The definition of native has been controversial, but as I have learned through my education and continued research, it can be defined as a plant that existed in North America prior to the arrival of European settlers. Plants in our region have adapted together for thousands of years, evolving to the climate, soils and pathogens that are indigenous to North America and continue to evolve.
Unlike our herbaceous ornamentals, trees do not show immediate effects of stresses, injuries or illness. They gradually change over time and need as much protection as possible when young or already established. It is easy to take for granted their reliability and beauty when signs of damage can be delayed.
Most native trees can be found at local nurseries or garden centers. Buying native trees from your local nursery will encourage propagation and sales of our native plants. We want to support and preserve a trend toward native plant availability and appreciation. Below I will list a small selection of truly wonderful native trees that exhibit strong ornamental and wildlife features.
Amelanchier arborea – Downy Serviceberry
A small tree best for naturalistic plantings, native as an understory tree. Leaves like apple tree and similar diseases, but many hybrids between arborea x laevis with better leaf spot resistance, fruiting and flowering. ‘Autumn Brilliance’ has good fall foliage. ‘Princess Diana’ has abundant flowers with variable fall color.
Betula nigra – River Birch
Large multi-clumping tree typically with outstanding, peeling bark most prominent in winter when leaves have dropped. Yellow/green foliage and delicate catkins in spring. A dwarf selection is available for smaller yards under the name of Fox Valley®, reaching 12’ x 12’. Heritage® shows great heat tolerance, grows quickly and is a most commonly planted variety for its awesome characteristics.
Carpinus caroliniana – American Hornbeam, Musclewood, Blue Beech
Smooth bark described as sinewy with longitudinal ridges, very heavy wood, gives interest in winter. Related to birches with similar catkins in spring. Fine foliage with intricate branching make this tree interesting both in summer and winter months. Fall color will vary in species. Ball o’ Fire® is a compact, slow-growing selection reaching 15’ x 15’ compared to 20’-30’ for species. It is very adaptable with excellent orange-red fall color.
Oxydendrum arboretum – Sourwood, Lily of the Valley Tree
A tree I’ve mentioned in previous articles since it is such a striking tree. It grows slowly to 25-30’ maturity, fall color most notably red, but also purple and yellow. The fragrant flowers appear in June on long panicles that are reminiscent of lily of the valley flowers that the bees absolutely adore. Fruits persist through winter giving more interest through the seasons. It is in the heath family with rhododendrons and mountain laurel.
Thuja occidentalis – Arborvitae
A very common evergreen used for screening in our area. Has interesting and appealing history and multitude of cultivars from large to dwarf such as Mr. Bowling Bowlâ, reaching only 2.5’ tall and wide. The name literally means “Tree of Life” and was planted in cemeteries since 1536 to commemorate the afterlife. It is also the first of our native conifers to be cultivated in Europe.
Tilia Americana – American Linden, Basswood
Very large, stately tree that is great for larger spaces. No significant fall foliage. They bloom in June and are very fragrant.
For more information on native trees, visit Cape Shore Gardens at 1028 Rt. 9 S., Cape May Court House or call (609) 465-5161.
Written by Lauren Popper, horticulturist at Cape Shore Gardens and graduate of Temple University’s School of Environmental Design.