Native Plants in the Garden

Butterly on native plant.
Native plants such as bee balm, pictured, provide food and shelter for native creatures like this swallowtail butterfly. /iStock

In Mt. Lebanon, we are fortunate to have great parks and open spaces to explore, to recharge and enjoy nature. Residents can hear or catch a glimpse of the large pileated woodpecker, with its bright red crest, hawks, such as Cooper’s and red-tailed hawks, and songbirds, including chickadees and nuthatches.

With your help, the Mt. Lebanon Nature Conservancy has been working hard to remove invasive plants—plants that did not evolve in this region—from our parks and replace them with plants that are native to the area, which are well adapted to local climate and soils. These plants provide critical food and shelter to native wildlife, and support insect pollinators throughout their life cycle. Non-native plants do not provide the same support.

Parks with stands of native vegetation, such as Bird Park, Robb Hollow and Twin Hills, occupy only about 100 acres of our community. We can all help extend the food and shelter available to wildlife in our own yards by including native trees, shrubs and flowering plants. Native flowering plants come in a dazzling array of colors, shapes and bloom times, so planting the right mix will ensure color throughout the season, as well as food for pollinators.

Not ready to overhaul your garden? No problem! You can make a difference by simply including a few native plants in your landscape. Keep adding more over time. Here are some tips:

Select the right spot for your plants. Some plants prefer full sun, while others thrive in shade.

Plant in clumps of the same species, to attract pollinators.

Include a variety of plants so there are blooms throughout the season. A red maple, with its early blooms, can be a boon for hungry pollinators, while late blooming goldenrod and aster can fuel butterflies and bees late in the season.

Include “host” plants, or plants that support insect eggs and larvae. Many butterflies need a specific host plant as food for their caterpillars. Monarch caterpillars, for example, can only eat milkweed,  while others, such as swallowtails, thrive on tulip tree and black cherry.

Do not use pesticides in your garden. Pesticides are non-selective, and can kill beneficial insects.

In fall, leave fallen leaves in the yard, underneath a tree, and leave dried stems standing. Many beneficial insects spend the winter in these leaves and stems, emerging the following spring. Too much cleaning will destroy these insects.

Into birds? Leave caterpillars on your host plants. These caterpillars are the best food source of for young birds, providing protein and fat that fuel their growth. Surviving caterpillars will become the butterflies and moths that visit our gardens. Yes, there will be some plant damage, but the end results are worth it.

Don’t forget trees and shrubs. The flowering dogwood, for example, has beautiful flowers in spring, can host a nesting bird in the summer, and has fruit to fuel a bird in the fall.

Imagine how much life we can support in our yards and gardens if we all include native plants! For a list of native plants, and additional resources, visit