9 Best Native Plants for Your Pittsburgh Yard

close-up of a bright red and yellow columbine flower

It takes tough landscaping to survive The Steel City’s harsh winters. You need plants that can handle the cold conditions and change of seasons. By planting species that are native to Pennsylvania, you not only give your yard a fighting chance of looking great, but you also save time, money, and effort on landscaping.

There are several reasons why you should plant native species in your Pittsburgh backyard:

Low maintenance: Native plants have naturally evolved to survive their environment and climate conditions. Since they’re already acclimated to the environment, most native plants require less care.

Durable: Many native plants are resistant to disease, insects, and environmental conditions such as drought, wind, and freezing temperatures.

Good for the environment: Native plants play an important role in preserving natural landscapes and ecosystems in Pennsylvania. Many different types of wildlife depend on native plants for food and shelter. By having native plants, you are supporting birds, bees, butterflies and more, while enjoying their daily visits to your yard. 

How do you choose the best native plants for your yard?

Pittsburgh is in USDA hardiness zone 6B. Native plants can withstand lows down to 0 degrees Fahrenheit and soil conditions that are consistently dominated by highly acidic clay and silt loam soil.

There are around 2,100 native plants in Pennsylvania. We have put together a list of 9 favorite native shrubs, trees, and wildflowers for your Pittsburgh property. 

1. Butterfly milkweed (asclepias tuberosa)

bright orange butterfly milkweed
Sharon Sullivan | Lawn Love

Attract beautiful butterflies to your yard with butterfly milkweed, also known as butterfly weed. This native perennial lures many different species of butterflies, especially the Monarch butterfly, whose larvae feed and live on the plant. The clusters of small, vibrant orange flowers also attract hummingbirds, bees, and other insects.

Do you have a problem with critters tearing up your garden? This plant is very resistant to both deer and rabbits. It’s also disease and pest-resistant. 

Butterfly milkweed has a history of medicinal uses and was used by Native Americans for food. Be careful: This plant can be toxic if not properly prepared before human consumption. 

  • Plant type: Herbaceous wildflower
  • Hardiness zones: 4-9
  • Sun: Full sun or partial shade
  • Water needs: Low
  • Soil: Coarse and medium soils
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 1½-2 feet

2. Columbine (aquilegia canadensis)

red and yellow columbine flower
Art Poskanzer | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Columbine is a branching wildflower with striking bright red-and-yellow petals and clover-like foliage. The plant’s flowers bloom for only one month in the spring, but it makes an excellent ground cover or border plant the remainder of the year. 

Get ready to spend your summer afternoons watching hummingbirds fly around your garden as they pollinate the Columbine blossoms. It also attracts bumblebees and butterflies, as well as songbirds, which eat the plant’s seeds. 

  • Plant type: Herbaceous wildflower
  • Hardiness zones: 3b-8b
  • Sun: Partial or full shade
  • Water needs: Low
  • Soil: Sandy or well-drained soil
  • Duration: Perennial 
  • Mature height: 1-3 feet

3. Black-eyed susan (rudbeckia hirta)

vibrant yellow petals from black-eyed susans
robin_ottawa (I’m on a phone!) | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Bring a bit of cheer to your yard with the black-eyed Susan. A member of the daisy family, its bright yellow flowers will not only add a pop of color to your garden but will also invite birds and butterflies, too. 

The “black eye” is named for the dark, brown-purple center inside the flower. Black-eyed Susans are very drought tolerant and can grow in a variety of environments, from prairies to meadows to savannas. 

Native Americans have used this plant to treat colds, snakebites, swelling, and earaches. 

  • Plant type: Herbaceous wildflower
  • Hardiness zones: 2-11
  • Sun: Full sun
  • Water needs: Moderate
  • Soil: Well-drained, rich, acidic soil
  • Duration: There are both perennial and annual varieties
  • Mature height: 2-3 feet

4. Aromatic aster (symphyotrichum oblongifolium)

close-up of a light purple stokes aster flower
Sharon Sullivan | Lawn Love

Aromatic aster is easy to grow and adapts to many types of environments, making it a great addition to your native plant garden. This plant is also known as the fall aster, wild blue aster, and shale aster. It tends to flower in the fall, usually between September and November.

Aromatic asters produce bunches of small flowers that range in color from pink to lavender-blue. The colorful petals emit a balsam-like fragrance that attracts several kinds of pollinators, including bees, butterflies, and skippers. Caterpillars and wild turkeys also will eat the plant’s foliage.

  • Plant type: Herbaceous wildflower
  • Hardiness zones: 4-7
  • Sun: Full sun, partial shade
  • Water needs: Low
  • Soil: Dry to moderate, well-drained soils
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 1-3 feet

5. Fireweed (chamerion angustifolium)

large area of bright pink fireweed
Chad Martin | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Also known as the willow herb, fireweed is a fast-spreading ornamental native plant. This showy plant forms spires of flowers with bright pink petals and leaves that will remind you of the willow tree.

Fireweed blooms from June through September and can thrive in a variety of environmental conditions. Be careful not to plant too much because it can spread aggressively (like invasive plants) in the right conditions.

It is a source of nectar for bees, and also attracts moths and butterflies. The shoots and leaves of young fireweed plants are edible when cooked. 

  • Plant type: Herbaceous wildflower
  • Hardiness zones: 2-7
  • Sun: Full sun, partial shade
  • Water needs: Low
  • Soil: Moist, well-drained soil
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: Usually between 4-6 feet, but can grow up to 9 feet

6. Black birch (betula nigra)

Bring some color to Pennsylvania’s fall landscape by planting a black birch tree. Black birch is a native tree with a peeling, satiny bark that reveals a light brown trunk. The tree trunk tends to range between 20 and 60 inches in diameter. In the fall, the leaves turn a beautiful yellow, adding a bit of color to the fall scenery. 

With high water needs, this native tree grows best around wet areas such as swamps, ravines, streams, and rivers. If cared for properly, it will last for at least two decades. 

  • Plant type: Tree
  • Hardiness zones: 4-9
  • Sun: Partial shade
  • Water needs: High
  • Soil: Sandy, clay, and moist soils
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: Usually 30-50 feet, but can be up to 90

7. Red oak (quercus coccinea)

Red oak is a fast-growing, ornamental, native tree that puts on quite a show in the fall when its leaves turn scarlet red. This tree has a long lifespan, typically surviving 150 years, but some have lived to be 500 years old.

The tree’s acorns attract squirrels, chipmunks, wild turkey, deer, and a host of birds. Avoid deadly oak wilt by not pruning between mid-April and mid-July. 

  • Plant type: Tree
  • Hardiness zones: 3-8
  • Sun: Full sun
  • Water needs: Moderate
  • Soil: Moist, acidic, infertile soils that lie over limestone or sandstone
  • Duration: Deciduous 
  • Mature height: Usually 75 feet, but can grow up to 150 feet

8. Smooth azalea (rhododendron aborescens)

white blooms from smooth azalea

Also known as sweet azalea, this native perennial shrub makes a charming addition to your Pennsylvanian native plant garden. The smooth azalea’s white and pink flowers bloom from June to July, bringing a pop of color and a touch of fragrance to your yard. 

Smooth azaleas are fast-growing compared to other azalea varieties and they are one of the most durable types of native white azaleas. However, this plant is drought-sensitive and grows best in moist environments such as swampy forests, bogs, and around streams. Be careful not to let kids or pets ingest any part of this plant, as it is highly toxic. 

  • Plant type: Shrub
  • Hardiness zones: 5-9
  • Sun: Partial shade
  • Water needs: Moderate
  • Soil: Moist, well-drained soil
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 8-12 feet

9. Marsh blazing star (liatris spicata) 

Marsh blazing star is a slender perennial wildflower. This plant has several nicknames, including dense blazing star, dense gayfeather, dense Liatris, and marsh gayfeather. 

Its striking purple flowers bloom from July to September, attracting butterflies, birds, and hummingbirds. The marsh blazing star prefers growing in moist areas such as marshes, forest edges, and prairies with moist soil. 

  • Plant type: Herbaceous wildflower
  • Hardiness zones: 3-9
  • Sun: Full sun
  • Water needs: Moderate
  • Soil: Moist, acidic soil
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 3-4 feet

Where to find native plants

As interest in native plants increases, they are starting to become as easily accessible as non-native species. Right now there are three primary ways to find and purchase native plant species in Pennsylvania:

  • State parks in Pennsylvania host native plant sales in the spring. Check out the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources website to find out which parks are currently hosting native plant sales. 
  • Pennsylvania Native Plant Society is a conservation organization advocating for increased native species diversity throughout the state. They host an annual native plant festival and other events throughout the year. 
  • Native plant nurseries also carry some types of native plants. Be sure to call or check their website ahead of time to ensure they carry the plants you’re looking for. 

Including native plants in your Pittsburgh garden is beneficial to both you and the environment. Native plants are more often drought tolerant compared to non-native plants. They attract and support native wildlife, bringing in birds, bees, and butterflies to entertain you in the spring and summer.

If you’re looking for more native plants, look at the Pennsylvania Native Plant Society (PNPS) website. Make sure to look for plants that are suited for central and western Pennsylvania and thrive in USDA hardiness zone 6B. 

Do you need help designing your landscape with native plants? Call a Pittsburgh lawn care professional to get the help you need to incorporate these plants into your yard. 

Main Photo Credit: nick fullerton | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

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