11 Best Native Plants for Durham-Chapel Hill

close-up of bright yellow leafstem tickseed flowers

The Durham-Chapel Hill area isn’t just for Tar Heels — it’s also for green thumbs. And the secret to a green thumb is hardy native plants that naturally stand up to our hot, humid summers and chilly, wet winters.

When you live in the Research Triangle, it makes sense to do some research about how to make your lawn as eco-friendly and low-maintenance as possible. Let’s walk through the 11 best native plants that’ll save you time, energy, and money.

Advantages of North Carolina native plants:

  • Low-maintenance: Native plants are specifically adapted to our humid subtropical climate, so they thrive without the fertilizer, pesticide, and yard work that non-native plants need.
  • Drought-tolerant: Native plants have deep roots that can handle long, dry periods and won’t require frequent watering.
  • Pollinator-friendly: Native plants attract beautiful native wildlife like butterflies, birds, and bees.
  • Hurricane-resistant: Native plants are used to our hurricane season and can withstand strong winds and heavy rain.
  • Disease-resistant: Unlike many turfgrasses, native plants resist common North Carolina diseases like leaf spot, brown patch, dollar spot, rust, and fairy ring. 

North Carolina is home to over 3,900 native plant species, making us one of the most diverse states for flora in the Southeast. When checking out native plants, look for species that thrive in USDA Hardiness Zone 7b, where the lowest temperatures are 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

1. Dwarf azalea (Rhododendron atlanticum)

Also known as coast azaleas, dwarf azaleas flaunt funnel-shaped white flowers (often tinged with pink) and a delightful musky aroma. They’re low shrubs that make excellent hedges and attract a bounty of butterflies.

While most deciduous azaleas mature at a height of 2 to 3 feet, some can grow as tall as 6 feet, while others may grow just 1 foot tall. It depends on your soil type and the variety of dwarf azalea you choose.

Dwarf azaleas require well-draining soil, and “wet feet” will lead to root rot. Here in Durham, we have clay-heavy Ultisol soils, so you may want to plant your azaleas in raised beds to keep them disease-free. Plant dwarf azaleas in areas with some shade: Too much full sun can scorch their leaves. 

Note: Do not eat any part of your azalea bush! Azaleas are highly toxic and can be fatal if consumed. 

  • Plant type: Flowering shrub
  • Hardiness zones: 5-8
  • Sun: Partial shade
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Light, acidic, sandy soil
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 2-6 feet

2. Winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata)

Craving some holiday cheer? Plant a winterberry holly for cherry-red berries that arrive just as the leaves fall and last throughout the winter months. Winterberries (AKA black alders) are gorgeous deciduous trees that will provide food and shelter to butterflies and birds in summer and make your neighbors “ooh” and “aah” in winter. 

Worried winterberry holly won’t grow in that shady spot near your porch? Don’t fret. Winterberries can grow in densely shady conditions (less than two hours of direct sunlight) where turfgrass doesn’t stand a chance. Plus, these gorgeous growers are drought- and heat-tolerant to thrive in our sunny summer months. Just be on the lookout for powdery mildew and leaf spots. 

  • Plant type: Tree or large shrub
  • Hardiness zones: 3-9
  • Sun: Full sun, partial shade, deep shade
  • Water needs: Moderate
  • Soil: Clay, loamy, sandy
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 3-15 feet

3. River birch (Betula nigra)

River birch (AKA water birch, red birch, and black birch) is the ideal native tree for year-round appeal. It has gorgeous paper-like bark that peels away (exfoliates) to reveal light, reddish-tan inner bark. A fun fact? Prince Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico, declared it “the most beautiful of American trees” when he toured North America in the mid-1800s. 

River birches thrive in wet weather but can stand periods of drought, making them an excellent choice for Durham homeowners who want a fast-growing lawn accent that won’t require much water once established. 

The magic of mulch: Give your birch a healthy 2- to 3-inch layer of organic mulch to conserve soil moisture during dry periods. This will prevent your tree from “shedding” leaves and twigs during drought. Just make sure to always spread mulch 3 to 6 inches away from the base of the trunk to prevent internal rot. 

When to trim your tree: Birches “bleed” sap when trimmed in late winter and early spring, so it’s best to wait until the tree has leafed out in late spring to mid-summer to avoid excess sap. Alternatively, you can wait until early fall when leaves have fallen.

  • Plant type: Tree
  • Hardiness zones: 4-9
  • Sun: Full sun, partial shade
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Clay, loamy, sandy
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 30-60 feet 

4. Red maple (Acer rubrum)

With eye-catching fall foliage and pretty winter flowers, red maple (common names include Carolina maple, curled maple, and swamp maple) is a fast-growing stunner and a favorite with North Carolina homeowners. 

Red maple is a tree of firsts. It’s one of the first trees to change color in fall, with leaves turning golden and orange-red in October. In spring, it’s one of the first to flower.

Love to see helicopter seeds (AKA samaras) fly from the sky? Start growing a red maple! In late spring, you’ll get a helicopter-fest as samaras mature and float down to the ground. 

Red maples are easy to establish as transplants from bare roots or a burlapped ball, and in our acidic soil, they’re not likely to encounter diseases. Keep an eye out for pests like aphids, borers, leafhoppers, and scales.

As with river birches, it’s a good idea to give your red maple a healthy dose of organic mulch to protect roots and conserve soil moisture. 

  • Plant type: Tree
  • Hardiness zones: 2-9
  • Sun: Full sun, partial shade
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Clay, loamy, sandy
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 40-120 feet

5. American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)

American beautyberries really are beauties, with long, graceful branches and vibrant purple berries that encircle the stems. Growing up to 8 feet tall, beautyberries are hurricane-resistant shrubs that display summer color and fall fruit to make your lawn the star of the neighborhood. 

Humans aren’t the only ones who find beautyberries beautiful: Songbirds and small mammals love to visit these bushes and snack on berries as they fatten up for winter. 

Beautyberries are more than just a pretty face. If you’re sick of mosquitoes buzzing around your lawn, crush up American beautyberry leaves for a natural mosquito repellant. Want to give your neighbors a delicious holiday gift? Boil the berries to make beautyberry jelly

Beautyberries offer plenty of visual appeal during winter months and are perfect for butterfly and pollinator gardens, children’s gardens, container gardens, and winter gardens. The only caveat? They aren’t exactly shade-tolerant. Beautyberries need full sun to flourish. 

  • Plant type: Shrub
  • Hardiness zones: 6-10
  • Sun: Full sun
  • Water needs: Low
  • Soil: Clay, loamy, sandy
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 3-8 feet

6. Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)

Ready to make your Little House on the Prairie dreams come true? Switchgrass is the ornamental grass for you. It’s a loose, bunch-type grass that grows up to 6 feet tall and sways in the wind, adding height, texture, and vibrant color to your yard.

In spring and summer, expect bright green sprays of growth. In fall, reddish-purple seed heads add a pop of harvest color and leaves turn bright yellow as winter approaches. That rich yellow color stays until spring, so you don’t have to worry about your lawn losing its appeal during the cold months. 

Switchgrass is highly deer-resistant and attracts lovely butterflies and bees. Birds love munching on switchgrass seeds and using stems as nesting material. 

  • Plant type: Ornamental grass
  • Hardiness zones: 5-9
  • Sun: Full sun, partial shade
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Clay, loamy, sandy (prefers moist soil but can tolerate periods of drought)
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 3-6 feet

7. Tickseed (Coreopsis lanceolata)

Want to brighten up your backyard with a vibrant pop of yellow? Tickseed may just tick-le your fancy. Also known as coreopsis, tickseed is a fast-growing wildflower that when mature reaches about 2 feet and produces eye-catching yellow flowers that attract butterflies, birds, and bees. 

If your yard has dull, bare areas where grass won’t grow, tickseed could be your new best friend: It’s an aggressive self-seeder, which can be a problem in areas where you’re trying to grow other plants, but it’s perfect for places prone to drought and deer. 

Want your flowers to bloom into autumn? Deadhead flowers with scissors to encourage additional blooms and keep your tickseed tidy.

  • Plant type: Wildflower
  • Hardiness zones: 4-9
  • Sun: Full sun
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Loamy, sandy (prefers moist soil but can tolerate dry spells)
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 1-3 feet

8. Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Butterfly weed is a paradise for — you guessed it — butterflies (and hummingbirds, too!). Also known as orange milkweed, butterfly weed is a bushy, sturdy native perennial known for its unique, flat-topped display of flaming orange flowers. The narrow, deep green leaves beneath this “shelf” of flowers provide a striking visual contrast.

As the only host plant for monarch caterpillars, milkweed (both butterfly weed and swamp milkweed) is tremendously important to the health of our ecosystem. However, while butterfly weed is an excellent addition to pollinator gardens, it’s also an aphid magnet. You can leave aphids for ladybugs to eat or get rid of them by spraying foliage with soapy water.

  • Plant type: Herb
  • Hardiness zones: 4-10
  • Sun: Full sun
  • Water needs: Low
  • Soil: Sandy
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 1-2 feet

9. Blue wood aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

With dainty purple-blue flower clusters and smooth, arching stems, blue wood asters are a woodland showstopper that you’ve probably seen on hikes around Durham. Cool blue flowers bloom in late summer to early fall to complement the changing leaves. 

Worried about deer? You don’t have to be with blue wood asters. They’ll resist deer while attracting butterflies, bees, small mammals, and cheerful songbirds. 

If you don’t have full sun, blue wood asters are a shade-tolerant treasure trove: They grow well in partially shaded areas with moist soil. 

Pro Tip: Want to keep your asters looking tidy? Cut foliage to the ground in fall to avoid self-seeding.

  • Plant type: Herb
  • Hardiness zones: 3-8
  • Sun: Full sun, partial shade
  • Water needs: Low
  • Soil: Loamy, sandy
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 1-4 feet (occasionally can grow to 6 feet)

10. Highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum)

Popping a perfectly ripe blueberry into your mouth at the peak of summer is pure heaven, and we all know homegrown fruit tastes infinitely better than store-bought produce. With highbush blueberry bushes, you can enjoy the fruits of your labor (literally) and get a gorgeous fall show. 

Most highbush blueberries mature at about 8 feet tall — but they take their own sweet time reaching that point. Expect your blueberry bushes to mature in six to eight years. In the meantime, maximize your harvest by planting multiple cultivars together to encourage higher yields and plumper berries. Remove spent flowers so that your blueberries can focus on root growth.

Blueberries adore acidic soil (a pH of 5.0 is ideal), so Durham-Chapel Hill soil is perfect for these delicious shrubs. Consider grouping them with other acid-loving plants like azaleas, magnolias, and American hollies.

  • Plant type: Edible shrub
  • Hardiness zones: 3-8
  • Sun: Full sun, partial shade
  • Water needs: High (1 inch of water per week)
  • Soil: Clay, loamy, sandy
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 3-12 feet

11. Green and gold (Chrysogonum virginianum)

For densely shaded areas where grass refuses to grow, green and gold is a real pot of gold. It’s an evergreen ground cover that’ll keep the darkest parts of your yard looking lush and lovely. Green and gold is a vigorous grower that forms a dense mat and spreads 18 inches wide. 

With golden, daisy-like flowers that bloom in spring and summer, it’s a beautiful addition to your backyard or rain garden

Green and gold may be the most diminutive plant on our list, but don’t underestimate this mighty ground cover. It’s deer-resistant and tough against diseases, and it’ll crowd out weeds and invasive plants. Just watch out for mildew and remove spent flower stems to keep your plants tidy.

  • Plant type: Ground cover
  • Hardiness zones: 5-9
  • Sun: Partial shade, deep shade
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Loamy, rich with organic matter
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 1-2 inches

Prioritize native plants in your landscape

North Carolina is ahead of the curve when it comes to native plants. In 2019, our state Senate ratified Bill 606, which ensures that the North Carolina Department of Transportation prioritizes native plants along highways, as opposed to invasive species. 

In a state that’s already embracing native plants on the road, now’s a great time to welcome them into your garden.

Want to research more plants that thrive in the Research Triangle? The North Carolina State University extension’s “Landscaping for Wildlife with Native Plants” offers an extensive list of native species — from Carolina phlox to redbud to flowering dogwood. Once you know which plants you want, go shopping at one of the North Carolina Botanical Garden’s native plant sales

Native plants require little maintenance once established, but replacing your turfgrass or planting a native garden can be a sweaty process. If outdoor DIY projects aren’t for you, call a team of Durham-Chapel Hill lawn care pros to do the digging and heavy lifting for you. They’ll turn your lawn into a pollinator’s paradise so you can cheer on the Tar Heels or kick up your heels in downtown Durham. 

Main Photo Credit: Dawn Endico | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Maille Smith

Maille-Rose Smith is a freelance writer and actor based in New York. She graduated from the University of Virginia. She enjoys watching theatre, reading mysteries, and listening to psychology podcasts. She is an orchid enthusiast and always has a basil plant growing in her kitchen.