Native plants are essential to our ecosystems. But what is a native plant? It is any plant growing naturally in a given area. This is different from an introduced species, which is any life form brought into an ecosystem where it did not previously occur.
Maryland is endowed with a wide variety of plants native to the state.
This guide provides an introduction to native plants in Maryland. In addition, we have included a list of 12 native plants to use in your home, garden, or landscaping ideas.
1 – American Water Lotus (Nelumbo lutea)
The American water lotus is a beautiful perennial aquatic plant native to eastern Maryland. It is often found in ponds, lakes, rivers, and streams in full-sun locations. Its leaves are round and large with a leathery texture and reddish-brown color.
The flowers bloom from June through September, with each flower having five pale yellow petals. The blooms grow on long stalks above the water’s surface and look like small lotuses.
This plant can reach up to three feet high when mature and spreads quickly via rhizomes, so it needs space to grow.
The American water lotus prefers moist soil, but it can tolerate low-nutrient waters and standing water conditions if there is adequate sunlight for photosynthesis. This plant does not require supplemental fertilizer or other nutrients, but it will benefit from adding composted yard waste materials into its planting hole before planting the rhizomes in the ground or potting them up for indoor use.
2 – Turtlehead (Chelone glabra)
Turtlehead is a large, tall plant that grows about five feet wide. The flowers are pinkish-purple, but the leaves are green. This plant is drought tolerant and flourishes in full sun to partial shade. It can be grown in poor and rich soil.
It is best to plant turtlehead in groups rather than alone because they look best when they are massed together.
Turtlehead is native to Maryland and grows naturally along streams, ponds, and marshes. It also grows well in sandy soils near water sources. It can be found throughout the eastern United States, as far north as Canada, and south into Mexico.
3 – Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnate)
Swamp milkweed is a perennial that grows to about three feet tall. Its leaves are distinctive, with a smooth upper surface and a hairy underside. The stems are often red near the base and green toward the top.
Swamp milkweed can be found in rich deciduous woods and swamps throughout Maryland. It blooms in late spring or early summer with small clusters of white flowers with five petals. The seeds are contained in pods that burst open when ripe, scattering them widely.
Swamp milkweed is a host plant for monarch butterflies, which lay their eggs on the leaves. It is also a nectar source for other pollinators such as bees and hummingbirds.
4 – Eastern Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)
Columbine is a beautiful flower found in many regions of the United States. It is a perennial plant that blooms in spring, summer, and fall with colorful, delicate flowers. The eastern columbine is one variety that grows naturally in Maryland.
The eastern columbine can grow to about two feet tall and has leaves divided into five leaflets. The flowers have five outer petals and five inner sepals with yellow stamens at their base. They have a sweet smell and are used for making perfume.
Eastern columbine is easy to grow from seed but does not transplant well when young. It prefers moist soil with plenty of shade and shelter from strong winds. It flourishes in partial shade rather than full sun exposure, although it can tolerate some sun exposure if soil conditions are right. The flowers bloom throughout the season as long as they receive adequate water during dry spells.
5 – Arrowwood Viburnum (Viburnum dentatum)
The arrowwood viburnum is a native shrub with excellent fall color. The plant can be used as a hedge or to create a windbreak. It flourishes in full sun and does well in moist but well-drained soil. This plant prefers slightly acidic soil but will also tolerate more alkaline soils.
This shrub grows to six feet tall with a spread of six to eight feet wide. It has dark green leaves that turn purple and red in the fall, and sometimes white flowers bloom in late spring before the leaves emerge from their buds.
The arrowwood viburnum is an excellent choice for planting near ponds because it tolerates waterlogged soil conditions well. You can also use it as an understory plant beneath large shade trees, where it will benefit from its drip line irrigation system.
6 – Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis)
Royal fern is native to North America. It grows in moist, wet woodlands and swamps, often forming extensive colonies. The fertile fronds are two to four feet long, and the sterile fronds shorter.
The fertile fronds are pinnately divided into 20 to 30 pairs of leaflets three inches long and have a dark blue-green color. The sterile fronds are much smaller and more delicate, with only one pair of leaflets.
A beautiful plant that is easy to grow, the royal fern is an excellent choice for the shade garden or woodland garden where it will grow in part shade. It can also be grown as a houseplant if provided with bright indirect light year-round. This fern flourishes in moist, well-drained soils with lots of organic matter added each spring during spring cleanup.
7 – Red Maple (Acer rubrum)
The red maple is the official state tree of Maryland. It is a medium-sized deciduous tree, growing to heights of 40 feet, with a trunk diameter of up to 30 inches. It has a smooth, grayish-brown bark with shallow fissures.
Its leaves are green above, paler beneath, and have three lobes with coarse teeth along the edges. The fall color is bright red. The flowers are small and greenish-yellow in clusters at the end of twigs. The fruit ripens in early spring, turning from green to red when mature.
Red maple prefers moist soils along stream banks and swamps, but it also does well on upland sites if there are no competing trees or shrubs.
It is tolerant of shade for several years after planting but requires full sun later for the best growth and appearance.
Red maple is easily propagated by seed or root cuttings taken in late summer or early fall from mature trees that have not been stressed by drought or disease.
8 – American Holly (Ilex opaca)
The American holly is a native of North America and can be found in various habitats. It is one of the most common trees in Maryland. The leaves are shiny and dark green, with three to five shallow lobes. The berry-like fruits are borne on female trees only and have a white waxy coating. The bark is dark-brown with orange-brown streaks and becomes rough when older.
The American holly is a popular ornamental tree for its attractive foliage, berries, and flowers. It can grow up to 40 feet tall with a spread of 15 feet. It prefers moist locations with full sun but will also tolerate partial shade. Pruning should be done during late winter or early spring to prevent bleeding from cuts made on the stems.
9 – Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
The sassafras tree has a short trunk that grows up to 60 feet tall and branches that hang down from the trunk. The bark is brownish-gray with fissures or cracks on its surface. The leaves are alternate and usually elliptical with pointed tips, which grow six inches long by three inches wide.
They have an aromatic smell when crushed or bruised, which is why they were used as a flavoring in root beer before artificial flavors were invented. Flowers bloom in late spring or early summer before new leaves appear on the tree, so you will only see them if you know what you are looking for.
10 – Maryland meadow beauty (Rhexia mariana)
The plant is a native wildflower in the mid-Atlantic region. It grows in open meadows, along roadsides, and at the edges of woodlands.
The Maryland meadow has five-petaled flowers that are pale violet-blue with yellow centers. You can find this wildflower from June to August.
Other common names for this plant include rose campion, deer bedstraw, and field rosemary. In addition, it is sometimes called American meadow rue, although unrelated to the true rue (Ruta graveolens).
The Maryland meadow beauty is easy to grow from seed and will self-sow if conditions are right. It prefers full sun but will tolerate some shade and only needs average soil that drains well. However, the plant can be invasive, so take care not to plant it where it might spread into natural areas where it could become a problem for native plants or animals.
11 – Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana)
This plant is native to Maryland and grows in the western part of the state. This evergreen shrub can grow up to 30 feet tall but is usually much smaller. It has dark green needles that turn blue-green in winter and bright red berries in the fall.
Eastern red cedar is a popular landscaping plant because it is easy to grow and maintain. It tolerates shade and drought but prefers full sun and moist soil.
The junipers are spreading groundcovers or small shrubs with tiny needle-shaped leaves. They are usually blue-green but can be silver or silvery-blue, depending on the variety. They have small white or pinkish bell-like flowers followed by fleshy orange berries, which turn red from June through August as they ripen. The berries are edible but could taste bitter.
12 – Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense)
Wild ginger is a perennial that spreads by underground rhizomes to form colonies. It has smooth, glossy, heart-shaped leaves with serrated edges, and the upper surface is dark green and hairless. The flower stalk rises above the leaves.
The flowers are white and have an unpleasant scent similar to rotting meat. The fruit is a capsule that contains many tiny seeds.
The plant grows in forests, stream banks, and meadows throughout Maryland. Wild ginger favors moist locations with partial shade. It is common in lowland forests along rivers. Wild ginger thrives under deciduous trees and shrubs such as red maple, black cherry, dogwood, American holly, and mountain laurel.
Maryland’s native plants are often drought-tolerant, resistant to insects and diseases, and free of pests. As a result, they have a solid natural defense system against Maryland’s climate. They also contribute to biodiversity because they naturally exist here instead of being brought from somewhere else.
There are many resources for finding native plants and trees specific to your area. Try your local extension office or nearby nature preserve if you want to add a few native trees and shrubs to your yard.
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- Aqua Plant, Available here: https://aquaplant.tamu.edu/plant-identification/alphabetical-index/american-lotus/
- The Spruce, Available here: https://www.thespruce.com/growing-swamp-milkweed-5094541
- UMD, Available here: https://extension.umd.edu/resource/recommended-native-plants-maryland