A climate action evanston program

Add Native Plants

Prioritize Keystone species and Trees.

More about this key action Item

most recent version posted on:
February 20, 2024

Why Native Plants?

Why not cultivars or exotics plants? Because native plants are host plants for native insects, and more insects means more birds and biodiversity! (Baby songbirds especially need caterpillars and other insects before they start to eat seeds, berries and more diverse forage.

Native trees, shrubs, wildflowers or grasses have a special relationship with a coevolved insect: 90% of plant-eating insects (bees, moths, butterflies, crickets, grasshoppers, leafhoppers, ants, etc.) depend on a particular family or families of plants to grow and develop into an adult. They develop an enzyme or other ways to digest an otherwise toxic plant. These are their host plants. Just as monarch caterpillars need the bitter and toxic milkweed, the same relationship applies to other insects, e.g., the violet fritillary needs violets, and the spicebush swallowtail needs spicebush. When you plant a Japanese ornamental?  Well that evolved with Japanese bugs, rather than our native insects.

Cultivars or “Nativars”

Cultivars are bred for features humans want, such as shorter than the native plant, different color blooms, variegated foliage. The human-modified version may not provide the same benefit to co-evolved insects as the native plant. Breeding can alter the plant structure or chemistry, for example, making its leaves toxic, changing its leafing out time to no longer coincide with the life stage of its co-evolved insect, reconfiguring its bloom shape or petals so that they no longer fit its pollinator, or making its blooms sterile. It requires research on each cultivar to determine to what extent it helps native caterpillars and larvae develop into adult insects.

Also Plant for Nectar, and Year-Round Seeds, Berries, Nuts

Look for host and nectar plants that provide year-round forage. Birds need to be able to eat from your garden year round – finding seeds, berries and nuts, as well as bugs. Insects are much less picky about nectar plants (compared to host plants). Groupings of the same plant (for example 3-6 or more together) attract more pollinators. Nuts and berries that persist into winter provide high-calorie forage at the time when birds most need it.

Watch out for Neonics!

Purchase from native nurseries, or ask if your nursery uses neonicotinoids ("neonics"), America's most common insecticide. Natural Habitat Evanston has checked on many mainstream nurseries. Not one  could confirm that its cultivars and non-native plants are neonic-free. Read more about neonics on our pesticide page. They are used to kill insects on the plants and in the soil.

Pawpaw is a native fruit.

Prioritize Keystone Natives and Trees

Keystones host the most caterpillars, especially keystone native trees

One way to prioritize is to look for native plants that host the most caterpillars (larval hosts). Doug Tallamy, entomologist from the University of Delaware has classified native plants according to how many species of caterpillar they host.  

Why measure plants in caterpillars? Because caterpillars are a foundation for the food chain.  What eats caterpillars? Spiders, beetles, wasps and other insects, but also mammals (like chipmunks and opossum), amphibians, reptiles, fish, birds, even fungi.

Plant an oak, cherry, willow, birch, hickory, elm or other top native tree for wildlife. If you are planting flowers, add some native goldenrods or asters. These trees, and wildflowers, help the most species of native caterpillars, and that helps birds too.

Think of birds as well, choosing the larval hosts that also provide berries, nuts and seeds year-round.

Keystone natives from Tallamy's List of Woody and Herbaceous Plants

Top woody natives, Doug Tallamy
Top herbaceous natives, Doug Tallamy

Local Native Plant Sales

Keep an eye out or join our newsletter for info on local plant sales.  Spring sales are typically offered by:

  • Backyard Botanicals Evanston's Highland Garden Club
  • Bird Buzz: Evanston Environment Association
  • Chicago Audubon Society
  • Emily Oaks Nature Center
  • Evanston School District 65
  • Go Green Wilmette
  • Lake County Forest Preserves
  • Openlands
  • Wild Ones

Neonic-free native nurseries:


  • North Branch Natives, Chicago. northbranchnatives.com
  • Possibility Place. 7548 W.  Monee-Manhattan Road, Monee, Illinois 60449 (also online)  possibilityplace.com 708-534-3988
  • Rebeccas  Natives. 329  Chestnut St Winnetka, IL rebeccasnatives.com  
  • Shady Grove Wildflower Farm, Evanston. shadygrovewildflowerfarm.square.site Also at the Evanston Farmer’s Market: Allison Sloan <allisonlynnsloan@gmail.com


  • Agrecol https://www.agrecol.com
  • Coldstreamfarm.net (bareroot  trees)
  • izelplants.com
  • Prairiemoon.com (good search  function)
  • Prairienursery.com
  • Roundstone Seed roundstoneseed.com
  • TaylorCreeknurseries.com
  • Toadshade.com


  • Pizzogroup.com (wholesale), 10729  Pine Road, Leland IL, 60531. (815) 495-2300. info@pizzogroup.com
  • Red Buffalo Nursery  -   Richmond, IL  -   815-678-4848 redbuffalonursery.com
  • Walnut  Creek Nursery, 35910  Polk Road,
     Marengo, IL 60152 312.925.7467. wcnursery.com

The Benefits of Trees

Trees are important to conserve because they:

  • Cool urban heat islands.  A big shade tree can lower its surrounding temperature by 10-15 degrees.
  • Clean our air and water, creating oxygen and capturing pollutants. Children are less likely to have asthma if they live in leafy neighborhoods.
  • Play an important role in combating climate change. Urban forests remove enough carbon to offset 10 million cars’ emissions per year.
  • Reduce flooding, filter and absorb stormwater. Water evaporates more slowly through leaves and cools our neighborhood.
  • Save us money: Shading homes and blocking winter winds. They increase home values.
  • Are good for business. Shoppers travel farther for tree-lined streets, linger, and spend more.
  • Lower stress, help us relax and quiet streets. Seeing trees reduces blood pressure, helps hospital patients recover, increases worker productivity. People drive more slowly.
  • Make cities safer. People spend more time outside. There are fewer property and violent crimes, and less aggressive behavior.
  • Take many years to develop. Loss of a mature tree can mean a gap of decades before regaining the benefits from a new planting.

More Info: See The Morton Arboretum Link below on the benefit of trees.

Host plants of insects

Plant Suggestions

Note: Numbers refer to how many native caterpillar species require these plants as their larval host. (Not available for all species.) Remember though that berries or other benefits for birds are in addition to larval host values.
* signifies plant more than one.
+ signifies can take more shade

What's in a Native Food Forest?

  • Trees: Cherry or Plum (Prunus serotina or americana) (429), Pecan* (Carya illinoinensis) or other hickories (233), Serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis, canadensis or arborea) (119), Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) (123; away from vegetable gardens but ok for most native gardens), Persimmon* (Diospyros virginia) (44). These tolerate more shade: Hackberry+ (Celtis occidentalis) (41), Pawpaw*+ (Asimina triloba) (12), Red Mulberry+ (Morus rubra).
  • Shrubs: Hazelnut* (Corylus americana) (127), New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus) (43), and Elderberry* (Sambucus canadensis) (40). These tolerate more shade: Chokecherry+ (Prunus virginiana) (429 – sour but makes a good jelly), Blueberry+ (Vaccinium corymbosum) (286), Blackberry+ or Raspberry+ (Rubus allegheniensis, odoratus or occidentalis) (151),  Currants+ and Gooseberries+ (Ribes missouriense or americanum, others) (92), Grape (Vitis riparia (riverbank grape+) or aestivalis (summer grape) (72).
  • Wildflowers. Ground Plum (Astragalus crassicarpus) (13), Bergamot and Beebalms (Monarda spp.) (7). These tolerate more shade: Strawberry+ (Fragaria virginiana) (75), Garlic, Onion or Ramp+ (Allium spp.) (21), native Mints+ (Pycnanthemum pilosum or virginianum), Wild Ginger+ (Asarum canadense).

Planting for Birds

Fruits and nuts for birds is a benefit in addition to the larval host value for caterpillars (that also feed birds).
  • Nut and seed trees and shrubs: Oaks (White, Bur, Pin, Swamp white, Black, Red, Hill’s, Chinquapin, Scarlet) (518), Birch (River, Paper, Yellow) (400), Maples (287),  Elm (206), Linden (142),  American Hazelnut (124), Beech (124), Sycamore (42). These understory trees tolerate more shade: Ironwood+ (Ostrya) (91), Hornbeam+ (Carpinus) (66), Witchhazel+ (62).
  • Fruit trees: Black or Sand Cherry, Chokecherry+ or American plum (429), Iowa Crabapple (358), Hawthorn (150), Serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis, canadensis or arborea) (119), Dogwoods (Pagoda+, Flowering, Red Osier, Gray+) (115), Hackberry+ (41), Eastern Red Cedar (37),   Red Mulberry+ (6).
  • Conifers provide habitat, winter protection and forage: White or Jack Pine (191), Hemlocks+ (89), Red or White Cedar (37, 48).
  • Fruit shrubs. Raspberry or Blackberry+ (Rubus spp.) (151), Viburnum (Blackhaw+, Mapleleaf, Arrowwood, Nannyberry, American cranberrybush) (97), Wild Currant or Gooseberry+ (Ribes spp.) (92), Wild Strawberry+ (ground cover) (86), Smooth or Staghorn Sumac (54), Black chokeberry (46), Elderberry* (40) Ninebark+ (40), Spicebush+ (9), Spikenard+ (7), Wahoo+ (6).
  • Grasses (info on larval hosts may be less researched)
  • (1’+) Shorter to taller: Prairie dropseed (?), Little bluestem (6),  Indian grass (9), Big bluestem (11), Switchgrass (24).
  • (short turf-like) Buffalo grass (1), Pennsylvania+ or Ivory sedge (36).

Seasonal or interesting features

Bur Oak (gnarly shape) (518), native Roses (simple pink blooms) (122), Witchhazel+ (yellow in fall) (62), Serviceberry (119) or Flowering or Pagoda Dogwood+ (115) (white flowers, berries), Red Osier Dogwood (115) (red stems in winter), Sweetgum (bright red fall color) (33), Snowberry+ (small pink blooms followed by big white berries) (24), Redbuds+ (covered in pink in spring) (19), Buttonbush (white puffballs fora wet area) (19) or Tuliptree (straight upright form with blooms like tulips) (19), Spikenard+ (7), Spicebush+ (yellow in spring) (9), Yellowwood (waterfalls of flowers) (?).

Early Spring Bloomers

Really the maples and other early leafing trees help out pollinators in early spring, but consider Wild Garlic (20), Bluestar, Pussytoes (6), Columbine+ (12), Wild Ginger+, Marsh Marigold+, Spring Beauty+, Shooting Stars (Amethyst, Midland+), Trout Lily+, Geranium+ (23), Strawberry+ (75), Prairie Smoke, Solomon's Seal+ or Plume+, Virginia Bluebells+, Bishop's Cap+, Blue Phlox+, Buttercups, Bloodroot+, Celandine Poppy+, Trillium+, Bellwort+, Violets+ (27), Golden Alexanders.

Late Fall Favorites

Goldenrods and asters are keystone natives that need to be in every pollinator garden. Goldenrods (112) (e.g., Elm-leaved+, ZigZag+, Bluestemmed+, Showy, Stiff), Asters (105) (Sky Blue, Smooth Blue, Calico+, Heath+), Ironweed, Mistflower+.

Rabbit Resistant or Resilient

Rabbits may eat nearly anything if hungry. Milkweeds, Beebalm (Monarda), Coneflowers (Echinacea), Black Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia), New England Aster, Goldenrods, Cup and Compass plants, Sunflowers (Helianthus), Ironweed, Tall Bellflower, Ohio Spiderwort, Anise Hyssop, Wild Garlic and Onions, Mints, Foxglove (Beardtongues), Bluestar (Amsonia), Yellow Buckbean, Rattlesnake Master, White Turtlehead, Joe Pye Weed and Sweet  Joe Pye Weed, Great Blue Lobelia, Celandine Poppy,  Wild Geranium, Jacob’s Ladder, Virginia Bluebells, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Woodland Phlox, Vines: Globe Honeysuckle, Trumpetvine, Moonseed, Virginia Creeper, American Bittersweet, River and Summer Grapevine, Shrubs: Gooseberry, Indian Currant, Spikenard, Indigo Bush, Oakleaf Hydrangea, Elderberry, Spicebush, Buttonbush, Beautyberry, Groundcovers: Wild Strawberry, Pussytoes, Buffalograss and Pennsylvania, Bur, or Ivory sedge. (Maybe all sedges are resistant.)


Planting natives is one of the six items in the Pollinator Pledge

Improve habitat for birds and pollinators when you Take the Pollinator Pledge.


Say No to the sale of public land for Waukegan Airport


ORGANIZATIONS: Please sign onto this letter by emailing NaturalHabitat@ClimateActionEvanston.Org with the organization name and city. Collectives, green groups of clubs and places of worship are all welcome to sign-on. You don't have to be a big organization to voice your opinion.

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Take our Pollinator Pledge

Six steps toward a biodiverse, sustainable yard (plus make your windows bird-friendly)

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Our Pollinator Pledge yard signs

Pollinator Pledge yard signs

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Evanston Host Plant Initiative for the Rusty Patched Bumblebee

Evanston Host Plant Initiative for the Rusty Patched Bumblebee

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NWF WIldlife Certification

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Our Eco-Friendly Yard and Garden Landscaping flyer

Our short guide to get your garden buzzing with life — attracting butterflies, bees, fireflies and birds.

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Gardening that Matters PPT

NHE presentation to North Shore Senior Center tuesday club. Variations used for other groups. March 2023

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NHE - why certify as a National WIldlife Federation community habitat

NHE video presentation for Greener Glenview: why certify as a National WIldlife Federation community habitat

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Our Natural Habitat Newsletter Signup

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Transitioning from Turf PPT

Presentation on Transitioning from Turf (Powerpoint), January 2023. Touches on the issues with turf, why native plants, why leave leaves, concerns about neonicotinoids and outdoor lighting.

Transitioning From Turf PowerpointTransitioning From Turf Powerpoint

Transitioning from Turf presentation to FLOW

Transitioning from Turf presentation to FLOW (Friends of the Lower Olentangy Watershed, Columbus, Ohio) lead by Leslie Shad, NHE Lead. DIscusses the issues with turf, why native plants and why leave leaves, the concern about neonicotinoids, and how to navigate outdoor lighting.

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Cleanup with Pollinators in Mind

Garden Cleanup with Pollinators in Mind, Evanston Roundtable, 2019

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Gardening that Matters video presentation

Gardening that Matters. Get Started or Enhance your Native Garden.  March 2023 presentation to North Shore Senior Center's Tuesday Club. A simple way to take action for climate, community healthand biodiversity: Swap out your lawn for native plants.  Reconsidering theculture of lawns. Why it matters, steps to prioritize, how to get started, andhow to amplify the change. Leslie Shad of Natural Habitat Evanston presents.

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D65 Process for New Trees at Schools

District 65 Process for New Trees and Native Plants at Schools

D65 Process for Trees at SchoolsD65 Process for Trees at Schools

D65 Process to Request Mulch, Compost and for Debris Pickup

D65 Process to Request Mulch, Compost and for Debris Pickup

D65 Process to Request Mulch, Compost and for Debris PickupD65 Process to Request Mulch, Compost and for Debris Pickup

Evanston's Tree Ordinance

Evanston requires a permit to remove trees.

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NWF Native Plants Finder: Search your zip code for plants ranked by Tallamy

Website database: search your zip code for plants ranked by Tallamy

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Audubon Plants for Birds Database by zip code

Audubon Plants for Birds Database

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Chicago Audubon Society Plants for Birds

Chicago Audubon Society Plants for Birds

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Wildlife Values from Doug Tallamy, Univ of Delaware

Plants measured as host plants for US caterpillar species from Doug Tallamy, Univ of Delaware

Wildlife Values from Doug TallamyWildlife Values from Doug Tallamy

The Morton Arboretum: Benefits of Trees

From Saving you Money to the Air you Breathe: Tree Benefits

The Morton Arboretum Tree BenefitsThe Morton Arboretum Tree Benefits

Chicago Region Invasives

INVASIVE PLANTS OF THE CHICAGO REGION, An identification guide to 32 invasive or native aggressive plants most damaging to local ecosystems. Compiled by Robert Sullivan, Argonne National Laboratory (Retired) and Henrietta Saunders, University of Illinois Master Naturalist. 2022

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Ghost in the making

Short film on the Rusty-Patched

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List of Rusty-Patched Bumble Bee Host Plants

Fish and Wildlife Service list of host plants for the Rusty-Patched Bumble Bee

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No Mow May factsheet from Midwest Grows Green

No Mow May factsheet from Midwest Grows Green

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A Smarter Fall Cleanup

We now know that an overly aggressive approach to cleaning up in autumn can damage the environment. So what’s a responsible gardener to do?
Margaret Roach, The New York Times, A Smarter Fall Cleanup, 2020

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Rusty-Patched Bumble Bee general information

Fish and Wildlife Service information page on the Rusty-Patched Bumble Bee

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The issues with Lawns

Freakonomics, How Stupid is our Obsession with Lawns

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US Fish and Wildlife Service Fact Sheet on the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee

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Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center - search native plants by state

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center - search native plants by state

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You're Needed! Here Are Some Involvement Opportunities

Donating to Climate Action Evanston and earmarking your donation for Natural Habitat Evanston. You can further earmark your donation to one of our initiatives.

Take the Pollinator and Bird Pledge

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Join our Pollinator Pledge and let the city and landscapers know we care about sustainable yards. Take an optional yard sign to spread the word.

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Buffalo Grass Anyone?

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$25/bag to local residents (pickup; no shipping). We also have some $5 seed packets of bottlebrush and little bluestem grass. While supplies last. Emails should include your phone number and which species you are requesting. Pay by check payable to Citizens’ Greener Evanston at pickup.

Volunteer at plantings and invasive removals: parks and schools

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Help at outdoor workdays

Join No Mow May

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Rethink how you Lawn

Sign on: Northwestern students Petition for Bird-Friendly Films at Mudd Library

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Northwestern students Petition for Bird-Friendly Films at Mudd Library. Mudd Library accounts for over 14% of bird deaths and injuries on campus each year. Applying patterned window film to a portion of the building would dramatically reduce collisions that are fatal to birds.

More Ways to Volunteer: Spread the word

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Share out brochures, doorhangers, or flyers. Collect a bunch of materials on the 5th Ward Tree Giveaway, Pollinator Pledge, Eco landscaping, Yard care, Light pollution, Leaf blowers are an eco-disaster, or Buffalo Grass.

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Get updates and share your thoughts on our FB Group. You can also check out our FB page here https://www.facebook.com/NaturalHabitatEvanston

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Just want to spread the word on certain steps? Mow Less-Leave Leaves (2-sided yard sign) or Leafblowers sign

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Get news the next time there is a threat to Isabella Woods. (Only sent when there is news.)

Certify with National Wildlife Federation

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Provide Food, Water, Shelter, Places to Raise Young and Sustainable Steps for wildlife. It helps Evanston maintain its NWF Community-wide Wildlife Habitat certification.