Typical Coastal Sand Dune Plant Community at Sandy Hook, NJ.

So often people are planting plants simply for aesthetics. Those who choose native tend to plant for additional reasons. Sure, aesthetics play a role but ecosystem services like clean water, pollinator forage, clean air, soil improvement may also be considered.

As we enter the holiday season and begin spending more time with friends and family it got us thinking about community.

Unlike the term ‘native pant’, ‘plant community’ has a relatively uncontroversial and straight-forward definition.  As the authors of Plant Communities of New Jersey state “Generally, ecologists refer to the group of plants that live together as a “plant community.” They go on to remind us that a plant community is a part of a larger community including animals and all other living parts of an ecosystem. The Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program defines plant communities as “groups of plants sharing a common environment that interact with each other, animal populations, and the physical environment.” Seems all are in agreement about plant communities.

So when planning new additions to the garden or designing a new residential or commercial landscape, instead of thinking “pollinator garden”, or “manicured meadow”, or “native plant garden”,consider instead planning a community.

When planning a community it is important to consider all of the components. Showy plants with colorful flowers, terrific fall color, great fragrance and stunning fruits tend to get top billing in landscapes and many stop there. We must not forget to include those parts of the community that are the shy, quiet types, doing lots of good without telling the whole world about it.

This development of a complete community not only ensures exceptional diversity of plants and therefor insects, birds, mammals and spiders but also develops a sense of place in the landscape. When you enter a developed, intentional plant community you will find both the loud and the subtle and they are both fulfilling a niche and a need.

To truly design with native plants, it is essential to move beyond the pretty, to learn and understand the value of each member of the community to the whole. Plants with less visual appeal or a single season of interest shouldn’t be excluded from the designs.

Take for instance the uplands of North Jersey. Plant Communities of New Jersey lists some typical plants of the mixed oak forests of North Jersey. In addition to White Oak, Red Oak and Black Oak, while strolling the woodlands of northern New Jersey (yes, they do exist!) you will find in the shrub layer maple-leaved viburnums, mountain laurel and pinxterbloom azaleas. Virginia creeper also makes an appearance here. So many bemoan this vine, even going so far as to label it with the dreaded title of ‘invasive.’ What many do not realize is Virginia Creeper is the host plant for sphinx moths and provides food for 15 different species of moths. In addition, Virginia Creeper berries feed more than 30 species of woodland and thicket birds. Seems to be an important part of the community, one that shouldn’t be left out because it doesn’t fill an aesthetic or behavioral need.


The red fall color of Virginia Creeper stands out against a backdrop of lichens on a boulder in southeastern PA.


White wood aster creates part of the ground cover and herbaceous layer in the northern New Jersey Hardwood Forest.  As does Christmas Fern. Though Christmas Fern often appears in native landscape designs due in large part to its deer resistance and evergreen leaves, the lowly white wood aster is often overlooked as a valuable part of the community being built. The seeds, available into late fall are a reliable food source for resident dark-eyed juncos, sparrows and goldfinches. Birds flying through in the fall on their way to warmer locations may find a protein rich seed or insect snack along the way. Wasps, bees, flies and beetles all venture into shady locations to visit the small white flowers of this woodland perennial. Though often described as ‘weedy’ these,too, play an important role in the community.


And then there are the sedges. Plain and familiar looking, sedges are often overlooked for the landscape. Pennsylvania sedge is very common part of local plant communities. Towhees and wild turkeys eat the seeds of this ground cover, as it spreads through rhizomes to create a graceful fine textured blanket on the landscape’s shaded floor.

As a designer you may also look to plant communities to solve common landscape problems. So many people bemoan the Black Walnut because nothing grows under them, or the chemicals the roots exude kill their tomato plants. While it is true that Black Walnuts are alleopathic and can cause death of certain plantings nearby, it is also true that these trees exist as part of a community in which other plants thrive along side these native trees.

Black Walnut

Leaves and Fruit of Black Walnut

If you were to take a look at a native plant community with Black Walnut, such as the Sugar Maple-Mixed Hardwood forests of Northern New Jersey, the mixed mesophytic forest of Pennsylvania, or the floodplain forests of New York state, you would find plants that happily coexist with black walnut.

Take a hike through a local plant community with black walnut and you may find Sensitive FernAmerican Ginger, Woodland Phlox, Eastern Wood Fern, or Cinnamon Fern doing just fine depending on the community you’re visiting.

Taking a look at the local plant community when designing a landscape can inspire plant combinations you may not have considered. Remember to observe the value of all of the members of the community, not just the ostentatious, the ones that immediately grab your attention, take a close look at the quiet beauties, the subtle players. What role are they playing in the community and where can you include them in your landscape. Take a closer look as well at the trouble makers – who seems to be getting along with them? This observation of existing pant communities will inform your decisions and help in creating a diverse, successful, productive community. That is what we are all going for isn’t it?




One comment

  1. […] life under or around the stately black walnut. You see Black Walnut is part of our native plant community. They do not exist in colonies devoid of any other plants, they exist with others that have evolved […]

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