The Master Gardener Bookshelf: Essential Native Trees and Shrubs for the Eastern United States

Essential Native Trees and Shrubs for the Eastern United States: The Guide to Creating a Sustainable Landscape by Tony Dove and Ginger Woolridge
By Susan Wilhelm, Extension Master Gardener

Book Cover of Essential Native Trees and ShrubsFall is the optimal time to plant trees and shrubs in Northern Virginia.  If you are interested in planting native trees or shrubs, Essential Native Trees and Shrubs for the Eastern United States: The Guide to Creating a Sustainable Landscape, by Tony Dove and Ginger Woolridge, is a helpful resource to determine which native trees or shrubs will succeed in your garden. Dove has a long history of working with native plants in his own woodland garden, and in many public gardens on the east coast. He is currently Chief Horticulturalist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, in Maryland. Woolridge is a landscape architect and Maryland-based garden consultant with experience in commercial and residential development. Together they bring 75 years of experience to their topic.

Dove and Woolridge describe their book as “a tool for the landscape architect, garden designer, and gardener to choose reliable native plants for particular landscape situations.” They say it is purposely limited to native trees and shrubs that are “most likely to thrive, once established, in varying cultural situations [on the East coast] and have superior aesthetic attributes” and have adapted well to changing environmental conditions.

Juniperus virginiana

Juniperus virginiana (eastern redcedar)
Photo © Mary Free.

Essential Native Trees and Shrubs is well organized and easy to use. Part 1 “Site Conditions and Plant Attributes” begins by identifying 22 landscape traits for trees and 18 landscape traits for shrubs. The traits are common attributes that garden designers and home gardeners look for when seeking a plant for a specific use, such as trees that have ornamental or interesting fruit, trees suitable for street planting, shrubs suitable for growing in small containers, or shrubs that tolerate drought once established. Each trait is cross-referenced to a list of recommended trees or shrubs that have that trait. What makes these lists especially helpful is that for each tree or shrub, the authors also indicate the other traits that apply. For example, there are six recommended trees suitable for planting in a narrow space. One of these, Juniperus virginiana (eastern red cedar) also has 13 additional landscape traits, including tolerance of poorly drained or compacted soils, growing in sites that receive full sun, and reaching heights above 50 feet when fully grown—all factors that might determine if it is appropriate for the space in which the gardener proposes to plant it.

Each tree or shrub is further cross-referenced to a page in Part 2. “Primary Trees and Shrubs” has more detailed information on a tree or shrub’s physical attributes and uses in the landscape, seasons of interest, growth rates and longevity, color, and cultivars, if any. A “quick reference box” contains the plant’s USDA Plant Hardiness Zone and sun, moisture, and soil pH requirements. Color photographs show the trees and shrubs in various seasons or locations, with close-ups of flowers where applicable.

Ostrya virginiana, Eastern Hop Hornbeam . The fruit - resembles hops and consists of clusters of leafy, oval, papery sacs.

Ostrya virginiana, (Eastern) hop-hornbeam. Photo © 2015 Elaine Mills

One of the most interesting components is a “plant form graph”—a drawing of the tree or shrub and its size at various stages of life. For example, a 15-year-old Ostrya virginiana (eastern hop-hornbeam) is about 15 feet tall with a pyramidal shape; at 40 years it is about 35 feet tall with an oval spread of 25 to 30 feet. A six-foot-tall representation of a person provides additional scale. Equally valuable are the lists of companion plants that grow in similar conditions.

Cytospora Canker of Spruce
Photo © University of Maryland Extension

Part 3 “Secondary Plants” lists additional native plants that have desirable features but that “may have problems that outweigh those desirable traits,” such as heat intolerance or susceptibility to serious native or exotic diseases or insects. For instance, Picea pungens (blue spruce) is susceptible to Cytospora Canker and dislikes high heat combined with humidity.

If you are wondering whether you really need another native plant resource, the answer for Essential Native Trees and Shrubs for the Eastern United States is yes. Essential Native Trees and Shrubs for the Eastern United States (Imagine, an imprint of Charlesbridge, 2018) is available at the Arlington Public Library and from national booksellers.

Learn more about native plants at Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia’s (MGNV) Tried and True Native Plant Selections for the Mid-Atlantic or see native plants in the MGNV Demonstration Gardens.


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