• ljmarkson

Replace Non-native Shrubs With High Impact Native Shrubs

Updated: Feb 5

Rewilding a semi-urban yard to create an eco-friendly sanctuary is more emotional than I anticipated. Almost a year and a half ago after I had removed most of the non-native perennials in my yard, I set my sights on the non-native shrubs.

Removing the overwhelmingly pedestrian landscape shrubs in my yard was easier once I made a list of where they were native to.

  • Native to Japan - spirea, clayera, acuba, euonymous, boxwood, aralia, plum yew

  • Native to China - forsythia

  • Native to Africa – podocarpus

Unless there are outliers I’m not aware of, the fact none of the non-native shrubs growing in my yard hosted butterfly or moth species sealed their fate for me.

Fragrant and beneficial native fothergilla is one of the first shrubs to bloom in my naturalized yard now, not Chinese forsythia.

Saying goodbye to my collection of exotic ornamentals including hybrid hydrangeas with evocative names like wedding gown, blushing bride, chantilly lace and dancing snow, snow-white camellias that bloomed in the dead of winter, neon pink spring azaleas, and ambrosial gardenias may have been my biggest naturescaping breakthrough. My goal is to maximize the habitat benefit of every plant in my small yard. At best some these traditional Southern shrubs offered temporary wildlife shelter, but their food and pollinator support was minimal or non-existent. It was time to make the leap and Maria Kondo them by thanking them for the joy they brought me before letting them go.

These lovelies once brought me joy, but when it became obvious I couldn't add more beneficial shrubs to my naturalized yard unless I removed them, they had to go.

In the end I tied orange flagging tape to well over two dozen shrubs for my husband to dig up on weekends throughout the winter.

A one point, it looked like just about all the shrubs in my yard were tagged for removal with orange tape; including this Indian hawthorn.

The removal of the ornamental non-native shrubs made room for the dozens of more habitat friendly native shrubs and a few trees I had bought at fall plant sales or been gifted by friends including a black willow tree (salix nigra), blueberries (vaccinium), serviceberry (amelanchier), viburnums (viburnum), spirea (spiraea tomentosa), New Jersey tea (ceanothus), elderberry (sambucus), chokeberries (photinia/aronia), coralberry (symphoricarpos orbiculatus), buttonbush (cephalanthus), spicebush (lindera), fetterbush (lyonia), summersweet (clethra), titi tree (cyrilla racemiflora), sweet shrub (calycanthus), hearts a bustin’ (euonymous americanus), virginia sweetspire (itea virginiana), fothergilla (fothergilla gardenia), and native azaleas (rhododendrons),

I still had plenty of spots left to plant even more shrubs last spring. Unfortunately, when the pandemic hit my favorite native plant sales evaporated. I planted perennials as place holders and last fall I found more shrubs at native plant nurseries and smaller scale native plant sales. I hope to add more native shrubs in the coming months.

Every shrub and tree I was able to plant is thriving and contributing to a healthier habitat including the following high value host plants for butterflies and moths:

  • The 3-foot black willow (silex nigra) seedling that my friend Sandi gave over a year ago is now almost 7 feet tall! It loves the partially sunny, slightly soggy part of the backyard I planted it in. It also supports 455 different caterpillars!

This picture of my black willow (silex nigra) was taken in early summer. By fall it had filled out and grown a couple more feet!
  • The native spirea steeplebush (spiraea tomentosa) is much showier than any hybrid and does double duty as a pollinator nectar source and a host plant for 89 butterfly and moth species. Steeplebush has rewarded me for planting it in a moist and partially sunny area with tiny pollinator attracting clusters of petite flowers on sweet pink spikes.

Spirea steeplebush mingles well with other small shrubs and hearty native perennials.
  • Red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) and black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) host 6 butterfly and moth caterpillar species! Native bees adore the lovely spring flowers, and the bright red berries give ravenous winter birds energy.

Chokeberry's delicate spring flowers attract a variety of pollinators.
  • Coralberry or snowberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus) is a host shrub for 25 species of caterpillars, including the enchanting hummingbird moth. Pollinators are attracted to the white and green spring flowers and hungry winter robins seem to enjoy the light orchid berries that brighten the winter landscape.

Underused and somewhat unknown coralberry bush (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus) is a charming and sturdy native plant that belongs in every natural yard habitat yet would also fit perfectly in a more traditional landscape.

Hearts-a-bustin’ or strawberry bush (Euonymus americanus) is a lovely and unique shade loving lanky woodland shrub with delicate greenish spring flowers and striking bird-friendly “bursting” red fruit in the fall. As a bonus, hearts-a-bustin’ hosts 11 butterfly and moth caterpillars.

The birds don't care how cool the hearts-a-bustin' (Euonymus americanus) seeds pods are, they just love to eat them!

Removing and replacing non-native bushes was like firing someone who is just not up to the job… not only did I not regret it, but I wish I had done it sooner!

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