Keystone Plants (Butterflies and Moths)

A Select List of “Keystone” Plants for Northeastern Gardeners

Keystone plants, a term coined by Dr. Douglas Tallamy, refers to those most productive native plants that serve as host plants for the caterpillars of Lepidoptera, and thus provide the foundation of our entire food web.  The data is generated according to Genus rather than species, so, while a list may say Top 10, that number refers to Genus and there may be many more individual species than just 10, giving gardeners a wide range of choices.  (This list was compiled by Carolyn Summers, January 2021.)

Numbers refer to number of Lepidoptera supported
+ indicates plants that also provide pollen for specialist bees

Top 15 Native Trees


Oaks (Quercus) - 521
ex. Quercus rubra, red oak
ex. Quercus palustris, pin oak

Cherry (Prunus) - 455
Prunus serotina,
black cherry

Willow (Salix) - 431
+Salix nigra, black willow

Birch (Betula) - 410
Betula nigra, river birch
Betula papyrifera, paperbark birch

Aspen (Populus) - 360
Populus populifolia, quaking aspen

Maples (Acer) - 295
ex. Acer rubrum, red maple
ex. Acer saccharum, sugar maple

Alders (Alnus) - 261
Alnus serrulata, smooth alder

Hickories (Carya) - 238
Carya ovata, shagbark hickory

Elms (Ulmus) - 201
Ulmus americana, American elm

Basswood (Tilia) - 160
Tilia americana, American basswood

Walnut (Juglans) - 137
Juglans nigra, black walnut

Sycamore (Platanus) - 43
Platanus occidentalis, American sycamore

Tupelo (Nyssa) - 35
Nyssa sylvatica, black tupelo

Sweetgum (Liquidambar) - 34
Liquidambar styraciflua, American sweetgum

Tuliptree (Liriodendron) - 19
Liriodendron tulipifera, American tulip tree

Top 10 Flowering Trees


Chokecherry, Prunus virginiana - 455

Hawthorns (Crateagus) - 173
ex. Crateagus viridis, green hawthorn

Dogwood, Cornus florida - 129

Juneberry (Amelanchier) - 124
exs. Amelanchier laevis, Amelanchier x grandiflora

Blackhaw, Viburnum prunifolium - 115

Mountain Ash (Sorbus) - 74
Sorbus americana, mountain ash
Sorbus decora, showy mountain ash

Black locust, Robinia pseudoacacia - 64

Redbud, Cercis canadensis - 24

Sweetbay magnolia, Magnolia virginiana - 18

Carolina silverbell, Halesia carolina - 10

Top 5 Evergreen Trees


Pines (Pinus) - 259
ex. Pinus strobus, white pine
ex. Pinus virginiana, Virginia pine

Spruces (Picea) - 156
ex. Picea glauca, white spruce
ex. Picea rubens, red spruce

Arbor-vitae, Thuja occidentalis - 46

Holly, Ilex opaca - 45

Eastern red-cedar, Juniperus virginiana - 40

Top 5 Vines


Grapes (Vitis) - 75
ex. Vitis riparia, river grape
ex. Vitis vulpina, fox grape

Honeysuckles (Lonicera) - 39
Lonicera sempervirens, trumpet honeysuckle
Lonicera hirsuta, yellow honeysuckle

Virginia creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia - 31

American wisteria, Wisteria frutescens - 18

Leatherflower (Clematis) - 10
Clematis viorna
Clematis virginiana

Top 20 Shrubs


Native plums (Prunus) exs. beach plum, Canada plum, American plum - 455

+Pussy willow, Salix discolor (many other native willows, but hard to find) - 431

Blueberry (Vaccinium) - 295
Vaccinium corymbosum, highbush blueberry
Vaccinium angustifolium, lowbush blueberry

Raspberries (Rubus) - 164
ex. Rubus odoratus, flowering raspberry

Roses (Rosa) - 130
ex. Rosa palustris, swamp rose
ex. Rosa viginiana, Virginia rose

Viburnums (Viburnum) - 115
ex. Viburnum dentatum, arrowwood
ex. Viburnum lentago, nannyberry

Steeplebush, Spiraea tomentosa - 95

Witchhazel, Hamamelis virginiana - 66

Sweetfern, Comptonia peregrina - 66

Native azaleas (Rhododendron) exs. swamp azalea, flame azalea, pinxter - 55

Sumacs (Rhus) - 52
ex. Rhus coppalina, winged sumac
ex. Rhus aromatica, fragrant sumac

New Jersey tea, Ceanothus americanus - 48

Elderberry (Sambucus) - 37
Sambucus canadensis, common elderberry
Sambucus racemosa, red elder

Common ninebark, Physocarpus opulifolia - 36

Buttonbush, Cephalanthus occidentalis - 23

St. John's Wort (Hypericum) - 22
Hypericum prolificum
Hypericum frondosum
Hypericum kalmianum

Spicebush, Lindera benzoin - 12

Sweet pepperbush, Clethra alnifolia - 11

Hydrangea, Hydrangea arborescens - 10

Bush honeysuckle, Diervilla lonicera - 4

Top 5 Evergreen Shrubs


Rhododendrons (Rhododendron) - 55
Rhododendron maximum, great laurel
Rhododendron catawbiense, mountain rosebay

Holly (Ilex) - 45
Ilex glabra, inkberry

Juniper (Juniperus) - 40
Juniperus horizontalis, creeping juniper
Juniperus communis, common juniper

Mountain laurel, Kalmia latifolia - 35

Canada yew, Taxus canadensis - 7

Top 5 Grasses


Switchgrass, Panicum virgatum - 25

Broom sedge, Andropogon glomeratus &  Andropogon virginicus - 14

Little bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium - 7

Indiangrass, Sorghastrum nutans - 6

Prairie dropseed, Sporobolus heterolepis - 1

Top 15 Best Flowers for Sunny Sites


+Goldenrods (Solidago) ex. early, showy and seaside goldenrod, many others - 138

+Sunflowers (Helianthus) ex. swamp sunflower, ashy sunflower - 70

Bonesets (Eupatorium) - 37
Eupatorium maculatum, Eupatorium purpureum,  joe-pye
Eupatorium perfoliatum, common boneset

Spotted St. John’s wort, Hypericum punctatum - 22

Dogbanes (Apocynum) - 20
Apocynum androsaemifolium, spreading dogbane
Apocynum cannabinum, Indian hemp

Wild indigo, Baptisia australis - 20

+Evening primrose, Oenothera biennis - 19

+Black-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia fulgida - 17

+Tall white aster, Doellingeria umbellatus - 17

Tall meadow rue, Thalictrum pubescens - 15

+Asters (Symphyotrichum) ex. New England aster, calico aster, NY aster - 12

Beebalm/Bergamot (Monarda) - 12
Monarda didyma, scarlet beebalm
Monarda fistulosa, wild bergamot

Milkweed (Asclepias) ex. common milkweed, swamp milkweed, orange milkweed - 12

Mountain Mints (Pycnanthemum) ex. P. muticum, P. incanum. P. virginianum - 4

Culver’s root, Veronicastrum virginicum - 3

Top 5 Groundcovers for Sunny Sites


Strawberries, Fragaria vesca; F. virginiana - 84

+Robin’s plantain, Erigeron pulchellus - 21

Cinquefoil, Potentilla canadensis; P. simplex - 15

Moss Phlox, Phlox subulata - 7

Pussytoes, Antennaria plantaginifolia 6

Top 10 Groundcovers for Shady Sites


+Common violet, Viola cucullata; many other native violets - 31
Note: Viola odorata, commonly sold in nurseries, is NOT native

Wild geranium, Geranium maculatum - 27

+White wood aster, Eurybia divaricata - 12

Mayapple, Podophyllum peltatum - 7

Toothworts (Cardamine) - 5
Cardamine diphylla, common toothwort
Cardamine concatenata, cutleaf toothwort

Virginia bluebells, Mertensia virginica - 3

Alumroot, Heuchera americana - 2

Golden groundsel, Packera aurea, P. obovatus - 2

Canada ginger, Asarum canadense - 1

Jacob’s ladder, Polemonium reptans - 1

Top 10 Flowers for Shady Sites


Goldenrods (Solidago) - 138
+Solidago caesia, wreath goldenrod
Solidago flexicaulis, zigzag goldenrod

+Woodland sunflowers, Helianthus decapetalus; H. divaricatus - 70

Early meadow rue, Thalictrum dioica - 15

Jewelweed, Impatiens capensis - 14

Rock bells, Aquilegia canadensis - 12

Spikenard, Aralia racemosa - 7

Stoneroot, Collinsonia canadensis - 6

Bugbane/Baneberry (Actaea) - 4
Actaea racemosa, black bugbane
Actaea rubra, red baneberry

Blue cohosh, Caulophyllum thalictroides - 3

Thimbleweed, Anemone virginiana - 2

Top 10 Ferns


Bracken, Pteridium aquilinum - 15

Osmunda - 7
Osmunda cinnamomea, ostrich fern
Osmunda regalis, royal fern

Hayscented fern, Dennstaedtia punctilobula - 5

Maidenhair fern, Adiantum pedatum - 5

Sensitive fern, Onoclea sensibilis - 5

New York fern, Thelypteris novaboracensis - 5

Christmas fern, Polystichum acrostichoides - 4

Ladyfern, Athyrium filix-femina - 4

Wood ferns (Dryopteris) ex. marginal fern, evergreen wood fern - 4

Ostrich fern, Matteucia struthiopteris - 4

Top 10 Aquatics (and pond-edge)


Rosemallow, Hibiscus moscheutos - 25

Water parsnip, Sium suave - 24

Blue flag, Iris veriscolor - 14

Woolgrass, Scirpus cyperinus - 13

Waterlily, Nymphaea odorata - 9

Broadleaf arrowhead, Sagittaria latifolia - 7

Soft rush, Juncus effusus - 7

Cardinal flower, Lobelia cardinalis - 6

Pickerelweed, Pontederia cordata - 5

Turtlehead, Chelone glabra - 5

Comments are closed.

Open Garden Days

June 5, 6, 12, 13