The first step in becoming an ecological landscaper is to learn to identify the common native species and habitats they are found in. A general definition of native plants for our area is those that were present in the region (which can be variously defined) prior to European colonization circa 1600 AD. Habitats are the places the species grow, which are described with terms like meadow, forest, wooded wetland, marsh, bog, etc.
The Connecticut College Arboretum, particularly the native plant collection, is a great place to learn the local native tree and shrub species. Plants in this collection should have a small metal tag somewhere in them that includes their scientific name and an accession number. The number refers to our database and mapping system. Any good plant book will have both the scientific and common names. Since scientific names are standardized (only one name per plant), and common names are not, it is best to get comfortable with the genus and species of the plants you are interested in.
Other resources for learning to identify native plants:
The Connecticut Botanical Society has field trips from April through October to a wide variety of places and habitats where one can observe and learn about native plants. They also have a great website with information about the more attractive native species. The site has a link to the Checklist of CT Native and Naturalized Plants. This is a listing of all the plants, both native and non-native plants that reproduce in the state without humans cultivating them. The list was produced in 2014 and has the most up-to-date scientific names for local plants. And it indicates which species are native, non-native, rare and invasive.
The Native Plant Trust (formerly New England Wildflower Society) is dedicated to the preservation of native plants and has a very useful website, called Go Botany for the identification of New England’s native and naturalized plants.
The University of Connecticut recently launched New England Native Plants Initiative to collect, maintain and distribute materials and information related to New England native plant initiatives with an emphasis on ecological and environmental impacts.
Regional Sources of Native Plants
Unfortunately there are still only a relatively few local sources for native plants in Southern New England. As of April 2020, these are the ones we are aware of within an approximately 100 mile radius of New London:
Native Plant Trust - Nasami Farm (in western Massachusetts; native plants from seed harvested sustainably from healthy, well-established wild populations throughout the region)
Blue Moon Farm Perennials (in Wakefield, Rhode Island; mostly perennials)
Earth Tones (in Woodbury; native grasses, ferns, perennials, shrubs and trees)
NATIVE (in Fairfield; woody and herbaceous plants)
Natureworks Garden Center (in Northford; reseller not grower, mostly perennials)
New England Wetland Plants (wholesale)
Rhody Native (a native plant initiative of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey)
Many larger nurseries have increased the amount of native shrubs and trees they sell, but they are not necessarily propagated from local wild plants.
A few good books to get you started…
Tree and Shrub Identification
Illustrated Guide to Trees and Shrubs. A handbook of the Woody Plants of the Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada. Revised Edition. 2011, Arthur Harmount Graves. Dover Publications Inc. Excellent winter and foliage keys, outstanding line drawings; both native and introduced species.
The Tree Identification Book. 1973, George W. D. Symonds. W. Morrow and Co., Inc., Very simple photograph system for native species only. There is a companion shrub book.
National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Trees of North America. 2008, Kershner, Mathew, Nelson & Spellenberg. Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. Native and naturalized trees, color photos, range maps.
A Field Guide to Trees. 1988, George A. Petrides. Peterson Field Guide Series, Houghton Mifflin Co. Native and naturalized.
Fruit and Twig Key to Trees and Shrubs. 1946, William Harlow. Dover Publications, Inc. Still probably the best for winter ID.
Bark. A Field Guide to the Trees of the Northeast. 2011, Michael Wojtech. University Press of New England, Hanover, NH. A visual key that works pretty well. 67 most common native and naturalized trees.
Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide. 1989, Lawrence Newcomb. Little, Brown & Co. Uses an ingenious and simple keying system to identify many native and naturalized plants in northeastern US and adjacent Canada. Excellent line drawings.
Wildflowers of New England. 2016, Ted Elliman and New England Wildflower Society. Also has a simplified keying system for ID, species illustrated with color photos.
A Guide to Wildflowers in Winter. Herbaceous Plants of Northeastern North America. 1995, Carol Levine. Yale University Press. Uses a semi-technical key, but has an illustrated glossary of terms. Line drawings. Great for identifying non-woody wild plants during the half-year when they aren’t green.
Other Plant Identification
Grasses: An Identification Guide. 1992, Lauren Brown. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Includes common wild grasses and grass like plants.
Common Mosses of the Northeast and Appalachians. 2013, Karl McKnight and others. Princeton University Press. Identification of 200 common mosses for the non-professional. Excellent color photos and line drawings.
Peterson Field Guide to Ferns, Second Edition: Northeastern and Central North America. 2005, Boughton Cobb and others.
Ecological Landscaping and Gardening with Natives
Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change. 2016, Larry Weaner and Tom Christopher. Timber Press. Written by a person with decades of experience using ecological processes to create beautiful and functional meadows and other landscape designs.
Bringing Nature Home. How you Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants. 2009, Douglas Tallamy. Timber Press. Without a doubt the best explanation of why everyone should shift to designing and planting with natives to sustain the biological diversity we depend on.
The New American Landscape. Leading Voices on the Future of Sustainable Gardening. 2011, Timber Press. Essays by a dozen national leaders in sustainable landscaping on subjects ranging from meadows and edible gardens to green roofs and wildlife.
Planting in a Post-Wild World. Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes. 2015, Thomas Rainer and Claudia West. Timber Press
The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden. 2014, Roy Diblik. Timber Press.
There are many other great books, both general and specific, on this subject. The Arboretum Library has many of them, visitors are welcome to browse our collection.
Another information source is the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Handbook Series of short booklets on a variety of related topics. http://www.bbg.org/gardening/handbooks
Arboretum Director, Glenn Dreyer, recently helped to create a report for the New England Transportation Consortium (NETC) on Effective Establishment of Native Grasses on Roadsides in New England.
The national native plant gardening organization Wild Ones has a local Connecticut Chapter sponsored by the Arboretum that meets at Connecticut College http://www.conncoll.edu/the-arboretum/programs-and-activities/wild-ones/