Native Plant Initiative
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Cape Cod Native Plant Initiative

Whether it is a comprehensive start-from-scratch landscaping project or perhaps selecting the perfect shrub to fit into a corner of the yard, the Cape Cod homeowner is met with a daunting number of choices when visiting the local nursery.

What grows best in the Cape’s climate? What is most compatible with our sandy soils? Which plantings are the most drought tolerant? Does a certain plant need to be fertilized? Is it disease resistant? Will it survive salt spray?

APCC has launched an initiative to promote the use of native plant species by homeowners and professional landscapers. By creating an interest among consumers to use native plants, we also hope to encourage more local nurseries to stock a larger inventory of native plants.

The first phase in this initiative is developing a list of native plant species appropriate for Cape Cod landscapes and gardens. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) compiled a list of native plants which includes plant species native to southeastern Massachusetts. These are plants that can be readily obtained by commercial nurseries for their customers. Click here for the NRCS native plant list.

Native plants are best adapted to thrive in the region in which 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. If properly located in the landscape according to their growing requirements (“right plant, right place”) and once established, native plants generally require less water, fertilizer and pesticides. Eliminating the need to fertilize or apply pesticides helps protect our groundwater, ponds and coastal embayments. Selecting drought-tolerant species also conserves water. All of this translates into a healthy, beautiful landscape that can also save you money!

Native plants have the added benefit of providing natural food and shelter for birds, butterflies and other wildlife. And, their use also helps protect the Cape from the introduction of non-native invasive plant species. For every category of plant, shrub or tree sold in a commercial nursery, there is an equally attractive native plant species that can be used. Nursery growers will provide wider ranges of native species if the demand is there.

Here are just a very few examples of Cape Cod native plants found in the wild here that are appropriate for use in the managed landscape.(Just because they’re found in the wild, doesn’t mean they can’t be tamed!)

(Rhododendron periclymenoides) The pinxter flower 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.
(Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) Bearberry

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.

(Vaccinium corymbosum) 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. 

(Asclepias tuberosa) A perennial her

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.

(Rudbeckia laciniata) A large perennial forb

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.

(Sambucus canadensis) A species of elderberry native to a large area of North America east of the Rocky Mountains

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. 

(Cornus florida) Flowering dogwood

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. 

(Tiarella cordifolia) Foam Flower

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. 

(Solidago sempervirens) Seaside Goldenrod

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.

(Viola labradorica), is an evergreen Perennial

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.

(Cornus amomum) A species of dogwood

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.

(Symphyotrichum laeve) Smooth aster

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.

(Geranium maculatum

Spotted Geranium (Geranium maculatum). A lovely native perennial that enjoys partial to full shade as it likes its roots somewhat moist. It thrives in the acidic soils of the Cape. Great for mass plantings for early color. The 1-inch blooms appear in early spring and provide the first nectar source for butterflies and other pollinators. After flowering and dispersing seed, the plant will go dormant come summer, making way for other blooming plants. The seeds of the geranium are favored food of the Bobwhite Quail. 

Click the images to read more.

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 (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 (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.

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.

Spotted Geranium (Geranium maculatum). A lovely native perennial that enjoys partial to full shade as it likes its roots somewhat moist. It thrives in the acidic soils of the Cape. Great for mass plantings for early color. The 1-inch blooms appear in early spring and provide the first nectar source for butterflies and other pollinators. After flowering and dispersing seed, the plant will go dormant come summer, making way for other blooming plants. The seeds of the geranium are favored food of the Bobwhite Quail.

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.

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.

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 Beetle Bung tree and gets this nickname because the tree was used to make mallets (called beetles) for pounding spigots (called bungs) into barrels.

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 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(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 (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 (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 dry, poor soils, salt spray – it’s well-adapted to these conditions. 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 actually ragweed and not the brilliant yellow blooms of goldenrod. Seaside goldenrod is an excellent choice for a Cape Cod seaside garden.