Tallamy-inspired Q&A

Plant topics

So many great questions were asked during the Question and Answer period, there wasn't time to address them all live. We have since compiled them into three groups by topic (plants, insects & birds, and management) and asked our in house experts to share their knowledge and suggestions. These are the plant topic questions and answers.

Is Canadian goldenrod as productive as native goldenrod?

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) is actually native to all six New England States. Often, Latin names for plants are not an indicator of whether a plant is only native to that particular area. Another example is Florida Dogwood (Cornus florida), native to most of the eastern seaboard, not just Florida.

Is using native cultivars better than using non-native species?

It is best to use straight native species, but if using cultivars, be sure the cultivars haven’t changed leaf or flower color. Changing these attributes of a plant will not attract its natural pollinators as it “looks” like a different plant. Also, be sure the flowers are not sterile. If you do choose a non-native, be sure it is not an invasive species.

What three flowering plant species should I plant ASAP?

Our top four native species to plant: Golden Alexanders Zizia aurea (Golden Alexanders), Monarda fistulosa (wild bergamot), Pycnanthemum tenuifolium (narrow-leaved mountain-mint), and Solidago puberula (downy goldenrod). If you have space, also plant an oak (Quercus) tree or a grove of oaks, willows (Salix), shadberry (Amelanchier), and dogwood (Cornus) species. Consider purchasing one or more Plant Kits being offered by Lexington Living Landscapes and the Lexington Conservation Office this spring; online sales begin April 2!

What about conifers? Are they part of a food web for many insects?

Conifers are essential both as a food source and for shelter.

What oak species should I plant to support caterpillars?

White oak (Quercus alba) and northern red oak (Quercus rubra) are great trees for Lexington, Massachusetts, both of which occur locally and support a wide variety of caterpillar species. Other native oak species are also good choices. Black oak (Quercus velutina) may grow shorter here, in the northern end of their range, than they do farther south. Some species might be better suited for particular sites based on size, salt tolerance (pin, white, red), or spring flood tolerance (bur or swamp white).

What are good shade-tolerant plants for those of us with lots of trees on our property? What are good understory plants for supporting caterpillars and other insects?

There are many excellent native shade-loving plants.

Full Shade

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)

Viburnums (Viburnum acerifolium, V. lantanoides)

Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium, V. corymbosum)

Bush-honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera)

Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)

Partial shade

Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

Sweet-pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia)

Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia)

Rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum)

Azaleas (Rhododendron prinophyllum, R.viscosum)

Red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa)

What native plants are well suited to a wetland area?


Great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica,)

cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis),

marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), (iris spuriaIris ) ,

sedges varieties (Cyperaceae),

Cattails (Typhus spp.)

Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum)

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

Gentian spp.

Turtlehead (Chelone spp.)

Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus)

Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum)

Cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea)

Shield ferns (Dryopteris spp.)

Lady ferns (Athyrium spp.)

Trees and Shrubs

red or grey dogwood,(Cornus sericea) (Cornus racemosa),

River Birches (Betula nigra)

Willows (varieties) (Salix)

buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)

Can you comment on butterfly bush and why we don't want it?

Butterfly bush is a lovely flowering bush that is easy to grow. Still, it is not a native species and is invasive. It tends to draw pollinators away from the native plants they have co-evolved with, which means those plants are left unpollinated. It would be better to move away from planting them.

Norway maples used to be popular street trees, and they seem to spread by crowding out other species. Our yard is now full of them, and we have no oaks. Are they helpful in supporting insects? AND I am rehabbing a suburban yard that contains lots of “legacy” non-native plants, including Norway Maple and winged euonymus. If we remove them all it would be pretty bare! What are the arguments pro/con removing these versus supplementing with natives?

Remove the winged euonymus immediately, if not sooner! Birds eat their berries, and the shrubs spread throughout the state, crowding out our native species. Depending on your backyard’s size, tackle small bits of your yard at a time. Breaking your garden into small sections is less overwhelming and less costly. Perhaps add one or two understory trees. Understory trees and shrubs are attractive to beneficial insects, and they usually have more than just one season of interest.

How can managers balance putting in species favored by historical landscape design lists versus species that support specialists or mitigate climate change?

Per a landscape architect we consulted, historical landscaping is more about layout--pattern and structure--than about particular species. So, in general, there should not be limits preventing the use of native plants even on historically important properties.

Any particular nurseries or suppliers for natives?

We recommend several sources for native plants and seeds in the Resources for Homeowners portion of our website. Check it out! Where to Buy Plants.

Do you have any advice for a good source of Oak saplings for planting large areas on your property?

Generally, buying bare-root trees will be less expensive and easier to plant than balled-and-burlapped trees. One issue is whether they're available for retail purchase or only wholesale. Another factor is to buy from a place in the north, so the trees will have a better chance of survival in this hardiness zone. Some conservation districts sell small seedlings in their spring plant sales, such as Knox-Lincoln County, Maine, Soil and Water Conservation District. They have many bare-root trees, including oaks, in the 18" - 4' size range. You don't have to live in the district to order. Other districts may have sales as well.

How do I find and ask for "native cultivars"/"straight species" at local nurseries? Is there a nursery that specializes in natives?

We are fortunate to have many good retail and mail-order nurseries available to us. In particular, Russell's Nursery in Wayland has a well-defined native plant section as well as knowledgeable staff. Weston Nurseries has a smaller, but good selection. Native Plant Trust’s Garden Shop at Garden in the Woods in Framingham opens on April 11 for shopping by appointment; you can also order online and pickup at the shop. It is important to read labels and have a plant list before you go to a nursery to select straight native species.

Several questions/comments about using nearby zip codes if nwf.org/nativeplantfinder doesn't turn up info for your zip code.

Doug Tallamy is reworking the nativeplantfinder website to be zone-based rather than zip-code based, though most zip codes (including both of Lexington’s) work. Native Plants | Audubon is another great resource.