Browsing the natives



Some of us have been lamenting the lack of resources for native plants in our various regions. Go-to books, vendors, and other authorities are hard to come by. There is Alan Armitage’s Native Plants of North America, Encyclopedia of Northwest Native Plants for Gardens and Lanscapes by Robson, Richter, and Filbert; and the excellent database maintained by the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

So, though it’s not as precisely targeted as I would like, Donald Leopold’s Native Plants of the Northeast(Timber) is a welcome addition to my growing collection of books that list plants. And, increasingly, that tends to be my favorite type of plant book, other than those of the great personalities of gardening, like Christopher Lloyd. As Leopold mentions in his introduction, he organized the book according to what he likes best to do: browse through plants, with information on how best to cultivate them at hand. I love to browse through plant books, too, especially when they’re as generously illustrated as this one.


The book is organized by type of plant: ferns, grasses, wildflowers, shrubs, and trees. The big caveat is that of course the Northeast is a huge area, and what’s native for Maine could be totally invasive and unsuitable for Southwest PA. It’s a problem that common sense and further research can solve, however. Leopold does give broad ranges within the NE area for each plant; many of the habitats stretch far further than what we would define as NE. Plants are kind of independent that way.

The descriptions are matter-of-fact for the most part, but I did notice that Leopold waxes most enthusiastic about trees—as well he should, as they seem the most important natives to plant (which Doug Tallamy so eloquently insists upon in his Bringing Nature Home). Here’s what he says about robinia pseudoacacia: “Black locust … is apparently too familiar to the public to be appreciated . Yet, few trees have such a wonderful flower display, and the ability to restore the most degraded land in eastern North America.” But then he points out its possible insect problems and indicates where it could become invasive.

Forthright, warts-and-all description are common throughout, and at the end of the book a series of lists addresses specific site needs and habitat-providing attributes.


I have two copies of this book (hardcover, large, with great pictures) and would love to send one to a reader who would find it useful or enjoyable. Here are three questions where you must give the botanical or common name of the native plant described (from Leopold’s “attributes” section of his descriptions). Whoever answers them correctly first will get the book.

1. “A fine addition to the shade garden in spring (long terminal clusters of white flowers), summer (rich green flowers along arching stems), and fall (clusters of red fruit).”

2. “Straggling shrub to about 5 feet high and wider, spreading by root suckers; leaves simple, opposite, about 6 inches long; flowers, white, in 4-6-inch-wide, rather flat clusters in summer …”

3. “12 to 36 inches tall; bright orange to red-orange to even yellow flowers in upright, flat clusters in summer; foliage rich green and narrow in shape.”

If it’s too hard (I wouldn’t think so), I’ll just draw from whoever comments.

KYLEE IS CORRECT! Interesting comments. It’s a complex issue, but I think this book, though not perfect, can at least offer some plant selection ideas. Now for finding the plants!

Previous articleMeat Is Murder
Next articlePublishers Weekly sees upsurge in gardening among the young
Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. Sounds like a really useful book! Black locust is my favorite tree–the old ones branch only at the very top and develop very craggy bark, so they look like old men reaching for the sky.

    But I don’t think that they are “too familiar.” I think of them as really peculiar to my part of the world, and you only see them on old farms. Since they make fantastic fence posts, speculation is that the gorgeous boundary rows of old black locusts are fence posts resprouted.

  2. Okay, here goes:

    1. False Solomon’s Seal (I have this in my garden)
    2. Hydrangea arborescens
    3. Asclepias tuberosa (I have this, too.)

    How did I do?

    Sounds like a WONDERFUL book!!

  3. “Leopold waxes most enthusiastic about trees—as well he should, as they seem the most important natives to plant (which Doug Tallamy so eloquently insists upon in his Bringing Nature Home)”

    I just want to mention (quietly, in a non-rant fashion) that while Tallamy’s advice may be apropos for the NE; not so much for my neck of the woods (coastal S. California) where coastal scrub / coastal prairie is the dominant native plant community. I get a little nervous when I see blanket statements like this which could easily be misapplied.

  4. Way to go kylee. I don’t think I could have gotten the false Solomons seal.
    I grow these as well. An ‘Annebell’ was here in the garden when I moved into the house. Since I have dug up pieces and am growing in about four places in a kind of repition throughout the garden. I like the brown flowers in winter.
    The butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is easy to grow from seed. I start a few more each year as so far they are not self-seeding in this location.

  5. I’d like to suggest a more ecological, analytical approach both to the use of native plants and to the prevention of the introduction of invasive exotics.

    First, for both, consider the environment where the plant is endemic. What is the range of temperatures for this plant (hot and cold)? What is the average annual rainfall, and how is it distributed? What are the humidity and soil conditions like? Is the plant an understory plant, an alpine plant, a meadow or bog plant? Is the plant found by streams? What about soil temperatures and short or long growing seasons? In the case of a desired native plant, you want to have the same or very similar conditions. If you want to avoid encouraging an invasive plant, you want to avoid plants which are invasive in conditions similar to yours.

    Next, consider the genus. Are there many representatives of that genus native to your area? If yes, it might be a good candidate for your garden. Alternatively, if other members of that genus are banned as noxious weeds in your area (Centaurea comes to mind), be very cautious about introducing a new species of that genus to your garden.

    Finally, consider the region or country of origin for most invasive exotics in your area. For my area, most problem exotics have originated in the Russian steppes. With the exception of some bulbs known to be well-mannered, I am extremely cautious if not reluctant to try species of plants native to that region in my garden.

    This is a more complex, mentally demanding approach to considering any plants not specifically native to your area, but it also seems to yield more satisfactory results than simply publishing a list of plants found to be invasive somewhere in the United States. As you correctly implied, what is invasive in Florida may not even survive in Maine.

  6. Great topic, good post, for those of us gardening in the North Central region just want to call attention to Minnesota garden writer (and terrific gardener) Lynn Steiner and her wonderful recent book, Landscaping with Native Plants of Minnesota.

    Native plants don’t respect state lines, of course, so the book serves millions of Zone 2-5 gardeners in the central states and Canada.

    First native book I’ve seen that fully covers designing with natives, use, care, etc., in the first half, then a very comprehensive field guide (perennials, trees, shrubs) with great photos (all by Lynn) in second.

    2005, Voyageur Press.

  7. Yes, Renegade, I’m glad to see that these books are proliferating. It is a step in the right direction, away from the “50 great shade plants” genre. (Says she, as she plans to fill her zone 5b garden with various elephant ear.)

  8. A great resource for people who appreciate the benefits of native plants is the New England Wildflower Society and knowledgeable and engaging books by the charming William Cullina on growing and propagating wildflowers, another on native trees, shrubs and vines, and his latest on Native Ferns, Moss and Grasses. He pays attention to the varieties that would be most attractive in the domestic landscape.

  9. Guess Kylee get,s the book,just was not fast enough.Another good resource for local natives are State Extension Services.They also have good information on which plants are considered invasive in your specific area.

  10. True, Tallamy’s book is not a blanket, but it is a call to arms. We as gardener’s/horticulturist’s etc… have released many scourges upon the environment in our attempts to control it. Honeysuckles, euonymus, etc… We should be responsible in the holes we dig.
    Each of our regions have wonderful native plants, and they should be used more. I am not too certain that state extension services are the best place to go for this information, most of these folks are schooled in horticulture programs that are supported by the “green industry” and its supporting barberries and turf grass.

  11. Plenty of resources..written and other… out here in the Midwest. A number of great books: Gardening with Prairie Plants by Wasowski and Wasowski; Illinois Wildflowers by Kurz; The Tallgrass Prarie Restoration Handbook by Packard and Mutel; and many others…

    Some prairie and woodland plants are available commercially; we also have a local group that sells about 50 or so varieties (I know that there are other groups elsewhere that do that…)

    I’ve just finished Tallamy’s book…thought it was great! A call to arms, indeed…just like Stein’s “Noah’s Garden”!

    There are some non-natives in my yard…and a vegetable garden, but most of the yard is Midwestern woods and prairie:)

  12. Excellent review, and a well-written post. For a setup situation such as mine, I like the more specific and dynamic database at the LBJ Wildflower Center, but it’s nice to know that the Leopold book has growing tips for the plants listed.

    In keeping with grouchylisa’s thoughtful comment above, two other useful books are “Alien Species and Evolution” by George Cox, from Island Press; and the new edition of “The Self-Sustaining Garden,” by Peter Thompson, from Timber Press.

  13. I’m quite literally a newb to this site as this is my first post EVER! In the original post I read something about how it’s hard to find good books on Native Plants. Well, just thought I’d throw in my two cents, there is one which I almost literally drool over. “Gardening With Prairie Plants” by Sally Wasowski, published by University Minnesota Press. Besides design ideas, they have a massive array of native plants and how to grow them etc. I’ve found it a great resource, if anyone is looking for more.

  14. OH! I also forgot to mention. I worked for a Native plant company this past summer, JFNew, out of Walkerton, IN. ( Request one of their resource catalogues if you want another source for natives. They have some amazing selection from seeds to plugs to gallons, to other creative things.

  15. To add to the book list for the Great Lakes area…

    ‘Natural Landscaping: Designing With Native Plant Communities’
    by John Diekelmann and R Schuster
    University Madison Wi

    And specifically Chicagoland…

    ‘A Natural History of the Chicago Region’ by Joel Greenberg
    The University
    of Chicago Press

    Great books to research which plants would work in your garden.

  16. I live in Minnesota and I want to plant some prenials in my ditches. What flowers would you suggest I plant? I am talking approximately 250 feet.
    Please respond.

Comments are closed.