Habitat and Heritage: Three native plants with cultural and wildlife value

What you plant in your landscape not only matters to butterflies, bees and birds. It is also important for preserving cultural heritage.

North American native plants have evolved alongside native wildlife, and these ancient relationships are important for the survival of both plant and animal. As our yards become filled with non-native ornamentals, native plants and wildlife are losing out. Specialist species like the monarch butterfly, whose caterpillar only eats milkweed, have an even harder time surviving.  Early Americans also developed important relationships with native plants. Many North American plant species were used medicinally, culturally and economically by early colonists and Native Americans. These plants helped build America. The following three tree and shrub species have a special value to local wildlife and our region’s heritage.

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
Photo by Betty Truax

Habitat value:

Sassafras grows anywhere from a shrub sized plant to 65 feet high. In the south, it tends to grow into a taller tree, but it usually stays in its shrub-like form in the north. It is a pioneer plant and favors disturbed sites, open woodlands and roadsides. It does best in moist well-drained loamy soils, but can be found growing in various soil types with a low pH level. Female plants produce a deep blue berry in the late summer. If fruits are desired, it is recommended to plant both male and female trees.

Sassafras is the host plant of caterpillars for 36 species of Lepidoptera (the order of insects that contains butterflies and moths), including the spicebush swallowtail and eastern tiger swallowtail. Birds and mammals readily eat the fruit produced by female trees.

Cultural value:

Early settlers believed the fragrance of Sassafras repelled bed bugs and other insects, and it was used to make everything from bedsteads to cabin floors. In the book Natural History of North American Trees by Donald Culross Peattie, the author explains people thought building chicken coops made from sassafras would keep out lice.

In early colonial America, sassafras tonic, made from boiling its roots or bark, was purported to prolong life and cure a number of ailments. Europeans embraced this New World cure-all, and they sent early explorers to search for it. Captain John Smith of the Jamestown colony sent sassafras as one of Virginia’s first exports. However, once folks realized it wasn’t curing everything it was alleged to, Europe’s obsession ended and they moved on to other panaceas from the New World — most notably, tobacco.

New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus)
Photo by Betty Truax

Habitat value:

New Jersey tea is a short, flowering shrub that favors shade and well-drained soils. It produces delicate white clusters of fragrant flowers in the spring that have valuable nectar and pollen sources for bees and bumble bee queens that emerge early in the season. The shrub also attracts hummingbirds and butterflies. It can be found growing naturally in rocky woodlands, along wooded edges and dry slopes. New Jersey tea can handle sun and average garden soils with good drainage, but it will not tolerate wet conditions.   

New Jersey tea is the host plant for 43 species of native butterflies and moths, including the Spring Azure, Summer Azure, Mottled Duskywing butterflies. The seeds produced by the flowers are eaten by birds and small mammals.

Cultural value:

Ceanothus americanus was originally called red root up until the American Revolution. Following the Boston Tea Party, colonists turned to native North American plants as a substitute for Chinese black tea and as a way to protest. Subsequently, redroot became New Jersey tea when colonists began using it regularly as an alternative.

Serviceberry/Shadbush (Amelanchier arborea- common serviceberry) (Amelanchier canadensis- shadblow serviceberry)
Photo by Betty Truax

Habitat value:

Serviceberry, otherwise known as shadbush, is a shrub-like spindly tree that can grow 15-30 feet high. Like New Jersey tea, it is a spring bloomer that provides valuable nectar to bees early in the growing season. There are several ornamental hybrids and cultivars of serviceberry found in the nursery trade, but the two species that are native to the Piedmont region of Virginia are Amelanchier arborea and Amelanchier canadensis. These species produce showy five-petaled flowers that fill the tree and appear before its leaves. In the early summer, both species produce dark berries (similar looking to blueberries), which are edible and favored by birds. Amelanchier is often referred to as Juneberry, and the berries are used in pies and jams. Serviceberry can be grown in a wide variety of soils, including clay, in full sun to part shade, and it hosts a whopping 119 species of Lepidoptera. This species is favored by deer, so it will need to be protected when it is young.

Cultural value:  

This species two common names, shadbush and serviceberry, comes from its relationship with early colonists. It’s called shadbush (or shadblow) because the tree blooms around the same time shad swim up river to return to their spring spawning grounds. According to legend, the tree is called serviceberry because its flowering signaled the spring thaw had arrived, and colonists could then bury and service their deceased loved ones that passed over the winter.

To learn more about native plants, visit the Virginia Native Plant Society’s website at www.vnps.org. If you are interested in purchasing native plants, check out The Piedmont Environmental Council’s Go Native Go Local guide at www.pecva.org/gonative, which includes a list of local plant nurseries that specialize in growing native species.    

Celia Vuocolo is the habitat stewardship specialist at the Piedmont Environmental Council.  

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2 thoughts on “Habitat and Heritage: Three native plants with cultural and wildlife value

  1. Great article, thank you! New Jersey Tea also appeals to deer a great deal . . . The only one I’ve planted was a quick casualty.

  2. Unless growing under taller edge trees, serviceberry is not spindly at all. In the Northeast, a serviceberry becomes a filled out tree if planted in the open, covered with white blossoms in the early spring. they get about 20′ tall in this climate – a perfect tree for the small yard. There is a need for a photo of it as a full tree in Spring to appreciate its shape and beauty.

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