Pennsylvania has many diverse plants, trees, insects, fish, birds, and mammals that originated thousands of years ago and thrive in mutual dependence. Native species are defined as those that lived in Pennsylvania before the advent of European settlement. Our state’s native ecosystem provides us with natural resources that benefit our lives by enabling agricultural food production, recreation, fisheries, timber, and more.
Thursday, May 18, is Pennsylvania Native Species Day. As it approaches, here are some things that you can do to celebrate!
Learn about Native Species
Visit The Arboretum at Penn State to identify native plants and learn how you can incorporate them into your own backyard. We’ve highlighted a few that you can look out for on your visit.
Rudbeckia (Black-eyed Susans and Coneflowers)
If you’re looking for a showy, hardy flower that will tolerate a dry, sunny location and bloom well into the fall, consider one of the many species of Rudbeckia, all of which are native to North America. These members of the aster family, often known as black-eyed susans or coneflowers, come in a range of sizes, from the relatively petite 2–3’ tall orange coneflower R. fulgida to the large coneflower, R. maxima, which can tower up to 7 feet tall. Coneflowers are particularly good at attracting butterflies, which find it easy to land on the platform-shaped flower disks. Look for plantings of Rudbeckia in the Childhood’s Gate Children’s Garden and near the Overlook Pavilion.
Lindera Benzoin (Spicebush)
Spicebush, Lindera benzoin, is a terrific choice for a shady, edge-of-the-woods location, full shade, or a property border. This medium-sized (6–12’) native shrub bears greenish-yellow flowers in the early spring and yellow leaves in fall, making it an attractive, native alternative to the non-native forsythia, which often serves the same role in the garden landscape. Spicebush has special wildlife value: not only do the early flowers provide nectar for pollinating flies and bees, but the leaves are one of only three foods that caterpillars of the spicebush swallowtail butterfly can eat. If you’re visiting the Arboretum, look for a planting of spicebush in the Childhood’s Gate Children’s Garden, next to the caterpillar sculpture.
Quercus Alba (White Oak)
If you have a lot of space and want to plant a native species that will provide maximum ecological benefit for hundreds of years, then a white oak, Quercus alba, might be the tree for you. White oak acorns provide food for animals like deer, squirrels, and blue jays. The leaves are food for literally hundreds of mostly unnoticed species of insects, including moths, tree crickets, katydids, and tiny gall wasps, and the branches provide homes for nesting birds and small mammals. Considering the potential of a white oak to support ecological diversity, it is no wonder that the first tree planted at The Arboretum at Penn State was a white oak!
Go on a Bird Walk
Pennsylvania has 394 native bird species, 186 of which live in the state throughout the year. We have one native species, the passenger pigeon, which is extinct. You can learn more about the passenger pigeon by visiting information about The Lost Bird Project.
Learn about Native Reptiles and Amphibians
Visit the Litzinger Discovery Room at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center to identify turtles and snakes that are native to our state. Pennsylvania was once home to 36 native species of amphibians and 37 native reptile species. Unfortunately, 22 percent of these have disappeared from the state or are endangered.
While you’re at Shaver’s Creek, you can also explore nearby Lake Perez to identify fish, aquatic plants, and insects that are native to the area.
Plant a Native Species
Plant a native flower, shrub, or tree in your own backyard.
Native Pennsylvania trees range from tall, narrow conifers to wide, spreading deciduous shade trees. Several maples (Acer spp.) are indigenous to the state, including the sugar maple (A. saccharum). This deciduous tree grows to 80 feet tall. It has large, three- to five-lobed leaves that turn brilliant shades of red, orange, and yellow in the fall. The sugar maple sap is used to produce maple syrup.
Pennsylvanian shrubs must tolerate our cold winters. The speckled and smooth alders (Alnus rugosa and serrulata) attract birds with their berries and provide shelter. These deciduous shrubs grow from 15 to 25 feet tall and have showy fall foliage. The cranberry bush (Viburnum trilobum) grows to 12 feet tall. This deciduous native blooms with clusters of white flowers, followed by bright red berries that provide food for birds through the winter.
Spread the Word
Most importantly, spread the knowledge that you’ve learned about our native species throughout the Commonwealth to your friends and family. To learn more about Pennsylvania’s native species, visit the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.