The Northeast Native Plant Primer

235 Plants for an Earth-Friendly Garden


By Uli Lorimer

By Native Plant Trust

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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around May 10, 2022. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

Bring your garden to life—and life to your garden
Do you want a garden that makes a real difference? Choose plants native to our Northeast region. The rewards will benefit you, your yard, and the environment—from reducing maintenance tasks to attracting earth-friendly pollinators such as native birds, butterflies, and bees. Native plant expert Uli Lorimer of the Native Plant Trust makes adding these superstar plants easier than ever before, with proven advice that every home gardener can follow. This incomparable sourcebook includes 235 recommended native trees, shrubs, vines, ferns, wildflowers, grasses, sedges, and annuals. It’s everything you need to know to create a beautiful and beneficial garden.
This must-have handbook is for gardeners in Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, eastern Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont.


A pathway at Garden in the Woods beckons visitors to explore.

The fronds of maidenhair fern form a curtain of calming green texture.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

American larch (Larix laricina)

Virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana)

Highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum)


The benefits of trees in the landscape cannot be understated. Here are just a few ways all life benefits from trees: Trees provide shade in summer, windbreaks in winter, habitat for countless organisms, places for humans to gather with family and friends, branches for tire swings, places for treehouses, frames for outside views from inside the house, sources of food, sinks for carbon.... I could go on, but I hope my point is clear: we need more trees in the ground. Planting a tree is also a decidedly forward-thinking act, as many of us will not live to see some of these trees become mature and magnificent, but perhaps our children will. If you are fortunate to live with mature trees, take good care of them, and if you have space to plant young trees, the rewards they bring will increase year after year.

Abies balsamea
balsam fir
northern forests, mountains
45–75 ft.
full sun to part sun

This handsome tree is one of the finest evergreens to be found in mountains and northern boreal forests, with blue-green, aromatic needles and a pyramidal habit. I have always thought that its female cones, which are borne erect on the upper branches, resembled dinosaur eggs. Balsam fir prefers acidic, humus-rich, moist soils, and it looks best when grown in full sun. It makes an excellent windbreak or screen planting, or use it as an evergreen anchor in a shrub or perennial border.

Acer nigrum
black maple
woodlands, woodland edges
60–80 ft.
full sun to part sun

Lesser known, yet no less deserving of admiration, is this cousin of the sugar maple. This graceful tree prefers the rich, mesic (moist) forest soils often found along river corridors in nature. Black maple is an exceptional, long-lived shade tree with high wildlife value. In autumn, the green and fuzzy foliage turns a clear yellow-orange color. Plant this tree as a specimen or as part of a forest garden.

Acer pensylvanicum
moosewood, striped bark maple
woodland understory
15–25 ft.
part sun to part shade

Emerging foliage

Moosewood is a wonderful shade-tolerant understory tree of mesic woodlands and mountain slopes. With maturity, the greenish bark and older branches become streaked with vertical lines of white, earning it the common name of striped bark maple. In spring, the trees bear pendulous racemes of yellow-green flowers that give way to clusters of winged samara fruits come late summer. Its large, coarse, three-pronged foliage turns pale yellow in autumn. This small tree is a tasteful addition to a shade or woodland garden, especially if sited so that the bark color and texture can be enjoyed over the winter months. Avoid planting it in full sun, because the foliage will scorch and become unsightly.

Acer rubrum
red maple
forests, swamps, wetland edges
40–60 ft.
full sun to part sun

Few trees herald the onset of spring like the crimson male and female flowers of red maple. This maple grows quickly. Although it can attain its greatest size in moist to wet soils, red maple is quite tolerant of average to drier soils. It is clothed in vibrant red and fiery orange hues in autumn and provides shelter and forage for a host of insects, birds, and wildlife. It can be used as a specimen tree in a lawn or as a street tree.

Acer saccharum
sugar maple
woodlands, woodland edges
60–80 ft.
full sun to part sun

Sugar maple is an emblematic tree of the Northeast. It commonly grows along roadsides and where planted for maple syrup production. The changing climate is causing sugar maples to become less common in the southern portions of the region. At maturity, this maple is a grand canopy tree, featuring deeply fissured, flaky bark and some of the best fall color of our deciduous trees. In the fall, fiery reds, oranges, and yellows announce their presence in forests as well as the onset of winter. Sugar maple is a great choice for a shade tree or specimen planting in gardens. Aside from the obvious benefits to humans, it provides for innumerable wildlife species that rely upon it for food, forage, and shelter.

Amelanchier arborea
common serviceberry, downy shadbush
woodland understory, woodland edges
20+ ft.
full sun to part shade

Content to grow in full sun to part shade, common serviceberry will bring delight to your garden, whether as a multistem shrub or a small tree. White, five-petaled, fragrant flowers emerge before the leaves expand and often before other trees have grown their leaves, which makes this plant a shining focal point of the early spring garden. Fall color is good with hues of yellow, orange, and red-orange. Plant it in front of an evergreen or dark backdrop to accentuate its form and color, or along lakes, ponds, or streams in naturalized or woodland settings. Its value to wildlife is tremendous, with more than forty species of birds and mammals consuming its fruit.

Benthamidia florida*
flowering dogwood
woodland understory, woodland edges
30 ft.
full sun to part shade

Flowering dogwood is perhaps the most memorable member of the forest understory in the woodlands of the eastern United States and Canada. It is a shallow-rooted tree, preferring moist, rich soils, with a spreading crown and a lovely scalloped branching pattern. In the spring, gray, button-shaped terminal flower buds erupt into small green flowers that are surrounded by large white bracts, all before its leaves emerge. In autumn, the foliage takes on tones of red, crimson, and purple, punctuated by bright red fruit. The bark of mature specimens is blocky and angular and quite attractive. Sadly, this tree is susceptible to anthracnose fungus and is sensitive to air pollution. It would be best sited away from roads and in a position with good airflow. Flowering dogwood is well suited for shade gardens or as a specimen planting in a lawn or park.

*syn. Cornus florida

Betula alleghaniensis
yellow birch
woodlands, wetland edges, swamps
60–75 ft.
full sun to part shade

A common tree of northern forests, yellow birch is characterized by the golden, peeling bark of its trunk and stems. A denizen of cool ravines, it can be planted in a variety of garden conditions, as long as the soil remains moist. Like many of the birches, it will grow quickly if conditions are suitable, capable of reaching canopy height within a few decades. Fall color is a clear yellow, while the peeling bark adds aesthetic value no matter what the season. This tree has tremendous wildlife value. The foliage is used as fuel for giant silk moths, its seeds are consumed by dozens of bird species, the sap is prized by the yellow-bellied sapsucker, and the branches are used as nesting sites for hummplant_detailsirds, warblers, and hawks.

Betula lenta
black birch, cherry birch
woodlands, rocky outcrops
70 ft.
full sun to part shade

Black birch has a pyramidal shape with graceful, gray bark that forms attractive plates with age. It prefers acidic soils and can tolerate soil conditions from moist to shallow and rocky. It is the host plant for the mourning cloak butterfly, usually one of the first butterflies of the season to take wing. The fall color is a reliable golden yellow, perhaps the best of all the birches. The tree’s inner bark has a strong wintergreen scent, and scratching or breaking stems or leaves produces a heavenly aroma. Like other birches, it will grow quickly if content, with rarely any issues.

A black birch emerges from under a boulder

Betula populifolia
gray birch
open fields, woodland edges
20–30 ft.
full sun

Gray birch is a quintessential pioneer tree that is shade intolerant, fast growing, and relatively short-lived. Despite its name, its bark is not gray; it becomes white to yellow with age, although not as stark white as the paper birch. This species is great in masses at the edges of woodlands and forests, where the winter stems can be enjoyed. Alternately, it can be planted in meadow gardens as a nod to the inevitable invasion of trees into open spaces. Gray birch is an important food and forage tree for birds and wildlife.

Carpinus caroliniana
American hornbeam
woodland understory
40 ft.
part sun to part shade

Winged seed clusters

American hornbeam is a small understory tree related to birch and alder. It has earned the common names of musclewood and ironwood on account of its sinewy, fluted trunks and stems and exceptionally hard, dense wood. Yellow fall color and pendant, winged seeds add interest in addition to the bark texture. Perfect for woodland gardens, suitable for hedgerows or even formal clipped hedges, American hornbeam is somewhat drought tolerant but otherwise tough as nails.

Carya glabra
pignut hickory
100+ ft.
full sun to part sun

The hickory is a majestic forest canopy tree that can attain a venerable age. Pignut hickory displays compound leaves that turn butter-yellow in autumn and yields nuts rich in proteins and fats, highly prized by wildlife. Once the tree is established, a deep tap root renders it very drought tolerant, and it tolerates most soil conditions as long as it is not too wet or swampy. Because it can be a large tree, it is best used as a shade tree in a large yard or park. It serves as a host plant for insects including the luna moth.

Carya ovata
shagbark hickory
70–90 ft.
full sun to part sun

Instantly recognizable by the long strips of bark that peel from its trunk, shagbark hickory is a long-lived canopy tree. Its nuts are nutritious and prized by humans and wildlife alike. Though slow to produce fruit, the tree’s longevity makes it well worth planting as a specimen or in a woodland garden setting. The compound leaves turn golden yellow in the autumn, and the shaggy bark provides a focal point in the winter landscape.

Expanding spring foliage

Catalpa bignonioides
southern catalpa
woodlands, woodland edges
30–60 ft.
full sun to part sun

I have always had a soft spot for trees with an irregular shape. Each one is unique and seemingly molded to site conditions. Southern catalpa is such a tree. It bears large, coarse-textured, heart-shaped leaves, and in summer, the foliage is topped with panicles of creamy white, bell-shaped flowers with twin ridges of yellow spots amid a background of purple splotches. These give way to long, thin, cigar-shaped seedpods that dangle like strings beneath the foliage. The blooms are popular with pollinators, while the foliage serves as host to several moth caterpillar species, including the catalpa sphinx moth. This tree is tolerant of dry and moderately wet conditions once established and is generally problem and disease free. It is ideal as an anchor in a sunny perennial border or at the edge of a meadow. I have seen this tree commonly used as a specimen in suburban front yards as well.

Chionanthus virginicus
fringe tree
woodlands, woodland edges, wetland edges
20–30 ft.
full sun to part sun

There are few things more delightful than encountering the sweet, delicate fragrance of fringe tree flowers in the spring air, especially if it arrives before you can set eyes on its source. The tree blossoms as the leaves emerge, giving it the appearance of a lacy, frilly, fleecy cloud of thin, striplike petals on pendant panicles. One of my favorite small-statured trees, the fringe tree is perfect for smaller gardens, courtyards, or foundational plantings, where the aroma can waft indoors. The tree is dioecious, meaning there are separate male and female plants. Although both sexes produce lovely blooms, only the females produce dark fruit in summer. Fringe tree prefers moist and rich soils, seldom requires pruning, and is generally problem free.

Fagus grandifolia
American beech
50–80 ft.
full sun to part shade

American beech is a venerable, long-lived canopy tree with smooth, gray bark akin to the skin of an elephant, even in old age. These trees produce vast networks of surface roots, which often sprout suckers and young clonal trees. They prefer moist, acidic soil, although I have seen them growing in and around the edges of swamps. The foliage is elliptical in shape with wavy leaf margins, a soft pea-green color when they first emerge in the spring, turning a yellow-brown hue when fall arrives. Beech leaves are marescent, often remaining on the tree well into winter. Beech nuts are a valued resource for wildlife; the tree is host to multitudes of insect and moth species and serves as nesting for pileated woodpeckers and red-tailed hawks.

Ilex opaca
American holly
woodlands, woodland edges, old fields
40–60 ft.
full sun to part shade

I have always considered American holly to be the matriarch of hollies in the United States. She grows slowly, stately, and with grace, bedecked with prickly evergreen foliage and jewel-red fruit. Hollies are dioecious, meaning there are separate male and female plants, with only the latter capable of producing fruit. The combination of thick evergreen foliage and contrasting clusters of red fruit has inspired many a Christmas decoration. American holly grows best in moist, acidic, well drained soils and is generally found along the coast in the Northeast. It is quite salt tolerant but benefits from being shielded from the desiccating winter winds common in our region. Often used as a hedge or privacy screen, it can also be employed as a specimen planting in a lawn. It prefers full sun but will tolerate some shade; the more shade, the less dense the foliage will be. Its fruits are not as nutritious as other fruits in the landscape and are often ignored by wildlife until deep into winter, when little else is available. The dense branching and foliage make ideal cover and nesting sites for songbirds in the spring.

Juniperus virginiana
eastern red cedar
old fields, roadsides, maritime dunes
50 ft.
full sun to part sun

Eastern red cedar is the most drought-resistant conifer in the eastern United States. This classic pioneer species prefers full sun exposure and can endure a wide variety of soil conditions. Its wide tolerance makes it a useful tree. Despite being one of the first woody species to invade old fields and roadsides, these mostly dioecious evergreens can be quite long-lived, as long as they are not shaded by other trees. In spring, male trees produce small, yellow pollen cones; female trees produce small, green-blue female cones that, after fertilization, become powdery, dark blue, berrylike fruits that are greedily devoured by cedar waxwings in the fall. I have seen this tree planted in grassland and meadow designs, where it hints at the process of plant succession and lends a natural aura. Alternatively, eastern red cedar can be used as a hedge or privacy screen planting.

Eastern red cedar growing in sandy soil

Larix laricina
American larch
swamps, bogs, pond margins
50–75 ft.
full sun

As if you need a reason to consider American larch a special tree, it is the only conifer in the Northeast to drop its needles in the fall and grow new ones in the spring. This graceful tree of swamps and bottomlands needs consistently moist, acidic soil to thrive. New needles emerge in small, soft clusters in spring along with hot-pink female cones. As autumn arrives, the upright tree takes on a gilded appearance before shedding its needles as winter sets in. American larch is a boreal tree and is extremely cold hardy. In appropriate soil conditions, it is a superb choice for the edges of wetlands or at the back of a wet meadow.

Magnolia acuminata
cucumber magnolia
woodlands, bottomland forests
30–50 ft.
full sun to part sun

One of several native magnolias of the eastern United States, the cucumber magnolia is a handsome tree with a pyramidal habit and large, coarse, almost tropical-looking foliage. Its large foliage and red fruit give it a bold texture in the garden. The tree produces 2–4 inch greenish-white, fragrant blossoms, which are followed by green to red warty fruit that earns it the common name of cucumber magnolia. It is tolerant of moist to dry soils, although it does not like compacted soils or sites with a lot of surrounding rock, concrete, or glass. The autumn color of the leaves is a solid yellow-gold.

Magnolia virginiana
sweet bay
swamps, bottomland forests, wetland edges
20–30 ft.
full sun to part shade

The sweet bay is a small-statured magnolia. Its dark green, glossy leaves bear white undersides and are evergreen in most areas save for New England, where harsher winters may cause the leaves to drop. Blooming in summer, the tree bears creamy white, cup-shaped blossoms that are deliciously fragrant. The flowers give rise to aggregate fruits resembling tiny clams with bright red fruit in their mouths. Being a coastal species, it is somewhat salt tolerant and deer resistant. It is best planted where sheltered from winter winds and in a place where its fragrance can be enjoyed during the summer months.

Nyssa sylvatica
black tupelo
bottomland forests, woodlands, rocky outcrops
30–50 ft.
full sun to part sun

Utility is a great word to describe black tupelo. This lovely tree will grow in wet or dry soils; it is drought and heat tolerant when established and moderately salt tolerant. Chiefly grown for its striking crimson-red fall foliage and dark drupe berries, black tupelo also supports a lot of wildlife. The small, green, nectar-rich flowers attract lots of bees and pollinators in spring, and the fruit is eaten by thrushes and other songbirds, wild turkeys, and forest mammals. It is an excellent choice for a street tree, a specimen planting in a lawn, or massed together in the back of a border.

Ostrya virginiana
woodland understory
20–30 ft.
part sun to part shade

Hoplike fruit cluster


  • “Helps gardeners choose plants that will benefit wildlife—and us.”—The Portland Press Herald

    “A great resource no matter where you garden.” —Cultivating Place 

On Sale
May 10, 2022
Page Count
252 pages
Timber Press

Uli Lorimer

About the Author

Uli Lorimer is the director of horticulture at Native Plant Trust. He is a tireless advocate for native plants in public gardens, the designed landscape, and those found in the wild.

Founded in 1900 as the Society for the Protection of Native Plants, the Native Plant Trust is the nation’s oldest plant conservation organization and a recognized leader in native plant conservation, horticulture, and education. The Society’s headquarters, Garden in the Woods, is a renowned native plant botanic garden in Framingham, Massachusetts, that attracts visitors from all over the world. From this base, 25 staff and more than 700 volunteers work throughout New England to monitor and protect rare and endangered plants, collect and preserve seeds to ensure biological diversity, detect and control invasive species, conduct research, and offer a range of educational programs. 

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