Gardening with NJ Native Plants

What exactly are native plants? And why are they important?

Plants are considered to be native to an area where they occurred naturally over time and developed symbiotic relationships with insects and other wildlife that have evolved with them.  Since evolution is not a quick process, this means over hundreds, or even thousands, of years in a particular area or region.  Only plants found in this country before European settlement are considered to be native to the United States.  And, plants that are native to other areas of the country such as the west or northwest, California,… may be native to the United States, but are not considered to native to our area in New Jersey.  Some plants may have a very wide native geographic range and others may be much more limited.  When selecting plants for your garden, it is important to pay attention to their native range and to choose plants that are native to our Central Jersey area.

New Jersey is home to over 3000 species of native plants as defined by the New Jersey Native Plant Society, offering tremendous variety as well as diversity of habitat and sustenance to the critters that evolved alongside with them.

Why Garden with NJ Native Plants?

Resilience – Since they have grown here for hundreds of years, our NJ natives have evolved to deal with the stresses of New Jersey’s local environment.  They will be able to throw off the effects of our changing climatic conditions such as drought, heavy rains, early frosts and late heat spells, early springs, late winter snows, etc. better than introduced, non-native plants that may need to be pampered to get through these conditions.

Reduced Maintenance – Native plants tend to spread quickly, crowding out weeds and establishing deep roots.  This means that once planted in a suitable location and established, they will need less maintenance and will not need to be watered or fertilized.  Native plants tend to get floppy when fertilizer is applied.

Wildlife Value – Since New Jersey’s animals, insects, and microorganisms have evolved in conjunction with our regional gasses, ferns, wildflowers, shrubs, and trees, they have developed symbiotic relationships and depend upon each other for their survival.  For instance, from the work of Professor Doug Tallamy (author of Bringing Nature Home) and others, we have learned that an overwhelming percentage of insects are specialists, not generalists.  This means that like the monarch butterfly, they are dependent on one particular plant species for sustenance during their larval stage, and will not survive without it (for monarchs it is milkweed).  Native plants will attract and feed birds, bees, butterflies, small mammals… in your yard and you can feel good about sustaining the food web in the habitat they need to survive.

Beauty –  Our New Jersey natives embellish any garden.  They range from ground covers to mid border perennials, to shrubs, and trees and include grasses and other foliage plants as well as hardy bloomers. They contribute year round color and blooms.

Biodiversity – Natives add to the biodiversity of our landscapes, providing food and habitat for the creatures in our food web.  Unfortunately, they are being overrun by an onslaught of invasive, exotic species.  These include some of the most commonly found introduced species to our landscapes regularly found at garden centers: Japanese barberry, purple loosestrife, English ivy, burning bush, butterfly bush, bamboo, and many others.  These introduced plants  threaten to destroy our native heritage as they run amuck in our wild landscapes. We encourage you to help preserve it and the wildlife that they support by planting natives in your garden and eradicating any non-native thugs you find!

Where can I buy these plants?

First, do not dig up plants from the wild or a public park unless the site is being bulldozed and you have permission from the owner.  Depending upon where you live It may be illegal to remove any plant materials from public lands.


Many plant nurseries in New Jersey  offer some natives, but be careful! There are many non-native look-alikes for sale, often with similar names.  They may also be selling cultivars, also known as nativars, of a recommended plant,  but these may have been cultivated to appeal to our human tastes rather than those of the wildlife they support in nature (e.g. pom poms which have no pollen producing parts or nectar). 

They offer no genetic diversity as they are bred through asexual reproduction and then cloned to produce new plants. They may offer less nectar or seeds. Exotic plants may fail at some of these tasks precisely because they originated in a distant land and evolved to attract different wildlife.

Always deal with reputable native plant dealers,  We recommend that, as much as possible, you add straight species to your landscapes rather than cultivars.  To be certain you are really buying a native and not a potentially noxious masquerader, download and print out the New Jersey Native Plant Society’s List of Native Plants and take it with you when you go shopping for plants and seeds.

The New Jersey Native Plant Society also publishes a list of invasive species to avoid planting in your landscapes. pdf  See also our own Dirty Dozen of Invasive Species in New Jersey.

tip To avoid confusion, shop using a plant’s full scientific, or Latin, name to be sure the nursey is supplying you with the proper species. Carry your list of recommended plants with you when you shop, and verify those Latin names before you buy!

Local Area Nurseries

Recommended suppliers of native plants on the New Jersey Native Plant Society’s list–we will update this list as we find more nurseries that carry natives.  

Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve  (Just over the NJ border in PA)
1635 River Road | New Hope | PA | 18938 | (P) 215.862.2924

Gino’s Nursery    (Also, just over the NJ border in PA)
2237 Second Street Pike | Newtown | PA | 18940 | (P) 267.750.9042

Toadshade Wildflower Farm mail order
53 Everittstown Rd. | Frenchtown | NJ | 08825 | (P) 908.996.7500

D&R Greenway Native Plant Sale  seasonal
One Preservation Place | Princeton  | NJ | 08540 |  609-578-7470