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From Backyard to Bay: The Impact of Planting Native Plants

Plants and Trees Native to the Chesapeake Bay

From Maryland’s distinguishable state flower, the black-eyed Susan, to the quintessential Bay grasses that dot the wetlands, more than 2,700 types of plants call the Chesapeake Bay watershed home. Some of them, like the sweetbay magnolia, might be found in your own backyard; others, like beach grasses, live along the shorelines, helping to prevent erosion and providing a habitat for local wildlife. All serve a purpose in the Bay’s complex ecosystem. The following is just a handful of the Bay’s most iconic plants.

Black-eyed Susan

black eyed susan

Named the official flower of Maryland in 1918, the black-eyed Susan is easily recognizable due to its bright yellow petals and black “eye,” or center. These perennial plants are members of the sunflower family and are often found in fields and meadows, and on roadsides between June and October.

Sweetbay magnolia

The semi-evergreen sweetbay magnolia is a favorite among watershed residents for its attractive flowers and sweet lemony scent. Its green leaves have silvery undersides and boast creamy white flowers that bloom in May through July. Between September and October, the tree produces a bright scarlet-red seeded fruit that’s enjoyed by a variety of local wildlife, including gray squirrels, white-footed mice, turkey, quail and songbirds, such as vireos, towhees, Northern flickers and blue jays.

Paw paw

paw paw tree

Though it may sound exotic, the paw paw grows in forested areas throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Its distinctive yellowish-green, mango-like fruits grow between September and October and are actually the largest edible fruits native to the United States. Raccoons, squirrels and opossums feast on the paw paw’s fruit, and zebra swallowtail butterfly larvae feed exclusively on its leaves.


Another funny-sounding plant, the loblolly is a massive pine tree (up to 100 feet tall!) that grows in forests and fields throughout the Chesapeake watershed. They play a critical role in the survival our nation’s most revered bird: the bald eagle. In addition to mourning doves, American robins, nuthatches and ospreys, bald eagles build their homes in these trees.

Beach grass

volunteers restoring beach grass

The Chesapeake Bay’s sandy coastal shores and sand dunes are lined with a variety of grasses that may not look special but are, in fact, the glue that holds our shorelines together. These grasses help stabilize the watershed’s sand dunes, which serve as a natural barrier to the destructive forces of storms and coastal erosion. The National Aquarium is working to restore beach stability and habitat for local wildlife in Virginia Beach by planting these native grasses along the shoreline—learn about the initiative and find out how you can get involved by visiting our conservation page.

Atlantic white cedar

Don’t let its name deceive you: The Atlantic white cedar is actually in the cypress tree family. This tall evergreen can reach 75 feet in height and was once found in swamps, marshes, riverbanks and other wet areas all over the coast of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. Today, it’s considered a globally threatened forest ecosystem due to excessive logging and the draining of wetlands, as well as hurricanes, flooding, wildfires, natural plant succession and sea level rise. The National Aquarium is working to bring these beautiful giants back to the Chesapeake Bay watershed, starting in Nassawango Creek Preserve, where our conservation team and volunteers plant them throughout a 240-acre area. Find out how you can get involved!

Become a Watershed Steward

Planting native grasses, shrubs, trees and other plants is a critical step in protecting the watershed from erosion and stormwater pollution. This is one of many lessons taught to future watershed stewards at the Watershed Stewards Academy in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. Through this organization, residents are educated on the risks that threaten our Bay and preventive strategies to protect it. Once trained, Master Watershed Stewards work with their communities to assess watersheds, educate communities, reduce pollutants and take action. Learn more about how you can join the initiative and become an environmental leader for your community!


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