Planting with Purpose: Nurturing Native Flora in Pennsylvania Homes

By Zach Leahan, Founder, Choose Native Plants PA

Six years ago, I became a resident of Malvern, with my home landscape looking overgrown. Several aggressive pruning sessions later, I had a lot of planting to do.  I wasn’t a big fan of ornamental landscaping; the thought of selecting plants merely for their aesthetics seemed superficial, and the prospect of choosing from the vast array of options felt daunting.

Everything changed two years later when I chanced upon an enlightening piece from my local Willistown Conservation Trust, titled “Homeowner Habitat: An Introduction.” It underlined the importance and benefits of native plants, compelling me to view my landscaping needs under a new light. The intricate connection between native plants, insects, birds, and indeed, ourselves, was starting to become apparent.

As I delved deeper into the world of native plants, I couldn't help but reminisce about the fireflies that used to light up the summer nights (while learning why I see less) and the joy of picking raspberries in the side yard, which are native by the way. These memories kindled my determination to not only restore my garden but also to create a haven for these beloved creatures to foster memories for my children and help them connect with nature.

Equipped with a new purpose, I began categorizing native plants into an extensive spreadsheet, using my background in technology. To make the data more digestible, I populated it with photos, filters, and graphs. Via my research of existing datasets, I discovered the dataset of Mark Skinner’s Ecoregional Revegetation Application. This web site is a map-based, searchable application to select native plants. I loved the data represented as a full population of Pennsylvania native plants, but the lack of photos and intuitive filtering left me wanting more.

In my hope to make this information widely accessible, I reached out to a tech focused volunteer group, Code For Philly. The response was swift and enthusiastic. After a year of design and development involving fifteen volunteers, we built an open source, mobile friendly web application named Choose Native Plants, a tool for those interested in finding Pennsylvania-native plants that fit the needs at their home. One user described the app as a “knowledgeable neighbor” always ready with the perfect plant: making it feel like a friendly dialogue rather than a tedious search. Imagine wanting a plant that's showy, shade-tolerant, and attracts hummingbirds. The app suggests a variety of native plants that fit your criteria, like the stunning Cardinal Flower, and supplies a direct link to one of Pennsylvania’s 25 all-native nurseries where you can purchase them.

The app’s standout feature is its capacity to bridge the gap between plant discovery and purchase. We're currently working on expanding this nursery database to cover all of the USA. We hope to make the database and its functions publicly available so that other native plant resources can connect to their local nurseries, making the purchase of native plants easier for any interested buyer. 

Choose Native Plants is part of a broader trove of resources promoting the integration of native plants into our ecosystems. The PictureThis app, for instance, educates users about the plants in their immediate environment simply by analyzing a photo that you take on your phone. For compelling arguments about the importance of native plants, take a look at Drew Lathin's TEDx presentation, The Beauty of Native Plants. And for deeper exploration, Doug Tallamy's extensive work, and Audubon's 2023 comprehensive picture book of wildflowers and trees, are invaluable resources. My current read, Rosenbaum’s Wild Plant Culture, focuses on the human benefits of these native plant communities.

Through this journey, I also planted a growing wealth of native plants that are not only ecologically beneficial, but also provide a delicious, conversation provoking yield. Paw paw, raspberry, chokeberry, hazelnut, and blueberries now thrive in my yard. Pending my wife’s approval, I’ll be adding native persimmons to this list!

With a little effort, we can all transform our home’s green spaces into thriving habitats that support local ecology, while also adding beauty to our surroundings. So let's start planting with purpose. Choose Native Plants is an approachable way to start.

This blog was included as part of the August 2023 Sylvanian newsletter. Please click here to check out more articles from this edition!