Plants Native to New England

Evaluating Candidates for the Native-Plant Garden

Skunk Cabbage

skunk cabbage
David Beaulieu

One of the great joys in leading an outdoorsy life is identifying the native plants of your region and becoming acquainted with their growing habits, bloom times, distribution, etc. If you agree, then the next step to consider is starting a native-plant garden and actually growing some of these specimens on your own property. The plants discussed here are native to New England (U.S.); check with your local wildflower society to learn which plants are native to your own region and where you can buy them. While native plants are sometimes called "wild" plants, note that, technically speaking, not all wild plants are native plants.

You probably won't be interested in growing skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) in your native-plant garden, but it's worth your while to learn how to identify this intriguing plant. The "cabbage" part of the name refers to the leaves. The "skunk" part of the name refers to the smell emitted by its "spathe." This hooded structure is hidden under the leaves at the base of the plant. Another plant (non-native) that has a spathe is Amorphophallus konjac. Another New England native plant that sports a spathe is jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum).

It's the spathe that contains skunk cabbage's flowers. The flowers attract pollinators with their skunky smell. Yes, believe it or not, something actually likes this odor and is drawn to it. Skunk cabbage blooms early (it is a harbinger of spring), and its pollinators are a different cast of characters from the pollinators more familiar to us who are drawn to sweet-smelling nectar.

Bloodroot

bloodroot blanketing slope
David Beaulieu

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is one of the more distinctive wildflowers in New England, making identification easy. In growing zone 5 it flowers in April. Over time, it can form large colonies. This spring ephemeral is a great choice for shade gardens.

Once you become acquainted with the disproportionately large leaf of bloodroot, you'll never forget it. This native plant is also called "red root," because the root exudes a red juice that has been used as a dye. Bloodroot is toxic but (like many poisonous plants) has been utilized by herbalists as a medicine.

Dutchman's Breeches and Squirrel Corn

Dutchmans breeches foliage and blooms
The flowers of Dutchman's breeches truly resemble trouser legs. David Beaulieu

Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) is a spring ephemeral that closely resembles another bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis) relative, squirrel corn (Dicentra canadensis). In fact, these two spring ephemerals are frequently seen growing together, since they prefer the same conditions (shade). To distinguish between them, remember that squirrel corn's flower looks more like the bloom of Dicentra eximia than does that of Dutchman's breeches. Squirrel corn's bloom, with its two rounded lobes at the top of the flower, looks like an elongated heart shape. Dutchman's breeches, by contrast, has two pointy protrusions (the "trouser legs") at the top of the flower.

Like bloodroot, Dutchman's breeches and squirrel corn are often found growing in colonies. When not in bloom, look for their delicately compounded leaves to identify them. Consider either one for your native-plant garden. Both bloom in April.

Hepatica

hepatica in bloom
David Beaulieu

Hepatica (Hepatica nobilis) is another spring ephemeral and another great choice for a shade garden. It is a compact plant yet, because of its abundance of flowers, quite showy. It's easy to grow and blooms for a long time.

The plant belongs to the buttercup family. Besides pink, it also flowers in purple or white. Bloom time is March and April.

Mayapple

mayapple leaves unfurling
David Beaulieu

Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), another native that forms colonies (especially in the shade), is a fun plant to watch, but never more so than at this stage in its growth, when it is newly arisen from the earth in spring. One of the delights of growing American mandrake (which is another of its nicknames) is beholding this unfurling of the new leaf or leaves, which occurs in April. One leaf indicates sterility, two fertility; when you see a specimen with two leaves, that means it will bear a flower in that year.

The common name of "Mayapple" is indicative of when the plant blooms in the North. But the foliage is much more noteworthy than the flowers or the subsequent fruit (the so-called "apple"). As the leaves unfurl, they look like little umbrellas opening up. If you enjoy beholding such details, you may be interested in growing Mayapple. But this is not a plant that will interest gardeners who care only about showy flowers.

Bluets

bluets in spring
David Beaulieu

Here's a flower that almost anyone in New England would recognize (if not as a solitary plant, then at least when seen growing, as it usually does, in masses). Few, however, would be able to attach a name to it.

Bearing the common name "bluets" or "Quaker ladies," Houstonia caerulea is a common flower along sunny roadsides. Anyone who logs many miles on the highway in May most likely has spotted it growing in masses, looking ever so much like sugar that some passing giant has spilled. Although it looks pure white from a distance, a close-up look often reveals a hint of blue (thus one of its common names), in addition to a yellow center. It's one of those plants that everyone "knows" without really knowing. Even long-time gardeners are frequently stumped when asked to name this flower.

The Connecticut Botanical Society identifies bluets as a New England native plant, lists its height as 2 to 8 inches (it is most often on the low end of that range), and gives the diameter of the flower as 1/2 inch. Do not confuse it with mountain bluets (Centaurea montana), which is a larger and totally different plant. Houstonia caerulea is too weedy for most gardeners to be bothered with.

Marsh Marigold

marsh marigold blooms
David Beaulieu

Not a true marigold, marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) is a native spring ephemeral found growing in swamps and damp meadows in the wild. If you wish to grow it in the landscape, take advantage of this preference for moisture and grow it in a boggy or swampy area where many plants cannot thrive. For example, it's a good choice for the edge of a water garden. Bloom time is mid-spring to late spring. Grow it in full sun to partial shade.

If you wish to grow marsh marigold, first distinguish it from an invasive plant that happens to be similar in appearance: lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria). Both are in the buttercup family. But whereas marsh marigold will have 5 to 9 petals, lesser celandine may have up to 12. The latter is also a smaller plant, reaching just a few inches in height, whereas marsh marigold can reach 1 foot or more in height. A third distinguishing feature to help you with identification is that Caltha palustris has a clump-forming growth habit, while lesser celandine is mat-forming (a hint as to why it is such a successful invader).

Wild Violets

purple violets massed
David Beaulieu

Some people remove wild violets from their lawns, considering them just common lawn weeds. But a growing number of people leave them alone, feeling lucky to have such lovely wildflowers gracing their otherwise uninteresting lawns. Viola sororia is a native plant in New England and flowers best in full sun. Many people esteem the ones with purple flowers as being the showiest.

Sweet Fern

sweetfern closeup picture
David Beaulieu

There are many misnomers in the plant world. "Sweet fern" (Comptonia peregrina) is one of them. It is not a true fern, although it has fern-like leaves. Rather, this New England native plant is a shrub that reaches 2 to 4 feet in height. It is commonly found in sunny, dry areas; for example, abandoned sites with sandy soil. Crush the leaves of sweet fern sometime and you'll be rewarded by its strong, pleasing fragrance. Along with its toughness, fragrance is its main selling point, since it isn't much to look at. Some nurseries do, however, carry sweet fern.

Examples of true ferns are Christmas ferns (Polystichum acrostichoides) and interrupted ferns (Osmunda claytoniana). Christmas fern is the type famous for staying green all winter (thus the common name) in frigid New England.

Sheep Laurel

sheep laurel blooms
David Beaulieu

Sheep laurel is frequently found growing in bogs. It can take partial shade. This native shrub, known botanically as Kalmia angustifolia, is also called "lambkill." Early New England farmers no doubt discovered the hard way that it was poisonous to their livestock. You won't want to grow this plant if children will be playing in your yard. It blooms in June.

Sheep laurel is related to mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia). For identification purposes, here's the difference:

  • Sheep laurel is a smaller plant (1 to 3 feet tall, versus 5 to 8 feet for mountain laurel).
  • Sheep laurel has a narrower leaf, as indicated by their respective botanical names: angustifolia meaning "narrow-leaved" and latifolia meaning "wide-leaved."  

Rhodora Azalea

rhodora azalea blooms
David Beaulieu

New Englanders who love azaleas and rhododendrons will appreciate the fact that, yes, there are azaleas native to New England. Rhodora azalea (Rhododendron canadense) is one of them, so you may want to grow it in your native-plant garden. It tolerates boggy conditions, a fact to keep in mind if you're looking for a shrub to grow in a wet spot in your yard where nothing that you plant seems to survive.

Azaleas and rhododendrons are in the heath family (Ericaceae), as is the namesake winter heath (Erica carnea). Rhodora azalea can be grown in partial shade.

Spotted Wintergreen

spotted wintergreen leaf
David Beaulieu

One common name for this native plant is misleading. Your guide book may refer to Chimaphila maculata as "spotted wintergreen." The species name, maculata, does, indeed, translate from the Latin as "spotted." But a common name that is more befitting of its appearance is "striped wintergreen." It is clear to any objective observer that, if anything, the leaf is noteworthy for its stripes, not spots.

The "wintergreen" part of its name makes a little more sense. The growth habit and size of spotted wintergreen is reminiscent of Gaultheria procumbens, commonly called "wintergreen." The two also often share the same shady habitat. None but the most ardent of native-plant enthusiasts will be interested in growing this tiny plant.

Common Milkweed

milkweed seedpod
David Beaulieu

Those who grow native plants specifically to attract butterflies will want to grow common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). The monarch butterfly loves its flowers. But many children are fascinated by its seed pods, which remind you of cucumbers.

Another part of common milkweed also strikes children as magical: the fluff that flies out when the pods open. Seeds hitch a ride on this cottony material, soaring far and wide on gusts of wind. 

Pokeweed

pokeweed berries.
David Beaulieu

Phytolacca americana offers good size, purple berries, and reddish-pink stems. There's a lot to like about pokeweed. But don't grow it if children will be playing in your yard.

Those luscious-looking berries are toxic if ingested. But they are quite pretty, and as tall as this perennial gets (up to 8 feet), a multitude of the berries are produced. The overall effect can be stunning. So if your yard is child-free, consider growing this native in a sunny spot.

White baneberry (Actaea pachypoda, a plant native to the same region) also bears reddish-pink stems. Baneberry, too, bears toxic berries.

Interrupted Fern

interrupted-fern
A Picture Explaining the "Interruption" When these brown leaflets fall off, the "interruption" occurs. David Beaulieu

The common name of "interrupted fern" may strike you funny at first. But there's a very good explanation behind the common name for the plant that botanists know as Osmunda claytoniana. Look at the dark leaflets. Those leaflets have spores on them (ferns reproduce using spores rather than seeds) and are thus referred to as the plant's "fertile leaflets." The light-green leaflets, by contrast, are termed the "sterile leaflets." 

Once the spores drop off from the fertile leaflets, those leaflets have performed their function; they shrivel and fall, thereafter, leaving the sterile ones alone. The resultant gap that opens up along the frond is the "interruption" referenced in the common name of this native of eastern North America.