Using plants native to your area can be useful in many ways: native shrubs and trees provide excellent support for local wildlife, they convey a clear sense of regional identity, and they are often quite beautiful.
One of the joys of gardening with native species is that these species provide this array of benefits simultaneously: some of the most gorgeous plants are also some of the best for wildlife.
Take, for example, the plants in the genus vaccinium. This group of shrubs includes many fruit-bearing species such as cranberry, blueberry, and huckleberry. These fruits are valued as tasty treats not only by people but also by many songbirds. And as anyone who has read Doug Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home knows, vaccinium plants are also one of the very best hosts for butterfly and moth larva: over 280 species.
And from a landscape perspective, these are truly excellent shrubs. One of the most commonly used species here in Maryland is the northern highbush bluebery (vaccinium corymbosum). They have lush green foliage in spring and summer, amazing red fall foliage, and plenty of winter interest with twisting branches and exfoliating bark.
The genus vaccinium is part of the Ericaceae family, which is often referred to as the heath or heather family. In addition to blueberries this family includes azaleas, rhododendrons, mountain laurel, bearberry, wintergreen, manzanita, huckleberry, pieris, and sourwood. These plants tend to prefer acidic soils, and – in my part of the country – are often found in association with oak trees in an oak-heath forest type. And while many of these plants are shrubs, the sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) is a stunning landscape tree. Not only does it exhibit brilliant white flowers in summer, but it provides one of the most colorful displays in fall. The deep red and scarlet leaves are stunning.
These ericaceous species are also closely related to another group of plants that have top-notch ornamental value, the clethras. Clethra alnifolia and clethra acuminata are popular landscape plants, with excellent fall foliage and very high value for pollinators.
Clethraceae and Ericaceae are closely related to each other, but only distantly related to the plants known as “rosids” which is a group that includes many ornamental trees and shrubs like oaks, willows, beeches, maples, and elms. For this reason, adding a plants like vaccinium corymbosum provides a lot of biodiversity bang-for-the-buck. Specialist insects that feed on ericaceous or clethraceaeous plants are often quite different from the insects that feed on oaks, for example. The slender clearwing (Hemaris gracilis) only uses plants in the ericaceae family as hosts.
When it comes to native shrubs and trees, it really pays to think outside the box. And you can have it all.
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