Native Plants for Georgia Part I: Trees, Shrubs and Woody Vines (B 987) University of Georgia Extension This publication focuses on native trees, shrubs and woody vines for Georgia. It is not our intent to describe all native species — just those available in the nursery trade and those that the authors feel have potential for nursery production and landscape use. Rare or endangered species are not described. Information on each plant is provided according to the following categories: Common Name(s)/Botanical Name/Family, Characteristics, Landscape Uses, Size, Zones and Habitat. 2017-03-27 15:18:07.373 2008-08-11 16:15:46.0 Shot 2016-09-19 at 3.54.07 PM.png Native Plants for Georgia Part I: Trees, Shrubs and Woody Vines | Publications | UGA Extension Skip to content

Native Plants for Georgia Part I: Trees, Shrubs and Woody Vines (B 987)

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By Gary Wade, Ph.D., Extension Horticulturist (Retired); Elaine Nash, Naturalist; Ed McDowell, Master Gardener, Amateur Botanist and Wildflower Photographer; Brenda Beckham, Master Gardener and Plant Enthusiast; Sharlys Crisafulli, Horticulture Program Assistant

Reviewed by Bodie Pennisi, Extension Floriculture Specialist

Our native landscape is the inspiration for this guide to native plants for Georgia gardens.

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    "A thing is right if it tends to preserve the beauty, integrity and stability of the biotic community; it is wrong when it tends otherwise." —Aldo Leopold, "The Land Ethic," A Sand County Almanac


    We would like to acknowledge the following University of Georgia faculty who wrote the original manuscript for this publication: Mel Garber, E. Neal Weatherly Jr., Kim Coder and Darrel Morrison.

    We also extend sincere appreciation to the following individuals who provided images of the plants described in this publication. Many of the images are copyrighted and have been used with special permission from the photographers and/or the organizations providing them. Any use of these images beyond this publication is discouraged and will require permission from the photographers.

    • Guy Anglin
    • Chuck Bargeron
    • Steve Baskauf
    • Ted Bodner
    • Matthew Chappell
    • William M. Ciesla
    • Shirley Denton
    • Chris Evans
    • Troy Evans
    • Wendy VanDyk Evans
    • Dennis Gerard
    • Rich Gillis
    • Tim Grissom
    • Alan S. Heilman
    • Walter Hodge
    • Todd Hurt
    • Walter S. Judd
    • Ernest Koone
    • Gerard Krewer
    • Ed Lambert
    • Ron Lance
    • John Little
    • Tom McClendon
    • Ed McDowell
    • David McManus
    • Fred Mileshko
    • James H. Miller
    • Robert H. Mohlenbrock
    • David J. Moorhead
    • Fred Nation
    • Gil Nelson
    • Carol Nourse
    • Hugh Nourse
    • John Ruter
    • Steve Sanchez
    • Theresa Schrum
    • David Stephens
    • Michael Strickland
    • Gary Wade
    • Betty Wargo
    • Paul Wray
    • Bob Westerfield

    We also express appreciation to the Georgia Native Plant Society for providing funds for technical support.


    What Are Native Plants?

    There are many definitions for native plants. Several references say native plants are those that grow naturally in a particular region without direct or indirect human intervention. Other references place a historical timeline on native plants, saying they are plants that were present in a particular area prior to European settlement of that area. Others say they are plants that have inhabited a particular region for thousands of years. Even the federal government published an "official" definition in the Federal Register, defining native plants as those that are "naturally occurring, either presently or historically, in any ecosystem of the United States."

    Before the development of the nursery industry, native plants were the only choice for landscape plantings. Early settlers transplanted dogwood, redbud, oak-leaf hydrangea and other plants with appealing qualities from the woods into their landscapes. Harvesting native plants from the wild for landscape purposes is no longer acceptable and is illegal in some areas. Today, nurseries and garden centers offer a wide variety of native plants, and some even specialize in native plants exclusively.

    Why Plant Native Plants?

    A native plant community, left undisturbed and incorporated into a landscape, is low-maintenance and self-sufficient. Today, there is a growing interest in preserving native landscapes as "green space" in residential communities, giving them a park-like ambiance and providing space for birds and other wildlife. A casual stroll through a woodland setting teeming with ever-changing flora and fauna is a relaxing and peaceful diversion from our daily lives.

    Native plants provide "watchable" wildlife habitats. Native butterflies, insects, birds, mammals, reptiles and other animals evolve with the native flora and are sustained by it year round, providing diverse food, shelter and support for native food webs. They also create a sense of place, fostering appreciation of our natural heritage and the diverse beauty of unique regional landscapes.

    Weather extremes, either temperature or drought, have shown us one of the best and most practical reasons for using native plants — their adaptations to local climate. Many Georgians will recall the extremely low temperatures in December 1983 and January 1985 that killed or critically damaged many introduced species. Few native plants, however, were injured because of the cold hardiness they had developed over many generations. When provided with growing conditions like those of their native habitat, native plants are dependable additions to cultivated landscapes.

    Ecological preservation is another reason for using native plants. With the increasing destruction of natural environments for urban and agricultural use, many plant species and the animals they support have declined dramatically in numbers and in range. In fact, some native plants, having a limited growing range and very specific growing requirements, may decline or die when subtle alterations are made in their native habitat. Oconee-bells (Shortia galacifolia) and Florida Torreya (Torreya taxifolia) are examples of plants that require specific habitats and are rare in the woods of Georgia. Failure to conserve, tend and preserve the habitats of these and other native plants can lead to their extinction. Habitat protection and preservation are obligations of all Georgia citizens.

    Plant Ecology of Georgia

    The ecological diversity in Georgia is complex and wide-ranging, from high mountain ridges of north Georgia to flatwoods and swamps of south Georgia. Among the geographic regions of the state, numerous ecosystems or environments exist where unique plants and animals have adapted. In some cases, plant species have adapted to very specific and restricted environmental conditions. Others occur over much wider and more general environments.

    Georgia environments can be divided into a number of basic groupings: wet, moist, dry, upland or bottomland. There are more than 100 distinct environments or plant communities in the state. Depending upon past adaptive changes in each of these environments, some plants will be dominant while others will be rare or unable to survive. Plants grow where they do because they have finely adjusted to the local environment. For example, some plants require a bare, mineral soil for seed germination. A thick layer of pine straw or leaf litter on the surface of the soil will prevent this type of species from getting started. Some bottomland species of trees grow well on upland sites once they have germinated. Their seeds, however, require wet soils in which to germinate. Other plants are tightly constrained by the environment to small ecological niches or "homes." Although many of these plants will not grow and reproduce in cultivated landscapes like they do in their native habitat, they can adapt and become fine specimens.

    Planting trees in areas similar to their native habitat will maximize their chances of survival and success. In nature, the macroclimate of an area, including winter and summer temperature extremes, precipitation and humidity, dictates the geographic distribution of a native plant. For instance, white pine and sugar maple can be found in the mountains of north Georgia, but the heat and humidity of the Piedmont and Coastal Plain restrict their occurrence in south Georgia. Fevertree (Pinckneya bracteata), Red Titi (Cyrilla racemiflora) and Black Titi (Cliftonia monophylla) are limited to the southern half of the state because the soils and climate there satisfy their special growing requirements.

    Environmental features such as moisture, soil pH and sunlight level of a smaller, more focused area, are called the microclimate. Subtle changes in microclimate influence where native plants grow. Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latafolia), for example, is common in certain areas of north Georgia, but it is rarely found in the Coastal Plain. Pockets of Mountain Laurel, however, can be found as far south as the Florida panhandle in areas where it receives its required growing conditions, including adequate moisture, shade and cool soils.

    Establishing Native Plants in the Landscape

    Design Considerations

    Our native habitats are full of subtle beauty that can be skillfully and beautifully incorporated into our gardens. Few people can resist the dramatic and breathtaking beauty of native azaleas, the fragile white blooms of the Silverbell (Halesia spp.) or the delicate white, drooping spikes of Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum). True plant lovers will carefully select from the array of plants available, both native and introduced, to create the most beautiful and functional gardens possible.

    People who own naturally wooded lots or acreage will benefit from and enjoy the shade, coolness and beauty of a forest. There are several ways to develop these types of properties while capitalizing on their native beauty. One way is to leave the largest and healthiest trees that form the canopy untouched, remove weak, spindly and diseased trees, then selectively thin the undergrowth. Pine straw and leaf litter left on the site provide natural mulch, and grass and/or ground cover planted in open areas fill the gaps where trees have been removed.

    Another approach is to remove no more vegetation than is necessary to locate and build the house. This hands-off approach is more environmentally friendly. It preserves species diversity and distribution, and maintains the natural environment. If other species are introduced, their cultural requirements should be compatible with those of plants already there.

    Unfortunately, many new landscapes do not have a plant community already in place. It takes time for a tree canopy and subsequent plant community to evolve on a site. If existing trees are small, delay planting shade-loving plants until tree canopies develop and cast shade. Deciduous trees provide moist, fertile mulch for understory plants. Broadleaf evergreens, coniferous trees and shrubs are useful in providing natural windbreaks, screening unattractive views, and creating areas of privacy for outdoor living and enjoyment.

    In large, sunny, open areas, such as fields and rights-of-way, native grasses may provide a low-maintenance alternative to turfgrasses. Broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus) and other early succession forbs, may already be present in open, sunny areas. Mints, goldenrods, asters and legumes can often be found growing naturally with many native grasses. These areas can be mowed once a year to prevent forest succession. Otherwise, they can be left alone.

    Site Evaluation and Plant Selection

    The guidelines when planting a native landscape are the same as those for any landscape: select plants adapted to the soil, local site conditions and climate. Putting the right plant in the right spot will help ensure your long-term satisfaction and success with the landscape. Also, make certain all plants in a given location have similar cultural requirements for ease of maintenance.

    Native plants vary widely in their requirement for plant nutrients and soil pH (a unit used to measure the acidity or alkalinity of a soil). Since pH influences nutrient availability in the soil and nutrient uptake by the plant, it is a useful measurement to know before planting. A soil test, available through your local county extension office for a nominal fee, will provide information on the nutrient content and pH level of the soil. Many soils in Georgia are acidic (pH less than 7.0). Most native plants grow well at a slightly acidic pH around 6.0, although some ericaceous plants, like blueberries and rhododendrons, prefer strongly acid soils having a pH below 5.0. Although native plants generally do not require supplements to their native environment, adjustments may be necessary when they are planted outside their native habitat to provide suitable soil fertility for best growth.

    The level of sunlight is an important consideration. Most large trees require full sun to grow and develop properly because, in nature, they are dominant plant species. Planting sun-loving plants in shaded areas will result in spindly, weak growth, while planting shade-loving plants in full sun may cause leaf scorching or anemic-looking foliage.

    Plants that naturally occur under the shade of more dominant trees are called understory plants. To simulate the understory, plant shade-loving native plants where they will receive partial shade, particularly during the afternoon when sunlight levels are usually more intense. It often requires one to two growing seasons to determine when a plant can adjust to the specific light environment provided. Furthermore, light levels change as the plant canopies mature and change.

    Water is essential for plant growth. In nature, plant growth on moist sites is usually abundant and lush. On dry sites, plant growth is often sparse and stunted. Plants vary tremendously in their need for moisture and their tolerance of moisture extremes. Northern and eastern exposures, slopes and bottomland are normally moist, while southern and western exposures, ridge tops and rocky soils tend to be dry. Red maple, bald cypress, willow and buttonbush are common species found in wet areas, although they will also adapt to dry sites when planted in landscapes. Species that occur where it may be wet in winter and dry in summer, such as southern wax myrtle and yaupon holly, also are reliable landscape plants.

    For a sustainable stream bank environment, plant native trees and shrubs. Over time, grass alone will not keep stream banks intact during flooding. Stream banks have moist, well-drained soils that fit the habitat needs of several native species, including rhododendron, mountain laurel, stewartia and oakleaf hydrangea. Trees such as tulip poplar, black walnut and southern sugar maple also require moist, well-drained soils for best growth and are excellent choices for stream bank planting.

    Dry sites are home to some of our toughest native plants, including some oaks, persimmon, beargrass, some pines, sassafras and sumac.

    If rainfall is not adequate, all newly installed plants, including native plants, need supplemental watering their first year or until they become established.

    Site Preparation and Establishment

    Good soil preparation is essential for satisfactory plant growth. Dig a large hole at least two times wider than the root ball of the plant and as deep as the root ball. Remove any rocks, roots or other debris from the excavated soil and work it up thoroughly. Set the top of the root ball level with the soil surface or slightly above the surface if the soil is prone to settling. Then backfill with the same soil removed from the hole and water thoroughly to remove air pockets. Mulch with pine straw, pine bark, hardwood mulch or other organic material. For more detailed information on the planting process, see UGA Extension Bulletin 932, Soil Preparation and Planting Procedures for Ornamental Trees and Shrubs.

    Guide to Plant Descriptions

    This publication focuses on native trees, shrubs and woody vines. It is not our intent to describe all native species — just those available in the nursery trade and those that the authors feel have potential for nursery production and landscape use. Rare or endangered species are not described. Information on each plant is provided according to the following categories:

    Common Name(s)/Botanical Name/Family:

    Generally accepted scientific and common names, as used by specialists in the field, are listed except in cases where names have recently been changed. If the names are in debate, the most widely used names are given. The family is given as a point of information since some unifying threads are common to plants in the same family.


    Drawings depicting tree shapes: Columnar, Upright, Pyramidal, Spreading, Oval, Orunded, Vase Shaped, and Weeping.

    Figure 1. Tree forms

    Drawings depicting shrub shapes: Oval, Spreading, Upright, Weeping, Rounded, and Irregular.

    Figure 2. Shrub forms

    This category provides general descriptive information about the plant, including whether it is deciduous (drops its leaves in fall), evergreen or semi-evergreen. Evergreen plants may be further described according to their leaf shape. Broad-leaf evergreens include plants like holly and anise tree, while narrow-leaf evergreens include hemlock and pine.

    Other characteristics described for some plants include their texture, growth rate and habit. Texture describes the visual appearance of the leaves and twigs of the plant, from finely textured to coarsely textured.

    Growth rate is defined as fast, medium or slow. Factors influencing growth rate include the age of the plant (most growth rates decrease with age), genetic background and site conditions.

    Habit describes the general form or shape of the plant. See figures 1 and 2 for illustrations of common tree and shrub forms.

    Landscape Uses:

    Suggestions are made for using the plant in the landscape. For instance, trees can serve as functional components providing shade. Other trees provide focal points in the landscape and are called specimen plants. Shrubs are often useful in mass plantings, but some may be planted as individual specimens. Vines are generally useful for quickly covering objects such as arbors, trellises, fences or mailboxes. The noteworthy ornamental features of the plant — such as flowers, fruit, bark, leaf color or shape, visual texture or pest resistance — are described in this section.


    Mature plant size may vary due to site conditions and genetics of the plant. A tree that grows to a height of 120 feet in its native habitat may only grow 75 feet under cultivation. Therefore, the mature size of the plant projected in this publication is only an estimate of the size of the plant when it is 10 years old.


    Hardiness zones are listed for Georgia. They are an estimate of the plant’s winter hardiness according to established U.S. Department of Agriculture hardiness zones. Most native plants are hardy throughout the state. However, nature does not always cooperate with the guidelines humans develop. Variations in microclimates may extend the growing range north or south of the zone listed. The USDA plant hardiness zones in Georgia are shown in Figure 3.

    Map of plant hardiness zones in Georgia
    Figure 3.
    Range of average annual minimum temperatures for each zone
    Zone Range in degrees Fahrenheit
    6b -5 to 0
    7a 0 to 5
    7b 5 to 10
    8a 10 to 15
    8b 15 to 20


    By understanding a plant’s native habitat and simulating it in the landscape, you are more likely to have success growing the plant. Below are the eight major habitats in Georgia, listed from north to south Georgia:

    North 1. Cove hardwoods (rich, moist, protected pockets)
    2. Mixed pine/hardwoods ("climax") upland forest along valley slopes and bluffs
    3. Forest gaps (breaks in the main forest canopy where light reaches the soil surface)
    4. Rock outcrops (rocky ridge tops and bluffs)
    5. Meadows (herbaceous pastures or prairies)
    6. Pine woods (well-drained sands on the Coastal Plain)
    7. Bottomland forests (streams, low slopes, flood plain and river areas with cypress and hardwoods)
    South 8. Swamps

    One or more of these eight habitats are home to all of the plants listed in this publication.

    Native To:

    This refers to the broad geographic area (within the United States) where the plant naturally occurs. In Georgia, there are three geographic regions: Mountains, Piedmont and Coastal Plain. The distribution of plants is sometimes described in terms of these geographic regions.


    Additional information about the plant, such as its wildlife value or whether cultivars are available.

    Medium and Large Trees

    In this section:

    Red Maple / Acer rubrum
    Family: Maple / Aceraceae

    red maple seeds
    Photo: Wendy VanDyk Evans,

    green red maple leaves
    Photo: Gary Wade.

    red maple flowers
    Photo: Wendy VanDyk Evans,

    red maple in fall
    Photo: Hugh & Carol Nourse.

    red maple in fall
    Photo: Chris Evans,


    Red Maple is a deciduous tree with medium texture, medium growth rate and an oblong to oval form. It is widely used in landscaping because it has good site tolerance. The bark is smooth and light gray. Clusters of small, red flowers appear in February and are followed by winged fruit in March. Fall color is variable yellow to red.

    Landscape Uses:

    Use Red Maple as a shade tree in moist soils and full sun. It will adapt to hot, dry locations when irrigated. Red Maple is easy to transplant and tolerates wet soils. Surface roots are common as the plant ages.


    40 to 50 feet tall with a spread of 24 to 35 feet


    6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b


    Low-lying areas and swamps, always in association with water.

    Native To:

    Canada to the middle of the Florida peninsula and west to Minnesota, Oklahoma and Texas.


    Because this tree has such a wide growing range, its origin is very important. In other words, don’t plant a Red Maple from New England in Georgia; it may not adapt to the South’s heat and humidity. Some cultivars have been over-used and are subject to diseases.

    Sugar Maple / Acer saccharum
    Family: Maple / Aceraceae

    green sugar maple tree
    Photo: Ed McDowell.

    sugar maple leaves in fall
    Photo: Gary Wade.

    green sugar maple leaves
    Photo: Ed McDowell.


    Sugar Maple is a deciduous tree having a medium texture, medium to slow growth rate and an upright to oval form. It is best known for its brilliant yellow to orange to red fall color.

    Landscape Uses:

    Sugar Maple makes a fine specimen, street or shade tree. It needs moist, well-drained, loamy soils and does not tolerate hot, dry sites. It produces dense shade, which may be a problem for sun-loving plants grown beneath its canopy.


    60 to 80 feet tall with a spread of 25 to 40 feet


    6b, 7a, 7b


    Moist, well-drained soils of the north Georgia mountains; found occasionally in the upper Piedmont on fertile north slopes.

    Native To:

    Eastern Canada to Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas.


    No other native tree matches the brilliant yellow, orange and red coloration of Sugar Maple in autumn.

    Yellow Buckeye / Aesculus flava
    Family: Buckeye / Hippocastanaceae

    Yellow buckeye foliage
    Photo: Chris Evans,

    Yellow buckeye flower
    Photo: William M. Ciesla,


    Yellow Buckeye is a large tree with an upright to slightly-spreading crown. The compound palmate leaves ar

    Status and Revision History
    Published on Aug 11, 2008
    Reviewed on Aug 17, 2011
    Reviewed on Aug 1, 2014