Top 10 Best Woody Plants in Ecosystem Gardening

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail profileWhen I am consulting with a new client about their Ecosystem Gardening goals, the number one question I am asked is, “What should I plant?” or “Just tell me what to plant and I’ll do it.” But choosing the best plants is dependent on many factors, such as soil type, moisture, amount of sun, and temperature.  Take some time to learn these factors for your property. That will help you in choosing the best plants.

By now you know just how passionate I am about native plants for ecosystem gardening, but in the big scheme of things, some native plants far outshine others in the sheer numbers of wildlife that they support. When your focus is to attract wildlife to your garden, choosing the best plants will put you well on your way.

My thanks to Doug Tallamy and Kimberley Shropshire[1] for compiling this list. You can find a portion of this list in Doug’s book, Bringing Nature Home: how native plants sustain wildlife in our gardens. In their research, they focused on how many Lepidoptera (Butterflies and Moths) used each species, but you can be sure that if so many Lepidoptera species use these trees, that all other wildlife finds them just as beneficial.

It is important that you choose species from these families that are native to your area. Use the USDA plants database and check the range maps to choose the most appropriate species.

I’m going to fill out the list with some interesting facts to help you choose the right species for your ecosystem garden.

  1. Quercus—Oaks support an astounding 543 species of Lepidoptera, including Polyphemus and Imperial moths, Banded Hairstreak, Striped Hairstreak, White M Hairstreak, Juvenal’s Duskywing, and Horace’s Duskywing. There are about 60 native species of Oak in the United States, which are divided into two groups: the white oaks, and the red oaks.
  2. PrunusPrunus include: beach plum, cherry, chokecherry, peach, plum, sweet cherry, wild plum, and almond. These plants support 456 Lepidoptera species, including Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Coral Hairstreak, Striped Hairstreak, Red-spotted Purple, Cecropia moth, Promethea Moth, and Hummingbird Clearwing.
  3. Salix—455 butterfly and moth species use Willows. Including Mourning Cloak, Red-spotted Purple, and Viceroy.
  4. Betula—Birch are used by 411 species, including Luna Moth, Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Cecropia Moth, and Polyphemus Moth.
  5. Populus—367 species use aspen, cottonwood, and poplar. These include Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Mourning Cloak, and Twinspot Sphinx Moth,
  6. Malus—crabapple and apple are used by 308 species, inclucing Io Moth, and Cecropia Moth.
  7. Acer—Maple and boxelder are used by 297 species, including Io Moth, Saddled Prominent, Luna Moth, and Imperial Moth.  Please do not plant Norway Maples. They are highly invasive.
  8. Vaccinium—cranberry and blueberry are used by 294 species, including Brown Elfin, Spring Azure, and Striped Hairstreak
  9. Alnus—Alder is used by 255 species including Orange Sulphur, Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, and Giant Swallowtail.
  10. CaryaHickory, pecan, pignut, and bitternut are used by 235 Lepidoptera species, including Io Moth, Polyphemus Moth, Luna Moth, Pale Tussock Moth, and American Dagger Moth.

You can’t go wrong by adding one or more of these plants to your Ecosystem Garden. Which ones do you have?

More about native plants here:

What makes a plant invasive: the first lesson in what NOT to plant

Throw away the USDA hardiness map: the second lesson in what NOT to plant

Native plant nurseries of the U.S. and Canada

Top 10 Best Hebaceous Plants for Ecosystem Gardening

[1] Tallamy, D. W., & Shropshire, K. J. (2009, in press). Ranking Lepidopteran Use of Native Versus Introduced Plants. Conservation Biology.

Carole Sevilla Brown lives in Philadelphia, PA, and she travels the country speaking about Ecosystem Gardening for Wildlife. Check out her new free online course Ecosystem Gardening Essentials, 15 free lessons delivered to your inbox every week.

© 2009 – 2014, Carole Sevilla Brown. All rights reserved. This article is the property of If you are reading this at another site, please report that to us

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  1. says

    Carole, many of these appear at first site to be large trees, which are too big for smaller gardens. I’ve planted oak before with an intent to coppice. Maybe that’s something you could write about sometime. Not everyone has space for an oak, but most have space for a coppiced oak.
    .-= Alison Kerr´s last blog ..Building a Rain Garden, Preparation =-.

    • Carole Brown says

      Alison, I wouldn’t recommend coppicing at all. It’s a big expense that has to be repeated every few years for the life of the tree, which may be significantly less than it should be from that repeated disturbance. There are more than 60 native oaks in the US, some of them are small trees and shrubs. I’d take a good look at which of those 60 are native to your area and go from there.

  2. Wankja Ferguosn says

    Dear Carole Sevilla Brown,

    I like a lot of your ideas, pity enough you fall however also like everyone else in the trap af making priority lists. The best remark and advise I ever foud about plant list for gardend is in a book: bees, wasps and ants for gardens of a fellow country men of yours.
    His advise: make the (inidgenous) plant diversity in your garden as large as possible (within given soil condition of course) adn there wil always be an animal which can make use of the them.
    Priority lists, as I meet also in my work as a garderner, tend to restrict the cerativity of peolple, they then plant only the frirts two or three plant of the list and then do not look any further.
    I live in The Netherland os I rather work with your concepts then with your plnat advise. To me it is far better to outline concepts then to give advise priority plants. Every garden is different, every situation therefore too. If you plant only the top ten plnats of list in gardens alle the time diversity will go much downwards overall.
    Greetings Wankja Fergsuon

  3. Dee says

    Than you for the wonderful resources you compiled for us! It makes it so much easier, as I’m not a biologist or a formally trained gardener, & you’ve done lots of research for me & pointed me in the right direction.. Trying to research everything on the internet can be a daunting task.
    I have a small shady spot in the back, where I’m going to plant a Prunus Serotina, Black Cherry tree. I’m excited about the many butterflies & moths that use it as a host plant. I’ve bookmarked this page & will probably find a place for other plants you’ve mentioned.


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