Where to see native plants growing in Philadelphia and beyond


We’ve sung the praises of native plants numerous times in these pages. Because truly, what’s not to love? Native plants — or “regionally-appropriate” plants, as Ryan Drake, McCausland Natural Areas manager at Morris Arboretum, urges us to call them — have abundant ecological benefits. They attract pollinators, sequester carbon, promote biodiversity, prevent erosion and require less inputs to thrive.

“Especially in an urban area like Philly, with harsh conditions like heat and stormwater, plants that evolved here are used to functioning here,” Drake notes. “They’re tough plants that are adaptable.”

The only downside, in some conventional gardeners’ opinions, is that regionally-appropriate plants aren’t always considered as lovely or refined as exotic, non-native plants. There are a bunch of public gardens and arboretums in and around Philadelphia that bust that myth. Here, home gardeners and plant-curious visitors can see native species in situ, and gain inspiration and education about incorporating them and increasing diversity in their own landscapes.

Awbury Arboretum
Philadelphia, PA • awbury.org

➽ At this verdant arboretum in Philly’s historic Germantown neighborhood, there are plenty of native trees and shrubs to explore. They’re scattered throughout the 56-acre property, though a grouping of them are planted right around the Francis Cope House, Awbury’s visitor’s center. Look for the fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus), as well as spectacular willow oaks (Quercus phellos) and red oaks (Quercus rubra). There are also a few American hollies (Ilex opaca), Winterberry hollies (Ilex verticillata) and a colony of bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) that’s surrounded by bees and butterflies when it blooms each June. Free to the public.

Bartram’s Garden
Philadelphia, PA • bartramsgarden.org

➽ This horticultural oasis in Southwest Philadelphia offers many ways to observe native plants. Slightly northwest of the garden’s Eastwick Pavilion is the Pawpaw Grove, where two colonies of Asimina triloba trees grow, bearing the custardy fruits in late summer and early fall. Farther west, find the Meadow, a 17-acre open space on the former site of a gypsum factory, growing wild with native plants, like common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), which famously attracts monarch butterflies. At the eastern edge of the property, the 1.5-acre Tidal Wetlands is populated with native plants, including marsh rose (Rosa palustris Marsh) and spatterdock (Nuphar advena). Other native plants can be found in Bartram’s Native Medicinal Plant Display, Botanic Garden, Kitchen Garden and Common Flower Garden. Free to the public.

Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve
New Hope, PA • bhwp.org

➽ Bowman’s Hill is a self-described “museum specifically devoted to native plants,” and indeed, it has a lot to discover. Across the preserve’s 134 acres there are over 700 plants native to Pennsylvania. Walk its four miles of trails to experience different habitat areas. The Meadow is planted with a foundation of native grasses (switchgrass [Panicum virgatum], Indiangrass [Sorghastrum nutans] and bluestem) and dotted with another 105 different species of native grasses, sedges, rushes and wildflowers. The Heritage Forest and Penn’s Woods includes two woodland areas planted with native tree species. Founder’s Pond is aquascaped with native flowers like marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and a population of a rare, native shooting star hybrid (Primula hybrid). Bowman’s Hill also sells native plants for home gardening and both its staff and website provide a wealth of knowledge on the topic. General admission is $12; $9 for seniors, military members, and students; $6 for children ages 5 to 14. Free for members and children under 5.

John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum
Philadelphia, PA • fws.gov/refuge/john-heinz-tinicum

➽ The largest remaining freshwater tidal marsh in Pennsylvania has over 10 miles of trails looping through the untamed landscape with fabulous birdwatching, great fishing spots and a wealth of native plants to observe. Establishing native plant species such as the subulate arrowhead (Sagittaria subulata), multi-flowered mud-plantain (Heteranthera multiflora) and Walter’s barnyard grass (Echinochloa walteri) has been a crucial part of restoring these wetlands. Maps, brochures and educational exhibits at the Visitor’s Center provide further information about these plant communities and the habitats across the refuge. Free to the public.

Morris Arboretum & Gardens
Philadelphia, PA • morrisarboretum.org

➽ On the edge of Chestnut Hill, Morris Arboretum features both formal and natural landscapes, including constructed wetlands, native meadows, stream banks and, of course, a large and impressive collection of trees. While a main objective of the arboretum is to collect and conserve plant and tree species from across the world, there are plenty of native plants to discover here, too. Visitors can embark on various trails to see skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) blooming in the wet woods, red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea) stabilizing the banks of the stream, and spring ephemerals like bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis L.) and trout lilies (Erythronium americanum) behind the Visitor’s Center. Part of Morris’ mission is teaching people how to utilize native plants in their gardens with a focus on functionality, like bioremediation, biodiversity and supporting specialized pollinators, and they offer a wealth of educational programming each season. General admission is $20; $18 for seniors; $10 for students, children ages 3 to 17, and retired military; $2 for ACCESS adults and children; free with a PennCard, for active military, and for children under 3; $10 for walk- or bike-in visitors.

Mt. Cuba Center
Greenville, DE • mtcubacenter.org

➽ Since 1935, this botanical garden in Delaware has been conserving, educating and promoting appreciation of native and historical plant species. Its “living collection” spans 30 acres of gardens and 1,000 acres of natural lands. A number of these plants are threatened by extinction and were grown from seeds collected in the wild, then propagated in Mt. Cuba Center’s greenhouse. In its innovative Trial Garden, researchers collect data on the ecological benefits, pest resistance and aesthetics of native plants. Some spring native plant highlights include the lush array of blooming trees on the Dogwood Path and a colorburst of spring ephemeral flowers along the Woods Path. A robust slate of public programming, including certification classes, tours and continuing education workshops, is offered each year. General admission is $15; $8 for children ages 6 to 17; free for children under 5, and members.

Stoneleigh: A Natural Garden
Villanova, PA • stoneleighgarden.org

➽ Situated on the grounds of an historic estate on the Main Line, Stoneleigh is a sprawling public garden where the beauty of native plants is on full display. Many of these plants have been pruned and scaped to match the formality of the estate; anyone curious how native plants can look less wild and more manicured can see examples across the grounds. Native vines like crossvine (Bignonia capreolata), bright Ozark witchhazel (Hamamelis vernalis) flowers, elegantly gnarled northern white-cedar (Thuja occidentalis) are just a few examples of the hundreds of plants and trees to observe on the property. Free to the public.

Spring at Stoneleigh in Villanova, Montgomery County. Photo by Mae Axelrod.

Tyler Arboretum
Media, PA • tylerarboretum.org

➽ There are native plants and trees spread across this 650-acre arboretum, but one of the best places to see them is on Tyler’s Native Woodland Walk. This easygoing pathway through a curated woodland setting highlights native species and cultivars; for instance, you might see a native geranium Geranium maculatum in its wild form growing alongside a more showy, cultivated variety called espresso geranium. Tyler’s North Woods and the trails outside its deer fence are exploding with native plants. In the spring, look out for ephemerals like Virginia bluebell (Mertensia virginica) and putty root orchids (Aplectrum hyemale). General admission is $18; $15 for seniors; $10 for children, students, and military; free for children under age 2.

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