Skip to Content

Native Plants for Conservation, Restoration, and Landscaping

What are native plants?

Native species are those that occur in the region in which they evolved. Plants evolve over geologic time in response to physical and biotic processes characteristic of a region: the climate, soils, timing of rainfall, drought, and frost; and interactions with the other species inhabiting the local community. Thus native plants possess certain traits that make them uniquely adapted to local conditions, providing a practical and ecologically valuable alternative for landscaping, conservation and restoration projects, and as livestock forage. In addition, native plants can match the finest cultivated plants in beauty, while often surpassing non-natives in ruggedness and resistance to drought, insects and disease.

The native plants list identifies native plant species currently recommended by the Virginia Native Plant Society, the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, and other project cooperators for use in horticulture, land management, conservation, and restoration projects in Virginia. The list provides a selection of plant choices adapted to growing conditions in Virginia, focusing on those native species currently or potentially available in the nursery trade. For the most part, relatively common species have been included on the list, although a few less common species were also included due to their establishment in the trade and the general stability of their habitat in Virginia. Rare species were left off the list in order to protect the genetic integrity of naturally occurring populations of rare species and avoid the collection of rare plants.

back to top of page

Buying and growing native plants

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 as a result of this increased demand. This offers a much-needed alternative to wild collection or the purchase of wild-collected plants. Wild-collection threatens the existence of native species by causing net losses in population size and genetic diversity, and leaves the collector or purchaser with highly stressed plants that have a decreased likelihood of survival. These problems are multiplied when the plants are collected from a distant source population, then planted in a new location with different environmental conditions.

We encourage land managers, conservation professionals, restoration specialists, landscape designers, and private individuals to utilize 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. But it is important to select plants with growth requirements that best match the conditions in the area to be planted.

When planning projects utilizing native plant species, you can start with this list for information on which plants grow in each of the three major regions of Virginia. These three regions include: the Coastal Plain, from the Atlantic Ocean in the east to the Fall Line in the west; the Piedmont, from the Fall Line in the east to the Blue Ridge Mountains in the west; and the Mountains, including the Blue Ridge Mountain, the Ridge and Valley, and the Appalachian Plateau Provinces. Next study the minimum light and moisture requirements for each species, noting that some plants will grow under a variety of conditions. Recommended uses include wildlife benefits, horticulture and landscaping, conservation and restoration, or domestic livestock forage. Of course, many of these 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 local natural area and observe common plant associations, spatial groupings, and habitat conditions. For specific recommendations and advice about project design, consult with a natural areas steward or a natural resource specialist.

back to top of page

Natives versus aliens

In North America, plant species are generally described as native if they occurred here prior to European settlement. This distinction is made because of the large-scale changes that have occurred since the arrival of the European settlers. The Europeans imported a variety of plants to this country, many are still the major component of traditional lawns and gardens. They also include many beneficial plants important in farming, such as vegetables and grains. Today, approximately 25% of flowering plants in North America are non-natives or alien species, most of Eurasian origin.

All plants are native to some region, and offer a variety of ecological, economic and aesthetic benefits. In fact, many alien species are beneficial, providing food and other valuable resources to society. It is only when a species is "out of place" that we become concerned. In these instances, invasive alien plants can pose a serious threat to biodiversity. Due to a lack of natural controls such as insect pests and competitors, some alien plants can easily become established in new areas. Once established, alien plant species can out compete and displace the native plant species, disrupting ecological processes and significantly degrading entire plant communities. Many invasive plants spread quickly and grow so densely that other species cannot get established in areas infested by these alien plant species. Common native plants can be crowded out, or their populations threatened due to hybridization with escaped ornamentals. Endangered species may be driven from their last habitats by invasive alien plant species. Aquatic invasive species can clog waterways, disrupt groundwater flows, degrade water quality, and lead to dramatic changes in native plant and animal communities.

Although a majority of invasive alien species come from other countries, they may also be introduced from a different region of the same country. For example, saltmarsh cordgrass is a dominant and important member of coastal saltmarsh communities along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. But when used for restoration projects in west coast marshes, it became invasive, out competing and replacing western species.

In contrast to invasive alien species, other non-native plants are unable to thrive without extra effort by land managers. For instance, they may originate in regions with abundant rainfall and soils rich in nutrients. If then introduced into a drier region with less fertile soils, they may require additional watering and fertilizer. The natural defenses plants evolve in their original habitats may not protect them in a new environment, requiring the application of pesticides to aid their growth.

back to top of page

Benefits of Native Plants

The benefit of growing plants within the region they evolved is they are more likely to thrive under the local conditions while being less likely to invade new habitats. Native plants are well adapted to local environmental conditions, maintain or improve soil fertility, reduce erosion, and often require less fertilizer and pesticides than many alien plants. These characteristics save time and money and reduce the amount of harmful run-off threatening the aquatic resources of our streams, rivers, and estuaries. In addition, functionally healthy and established natural communities are better able to resist invasions by alien plant species. So the use of native plants can help prevent the spread of alien species already present in a region and help avert future introductions. With the large variety of grasses, ferns, wildflowers, shrubs and trees from which to choose, native plants can fulfill any landscaping need, from simple container gardens to showy perennial borders to expansive public lawns and gardens.

Native plants provide familiar sources of food and shelter for wildlife. As natural habitats are replaced by urban and suburban development, the use of native plants in landscaping can provide essential shelter for displaced wildlife. Land managers can use native plants to maintain and restore wildlife habitat. Native wildlife species comprise a majority of the game and non-game animals we manage habitat for, and they evolved with native plant species. Although alien species are often promoted for their value as wildlife food plants, there is no evidence that alien plant materials are superior to native plants. For instance, on land managed for upland game animals, native warm season grasses (big and little bluestem, switch grass, Indian grass, coastal panic grass, gama grass), and other native forbs (butterfly weed, ironweed, Joe Pye weed) offer good sources of nutrition without the ecological threats associated with nonnative forage plants. Dramatic increases in nesting success of both game birds and songbirds have been observed in fields planted with native grasses, which also offer superior winter cover. In addition, warm season grasses provide productive and palatable livestock forage. (For more information on native warm season grasses contact the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries for the publication "Native Warm Season Grasses for Virginia and North Carolina: Benefits for Livestock and Wildlife.")

On a broader ecological scale, planting native species contributes to the overall health of natural communities. Disturbances of intact ecosystems that open and fragment habitat, such as land clearing activities, increase the potential of invasion by alien species. Native plants provide important alternatives to alien species for conservation and restoration projects in these disturbed areas. They can fill many land management needs currently occupied by nonnative species, and often with lower costs and maintenance requirements. Once established in an appropriate area, most native plant species are hardy and do not require watering, fertilizers, or pesticides.

In addition to ecological and land management benefits, the native flora of Virginia offers a surprising variety of color, form, and texture to gardeners and landscape designers. In fact, many familiar and popular landscaping plants such as black-eyed Susan, columbine, and bee balm are native to Virginia. Designing with natives allows the creation of distinctive natural landscapes including woodlands, meadows, and wetlands with unique regional character. In addition, native plants attract a greater variety of butterflies, hummingbirds, songbirds and other wildlife than traditional lawns. In fact, the greater the variety of native species included in a landscape, the more likely uncommon or rare species will be attracted to an area.

back to top of page

Virginia's Physiographic Provinces

Virginia is divided into several physiographic provinces based on their geologic history. Each province is unique in topography, soil pH, soil depth, elevation, availability of light, and hydrology. These characteristics all combine to influence the species of plants and animals found there. Virginia is unique, encompassing parts of five of these provinces, and thus a greater variety of natural landscapes than any other eastern state. For the purposes of this list, we have grouped the physiographic provinces into three regions: Coastal Plain, Piedmont, and Mountain.

Coastal Plain

Virginia's Coastal Plain is bordered by the Fall Line to the west and by the Atlantic Ocean, the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries to the east. This is the youngest of the physiographic provinces, formed by sediments eroded from the Appalachian Highlands and deposited along the Atlantic shoreline. The Coastal Plain varies in topography from north to south. The northern Coastal Plain consists of the three peninsulas formed between the four major tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay; the Potomac, the Rappahannock, the York, and the James Rivers. In the north, the Northern Neck is somewhat hilly and well drained. As you move southward across the Middle Peninsula and Lower Peninsula the topography flattens until south of the James River the landscape is basically level. The Eastern Shore, separated from the mainland by the Chesapeake Bay, exhibits little topographic relief. These subtle differences in topography and the variety of fresh, brackish, and saltwater systems from ocean and inland bay to rivers, ponds, and bogs, have contributed to the great variety of natural communities found on the Coastal Plain.


Virginia's Piedmont Plateau province is a gently rolling upland bounded on the east by the Fall line and the west by the Blue Ridge Mountains. The western boundary of the Piedmont is characterized by distinct peaks and ridges, comprising the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. To the east, the Piedmont continues to slope more gently toward the Fall Line. The Fall Line marks the zone of transition from the hard, resistant bedrock underlying the Piedmont to the softer sediments underlying the Coastal Plain. Streams are able to cut more easily through the sands, gravels, and clays of the Coastal Plain, and rivers widen as the topography flattens. In the northern part of the state this boundary is sharply delineated by falls and rapids. From foothills to rapids, these varying site conditions support a mosaic of plant communities.


The Mountain region of Virginia actually includes parts of three provinces; the Blue Ridge, the Ridge and Valley, and the Appalachian Plateau Physiographic Provinces. The Blue Ridge encompasses the Blue Ridge Mountains, a wedge of ancient rock that was uplifted over younger rocks when the Appalachian Mountains were formed. A narrow system of peaks in the north, the Blue Ridge widens south of Roanoke Gap into a broad plateau topped by the highest peaks in Virginia--Mount Rogers and Whitetop. The Ridge and Valley Province is characterized by long, even-crested, parallel ridges rising above intervening valleys of various size. The Valley of Virginia is included in this province, encompassing the large Shenandoah Valley, as well as the James, Roanoke, New River and the Clinch, Powell and Holston River valleys. The ridges of the Appalachian Plateau in far southwestern Virginia were not as folded and faulted as those of the Ridge and Valley, but formed from a high, unified plateau of nearly horizontal rock layers. The modern mountainous topography was created by streams cutting deeply through the plateau, forming an intricate network of narrow, steep valleys. The diversity in topography and geologic history of the Mountain region of Virginia gives rise to a rich array of natural communities and native species.

back to top of page

About the Native Plants for Conservation, Restoration, and Landscaping Project

This project is the result of a collaboration between the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation and the Virginia Native Plant Society, and was made possible by a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Department of Environmental Quality's VA Coastal Program. Funds were also contributed by the Virginia Nurserymen's Association, the Virginia Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects, and the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden.

In addition to those three organizations, the sponsors extend their considerable appreciation to the other collaborators who provided valuable advice and assistance throughout the life of the project:

  • The Nature Conservancy -- Virginia Chapter
  • Virginia Polytechnic and State University, Department of Horticulture
  • Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
  • Virginia Department of Forestry
  • Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries
  • Virginia Department of Transportation

Project participants share a commitment to protect native plant habitats, especially those that support rare, threatened, or endangered species. The use of native plant species--especially plants propagated from local populations--in land management, conservation, restoration, and horticultural projects will help maintain the ecological integrity of natural areas and preserve native biodiversity.

Virginia Native
Plant Finder

NEW! Ever wondered what's native to your backyard? Use this Native Plant finderhandy search tool to find out.

Native Plants for Conservation, Restoration and Landscaping Brochures

- Coastal Plain Native Plants Updated! 9/2011
- Piedmont Native Plants Updated! 9/2011
- Grasslands Native Plants Updated! 9/2011
- Mountain Native Plants Updated! 9/2011
- Riparian Native Plants Updated! 9/2011

Printed copies of the above native plant brochures by physiographic region are also available on good quality 70# paper with colored ink

For more information please contact:
Project Review Coordinator:

Rene Hypes
Department of Conservation and Recreation
Division of Natural Heritage
600 E. Main St., 24th Floor
Richmond, VA 23219

Specific Habitats

- Riparian Forest Buffers

- Native Grasslands


Virginia DCR

Va. Native Plant Society website
Virginia Native Plant Society

National Fish and Wildlife Foundation logo
National Fish & Wildlife Foundation

DEQ logo
VA DEQ - Coastal Program

VA Nuserymens Association

VA Chapter asla logo
VA Chapter ASLA

Lewis Ginter Botantical Garden logo
Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

TNC logo
The Nature Conservancy

VA Tech logo
Va. Tech Dept. of Horticulture

VA Dept. of Agriculture

VA Dept. of Forestry logo

Dept of Game and Inland Fisheries logo

VDOT logo