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Choosing Sustainable Plants

People use various criteria when selecting or purchasing plants. For many, the primary criterion is cost – "the lower, the better". For some, it is all about the spring flowers or a beautiful plant seen in a garden or in the neighborhood. For a plant collector, the words "new", "rare" or "variegated" may be all that it takes to make that plant selection.

However, in recent years, the emphasis in our society is on sustainability, whether it is in building construction, energy, food production, etc. and we are seeing an increased interest in selecting landscape plants that are sustainable. The definition of a sustainable plant may be a plant that does not have a known significant insect or disease problem, is drought tolerant (once established), is not invasive, and is long-lived. Selecting plants with the qualities listed above may contribute to developing sustainable landscapes or landscapes that require fewer inputs such as pesticides, water, fertilizer, labor, maintenance and plant replacement.

With literally thousands of plants to choose from, developing sustainable landscapes that are dynamic, beautiful and satisfying can be achieved. A key to selecting a sustainable plant is to follow some basic guidelines. The first guideline is "right plant, right place." In other words, conduct a site evaluation and determine what plants would do well in that location. In order to do that, we need to know the following:

  • Ultimate height and width of the plant: How big will the plant grow? Is there enough space or will it outgrow the location?
  • Sunlight: What does the plant require? Is there enough light to sustain the plant? Is there too much sunlight?
  • Drainage: Is the soil well drained? Is it too well drained?
  • Pest resistance: Is the plant prone to a particular or serious insect or disease problem that would require frequent pesticides to maintain it?
  • Drought tolerance: Is the plant drought tolerant, once it is established?
  • Hardiness: Will the species survive the cold, winter temperatures in that location? What hardiness zone is it listed for?
  • Invasive potential: Does the plant produce seed in a way that may cause it to become invasive? Is the plant known to be invasive?
  • Soil type/soil pH: Is the soil type and pH conducive to good growth for that plant?
  • Maintenance needs: Is the plant a weak grower that will require frequent pruning, etc.
  • Longevity: Is the plant species known to be long-lived?

Selecting plants for sustainability is not complicated or time-consuming. There are numerous plant lists found through University Extension programs as well as online at various web sites. Nursery catalogs also often contain useful lists. The following lists are but a small fraction of the plants available that have few insect or disease problems, are often long-lived, drought tolerant or may contribute to wildlife habitat. The lists do contain introduced plants as well as North American indigenous species (plants marked with an * are indigenous to North America). When selecting plants, it is highly recommended to plant a diversity of plant species and to avoid the overplanting of one species, thus creating a monoculture. Increasing plant diversity often results in the increase of beneficial insect biodiversity, and that is a good thing.

Sustainable Alternatives to Invasive Plants
Invasive species:
  • Acer platanoides - Norway maple
  • Acer pseudoplatanus - Sycamore maple
Alternatives: Hardiness Zone:
* Acer rubrum - Red maple Z 3
* Acer saccharum - Sugar maple Z 4
* Cladrastis kentukea - American Yellowwood Z 4
Gingko biloba - Ginkgo Z 4
* Liriodendron tulipifera - Tuliptree; Tulip poplar Z 4
* Oxydendron arboreum - Sourwood Tree Z 5
* Quercus palustris - Pin Oak Z 4
Invasive species:
  • Berberis thunbergii - Japanese barberry
  • Berberis vulgaris – European barberry
Alternatives: Hardiness Zone:
* Ilex vericillata - Winterberry Z 3
* Itea virginica - Virginia sweetspire Z 5
* Morella (Myrica) pensylvanica - Northern Bayberry Z 3
* Fothergilla gardenii - Dwarf Fothergilla Z (4)5
* Itea virginica - Virginia sweetspire Z 5

Invasive species:

  • Euonymus alatus - Winged euonymous, Burning bush
Alternatives: Hardiness Zone:
* Aronia arbutifolia - Red Chokeberry Z 3
* Clethra alnifolia - Sweet Pepperbush (Summersweet) Z 4
* Cotinus obovatus - American Smoketree Z 5
* Hydrangea quercifolia - Oakleaf hydrangea Z 5
* Itea virginica - Virginia sweetspire Z 5
* Morella (Myrica) pensylvanica - Northern Bayberry Z 3
* Rhus copallina - Flameleaf sumac; Shining Sumac Z 4

* Rhus typhina 'Laciniata' - Cutleaf Staghorn Sumac;

Z 4

* Vaccinium corymbosum - Highbush Blueberry

Z 3

Invasive species:

  • Elaeagnus umbellata – Autumn olive
Alternatives: Hardiness Zone:
* Aronia arbutifolia - Red Chokeberry Z 4
* Fothergilla gardenii - Dwarf Fothergilla Z (4)5
* Fothergilla major - Large Fothergilla Z 4
* Ilex glabra - Inkberry Z 5
* Ilex vericillata - Winterberry Z 3
* Morella (Myrica) pensylvanica - Northern Bayberry Z 3

Invasive species:

  • Rosa multiflora - Multiflora Rose
Numerous disease resistant landscape roses
Invasive Vines:
  • Celastrus orbiculatus - Oriental bittersweet
  • Lonicera japonica - Japanese honeysuckle
  • Ampelopsis brevipedunculata - Porcelain-berry vine
Alternatives: Hardiness Zone:
* Aristolochia macrophylla (durior) - Dutchman's pipe Z 4
* Campsis radicans - Trumpet vine Z 4
* Clematis montana - Anemone clematis Z 5
* Lonicera sempervirens - Trumpet honeysuckle Z (3)4
* Parthenocissus quinquefolia - Virginia Creeper; Woodbine Z 4
* Wisteria frutescens - American wisteria Z 5

Invasive species:

  • Lythrum salicaria – Purple Loosestrife
* Agastache foeniculum – Blue giant hyssop Z 5
* Eupatorium purpurium - Joe-pye weed Z 4
* Echinacea purpurea – Purple coneflower Z 3
* Liatris spicata – Blazing star Z 3
* Monarda didyma – Beebalm Z 4

Invasive species:

  • Phalaris arundinacea – Reed canary-grass
Schizachyrium scoparium - Little bluestem (& cultivars: 'Blaze; 'The Blues')
Hakonechloa macra - Japanese Hakone Grass (& cultivars: 'Aureola';'All Gold; 'Variegata')


Asian Longhorned Beetle
In North America, Asian Longhorned Beetle (ALB) has been reported on a number of trees. The observed ALB preferred host trees and the occasional ALB host trees are listed below. There is ongoing research as to which other trees may be considered ALB host trees, so the suggested ALB host tree alternative list may likely change, as a result of this research. A key to creating sustainable landscapes is to embrace diversity and to avoid planting the same species repeatedly, thus avoiding creation of a monoculture.
ALB Host Trees to Date: These plants should not be planted in an ALB quarantine zone.
Preferred Hosts in U.S. Occasional Hosts in U.S.
Acer spp. - Maple Albizia julibrissin – Mimosa
Aesculus spp. - Horsechestnut Fraxinus spp.- Ash (especially
Betula spp. – Birch F. pennsylvanica - Green ash)
Cercidiphyllum japonicum - Katsuratree Platanus acerifolia - London Planetree
Salix spp. – Willow Populus spp.- Poplar
Ulmus spp. – Elm Sorbus spp. - Mountain Ash
Suggested Replanting Alternatives for ALB Host Trees:
* Amelanchier sp. - Serviceberry
* Chionanthus virginicus – White Fringetree
Cornus kousa – Kousa dogwood
* Cornus racemosa – Gray dogwood
Corylus colurna – Turkish Filbert
Crataegus spp. – Hawthorn (choose disease resistant cultivars)
Carpinus betulus – European hornbeam
* Cladrastis kentukea – American Yellowwood
Fagus spp. - Beech
Ginkgo biloba – Ginkgo
* Halesia montana – Mountain Silverbell
* Halesia tetraptera – Carolina silverbell
Koelreuteria paniculata – Goldenraintree
* Liriodendron tulipifera – Tulip tree
Magnolia spp.
Malus spp. – Crabapple
Metasequoia glyptostroboides – Dawn Redwood
* Nyssa sylvatica – Tupelo/Blackgum
* Ostrya virginiana – American hornbeam Stewartia spp.
Syringa reticulata – Japanese lilac
* Taxodium distichum – Baldcypress
Zelkova serrata - Japanese zelkova
Zelkova serrata - Japanese zelkova
* Juniperus virginiana – Eastern Redcedar
Picea omorika – Serbian Spruce
Pinus sembra – Swiss Stone Pine
Pinus parviflora – Japanese white pine
* Pinus strobus – White pine
* Thuja occidentalis – American Arborvitae
* Thuja plicata – Western Arborvitae


Viburnum Leaf Beetle
Viburnum leaf beetle is now established in Massachusetts. Just because a species is listed as most resistant doesn't mean that it won't be infested.
Resistant viburnums:
V. x bodnantense - Dawn viburnum
V. carlesii - Koreanspice viburnum
V. davidii - David viburnum
V. x juddii - Judd viburnum
V. plicatum var. tomentosum - Doublefile viburnum
V. rhytidophyllum - Leatherleaf viburnum
V. setigerum - Tea viburnum
V. sieboldii - Siebold viburnum


Partial List of Sustainable Trees, Shrubs & Perennials
(Not already listed above)
Deciduous Trees: Hardiness Zone:
Acer griseum - Paperbark maple Z 5
Acer trilobum - Three-flower Maple Z 5
* Betula nigra - River birch Z 5
* Carpinus caroliniana - American Hornbeam Z 2
Cercidiphyllum japonicum - Katsuratree Z 4
Cornus x rutgersensis hybrids - the StellarTM series Z 5
Magnolia 'Elizabeth' Z 4
Malus spp. (disease resistant cultivars) Z 5
* Ostrya virginiana - American Hophornbeam: Ironwood Z 4
* Oxydendrum arboreum - Sourwood Z 5
* Taxodium distichum - Common Baldcypress Z 4
Deciduous Shrubs: Hardiness Zone:
* Aesculus parviflora - Bottlebrush buckeye Z 4
* Comptonia peregrina - Sweetfern Z 2
Cornus mas - Corneliancherry Dogwood Z 4
Cotinus coggygria - Common Smokebush Z 5
Hydrangea paniculata - Panicle Hydrangea Z 3
* Hydrangea quercifolia - Oakleaf Hydrangea Z 5
* Hydrangea quercifolia 'Snowflake' Z 5
Syringa patula 'Miss Kim' - Miss Kim Lilac Z 4
Evergreen Trees: Hardiness Zone:
* Chamaecyparis nootkatensis Z 4
Chamaecyparis obtusa - Hinoki Falsecypress Z 5
Chamaecyparis pisifera - Sawara Falsecypress Z 4
* Pinus strobus 'Fastigiata' - Fastigate white pine Z 3
* Pinus strobus 'Pendula' - Weeping white pine Z 3
* Pinus strobus 'Soft Touch' - Soft Touch dwarf white pine Z 3
Sciadopitys verticillata - Japanese umbrella-pine Z 5
* Thuja plicata - Western Arborvitae Z 4
Perennials for Sun: Hardiness Zone:
* Amsonia taberaemontana - Bluestar Z 5
* Amsonia hubrichtii - Narrow Leaf Bluestar Z 5
* Baptisia australis - False Blue Indigo Z 5
* Baptisia alba - White Wild Indigo Z 5
Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster' - Feather Reed Grass Karl Foerster Z 4
Baptisia hybrids Z 5
* Coreopsis verticillata 'Moonbeam' Z 5
* Echinacea purpurea  
* Eupatorium maculatum - Joe-Pye-Weed Z 4
* Eupatorium dubium 'Little Joe' Z 4
* Eupatorium rugosum 'Chocolate' – White Snakeroot Z 3
Euphorbia polychroma – Cushion spurge (with Euphorbia dulcis 'Chameleon') Z 4
Geranium 'Rosanne' Z 5
Geranium macrorrhizum – Bigroot Geranium Z 3
Hemerocallis – Daylily Z 3
Ligularia dentata 'Desdemona'; L. 'Britt-Marie Crawford' Z 3
Nepeta spp. Z 3
* Panicum virgatum - Switch Grass (& cultivars) Z 5
* Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii 'Goldsturm' - Goldsturm Black-eyed Susan Z 3
Salvia 'May Night' Z 4
* Schizachryium scoparium (Andropogon scoparius) – Little Bluestem (& cultivars) Z 3
Sedum spp. Z 3
* Yucca filamentosa Z 5
Perennials for shade: Hardiness Zone:
Alchemilla mollis – Lady's Mantle Z 4
* Cimicifuga racemosa (Actaea racemosa) - Black Cohosh; Bugbane Z 3
Epimedium spp. Z 5
Hakonechloa macra - Japanese Hakone Grass (& cultivars) Z 5
Helleborus x hybridus (H. orientalis) - Lenten Rose Z 4
Paeonia japonica – Japanese Peony Z 5
* Phlox divaricata - Woodland Phlox Z 3
* Phlox stolonifera - Creeping Phlox Z 3
* Polygonatum commutatum - Great Solomon's Seal Z 3
Polygonatum odoratum 'Variegatum' - Variegated Fragrant Solomon's Seal Z 3
* Tiarella cordifolia – Foamflower  

Written by: Deborah Swanson
Revised: 08/2011