Foundation Shrubs that Feed Nature, not Fight it

Skip the Skip Laurel, Say No to Nandina: Choose NATIVE

If your exotic evergreens are “ever-brown” from the recent freeze, now is an ideal time to upgrade to natives.

It doesn’t make sense to simply plant more of the same: the same non-native foundation shrubs that are anything but foundational to our ecosystem. Schip laurel, boxwood, nandina, Chinese holly, euonymus, false cypress, red-tips, cryptomeria, and so forth: all are plants that evolved with creatures and conditions on different continents.

[Mockingbird on Black Chokeberry, Photo by Richard Hitt]

What we need in Tennessee are more shrubs that evolved nearby.
Native shrubs can be more likely to survive extreme weather, year-round. And most importantly, natives are the only sustainable choice: they contribute to local foodwebs in countless, critical ways that non-native plants cannot. 

But, which native shrubs give us the color, texture, and size we want, while giving birds, bees, and butterflies what they need?

Eastern Red-cedar, female with “berries”


Below is a crowd-sourced list of native shrubs proven to do well in Middle Tennessee.
All have ornamental appeal as well as habitat benefit.*

(Think of it as a “Front Yard” list: plants that will likely satisfy a Homeowner Association’s rules.)

Evergreen shrubs:

American holly / Ilex opaca (including ‘Maryland Spreader’)
Yaupon holly / Ilex vomitoria 
Eastern Red-Cedar / Juniperus virginiana (including ‘Grey Owl’ and ‘Royo’)
Shrubby St. John’s-wort / Hypericum prolificum
Inkberry / Ilex glabra 
Anise shrub  / Illicium floridanum and I. parviflorum 
Coast doghobble / Leucothoe axillaris
Florida hobblebush / Agarista populifolia
Southern wax myrtle / Myrica cerifera

Deciduous shrubs:

Black chokeberry / Aronia melanocarpa
American beautyberry / Callicarpa americana
Summersweet / Clethra spp.
Oakleaf hydrangea / Hydrangea quercifolia
Smooth hydrangea / Hydrangea arborescens
Silverleaf hydrangea / Hydrangea radiata
Winterberry / Ilex verticillata
Virginia sweetspire / Itea virginica
Arrowwood viburnum / Viburnum dentatum 
Fragrant sumac / Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-Low’ 
Witch hazel / Virginia (Hamamelis virginiana) and Ozark (H. vernalis)

[Ozark Witch hazel (native to the Ozark plateau), photo by Gail Eichelberger at Clay and]


No new plant is exempt from the old rule, “right plant, right place.”
A site’s soil, sun, moisture, and exposure must be taken into account to give new shrubs a chance to fulfill their potential.

To find the size and requirements of a particular species or cultivar, check with an authority like the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center (link) or the Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder (link).

[Brown-belted bumblebee on Hydrangea arborescens ‘White Dome’, photo by Richard Hitt]

A note on cultivars: a cultivar is a cultivated variety (of a species) selected for desired traits. On nursery tags, the cultivar is noted after the species name and will always be in single quotes, like Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-Low.’
Many cultivars of native shrubs offer a more compact size (height, spread, and shape) than the straight species. If size is the only characteristic changed, there will likely be no reduction in habitat benefits. But a cultivar with a color change of leaf or bloom may not benefit as many creatures.**


Where to buy these “right” plants? Any big-box store sells exotic shrubs, but natives are harder to find. It may be worthwhile to phone a nursery first, and ask for specific plants while explaining your native goal. Inquiries like this can help managers gauge demand, and grow their inventory of natives.
Local nurseries such as Bates Nursery on Whites Creek Pike, and Moore & Moore Garden Center have recently added more natives to meet the growing demand.

Nashville’s big, native nursery is GroWild, in Fairview, open by appointment.
GroWild and Bates both keep online lists of inventory.

Also, look for seasonal native plant sales from groups like the Middle Tennessee Chapter of Wild Ones, and Friends of Cedars of Lebanon State Park.

Mail order: be aware that plants from nurseries in faraway states are products of local climate and genetics, and may not perform as well as expected here.

[Virginia Witch hazel, Photo by Gail Eichelberger at Clay and]


Every native plant we add to our yards adds habitat to our neighborhood, our watershed, our planet.

Even a plant in a pot on a porch can make a difference.

So, when buying a new shrub, skip the Skip Laurel,
box the boxwood,
fire the photinia,
burn the burning bush,
say no to Nandina,
and just choose NATIVE.

[American Beautyberry]

Thank you for reading!

Why Native Plants Matter” (from the Audubon Society) 

Native Plant Database at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

Plant Finder at the Missouri Botanical Garden

To find out if a plant is native to North America, check Ladybird Johnson (above), and if you want to check if it’s native to TN, check BONAP.

Wild Ones, Middle Tennessee Chapter (native plant gardening)

Landscaping with Native Plants (printable PDFs from the Tennessee Invasive Plant Council

Clay and Limestone, Nashville’s wonderful native-plant gardening blog, by Gail Eichelberger.

(book) Gardening with the Native Plants of Tennessee: the Spirit of Place, by Margie Hunter

Homegrown National Park (grassroots call-to-action to plant natives at home, school, work)

Unexpected Gift of Dead Plants, by Margaret Renkl (Op-Ed article in The New York Times, 1/9/23)

[Fragrant sumac]

*This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of all shrubs native to TN or N. America. Think of it as a conversation-starter for native shrubs that do well in Front Yards. What other shrubs do you think should be included? Tell us in the comments, please, and sing that plant’s praises so we all know.
A Back Yard list would include say, native favorites like Elderberry, Buttonbush, Rusty Blackhaw, and Spicebush: plants high in bird-appeal, but which might require more skill to arrange into configurations high in curb appeal.

**For more about the issue of native plant cultivars, a.k.a. “nativars,” see the Wild Ones official “Nativar Statement” (link).
(TLDR version = “While a nativar will most likely be a better ecological fit for North American gardens than an exotic species from Asia or Europe, it remains to be seen to what extent it can fill the ecological niche and provide the genetic richness of a native plant.”)


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Joanna Brichetto is a naturalist and writer in Nashville, the hackberry-tree capital of the world.
She writes about everyday marvels amid everyday habitat loss at and on Instagram (@Jo_Brichetto); and her essays have appeared in Creative NonfictionBrevity, Fourth Genre, Hippocampus, The Hopper, Flyway, The Common, City Creatures, The Fourth River and other journals. Her almanac of urban nature encounters is forthcoming.