Native plants, also called wildflowers or "heritage plants," grew in a place before animals and people began bringing plants and seeds from other areas. Although many non-native plants adapt to new conditions--some adapt so well that they become invasive--native plants thrive without extra water, nutrients or amendments to their native soil. Mid-Atlantic gardeners are blessed with a mild climate that supports a wealth of native flora.
Dozens of trees are native to the temperate uplands of the Appalachians and coastal plains that stretch from New Jersey to Virginia. According to the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, which publishes lists of native plants, red silver and sugar maples grow throughout the area. The Pawpaw tree, with its purple flowers and tropical fruit, grows wild from New Jersey through Southern forests. Shagbark, mocker nut and pignut hickory have provided hardwood for furniture and aromatic home hearths for generations. Atlantic white cedar and Virginia juniper's names reflect their origins. Flowering dogwood, tulip tree and Eastern redbud lend their blooms to spring. "Virginia pine" or "Jersey pine" are the same tall tree. Black cherry is one of the first recorded New World trees; its wood was used for colonial furniture and its fruit gave cough remedies their "wild cherry" flavor. Black walnut, gray birch, red pine and white oak are natives, too.
Growing zones in the Mid-Atlantic range from 5b in northern Pennsylvania and the Alleghenies to zones 6 and 7 along the coast from New York to Virginia. Virginia has a wide range of growing zones from 8a in the Norfolk area to zone 6 in the Appalachian uplands. Serviceberry, also called "shadbush," grows throughout the Appalachian highlands; Captain John Smith wrote of "Checkinquamins," or Allegheny chinquapin. American strawberry bush is an American euonymus called "Hearts-a-burstin" or "Wahoo." Spice bush has yellow blooms in spring, and wild hydrangeas, called "sevenbark," adorn Piedmont homesteads. Calico bush, or mountain laurel's, hard, knotty wood is used for tool handles and pipes. Wild rhododendron, roseshell azalea and swamp azaleas grow from cool, moist mountain hollows to tidal marshes. New Jersey tea's leaves replaced the English drink during the Revolutionary War. Because they grow so well in the sandy loam of the coastal plains and Piedmont, many native shrubs are available at local garden centers. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas provides background and names of native shrubs and other plants by state.
Wildflowers, groundcovers, grasses and ferns are all members of the "herb" family of plants. State native plant societies and the Federal "Chesapeake Bayscape" program publish lists of sources for plants and seeds. Annuals like horsemint, coreopsis and black-eyed Susan grow easily from seed. Common yarrow, Eastern pale coneflower, Eastern red columbine butterfly weed and Joe Pye weed grow in open fields. Swamp milkweed, blazing star and cardinal flowers are wetland plants. Swamp sunflowers bloom in Jersey bogs in September, and Eastern beard tongue graces Virginia's Dismal Swamp with purple blossoms in early summer. Wild stonecrop, creeping phlox and wild ginger grow as ground covers. Lady, wood and maidenhair ferns and tussock sedge make good rain garden residents. The Maryland Native Plant Society recommends replacing ornamental and exotic grasses with native tall grasses like Indian grass, big bluestem and purple top. Switch grass grows wild along the coast line. Little bluestem, bottlebrush and poverty oatgrass grow in uplands as well as coastal areas.