native Alternatives to 10 Common Landscape Ornamentals

For the native plant movement to gain traction, it’s not enough to spread awareness of the virtue of natives – it’s also necessary to point out the ecologically neutral or negative impact most non-natives and all invasive species have. Many of these prolific ornamentals are present on properties from decades past, therefore they are seen by other homeowners and landscapers and sought out as the norm.

Introduced in America purely for their aesthetic quality, the listed species are otherwise undesirable and should be avoided for a number of reasons. Boxwoods (whether English or Japanese) are very common shrubs that are utterly sterile in the landscape – they do little-to-nothing for soil health, they don’t provide food or shelter for native creatures, nor are they a pollen source. Invasive species, a category under which every other listed ornamental falls, quickly spread from our front and backyards to our local “nature refuges” and beyond (why not make a nature refuge out of your own property with natives?) where they outcompete native flora and thus squelch the illustrious biodiversity that we cherish and that most native insects, birds, and mammals rely on for life.

Choosing native alternatives to common ornamentals is not an aesthetic sacrifice! You can adorn your landscape so it breathes with color all year round, and rest assured that your local ecosystem benefits from your choices the same.

Invasive = *

SpeciesType/CharacteristicsNative Alternatives
Boxwood (Buxus spp.)Evergreen shrubInkberry (Ilex glabra)
English Ivy (Hedera helix)*Vine, evergreen ground cover, fast spreading– Creeping Phlox (Phlox subulata)
– Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides)
– Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum)
– Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica)
– Heartleaf Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia)
Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria)*Long blooming purple flower– Obedient Plant (Physostegia virginiana)-
– Shaggy Blazing Star (Liatris pilosa)
– Mistflower (Eupatorium coelestinum)
– New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis)
Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus)*Fall color shrub– Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia)
– Aronia melanocarpa (Black Chokeberry)
– Sweet Pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia)
Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica)*Fragrant white flowering vine/small tree– Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens)
– Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)
Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata)*Silvery foliage, cream-colored fragrant flowers and red berries– Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea)
– Broadleaf Meadowsweet (Spiraea latifolia)
– Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana)
– Mapleleaf Viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium)
– Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)
Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii)*Red/purple shrub– Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica)
– Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum)
– Common Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius)
– Common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica)*- Kousa/Japanese Dogwood (Cornus Kousa) Understory tree– Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis)
– Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)
Silver Grass/Maiden Grass (Miscanthus sinensis)*Ornamental silvery grass, stays through winter– Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix)
– Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum)
– Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)
– Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans)
Norway Maple (Acer platanoides)*Large shade tree– White Oak (Quercus alba)
– Freeman Maple (Acer x freemanii)
– Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum)

For more information on McCoy Horticultural’s native planting services, click here.

For more ideas for specific natives for your garden, see our Native Plant at a Glance series and the resources section of our main website.

For some insight into the native plant movement, check out our partners Homegrown National Park here.