10 Best Native Plants for Philadelphia

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light purple petals from a flowering Phlox plant

There’s more to Philadelphia than the Liberty Bell, Rocky movies, and Ben Franklin’s discoveries and inventions. Visit gardens and landscapes in the city to find hardy native plants and flowers that will look great on your own property.   

Feeding birds, butterflies, and wildlife are only a few of the advantages of placing seed-dropping greenery around your property.   

Indigenous plants have many other advantages. 

  • They adapt to local soil and climate.
  • Natives provide natural beauty and character.
  • These plants are a magnet for pollinating bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.
  • They need less water and fewer soil amendments.
  • Promote biodiversity.

Philadelphia is located in USDA hardiness zone 7b, where the lowest average winter temperature is zero. With around 2,100 native plants in Pennsylvania, consider these well-adapted beauties for your Philadelphia home.

Trees

1. Red maple (acer rubrum) 

large red maple in front of a wooden fence
Dushan Hanuska | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

The red maple grows from 40 to 100 feet high with a canopy spread up to 40 feet. Spring flowers bloom in red during April and May. In the fall, leaves on red maples turn maroon and yellow.   

One of the most popular and beautiful red maple varieties for your Philadelphia home is “autumn flame,” with its opposite palmate, glossy foliage. When leaves drop in the fall, you’re bound to see a few birds’ nests in the higher limbs. 

  • Plant type: Deciduous tree   
  • Hardiness zones: 3-9
  • Sun: Full, direct sun
  • Water needs: Moist
  • Soil: Rich, sandy, silty, acidic, clay
  • Duration: Perennial; lives 80 to 100 years
  • Mature height: Up to 100 feet

2. White oaks (quercus alba) 

from the ground looking up in the leaf canopy of a large white oak
Colin Durfee | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

White oaks are slow-growing trees that reach up to 90 feet high, 70 feet wide, and are prime sources of food for squirrels, chipmunks, and other small critters that live on or nearby your Philadelphia property. As deciduous members of the beech family, white oaks drop burgundy round-lobed foliage in the fall.

Birds, squirrels, and deer feast from the acorn seeds that drop throughout spring, summer, and fall. White Oaks make fine shade trees for your backyard. The wood is strong and rot resistant, so it makes great wood for cabinets and furniture.

  • Plant type: Deciduous tree
  • Hardiness zones: 3-9
  • Sun: Direct sunlight, partial shade
  • Water needs: Moist
  • Soil: Loams, sands, acid-based, clay
  • Duration: Perennial; lives up to 300 years
  • Mature height: 90 feet

3. Tulip trees (liriodendron tulipifera) 

The tree gets its name because its flowers resemble a tulip flower. The beautiful cup-shaped flowers provide nectar for bees, birds, and butterflies. Bright green leaves turn golden yellow in the fall. The stems emit soft scents in spring and summer. The tree’s foliage and flowers bring a patterned look when the sun filters through. 

Tulip trees provide food and shelter for animals that may roam through your yard. In the fall and winter, rabbits and white-tailed deer eat the fallen seeds. Spring flowers nourish ruby-throated hummingbirds with their nectar. Tulip trees also provide food for squirrels, birds, and small mice. 

  • Plant type: Deciduous tree
  • Hardiness zones: 4-9
  • Sun: Full sunlight
  • Water needs: Moist
  • Soil: Well-draining loam, sand, clay
  • Duration: Up to 500 years in some areas
  • Mature height: 70-90 feet

Shrubs

4. Winterberry (ilex verticillata) 

close-up of bright red winterberries
liz west | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

This shrub needs female and male plants for producing fruits that appear in the fall. Common winterberry leaves do not have sharp edges like other hollies, but instead, feature oblong purplish-green foliage. Dense clusters of bright orange and red berries stay on branches throughout the winter. 

These berries feed the wildlife but are toxic to humans.    

  • Plant type: Deciduous shrub
  • Hardiness zones: 3-9
  • Sun: Direct, partial shade, shade
  • Water needs: High
  • Soil: Acidic, sandy, loam, clay
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 6-10 feet

5. Ninebark (physocarpus opulifolius) 

pale pink and white flowers of ninebark
Peter Stenzel | Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0

The ninebark produces pinkish-white blooms from May through July. The trunk has a papery, peeling bark to highlight the foliage’s coppery color in autumn. Ninebark sprouts green, yellow, or reddish leaves within a cascading cluster of florets. Flowering in late spring, the clusters of pink or white blooms attract pollinators that feed on the nectar.

Ninebark blends in nicely with other like shrubbery to create a colorful band of greenery in the flowerbeds around your Philadelphia home.

  • Plant type: Deciduous shrub
  • Hardiness zones: 2-8
  • Sun: Full sun, partial shade
  • Water needs: Dry to medium
  • Soil: Clay, loam
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 5-8 feet

6. Summersweet (clethra alnifolia)

tiny white flowers on skinny stalks from a summersweet shrub
Katja Schulz | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Summersweet is a fragrant shrub that tolerates shade and supports pollinating insects.  The plant spreads by sending up new shoots to form small thickets. Summersweet is perfect for low hedges, border plants, and privacy hedges. Flowers bloom for four weeks during July and August and emit a spicy scent.

Summersweet is a slow-growing shrub that thrives in locations where it will have plenty of room to spread up to 8 feet wide. Water as needed.   

  • Plant type: Deciduous shrub
  • Hardiness zones: 3-9
  • Sun: Direct sun, partial shade
  • Water needs: Moist
  • Soil: Slightly acidic
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 4-8 feet

Perennials

7. Phlox (phlox divaricata)

Phlox sprouts fragrant, showy flowers to highlight beds around the perimeter of your Philadelphia home. The flowers bloom in various shades of white, blue, purple, and pink in May and June. This perennial attracts bees, butterflies, and birds for pollination of nearby plants, and you can start it from seeds. Pinch off dead blooms to prompt more flowering.

Phlox is similar to what you see along some roadways in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and in open fields. Sometimes called “Wild Sweet William,” these blooming clusters also grow in woods and forests.   

  • Plant type: Herbaceous perennial
  • Hardiness zones: 3-8
  • Sun: Partial shade, shade
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Rich, acidic, loam, sand, clay
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 8-18 inches

8. Mountain mints (pycnanthemum) 

These herbaceous perennials bloom from July to September in white or light shades of pink. With showy flowers that attract birds and butterflies, these plants emit a pleasant minty fragrance to freshen up the summer night air. Plant mountain mints in herb and butterfly gardens, and as borders around flower beds.

Here’s a bit of trivia: Mountain mint plant leaves were once used to make mild teas. Native Americans brewed the leaves for treating colds, fevers, and stomach aches.   

  • Plant type: Herbaceous perennial
  • Hardiness zones: 4-8
  • Sun: Full sun, partial shade
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Well-draining, clay
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 1-3 inches tall

9. Black-eyed Susan (rudbeckia hirta)

grouping of bright yellow black-eyed susans
Jim, the Photographer | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Black-eyed Susans are long-blooming and readily available for your Philadelphia landscape. One of the most popular native wildflowers growing on American soil, black-eyed Susans spread across open fields – their yellow-gold petals splashing with color.

Black-eyed Susan draws bees, butterflies, and other insects to its blooms, which continue from June to October. Place seeds directly in flower beds or gardens, or plant some in indoor containers. For varieties, check out the lemon-yellow, dark red, and golden “Becky Mixed.” Bright-yellow “Sonora” looks nice against green foliage. “Toto” is a dwarf black-eyed Susan variety suitable for containers.   

  • Plant type: Wildflower
  • Hardiness zones: 3-9
  • Sun: Full sun, partial sun
  • Water needs: Moist
  • Soil: Fertile
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: Plants up to 3 feet tall

Ferns

10. Maidenhair (adiantum pedatum) and wood ferns (dryopteris)

maidenhair fern
Staffan Cederborg | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Both ferns are great additions to woodland or rock gardens. These deciduous North American native ferns feature lacy, fan-shaped green fronds on glossy black stems. Ferns spread quickly in moist soil and lightly-shaded areas. 

Plant maidenhair and evergreen wood ferns among rain gardens, as a companion to ornamental grasses, and as woodland plants beneath shade trees. The light grayish-green, feathery foliage makes great container plants and ground cover, too.   

  • Plant type: Fern
  • Hardiness zones: 3-8
  • Sun: Partial shade, full shade
  • Water needs: Weekly or more, as needed
  • Soil: Mostly acidic
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 1-3 feet

Select the right plants for your Philly landscape

Planning the landscaping for your home is more than just browsing through a garden store. Choose the right plants for growing in direct sunlight, filtered sun, and full shade. Stay away from everything on Pennsylvania’s invasive plant list. The more you know, the better your garden will grow!

Need some help with your landscape? Hire a Philadelphia landscaping professional to get the job done.

Main Photo Credit: Picdrome Public Domain Pictures | Flickr | CC0 1.0

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