a native Pennsylvania plant, but its numbers are very low. All the more reason to bring it into our gardens again!&quot

white bloodroot flower
Claire Spampinato


A "native" plant is not the same as a wildflower or a weed. "A plant can only be native to a certain area at a certain time in history," Spampinato explains. "Plant communities change throughout time, whether due to climate change, succession, predation, or disturbance." Generally, "native" means that the plants lived in Pennsylvania before European settlement began, since, Spampinato notes, "tracking plant history before Europeans arrived is a tough job." That definition rules out Queen-Anne's lace, the dandelion, and the oxeye daisy, all of which were brought by settlers. It also eliminates the purple coneflower: Although it's native to the American tallgrass prairie, Pennsylvania had no such prairies. Blackeyed susan, however, is a native, according to Spampinato's chief reference, the Atlas of the Flora of Pennsylvania by Wherry, Fogg, and Wahl.

Because native plants may have grown here for thousands of years, they've adapted to Pennsylvania's extremes of drought, flood, and frost, and often have better defenses against (native) pests than exotic flowers do. They're not necessarily "natural" or "weedy" looking, and the amount of care they need, such as thinning or pruning, "depends on the plant, the garden, and the gardener." Those that may be difficult to grow in a garden—such as the beautiful lady slipper orchid—Spampinato has excluded from her list, since the primary goal of her project is to introduce native plants into the Penn State Master Gardener program.

Part of Penn State's Cooperative Extension service since 1982, the Master Gardener program comprises some 1,400 volunteers in 58 counties. In return for 30 hours of instruction in such topics as plant propagation, entomology, integrated pest management, and soil science, the Master Gardeners sign up for 50 hours of volunteer work. They answer calls to gardening hotlines, conduct workshops and seminars, and make presentations in schools; they diagnose problems, give advice on planting, pruning, and pesticide use, promote composting, and in general serve as neighborhood experts.

"The Master Gardeners were really interested in native plants," Spampinato says, "and they needed information. Gardening with native plants is becoming very popular, but most of the reference books are national in scope. Finding plants native to Pennsylvania takes some work."

To fill that need, Spampinato has made her material available in several forms. First is a chapter for the Master Gardeners' manual. Second, is a scripted slide show that Master Gardeners can give to civic and school groups. Finally, there's the searchable database. "The information's useful in book form," she notes, "but as a database it's extremely useful. You can ask for plants that like a certain pH level in the soil. Or for plants the deer will avoid. Or plants that attract butterflies. If you want an all pink garden, or just wetlands plants, or only plants that bloom early in the spring—you just punch it in, and the database will come up with some ideas.

"Using native plants is an effective way horticulturists can affect change for the better," she concludes, "providing beauty within a framework of responsible and sustainable gardening practices."

A good number of already popular garden plants are actually natives to our state, Spampinato notes, such as garden phlox, bleeding heart, bee balm, New England aster, butterflyweed, and dogwood. "Many of these plants were taken back to Europe by early European explorers due to their exotic, and therefore valuable, status. Even today, many American native plants are taken back to Europe for selection or hybridization and then reintroduced to Americans as improved varieties." And just as Bartram discovered 200 years ago, the ones that are popular in Europe are not necessarily those you'd expect. According to Spampinato, a current favorite among gardeners in Germany is goldenrod.

Claire E. Spampinato received her master's degree in horticulture in December 1998. Her adviser is David J. Beattie, Ph.D., associate professor of ornamental horticulture in the College of Agricultural Sciences, 102 Tyson, University Park PA, 16802; 814-863-2253; Toni Bilik coordinates the Master Gardener program, 13 Tyson; 863-7716;

Last Updated January 01, 2000