Native species evolved within specific regions and dispersed throughout their range without known human involvement. Native plants form the primary component of the living landscape and provide food and shelter for native animal species. Native plants co-evolved with native animals over many thousands to millions of years and have formed complex and interdependent relationships. Many animals require specific plants for their survival.
The use of native species in landscaping can reduce the expense of maintaining cultivated landscapes and minimize the likelihood of introducing new invasive species. It may provide a few unexpected benefits as well.
Native plants often require less water, fertilizer and pesticide, thus adding fewer chemicals to the landscape. Fewer inputs mean time and money saved for the gardener.
Native plants also increase the presence of desirable wildlife species, such as birds and butterflies, and provide sanctuaries for these animals as they journey between summer and winter habitats. Natives may even attract natural predators of the pests that harm plants in our gardens.
A native plant garden can become an outdoor classroom for children of all ages, a place to learn about important features of the natural world that might otherwise go unappreciated. Recent research on child development emphasizes the importance of contact with the natural world for cognitive development. Children who spend time in natural environments are less likely to develop attention-deficit hyperactive disorder, or ADHD. According to Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, "green time" has been shown to relieve symptoms of ADHD. Other studies suggest that natural environments, including gardens, generally reduce stress, increase the ability to concentrate, enhance creativity and generate a sense of well-being in people of all ages.
Native plants evoke a strong sense of place and regional character. Live oak and magnolia trees are strongly associated with the Deep South. Redwood trees characterize the Pacific Northwest. Saguaro cacti call to mind the deserts of the Southwest. Connection to region and pride of place can be expressed in a native plant garden.
Invasive plants are introduced species that cause health, economic or ecological damage in their new range. More than 30,000 species of plants have been introduced to the United States since the time of Columbus. Most were introduced intentionally, and many provide great benefits to society as agricultural crops and landscape ornamentals. Some were introduced accidentally, for example, in ship ballast, in packing material and as seed contaminants. Of these introduced species, fewer than 3,000 have naturalized and become established in the U.S. landscape outside cultivation. About 1,000 naturalized plant species have become invasive pests that interfere with agriculture, forestry, transportation and utility infrastructure, lawn and garden maintenance, and natural ecosystem processes. Of the 3,200 plant species in Virginia, more than 600, or 18 percent, have been introduced since the founding of Jamestown. The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation currently lists 90 species as invasive.
Invasive species are a major threat, second only to habitat destruction, to native plants and wildlife. They can reduce habitat and population size of native species, alter habitat structure and change ecosystem properties. Fifty-seven percent of plant species listed as threatened or endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are directly threatened by invasive species.
In the United States, invasive species cause an estimated $120 billion in annual economic losses, including costs to manage their effects. Annual costs and damages arising from invasive plants alone are estimated at $34 billion.
Invasive plants have competitive advantages that allow them to disrupt native plant communities and the wildlife dependent on them. For example, kudzu (Pueraria montana) grows very rapidly and overtops forest canopy, thus shading other plant species from the sunlight necessary for their survival. A tall invasive wetland grass, common reed (Phragmites australis ssp. australis), invades and dominates marshes, reducing native plant diversity and sometimes eliminating virtually all other species. The invasive plant autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) has the ability to fix nitrogen, allowing it to invade sites with nutrient-poor soils and displace native species. Tree-of-heaven (Ailanthus altissima) also grows rapidly and releases a chemical compound that suppresses the growth of other plant species.
These advantages allow invasive species to dominate natural communities. Their dominance often alters plant community structures and ecosystem processes. Ecosystem changes often occur so quickly that native species cannot adapt. Invasive species can marginalize or even cause the loss of native species. With their natural host plants gone, many insects disappear. And since insects are an essential part of the diet of many birds, the effects on the food web become far reaching. Habitats with a high occurrence of invasive plants become a kind of "green desert." Although green and healthy in appearance, far fewer native species of plants and animals are found in such radically altered places.
The use of native plants is on the rise across the country as more people discover their many benefits. An ever-widening selection of vigorous, nursery-propagated native plants is available from specialty growers and many larger nurseries because of this increased demand. Purchasing native plants from such nurseries is preferable to taking them from wild places. The collection of wild plants threatens the existence of native species by causing net losses in population size and genetic diversity It also leaves the collector or purchaser with highly stressed plants that are less likely to survive. These problems are multiplied when the plants are collected from a distant-source population and then planted in a new location with different environmental conditions.
Land managers, landscape designers and homeowners benefit from using local growers and nurseries that offer nursery-propagated native species, especially plants propagated from local populations. Once a good source of native plants has been located, the next step is choosing appropriate plants for a project. One of the greatest benefits of designing with native plants is their adaptation to local conditions. However, it is important to select plants with growth requirements that best match conditions in the area to be planted.
If you are planning a project using native plant species, use our native plant finder or the printable brochures in the right-bar to learn which plants grow in your region of Virginia. Next, study the minimum light and moisture requirements for each species, noting that some plants grow well under a variety of conditions. Native plants help wildlife and are ideal for horticulture and landscaping, and conservation and restoration. Of course, many of the recommended species are well suited to more than one of these categories.
For more information, refer to field guides and publications on local natural history for color, shape, height, bloom times and specific wildlife value of the plants that grow in your region. For help in designing native plantings with combinations of species that would occur together naturally, visit a nearby park, natural area preserve, forest or wildlife management area to learn about common plant associations, spatial groupings and habitat conditions. For specific recommendations and advice about project design, consult a landscape or garden design specialist with experience in native plants.
Virginia has five physiographic provinces based on geologic and topographic characteristics of the landscape. Each province exhibits a distinct combination of soils, elevation, hydrology and climate, which determines the species of plants and animals found there. For the purposes of this list, Virginia's five physiographic provinces are combined into three regions: Coastal Plain, Piedmont and Mountain.
Virginia's Coastal Plain extends from the sands of Virginia Beach west to the fall line. Formed by marine sediments eroded from the Appalachian Highlands, the Coastal Plain varies in topography from north to south. In the north, the Northern Neck is somewhat hilly and well-drained. On the Middle Peninsula and Lower Peninsula, hills are less steep. South of the James River, the landscape levels off to about a 1-degree slope toward the ocean. In places, streams cut easily through the sands, gravels and clays to form well-developed ravine systems, and tidal rivers widen as the topography flattens. The Eastern Shore, separated from the mainland by the Chesapeake Bay, exhibits relatively little topography across the uplands extending from the Atlantic on the east to the bay on the west. From white sand beaches of the barrier islands, to tidal freshwater marshes, to blackwater swamps, to upland mixed hardwood and pine forests, the Coastal Plain has a diverse array of habitats for many native plant species.
Rocky falls and rapids on the Potomac, Rappahannock and James rivers mark a transition from the softer sediments of the Coastal Plain to the resistant bedrock underlying the Piedmont. Moving west, the rolling hills of Virginia's Piedmont Plateau steadily climb from the fall line to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which form the western boundary of the Piedmont. The hills of the Piedmont become steeper to the west, where monadnocks - remnants of ancient mountains - rise above the farms and forests. The Piedmont is known for moderately fertile but highly eroded clay soils that formed from deeply weathered bedrock. Most of this land was converted to farmland during European settlement. Today, however, mixed pine-oak-hickory forests arising from abandoned farmlands are found throughout the region.
The Mountain region is comprised of three physiographic provinces: Blue Ridge, Ridge and Valley, and Appalachian Plateau. The Blue Ridge Mountains are a wedge of ancient rocks that were uplifted over younger rocks when the Appalachian Mountains were formed. Occurring as a narrow ridge of peaks in the north, the Blue Ridge widens south of Roanoke Gap into a broad plateau topped by the highest peak in Virginia, Mount Rogers, rising 5,728 feet above sea level. The Ridge and Valley Province is characterized by long, even-crested, parallel ridges rising above intervening valleys, including the Great Valley of Virginia. The Appalachian Plateau Province in southwestern Virginia is a high, dissected plateau of nearly horizontal rock layers. The rugged, mountainous topography was created by streams cutting deeply into the plateau, forming an intricate network of narrow, steep valleys. The diverse landscape of this region supports a rich array of natural communities, ranging from rocky barrens in the Blue Ridge to mixed woodlands and sinkhole ponds in the Ridge and Valley.
This project is a collaboration between the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation and the Virginia Native Plant Society.
The following partners have provided valuable assistance throughout the life of this project:
The Nature Conservancy - Virginia Chapter
Virginia Tech Department of Horticulture
Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, Coastal Zone Management Program
Virginia Department of Forestry
Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries
Virginia Department of Transportation
Project partners share a commitment to protect native plant habitats that support rare, threatened or endangered species. The use of native plant species - especially those propagated from local populations - in land management, conservation, restoration and horticultural projects maintains the ecological integrity of natural areas and preserves native biodiversity.
Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation
Natural Heritage Program
Native Plants for Conservation and Landscaping pages:
For a list of nurseries that propagate native species, visit:
Virginia Native Plant Society
For a list of nurseries in a particular region of Virginia, visit:
To search for species in the VNLA member catalogs, visit:
Digital Atlas of the Flora of Virginia provides range maps for plant species in Virginia:
The Wildflower Center offers a database of native species with photographs, garden requirements, and more:
The United States Department of Agriculture maintains an extensive plant database: