Time to find native plants!

How to Find Native Plants for Your Property

Planting and encouraging native plants on your property is a core part of cultivating abundance in a way that can help heal our living world. But how do you find native plants? And how do you know which native plants will support the largest diversity of wildlife? Keep reading for a step-by-step guide to picking native plants for your property.

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Before I dive into the steps to find native plants, you should know that this guide uses a tool that only works for people within the United States. If you live in Canada I recommend checking out the Canada Wildlife Federation’s Native Plants Encyclopedia to find native plants.

If you live outside of the United States and you have a favorite resource for finding native plants, please leave a comment on this post with a link and I will update this post to include it, along with a thank you!

You might be asking yourself, why should I bother with native plants? Isn’t it enough just to plant a diversity of plants with lots of flowers for pollinators? While that approach will support a good number of pollinators and generalist plant eating insects, (the non-fussy eaters of the insect world,) there are tons of insects that need native plants to survive.

These are the specialist insects, such as the monarch butterfly, that have evolved to rely on a small number of native plants—sometimes even just 1!

The vast majority of types of plant-eating insects are specialists.

Without native plants, your property can't do as much to help heal our living world. It will support far less wildlife than one filled with native plants. And native plants bring a number of other benefits to your property, as well.

If you really want to learn why native plants are critical to supporting a diverse community of wildlife, then make sure to check out the book Bringing Nature Home, by Douglas Tallamy.

So are you ready to find native plants for your property? Great! Keep reading for a step-by-step guide to find native plants for your area. But before you do, make sure to grab your free native plant tracker so you can easily keep track of the native plants you find.

A Great Tool for Picking Native Plants

Online tools can help you find native plants

You can add native plants to your growing areas just like you add nitrogen fixers or general flowering plants. I have added native lupines across my property, not only to support wildlife, but also to fix nitrogen and support my fruit trees and berries.

You know native plants support wildlife, but how do you know which to plant? Here in the United States there is a fantastic site that can help you find native plants for your property.

In addition to helping you find native plants, this database also has lists for each area of nurseries that sell native plants—though some may have gone out of business. Unfortunately, it’s often small local nurseries that sell native plants, and these nurseries can have a hard time staying in business.

But the database is still a great resource, and it can help you not only make a list of native plants, but then find places to buy them.

Wild Tip:

You can also salvage native plants from wild areas—especially those areas that are being developed. If the area is not being developed, it’s better to collect seeds or cuttings as opposed to digging up whole plants. But roadside ditches that get mowed are also good areas to salvage native plants.

The Audubon Society’s database also tells you what type of birds are supported by each native plant and how each native plant provides support for birds (berries, nuts, caterpillars, etc.). Native plants are an excellent way to help attract birds to your garden.

You can also look up native plants using the Wildlife Federation’s plant finder. This great tool will tell you how many butterflies and moths are supported by each native plant. For example, when I look up plants in my area, this tool tells me that native strawberries in my area support 76 different butterflies and moths, including at least 10 butterflies and moths that rely exclusively on these native strawberries.

Without the native strawberries, these 10 butterflies and moths would not exist.

The Wildlife Federation’s native plant finder makes it easy to find native plants that are critical to supporting a diversity of butterflies and moths. But its database is missing a lot of native plants (as of November 2019), which is why I recommend the Audubon Society’s plant finder.

Finding Native Plants for a Fruit Tree Guild – Example from Western Washington

Find native plants like this Pacific waterleaf

The shade of a fruit tree can be a challenging area for growing food. But native plants are a great option for these hard-to-plant areas. In my area, Pacific waterleaf is a fantastic shade-loving wild native vegetable that is great in salads and can be used as a fuzzy-textured spinach or lettuce substitute.

So how do you use the Audubon Society’s plant database? Here’s an example of how you can use these tools to pick native plants for a fruit tree guild in Western Washington.

A fruit tree guild is a component of a food forest. The difference between a food forest and an orchard is that a food forest also includes shrubs, other trees, and a mix of non-woody plants, including groundcovers, flowers, nitrogen-fixers, and root crops.

This transforms the orchard into a food producing system that truly mimics a natural forest and supports a large diversity of wildlife in addition to producing food—hence the term “Food Forest”.

Food Forest Series

Want to learn more about food forests? Check out these blog posts all about food forests:

Figuring out what to plant is often a challenge, and adding native plants to the mix can make it feel even more complex. Luckily, the Audubon Society’s database makes it easy to find native plants for your fruit tree guilds.

Native Plants for an Apple Guild

Find native plants like this checker mallow

Native plants, like non-native plants, can fill multiple functions in your designs. For example, checker mallows provide flowers for pollinators, including a native bee that specializes in checker mallows. But they’re also edible, providing a great salad green for you and food for many species of wildlife. Plus, they add a lot of beauty to a place!

To help explain how to use these native plant finding tools, let’s design an apple tree guild. First, you have a semi-dwarf apple tree.

There will be a fairly shady area under the apple tree, especially on the north side, but the east to west arc along the southern edge of the tree’s canopy will get a fair bit of sunlight despite being near the tree.

Let’s add a couple berry bushes to this sunny edge to provide a new harvest. But this will also create more shade to the north of these bushes.

In the remaining sunny areas around the berries and the apple tree, let’s add a mix of non-woody plants. We will want some flowers, some root crops, and a good groundcover.

But what about the shady areas? Well, let’s add a couple shade-tolerant shrubs to the arc along the northern edge of the apple tree. In the now fairly-deep shade under the apple tree, let’s make sure to add a diversity of shade tolerant non-woody plants like we did for the sunny areas.

To summarize, here is what our apple tree has so far:

  • Apple Tree
  • 2 sun-loving edible shrubs
  • 2 shade-tolerant edible shrubs
  • 3-5 different types of sun-loving non-woody plants
  • 3-5 different types of shade-tolerant non-woody plants
  • 3 different types of groundcover plants
  • 3-5 different types of root crops / bulbs

Now you could just add your favorite edible plants to fill each category of plants in this list. For example, you could plant gooseberry bushes to cover your shade tolerant shrubs category—these are great plants that I have on my property.

But they don’t support specialist native insects, so let’s see what native plants could be used instead, by using the Audubon’s native plant database.

First, start with the Audubon Society’s database. On the site, enter your zip code (you can skip adding your email address) and click the search button. I’m using the zip code 98506 for my area.

This will take you to a page with several different tabs and a list of native plants for your area. The first list of native plants you’re shown are the ones the Audubon Society considers to be the best based on the number birds supported by each plant and how easy it is to find the plants in nurseries.

The next tab over shows you all the results in the database.

You can also filter the results to show only shrubs. Let’s do that so we can find some shade-tolerant shrubs.

Wild Tip:

Unfortunately, neither of these native plant tools will tell you if a specific native plant is edible. To figure out if a specific plant is edible try looking up the plant at the great site “Plants for a Future”. Also, check Wikipedia and the USDA PLANTS Database site for more information.

When I filter the results to show native shrubs for my area, there are several shrubs that look promising—these are all shade tolerant, and they don’t get too big (below 20 feet). I also happen to know that these are all edible in one way or another (berries, flowers, nuts, etc.).

  • Beaked Hazelnut – Corylus cornuta
  • Red Flowering (Blood) Currant – Ribes sanguineum
  • Low (Cascade) Oregon Grape – Mahonia nervosa
  • Evergreen Huckleberry – Vaccinium ovatum
  • Nootka Rose – Rosa nutkana
  • Salal – Gaultheria shallon
  • Serviceberry – Amelanchier alnifolia
  • Thimbleberry – Rubus parviflorus

While the Audubon’s site is a great way to find native plants, I would look up each plant on google using the scientific name to get a bit more information. Use the Audubon’s site to pick your 5 top plants and then look those 5 up on google and pick your final 2.

My personal favorites from this list for shade-tolerant shrubs would be Evergreen huckleberries and red flowering currants.

The evergreen huckleberry will provide food for birds (late summer through December) as well as winter shelter. Red flowering currants provide food for wildlife, and you can make a tea from the flowers in the spring. Plus, hummingbirds love the flowers!

Now you can repeat this process for the other categories: 2 sun-loving edible shrubs, 3-5 different types of sun-loving non-woody plants and 3-5 different types of shade-tolerant non-woody plants.

But I would not only include native plants in the guild. While I highly recommend planting native plants, you also need to grow food for your family. Instead, go for a balance between native and non-native plants.

Here is what my final plant list for this guild would be (all the native plants were found using the Audubon’s database):

  • Guild Core: Apple Tree [Edible]
  • 2 sun loving edible shrubs: 2 Goumi berry bushes (nitrogen-fixing) [Non-Native/Edible]
  • 2 shade tolerant edible shrubs: 1 Evergreen Huckleberry [Native/Edible], 1 Red Flowering Currant [Native/Edible]
  • 3-5 different types of sun loving non-woody plants: 3 Dwarf Checkerbloom (checkermallow) [Native/Edible], 2 Kosmic Kale [Non-Native/Edible].
  • 3-5 different types of shade tolerant non-woody plants: 5 Miner’s Lettuce [Native/Edible]
  • 3 different types of groundcover plants: 3 strawberries [Non-Native/Edible]
  • 3-5 different types of root crops / bulbs: 3 Daffodils [Non-Native], 2 Large Camas [Native/Edible]

There you go! An apple tree guild for western Washington, with a mix of native and non-native plants—most of which are also edible!

But really this list is just a start. For example, I would add more root crops or bulbs, and more non-woody plants. But if you planted all these plants around your apple tree you would be off to a great start. And the result would support birds, specialist insects, and many other types of wildlife!

Now just imagine you repeated this process around 6 or even 12 fruit trees all planted together. Just think about the amazing wildlife habitat and food for your family and community that this food forest would create!

Next Steps – Create a List of Your Favorite Native Plants

Find native plants for your projects

Over time, I've developed a list of my favorite native plants. This list is broken up into large trees, small trees, shrubs, non-woody plants, groundcovers, root crops, etc. I also track which are edible (and how they’re edible—the roots? the leaves?), which are nitrogen fixers, and which are useful for creating mulch through chop-and-drop.

Now that you know how to find native plants, what do you do next? My recommendation is to start creating a list of native plants that you can use to keep track of your favorite native plants.

Then when you get ready to start a new planting project, look at your list and pick out some to add to your project.

I always make sure to add some native plants to each of my planting areas. Sometimes this might only be 1 or 2 plants, but other times native plants might make up the majority of the planting area.

By using this approach instead of limiting native plants to the edges of your property, you can support far more wildlife. This will not only support your local environment, it will also help keep pests under control and help bring your property into balance with the natural world around you.

Where do you grow native plants on your property? Leave a comment to let us know!


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Daron

Daron is a restoration ecologist, lifelong gardener, and founder of Growing with Nature. He created this site to help people enjoy wildlife, grow food, and help heal our living world. He has managed the restoration program for a local non-profit, and he’s applying principles of restoration and permaculture to transform his property in western Washington to forests, wetlands, hedgerows, food forests, and permaculture gardens. He holds a Masters in Environmental Studies and an Associate of Applied Science degree in Water Resources. He loves sharing the joy of growing food with his two beautiful children.

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