There’s hope for Southern gardeners: These native plants are recommended by local experts and can withstand hot, humid conditions.
By CC Kallam & James Dupree
“The choices we make in our landscape can really make a difference,” says Debbie Roos, an agriculture extension agent for the Chatham County Center of North Carolina Cooperative Extension. She uses native plants in a demonstration garden at Chatham Mills in Pittsboro to benefit pollinators and other local wildlife. Out of the over 225 species in the pollinator garden, 85% are indigenous to North Carolina and essential to the food web.
“An ecosystem that is out of balance is an unhealthy ecosystem,” says Neville Handel, a Pittsboro resident and the conservation land manager at North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill.
“Ecosystems provide lots of services for humans, even if we don’t understand [them],” Neville says. “If we don’t take care of the landscape, especially when you get close to streams, rivers, creeks and drainage, then we can really see declines in water quality. And the worse off your water is, the more expensive it is to treat it and to clean it and make it safe to drink. When you have an area that’s overrun with invasive [plant] species, your ecosystems are potentially going to be degraded … in terms of filtering the water.”
Neville says nuts from trees like white oaks and shagbark hickories provide food to birds and animals. The common milkweed is the host plant for monarch butterflies, so without it, monarch butterflies would disappear.
“All of those [endemic] plants are [ones] that evolved in this place, they’re part of the systems we have here, and they all have their place. Ecosystems are really complex webs,” says Johnny Randall, the director of conservation programs at NCBG and adjunct faculty in the UNC environment, ecology, and energy program.
“My favorite fall perennial is Maryland golden-aster (Chrysopsis mariana) because of its cheery yellow flowers. They resemble chrysanthemums and seem to bloom forever,” says Rachel Nelms, landscaper and owner of Rachel’s Native Plants nursery, which opened in April 2023 at The Plant in Pittsboro.
Another native plant, the aromatic aster, has puffy seeds that persist through winter, and with a height reaching 12 to 24 inches, they are short enough to make great border plants. The aromatic aster is shrub-like and will be covered in lavender daisy-like flowers from late September through October. Paired with the Maryland golden-aster, it can create a stunning visual. “Include dwarf fothergilla to make a showstopping combination with its vibrant fall color,” Rachel says.
In addition to their beauty, native plants can help restore species. “Our native butterfly and moth caterpillars really cannot use anything but the plants they evolved with as host plants,” Johnny says. “And without caterpillars, birds do not have food for their babies, even seed-eating birds, like cardinals, feed their young caterpillars. So without native plants, you don’t have caterpillars, and you don’t have baby birds. It’s a really simple connection.”
Johnny explains invasive plant species are flora found outside their native range, threatening the survival of native plants or animals, or limiting biological diversity. In Chatham County, there are natural areas, like the Lower Haw River in Bynum, that still provide food for wildlife, “but urban areas have become deserts for native biodiversity.” He recommends various removal methods for invasive plant species. For some plants, continual cutting can exhaust the energy stored in roots. But you have to be careful about which plant you cut because cutting can sometimes stimulate resprouting, he says.
Another method is to cardboard and mulch, where you cut back all vegetation as far as possible and remove vines from trees. Completely cover the area with cardboard, and then organic mulch. Wet the area and create drainage holes so water doesn’t pools. This treatment will suppress all vegetation under the cardboard.
For smaller herbaceous plants, pulling is effective. Be sure to remove the entire plant, including the roots, because leaving roots can allow the plant to resprout. Spraying is another option but Johnny says be wary of the spray you choose, because some can be hazardous to humans and other plant species you aren’t targeting.
Plant This …
A few Chatham County and North Carolina native plant species for your backyard:
White Oak (Quercus alba) This acorn-bearing tree is named for the whitish color of the undersides of their leaves, grows 1 to 2 feet per year and can grow up to 100 feet high and 50 to 80 feet wide.
Common Shagbark Hickory (C arya ovata) This tall tree with a straight trunk grows up to 120 feet and up to 35 feet wide, thrives in full or partial sun or shade and requires dry to moist soil with drainage. It begins bearing fruit at about 40 years, with edible seeds, nuts and fruits. The bark becomes “shaggy” on adult trees.
Pawpaw (Asimina triloba L.) This shrubby tree is the larval host for the zebra swallowtail butterfly and the pawpaw sphinx. It can grow up to 35 feet tall and spread to 30 feet. The edible pawpaw fruit has green to yellow skin, that turns brown when ripe, and yellow, custardlike flesh.
Swamp Sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius) A perennial with yellow flowers that can grow up to 10 feet tall and responds to wet, acidic soil. The plant acts as the larval host to many butterfly species and is unpopular to deer and other herbivores.
Whitefringe Tree (Chionanthus virginicus) This tree has fragrant fringelike flowers that attract various pollinators and its berries provide a source of food for many bird species.
Purple Love Grass (Eragrostis spectabilis) This perennial grass with a variety of flower colors including pink, purple, copper and red requires full sunlight and moist soil conditions. The grass also produces small purple, pink and brown fruits.
Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) Not to be mistaken with another domestic species (butterfly weed), the common milkweed is the larval host plant of the monarch butterfly and milkweed tussock moth. Like other milkweed species, the flowers provide a source of nectar for various pollinators. The fragrant flowers are green, pink, purple or white; the fruit is gray and silver.
Green-headed Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata) Known for being deer resistant, this yellow, daisylike flowering perennial provides nectar to pollinators and seeds for songbirds and goldfinches.
Chokeberry (red and black varieties) These typically bloom in the spring, displaying clusters of small, white flowers. The red and black berries ripen in late summer to early fall, providing a colorful display that lasts into winter.
American beautyberry (purple) Blooms from late spring to early summer, with delicate, pale pink to lavender flowers adorning the branches. In late summer to early fall, clusters of shiny purple berries appear, creating a striking contrast against the green foliage. The berries often persist into winter, attracting birds and pollinators.
Hearts-a-bustin’: Also known as strawberry bush, this North Carolina native shrub produces bright red fruits resembling strawberries that hang in clusters, creating a delightful spectacle in the landscape.
Sweetbay magnolia Blooms from late spring to early summer, featuring large, white flowers fragrant with a lemony scent. The tree’s evergreen foliage looks elegant year-round, as the large, oblong leaves have a glossy, dark green color.
Highbush blueberry Makes a great addition to any garden, with delicious fruit in the summer and gorgeous red leaves in fall. It’s bell-shaped white flowers give way to small, green berries that gradually mature into plump, juicy blueberries by mid to late summer.
Southern arrowwood The small clusters of white flowers attract pollinators such as bees and butterflies to this shrub. As summer progresses, the flowers transform into small, round, bluish-black berries that attract a variety of birds.
Blue-eyed grass Though commonly referred to as a grass, this native perennial wildflower typically blooms from late spring to early summer, showcasing delicate, star-shaped flowers that vary in color from pale blue to violet. Blue-eyed grass forms clumps of grass-like foliage, with slender, narrow leaves that can be mistaken for grass blades, and is a delightful addition to meadows, gardens, and natural areas.
A few Chatham County and North Carolina nonnatives:
Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata Thunb.) This shrub thrives even in poor soil with seeds often dispersed by birds. It has sharp thorns, heavily fragrant pale white to yellow flowers, and vibrant red berries. It threatens native species by outcompeting them and interfering with natural nutrient cycling and plant succession.
Bradford Pear (Pyrus calleryana) This is a very common commercial landscape tree, used frequently because it grows rapidly and tolerates a wide range of conditions. One of the first trees to bloom in spring, its white flowers have a very strong, unpleasant scent.
Chinese Privet (Ligustrum sinense Lour.) This poisonous evergreen has been used as an ornamental shrub in urban landscapes. In bloom, the shrub has small white flowers with a strong odor and toxic berries. It can rapidly form an impenetrable thicket.
Chinese Wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) This vine can live on wet or dry sites and forms dense thickets. The purple blooms are fragrant and stems become twisted and grow massive over time.
English Ivy (Hedera helix L.) This high-climbing evergreen vine, which can reach 80 feet in height, is widespread in urban areas and disturbed forests. This poisonous plant is commonly associated with other nonnative species. Once established, it is nearly impossible to eradicate and is one of the worst invasive weed problems in North Carolina. It aggressively spreads into native forests, where it smothers tall trees as well as the forest floor, choking out native wildflowers, shrubs and trees.
Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) This vine is semievergreen and grows rapidly. It is difficult to control and is capable of smothering plants. It displaces native species by outcompeting native plants for light, space, water and nutrients. It flowers in late spring to fall and is very fragrant. Ingestion of the berries in large quantities can cause sickness.
Japanese Stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum) This grass is an annual summer weed that grows to 3.5 feet and can root at each node to make a new plant. It was accidentally introduced into Tennessee in the early 1900s when it was used as packing material for porcelain shipped from Asia. The plant has now spread to 26 states.
Kudzu (Pueraria montana) Now illegal in some areas of the country, kudzu was first introduced in the U.S. in 1876 at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. By the 1950s, the Department of Agriculture banned planting kudzu and labeled it a common weed in the 1970s, then it was listed as a noxious weed by Congress in 1997. Its roots can grow to a depth of 12 feet and weigh up to 300 pounds. The vines may grow a foot per day or 60 feet throughout the summer season.
Native plant species resources for Chatham residents:
- Debbie’s pollinator garden website
- Rachel’s Native Plants website
- NC Invasive Plant Council
- NC Native Plant Society
- NC Botanical Garden
- NCBG Controlling Invasive Plants brochure
- New Hope Audubon “Bird-Friendly Habitat”
Chatham-based plant nurseries with native species:
880 Buteo Ridge
Dutch Buffalo Farm
1000 Jay Shambley Rd.
Mellow Marsh Farm
1312 Woody Store Rd.
Rachel’s Native Plants
141 Lorax Ln.