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Choose Native Initiative Offers Native Alternatives to Invasive Species

Invasive and ornamental species are commonly introduced through landscaping and water gardening practices. Without proper tools to connect a homeowner, landscaper, or water gardener to a native alternative, this vector of spread will never be disrupted. There is a need for outreach materials that provide a roadmap to make choosing native species simple, while also stimulating the sale of native species within the industry. In response to this need, Pennsylvania Sea Grant and Penn State Extension collaboratively created the Choose Native Initiative.

Landscaping and water gardening activities often lead to the unintended introduction and spread of invasive plant species to natural lands and waterways. This is part of the Organisms in Trade vector of spread which includes any plants or animals sold, bought, or traded with potential to be released into the environment. Once established, invasive species can degrade natural habitats by outcompeting native species for space, light, and nutrients. Invasive species can impact the food web by altering the plant community and decreasing the diversity of plants available for food sources, habitat, and shelter. The sale of ornamental plant species is a primary pathway for invasive species introductions in the United States, and 61% of plants deemed invasive are still available for purchase in-stores or online.

Preventing invasive plant introductions by utilizing native alternatives in landscaping and water gardening is a viable solution. The Choose Native Initiative introduces native species options, creative ways to include native species in landscapes, and management strategies for existing invasive species.

Why Choose Native?

Since the colonial era, there has been a long tradition of introducing non-native, exotic plants into landscapes. Many of these are horticultural creations with highly manipulated characteristics that focus on appearance and novelty, rather than function. They are often not well-adapted to local conditions and do not play a healthy role in regional ecology. Non-native plants have limited ecological functions and contribute to habitat degradation because they fail to provide necessary support to the interconnected network of native species, from essential microbial life to beneficial insects, birds, and wildlife.

Native plants, or plants that have developed regionally without human intervention, have evolved to be well-adapted to local conditions. The genetic variability of naturally propagated seed-grown native plants often makes them more resilient and survivable in unfavorable conditions, such as extreme heat or cold, disease, or pest pressure. They also tend to have a deeper, more diverse root architecture, which not only helps stabilize soils and trap stormwater and runoff pollutants, but also contributes to survivability during drought. Most importantly, native plants have co-evolved with other Pennsylvania native species and provide nourishing food, appropriate nesting sites, and other ecosystem functions that support life. Large and small-scale habitat destruction and fragmentation have resulted in significant declines in native species of all types. Choosing native helps buffer against changing climate and plummeting biodiversity, and the tools and resources are readily available.

Integrating more native plants into existing landscapes and water gardens starts by considering more than just blooms. Native plants should be selected for not just beauty, but also for the benefits they contribute to site conditions and increased ecological functions. This includes providing year-round cover to the soil, offering multiple types of nectar and seeds at different times of the year, capturing pollutants, improving soil infiltration, providing nesting materials, creating sheltered spaces, increasing genetic diversity, and more. Native plants can easily be added to containers, currently unplanted spaces, or used to replace areas of low ecological value, such as portions of existing lawn or annual beds.

Choose Native

Landscaping and water gardening with native plants may require rethinking maintenance and management. Using native species in landscaping and water gardening helps to diversify the ecosystem, provide habitat, food, and resources critically needed by native insects, birds, small mammals, pollinators, and other wildlife. The first step in the Choose Native Initiative was to determine commonly planted invasive and ornamental species, through a statewide survey of plant nurseries, growers, and industry professionals. The survey yielded a large list of common industry plants for which native alternatives were researched. Although there is no one-to-one substitution for any plant, the goal is to provide a native option that landscapers, water gardeners, and homeowners could choose for a similar place or purpose.

Pennsylvania Sea Grant and Penn State Extension also connected with industry professionals to provide workforce development and increased literacy surrounding native plants used in landscaped spaces. Three regional workshops held in March of 2024 provided details about native alternatives such as growth height, soil and sun needs, hardiness zones, and additional information like ecosystem benefits, various tolerances, and more. Workshops also focused on native species that are manageable and appropriate for regional landscapes. The workshops reached 100 landscapers, water gardeners, and community members in Erie, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia areas. Seventy-six percent of attendees fully agreed that the workshop advanced their knowledge of using native plants in landscaping and water gardening.

A fourth virtual mini workshop was held in April of 2024, and was met with extremely high registration numbers indicating a great need for this information across the northeast region of the United States. Over 1,400 people from 12 states and Canada registered for the workshop which featured an overview of the Choose Native Initiative, an at home model of using native plants presented by a Penn State Extension Master Watershed Steward, and a tips and tricks of the trade presented by Native Creations Landscape Services which specializes in native plant landscaping. Nearly 500 people attended the webinar in person, and all 1,700 registrants will receive a copy of the recording. A post-workshop evaluation provided at the end of the webinar indicated that 66% of participants “fully agreed” that the mini workshop advanced their knowledge of using native plants in landscaped areas.

In addition to workshops, the Choose Native Initiative includes a guide that will be printed in June of 2024. The guide features more than 80 invasive terrestrial and aquatic species and their native alternatives. The guide will soon be available in limited English and Spanish print copies and free for download via the Pennsylvania Sea Grant website,

The Choose Native Initiative is a collaboration between Pennsylvania Sea Grant, Penn State Extension, and regional partners, with funding from the Richard King Mellon Foundation. This project would not be possible without our partnership with the Great Lakes Commission.

For more information about aquatic invasive species visit Pennsylvania Sea Grant at or Penn State Extension at

For questions about the project, contact Amber Stilwell, Coastal Outreach Specialist with Pennsylvania Sea Grant and Master Watershed Steward Coordinator with Penn State Extension at

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