LessLawn.com... design a nature-friendly, soul-satisfying landscape

intro to North America's major ecosystems
Regional Ecosystems of North America
May 13, 2002 by Evelyn J. Hadden

juniper savannah

Occasional trees float in a golden sea of grasses as fall turns to winter in this Midwestern juniper savannah.

Gardeners choose to create naturalistic landscapes for a variety of reasons: to minimize maintenance, harbor wildlife, preserve species diversity, conserve resources, strengthen their daily connection to nature, and so forth. But once you've decided that you want your garden to fit the character of your land, how do you figure out which plants to use, and how do you arrange them so they look natural? The easiest way is to find and study a natural community of plants (an ecosystem) that might grow well on your own land.

Using a variety of sources (see right sidebar), I've compiled a list of the major ecosystems of North America. Scan the list below to find your general geographic region, then read about the types of ecosystems that might work well on your property. Once you figure out what ecosystem you want to emulate, field guides, government publications, and conservation organizations can help you find information about the plants that make up that ecosystem.

Pacific Northwest

Pacific Forest is dominated by Sitka spruce, Ponderosa and Lodgepole pines, Douglas fir, and Western red cedar.

Russell Link's Landscaping for Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest presents a host of native plants for woodland and grassland gardens in this region, plus information on how to design and manage water features, as well as how to attract various forms of wildlife and control their negative impacts.

Coastal California

Chaparral consists of several pine and oak species among prairie three-awn, blue wild rye, and tussock grasses and shrubs such as California black sage and Manzanita, with wildflowers that include Desert Four-o'clock, Yucca, California Poppy, and Wild Zinnia.

Southern Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas

Sonoran Desert is dotted with Saguaro, Barrel, and Prickly Pear cacti among shrubs like Ocotillo and Creosotebush and assorted grasses and wildflowers.

Nevada and Utah, northern New Mexico, and Southern Idaho

Great Basin is dominated by several species of Pine and Oak, along with Mesquite and Juniper trees, Sagebrush shrubs, and Grama grasses.

Rocky Mountain region

Rocky Mountain Forest includes several species of Pine and Fir, plus Quaking Aspen, footed by many species of grass and sedge.

Alpine Meadow (coming soon)

Tundra / Scree (coming soon)

Center of U.S. from North Dakota to northern Texas (Plains Region)

The dry Shortgrass Prairie consists of mainly Buffalograss and Blue Grama with wildflowers like Prairie Smoke, Bird-foot Violet, Large-flowered Penstemon, Annual Coreposis, Pasque Flower, and Tansy Aster. The moister Tallgrass Prairie is dominated by Big and Little Bluestem grasses, Indian Grass, and Sideoats Grama, with many other grasses and forbs mingled in a treeless landscape. Wildflowers include Coneflowers, Goldenrods, Culver's Root, Blanket Flower, Blazing Star, and Prairie Clover. Savannah is a prairie-type grassland dotted with occasional Jack Pine, Box Elder, Bur Oak, or Cottonwood.

Lauren Springer lives in Colorado, and her book The Undaunted Garden contains many plant descriptions and design tips for water-wise gardening in the plains region.

Sally Wasowski's most recent book provides a big boost for the aspiring prairie gardener; it's titled Gardening with Prairie Plants: How to Create Beautiful Native Landscapes.

Northern Great Lakes and Northeast interior

Northern Conifer (Boreal) Forest consists of dark patches of evergreen Balsam Fir and White and Black Spruce interspersed with lighter areas dominated by deciduous Quaking Aspen, White Birch, and Balsam Poplar. Areas of permanent or seasonal wetland occur throughout the forests.

In his book Landscaping with Nature: Using Nature's Designs to Plan Your Yard, Jeff Cox describes dozens of plants of the Northern Forest, including Asters, Harebell, Fireweed, Canada Anemone, Bunchberry, Wintergreen, Lady Fern, Wild Roses, Mountain Maple, Juneberry, Red Chokeberry, Thimbleberry, and Arrowwood.

For detailed drawings and descriptions of wetland plants of this region, seek out Great Lakes Wetlands: A Field Guide by Walter J. Hoagman (ISBN: 18857560907). John Eastman's The Book of Swamp and Bog: Trees, Shrubs, and Wildflowers of Eastern Freshwater Wetlands offers more description of both plant and animal associates.

Transitional Forest describes the overlapping edge between Boreal and Mixed Deciduous Forest, where both types co-exist.

Eastern half of U.S. excluding northernmost and southernmost areas and coastline

Mixed Deciduous Forest includes a canopy of deciduous Beech, Maple, Tulip Tree, and White Oak with a diverse understory of American Basswood, Dogwoods, American Holly, Redbud, Witch Hazel, and many other shrubs and small trees.

Landscaping with Nature describes many wildflowers for the Mixed Deciduous Forest, including Wild Phlox, Hepatica, Bottle Gentian, Spring Beauty (Claytonia), Wild Bleeding Heart, Jacob's Ladder, Wild Columbine, Bee Balm, Solomon's Seal, Bloodroot, Trout Lily, Trillium, Foamflower, and Merrybells, as well as Bottlebrush Grass, Interrupted Fern, Redbud, Wild Azalea, Witch Hazel, Sourwood, and more.

Transitional Forest describes the overlapping edge between Boreal and Mixed Deciduous Forest, where both types co-exist.

Missouri, Oklahoma, and Arkansas

Red and Chestnut Oaks, Shagbark Hickory, Buckeye, American Linden, and Goosefoot Maple trees form the canopy of the Oak-hickory (Appalachian) Forest.

Mississippi River Forests are dominated by Burr Oak and Green Ash (the latter is replacing American Elm, according to Cox).

Eastern Coastal Region

Coastal Plain (Southern Mixed Forest / Swamp) supports Pines, Live Oak, Tupelo, and Bald Cypress with a shrub understory of White Fringetree, Painted Buckeye, and Serviceberry.

Moist areas include Swamp Milkweed, Pickerel Weed, Arrowhead, Marsh Mallow, Southern Wood Fern, American Lotus, Devilwood, Swamp Azalea, Summersweet, Southern Magnolia, and Inkberry, according to Landscaping with Nature.

Stands of Loblolly and Long-leaf Pines grow in the dry, sandy Pine Barrens, along with Palmetto, Silk Grass, Virginia Chain Fern, Beautyberry, Coral Bean, Tarflower, and Winged Sumac.

Tip of Florida and Hawai'i

Tropical Forest has Pawpaw, Mangrove species, Live Oak species, and Florida Thatch Palm with shrubs such as Yaupon, Inkberry, and Southern Wax Myrtle.

Seashore Plants of South Florida and the Caribbean by David W. Nellis describes over 90 plants that thrive on tropical beaches, how to propagate them, and their ecology, maintenance, and medicinal uses.

Eastern Forests has a section covering major plants and animals of the Subtropical Forest of southern Florida.

LessLawn's list of Regional Ecosystems was adapted from information in several key sources:

  • The "Native Plant Communities" section found on pages 18-33 of Stevie Daniels' The Wild Lawn Handbook. Daniels includes short lists of predominant plant species for each ecosystem described.

  • The habitat descriptions in the National Audubon Society Nature Guide titled Eastern Forests. The Audubon Guide provides detailed physical descriptions, habitat, and common associates for key plants and animals found in each habitat, along with color photos of each key plant and animal. Additional Audubon Guides are available, including Pacific Coast, Western Forests, Deserts, and Grasslands.

    (Read more about field guides)

  • The chapter called "Plants in the Natural Landscape" from Jeff Cox's book Landscaping with Nature: Using Nature's Designs to Plan Your Yard. Cox provides a map of the key eco-regions of the United States, then describes dozens of common plants for each eco-region.

Thanks for visiting http://www.LessLawn.com!
All site contents © 2001-2013 Evelyn J. Hadden, except where noted. All rights reserved.