Native Alternatives to Traditional Plants

Native Alternatives to Traditional Plants

Coppertina® Ninebark

In my last post, I wrote about the importance of using native plants in the landscape. I realize this subject is unfamiliar to many, so I’ll explain more here.

Native plants can be utilized in the same ways “traditional” plants are. The key to this is understanding basic principles of gardening and landscape design. The specifics involve some plant knowledge, so I’ll focus this post on that.  Below is a list of popular garden plants that come from Europe or Asia, along with excellent alternatives that function similarly, but are native to the mid-Atlantic or surrounding region. The list I’ll provide below isn’t comprehensive by any means but can be a reference guide to get you started. These plants I have listed are all plants we either currently have in stock or have carried before so you can be assured that if you shop with us, you’ll have lots of choices.

If you weren’t able to check the last blog “Re-imagine Gardening with Natives”, go here:

Colorful Shrubs

Kodiak® Orange Bush Honeysuckle

• Traditional Plant:  Japanese Barberry. Grown for its durability, attractive colors, smaller size, and use as a foundation plant.

✔ Native Alternative: Dwarf Ninebark cultivars such as “Tiny Wine”, “Ginger Wine”, and “Little Devil.” Bush Honeysuckle cultivars, such as “Kodiak Orange”, “Kodiak Red”, and “Kodiak Black.”

• Traditional Plant: Japanese Spirea. Grown for its durability, flowers, smaller size, and use as a foundation plant.

✔ Native Alternative: Dwarf Ninebark cultivars, Bush Honeysuckle cultivars, Fothergilla cultivars, Fragrant sumac cultivars such as ‘Low Grow’, dwarf Black chokeberry cultivars such as “Low Scape Mound”, New Jersey tea, Summer sweet cultivars such as “Sixteen Candles.”

Low Scape Mound® Chokeberry

• Traditional Plant: Butterfly Bush (Buddleia x). Grown as a foundation plant for its attractive flowers and appeal to butterflies.

✔ Native Alternative: Summersweet might be my favorite native alternative.  Numerous other small shrubs and perennials make excellent substitutions including Sweetspire , New Jersey Tea, dwarf Joe Pye, Goldenrod, Milkweed, Gayfeather, Garden Phlox, and Ironweed.

• Traditional Plant: Rose of Sharon. Grown as a foundation plant for its attractive flowers.

Vanilla Spice® Clethra

✔ Native Alternative: Hardy Hibiscus or Rose Mallow in moist or average soils. Ninebark for areas that are drier.

• Traditional Plant: Bigleaf Hydrangea and Panicle hydrangea. Grown as foundation plants for their beautiful flowers.

✔ Native Alternative: Smooth Hydrangea, available in many cultivars.

• Traditional Plant: Weigela. Grown for its foliage colors, flowers, and use as a foundation plant.

✔ Native Alternative: Bush Honeysuckle is my first choice. Other good substitutions include Ninebark, Sweet spire,  Coralberry, and Snowberry (S. albus).

Larger Shrubs & Evergreens

A hedged Northern Bayberry.

• Traditional Plant: Burning Bush. Grown for good fall color as well as a border plant or hedge. I’ve listed alternatives for both functions.

✔ Native Alternative for Good Red Fall Color: Possumhaw Viburnum, Arrowwood viburnum, Red Chokeberry, Black Chokeberry, Sweetspire, Red-osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea, C. Stolonifera), and Highbush Blueberry.

✔ Native Alternative for a Hedge or Border Plant: Possumhaw Viburnum, Arrowwood viburnum, Red Chokeberry, Black Chokeberry, Northern bayberry, Northern Spicebush, a larger cultivar of Summersweet such as ‘Ruby Spice’, Sweet shrub.

Blue Muffin® Arrowwood Viburnum

• Traditional Plant: Privet. Grown as a border plant or privacy hedge.

✔ Native Alternative: Possumhaw Viburnum, Arrowwood viburnum, Red Chokeberry, Black Chokeberry, Northern bayberry, Northern Spicebush, a larger cultivar of Summersweet such as ‘Ruby Spice’, and Sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus).

• Traditional Plant: Tricolor willow. Grown for its wet tolerance and attractive foliage.

✔ Native Alternatives for Wet Soil: Native pussywillow (Salix discolor), Buttonbush, Sweetspire, Summersweet, Sweetshrub, Swamp Azalea (Azalea viscosum), and Winterberry Holly.

• Traditional Plant: Boxwood. Grown as a foundational plant and for its evergreen foliage.

Strongbox® Inkberry holly

✔ Native Alternative: Inkberry holly.

• Traditional Plant: Rhododendron (Rhododendron spp. and hybrids). Grown for evergreen foliage and flowers.

✔ Native Alternative: American rhododendron (R. maximum), Catawba rhododendron (R. catawbiense), and Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia, K. angustifolia).

• Traditional Plant: Spreading Juniper cultivars (Juniperus x pfitzeriana)

✔ Native Alternative: Eastern Juniper (J. virginiana) such as ‘Grey Owl’, Fragrant sumac such as ‘Low Grow’, dwarf black Chokeberry such as ‘Ground Hog’ or ‘Lowscape Mound’, and Kinnikinnick.

Flowering & Ornamental Trees

• Traditional Plant: Kousa Dogwood (Cornus kousa). Grown for small-ish size, showy ornamental flowers, and fall fruits.

✔ Native Alternative: Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) for part-sun. Native hawthorn for full sun.

“Winter King” Hawthorn.

• Traditional Plant: Small, spring flowering trees such as Japanese cherry, Callery pear, and flowering crabapple.

✔ Native Alternative: Eastern Redbud, Serviceberry, native Hawthorn, and Chokecherry.

• Traditional Plant: Weeping Cherry. Grown as a small ornamental tree.

✔ Native Alternative: Weeping Redbud cultivars including “Vanilla Twist”, “Lavender Twist”, “Ruby Falls”, and “Pink Heartbreaker.”

• Traditional Plant: Early blooming Magnolia hybrids, Saucer magnolia, and Southern magnolia. Grown as a medium sized tree and for its attractive flowers.

✔ Native Alternative: Sweetbay magnolia.

Proud Berry® Coral Berry

• Traditional Plant: Japanese maple. Grown as a small ornamental tree for attractive foliage and habit.

✔ Native Alternative for Small, Cascading Forms: Red Elderberry has cultivars with lacy foliage such as “Lemony Lace.” Sweetfern (Comptonia peregrina) is a short but wide spreading shrub with lacy foliage. Coralberry has a graceful weeping habit.

✔ Native Alternative for Upright Forms:  American Witch-hazel as it has a small, attractive habit and great fall color. Canada Red Chokecherry which is an upright tree similar in size and color to ‘Bloodgood’ and ‘Emperor.’

Shade Trees

“Green Mountain” Sugar Maple.

• Traditional Plant: Norway Maple. Grown for its durability, and in cultivars like ‘Crimson King’, for purple foliage.

✔ Native Alternative: Red Maple and Sugar Maple for shade trees.  Canada Red Chokecherry and Forest Pany Redbud for purple foliage.

• Traditional Plant: European hornbeam. Grown for dense habit, durability, and architectural habit.

✔ Native Alternative: American hornbeam and Hophornbeam.

• Traditional Plant: Callery Pear ‘Cleveland Select’. Grown primarily for its upright form and dense habit.

Pin Oak.

✔ Native Alternative: Upright or fastigiate (columnar) cultivars of Red Maple such as ‘Red Rocket’, Pin Oak such as ‘Green Pillar’ Sweetgum such as ‘Slender Silhouette’, American Hornbeam such as ‘Autumn Fire’ and ‘Fire Spire’, and Tulip tree such as ‘Arnold Sentinel.’ Many others are available.

• Traditional Plant: European Beech. Grown as a shade tree and for its beautiful, bark.

✔ Native Alternative: American Beech.

• Traditional Plant: Norway Spruce, Blue Spruce, and Serbian Spruce. Grown for privacy screening.

✔ Native Alternative: Eastern Hemlock, Eastern White Pine, Eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana), American arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis).

• Traditional Plant: Weeping Willow. Utilized as a large shade tree in wet areas.

✔ Native Alternative: Black Gum, Sweetbay Magnolia, Pin Oak, Swamp White Oak, Tulip Tree, Sweetgum, River Birch, and Red Maple.

• Traditional Plant: Himalayan Birch. Grown as a medium sized tree and for its attractive bark.

✔ Native Alternative: Paper birch and Quaking aspen.

Prairie Winds® ‘Apache Rose’ Switch Grass


• Traditional Plant: Maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis) notably “Zebra Grass.” Grown for its attractive habit and plumes.

✔ Native Alternative: Switch Grass, Big Bluestem, and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans).

• Traditional Plant: Fountain Grass. Grown for its smaller habit, heat tolerance, and drought tolerance.

✔ Native Alternative: Prairie Dropseed and Little Blue Stem.

• Traditional Plant: Blue Fescue. Grown for its small habit and blue color.

✔ Native Alternative: Little Blue Stem and Tufted Hair Grass (not blue but similar appearance).


• Traditional Plant: Russian Sage, Catmint (Nepeta spp.), and Salvia. Grown for their abundant flowers and reliable deer resistance.

Summerific® ‘Ballet Slippers’ Hibiscus

✔ Native Alternative: Bee balm & Bergamot, Mountainmint, Lyreleaf Salvia (Salvia lyrata), and Culver’s Root.

• Traditional Plant: Astilbe. Grown for its flowers and shade tolerance.

✔ Native Alternative: Goatsbeard and Black Bugbane.

• Traditional Plant: Lupine, Russian Sage, and garden Delphinium. Grown for their tall, showy flowers.

✔ Native Alternative: False Indigo and Gayfeather.

‘Pardon My Purple’ Bee Balm

• Traditional Plant: Old-Fashioned Bleeding Heart. Grown for its unique flowers.

✔ Native Alternative: Eastern bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia).

• Traditional Plant: Hosta. Grown for hardiness, attractive foliage, and shade tolerance.

✔ Native Alternative: Foam Flower and Coral Bells (Heuchera americana, H. villosa).

• Traditional Plant: Bearded Iris. Grown for showy flowers.

✔ Native Alternative: Dwarf crested iris, Blue Flag Iris, and Gayfeather (Liatris spicata).

• Traditional Plant: Shasta Daisy and Dianthus. Grown for their showy flowers and heat tolerance.

“Amethyst Falls” American Wisteria.

✔ Native Alternative: Black Eyed Susan, Helen’s Flower (Helenium spp.), Coneflower (Echinacea spp.), and Aster.


• Traditional Plant: Chinese and Japanese Wisteria (Wisteria chinensis, W. floribunda). Grown for their vining habit and showy flowers.

✔ Native Alternative: American Wisteria (Wisteria frutescens) and Kentucky Wisteria (Wisteria macrostachya).


• Traditional Plant: Japanese Pachysandra, Myrtle, and Ivy (Hedera helix). Grown as durable, quickly spreading, evergreen groundcovers.

Canadian Ginger.

Bunchberry, or Creeping Dogwood

✔ Native Alternative: Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), Kinnikinnick, Allegheny Pachysandra, Golden Groundsel, and Creeping Phlox range from evergreen to semi-evergreen depending on the location.

✔ Native Alternative: Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), Woodland Phlox, and Canadian Ginger are usually deciduous but no less inferior.













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