Native Plant Initiative

Why native plants?

Native plants are the cornerstone of natural ecosystems. Native plant species are well-adapted to their growing region and have co-evolved with insects and other wildlife for which they are a source of food, cover and nesting habitat. Native plants have specialized relationships with pollinators and other insects, and these relationships are what keeps nature in balance and supports healthy ecosystems.

Native plants are the cornerstone of any ecological-friendly landscape. Many native plants are drought tolerant, salt tolerant, and thrive in the “thin” soils found on Cape Cod. Native plants are as attractive as any plant, and are reflective of the Cape’s natural beauty. By planting native species appropriate for Cape Cod, you can conserve water, avoid pesticide and fertilizer use, and support pollinators and birds.


Native Plants

Native plants are those best adapted to thrive in the region where they are found. Many Cape Cod native plant species are tolerant of drought and salt spray and thrive in the Cape’s poor acidic soils. Properly located in the landscape according to their growing requirements (“right plant, right place”), native plants generally require less water and no fertilizers or pesticides once established. Eliminating the need to fertilize or apply pesticides helps protect our groundwater, ponds, and coastal bays. Selecting drought-tolerant species also conserves water. All of this translates into a healthy, beautiful landscape!

Homegrown National ParkNative plants have another benefit: they provide natural food and shelter for birds, butterflies, and other wildlife. Traditional landscapes (for example, turf lawns and non-native exotic species) constitute a virtual wasteland to wildlife, particularly birds. Recent studies at the University of Delaware indicate that our favorite bird populations are at risk due to loss of habitat through development and lack of adequate insect food to feed their young. Native plants support the highest diversity and biomass of butterfly and moth larvae (caterpillars) — and 96% of our terrestrial bird species rely upon squishy, soft, nutrient-rich caterpillars to feed their young. For a fuller understanding of the value of this connection, listen to this webinar with Dr. Doug Tallamy, hosted by APCC and The 300 Committee Land Trust in February 2020.

Protecting native pollinators is critically important for the success of crops, plant reproduction in wild areas and backyard vegetable gardens. Well-designed pollinator gardens featuring native plants offer alluring gardens that bloom all season long and provide critical oases for native pollinators.

Choosing to “go native” in your landscape also helps protect the Cape from the introduction of non-native plant species that may become invasive. For every category of plant, shrub, or tree, there are attractive native plant species. Nursery growers will provide wider ranges of native species if consumer demand is there — so ask your favorite retail nursery to stock more of the native species you want. If they know you want them, they’ll ask their growers to supply them!

At APCC’s Living Landscape Laboratory, we’re working to convert lawn area into display gardens of native plants. If you’d like a tour of APCC’s grounds, contact Kristin Andres, Associate Director for Education: For a list of natives planted at APCC, click here (PDF).

Swamp Azalea

Swamp Azalea (Rhododendron viscosum). The Swamp Azalea (also called Clammy Azalea) is a loose, upright-spreading, woody shrub that typically grows to 3-5′ (less frequently to 8′) tall. Branching opens up with age. It is deciduous, which means it loses its leaves in the fall. The leaves emerge before the flowers and it is the last of the azaleas to flower. The white to pale pink flowers are fragrant. This azalea can be readily be used in the landscape in groupings or in mixed borders, open woodland gardens, and native plant gardens. The shrub especially thrives when sited in moist soils. It is one of 17 species of azalea which are native to the US and is found in the wild on Cape Cod.


Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi). This dwarf ever-green trailing woody plant is often used as a groundcover. It is a member of the blueberry family and has the characteristic bell-shaped flowers which may be pale pink or white, blooming in late spring to early summer. The berries, which start out green and when mature in the fall, will turn bright red and look very much like cranberries. The berries are favored by wildlife. Bearberry prefers sun to part shade and is drought tolerant.

Highbush Blueberry

Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum). The Highbush Blueberry flowers in the spring and produces the fruit in late summer. The berries are highly favored by numerous bird species and other wildlife and are edible, that is if you get there first! This plant can grow in areas from sun to shade and can tolerate moist to dry conditions. It prefers the acidic soils of the Cape and as its name suggests, it can grow up to 12 feet in height. In the wild you will find it in wooded and open areas, at wetland edges or in dry pitch pine and oak woodlands. As the plant ages, the trunk becomes twisted and gnarled. Blueberry shrubs provide brilliant red fall color and are a great alternative to the harmful invasive Burning Bush.

Butterfly Milkweed

Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa). Butterfly Milkweed is one of a perennial that behaves well in the garden by being fairly compact, ranging in height from 1/2 to 2 feet. The showy flowers range in color from yellow to orange to red in rounded groups near the ends of the stems. The flowers are favorites of pollinators and produce pods in late summer. The spindle-shaped pods are 3 – 6 inches long and contain numerous seeds. Each seed is attached to a tuft of long white floss that aids in transporting the seed through the air. This plant does well in the garden and tolerates dry sandy soil conditions once established. Butterfly milkweed can be found in the wild, usually along roadsides or in open areas of full sun. It does not like to be crowded. It is important to note that milkweed is the only plant that a monarch caterpillar can eat and milkweed is essential to maintaining monarch populations.

American Holly

American Holly (Ilex opaca). The American Holly is an evergreen that grows very slowly and has a conical shape. To produce the characteristic red berries, you must have both a male and female plant. Many songbirds, gamebirds, and mammals eat the berries, but the fruits are poisonous to humans. This holly does well in the acidic well-drained soils of the Cape and can survive in varying levels of sunlight.

Common Elderberry

Common Elderberry (Sambucus nigra L. ssp. canadensis). The Common Elderberry is native to Cape Cod as well as a large area of North America east of the Rocky Mountains. It grows in both wet and dry acidic soils, in sun to part shade location. It is a deciduous suckering shrub growing to 6 feet or taller. In summer, it bears large showy clusters of white flowers above the foliage which are very fragrant. In the fall, small dark purple to black berries are produced in drooping clusters and are prized for making jelly and wine. Numerous species of songbirds, upland game birds and small mammals also find the fruit desirable. While the berries and flowers are edible, other parts of the plant contain toxic calcium oxalate crystals and are poisonous.


Tupelo (Nyssa Sylvatica). Also called Sour Gum or Black Gum, this tree grows a dense, conical or sometimes flat-topped crown. Branches grow horizontally and glossy foliage turns spectacular scarlet to burgundy in autumn. An attractive, variable-shaped deciduous tree, the tupelo grows slowly to a height of 30-60 ft. This tree makes an attractive ornamental and shade tree. Pollinators find the nectar of the flowers especially appealing and the juicy fruit is consumed by many birds and mammals. Grows well in a variety of soils, provided they are acidic. On Martha’s Vineyard, the tupelo is referred to as a Beetlebung tree and gets this nickname because the tree was used to make mallets (called beetles) for pounding stoppers (called bungs) into barrels.

Eastern Red Cedar

Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana). Eastern Red Cedar will thrive in a variety of soils and sun to shade. Once established, it is extremely tolerant of drought and salt spray. The blue fruits are relished by a variety of birds and animals. The foliage of this evergreen is fragrant. Full, dense and pyramid-shaped, cedars reach 30-40ft in height and are good for screening or naturalized areas.

Hop Hornbeam

Hop Hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana). Hop Hornbeam, also called Ironwood for its dense strong wood. It is a slow growing tree that will grow 25 to 40 feet in height. While it prefers well-drained soils and is happy to be an understory tree in the shade, it will adapt to any type of soil and any location. It is tolerant of drought conditions, but not inundation by water. While sensitive to salt spray, it is a rugged tree for the urban setting. Leaves turn yellow in autumn and often drop early. Flowers are not particularly showy, although the male catkins are more prominent and are present throughout winter. Female catkins, found on the same tree, are followed by drooping clusters of sac-like, seed-bearing pods which, as the common name suggests, resemble the fruit of hops.

Common Boneset

Common Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum). Boneset’s leaves are its most distinctive feature—they have a wrinkled texture, and are united at the base. A plant ranges in height from 2 to 4 feet. It prefers full sun to partial shade in rich, moist soils. Its natural habitat includes moist woods and wet meadows. In a garden setting it may hold its own in drought conditions for short periods of time, but prefers regular, deep watering. Flowering occurs July through August. The flower provides nectar and pollen to a wide variety of native insects, including bees, wasps, and butterflies. The plant serves as a food source for several different kinds of caterpillars….and as we know, you cannot have moths and butterflies without caterpillars! In the fall the seeds provide a meal for songbirds.

Bird’s Foot Violet

Bird’s Foot Violet (Viola pedata). Bird’s Foot Violet is easily identified by its characteristic leaf shape reminiscent of a bird’s foot. It is found in dry acidic soils, in shade or part shade. The violet is frequented by bees and butterflies. As with other violets, it is the host plant of the Regal Fritillary Butterfly caterpillar, whose populations are declining. Consider using violets for groundcover in those shady locations. It is a short-lived perennial, but reseeds readily.

Seaside Goldenrod

Seaside Goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens). This is the most robust of the many different goldenrods native to Cape Cod. In the wild it thrives in dunes and beaches along the coast, so it’s well-adapted to dry, poor soils and salt spray. The flowers persist late into the fall and serve as favorite nectar and pollen sources for insects. Goldenrod in general gets a bad rap because it is associated with late summer hayfever symptoms whose cause is actually ragweed and not the brilliant yellow blooms of goldenrod. Seaside goldenrod is an excellent choice for a Cape Cod seaside garden.