Shrubs and trees native to northeastern Illinois


What is this?

Native shrubs and trees are woody plants that evolved with the rainfall, seasons, soils, and wildlife of this region.  A shrub – or bush - is smaller than a tree and usually has several stems at the base. Trees have a trunk and are taller. Lilacs are shrubs, and though they’re not native we still like ours and think they’re pretty. Some roses and viburnums are native shrubs – they’re pretty, too. Oaks and hickories are examples of native trees.  

The shrubs and trees considered native to northeastern Illinois are ones that grew in this region prior to European settlement. They are listed in a fairly technical book: Plants of the Chicago Region by Floyd Swink and Gerald Wilhelm. View this more practical resource.

How do I do this?

On my own

  1. Be sure to select species that will thrive in the spot you have in mind for them. Why fight an uphill battle with poorly selected species that will barely survive compared to well-selected ones that thrive? Think about how sunny or shady your spot is, and how wet or dry. Use this interactive tool to help you choose: Plant Finder  
  2. Some vendors claim to sell natives but actually offer hybrid ornamentals (identified by a three-part scientific name that includes an “x”) or plants native to other parts of North America – these do not count toward certification points.
  3. When designing a landscape with songbirds in mind, it helps to know they prefer areas that offer a lot of shrubs and trees and a variety of heights. Find some great tips and species suggestions here:  Trees and shrubs for birds
  4. Consider the mature height and width of the shrub or tree.  You don’t want to be pruning large woody plants to make them fit into a small area – otherwise you may never see the beautiful blooms or seeds of these plants in your landscape!

Plant your shrub or tree correctly or it is likely to do poorly or die. Here are some short videos on how to plant various sizes of trees. How to plant a tree

  1. Dig a hole about that is two or three times wider than the root ball and no deeper than the root ball.  
  2. If the root flare (the slightly swollen spot where the trunk meets the roots) is not visible at the soil surface, then a gentle, light shaving of soil from the top of the ball is needed.
  3. Remove all root ball packaging including burlap, twine, etcetera.
  4. Place the shrub or tree in the hole, fill the hole with soil and tamp down to eliminate air pockets. 
  5. Mulch should be spread evenly (no volcano- or donut-shaped mounds) in a circle that is two to three inches deep, extending as far out from the trunk as the tips of the branches go. Mulch should not touch the trunk or it might lead to disease.
  6. Water one inch per week until the ground freezes the first year, unless we get good soaking rains every week.
  7. If deer or rabbits are an issue, encircle the shrub or tree with a wire cage for its first few years.

Here’s a great guide to pruning.

Hire some help
If you’re looking for a professional designer who is skilled at blending aesthetics with native plants, view our Local vendors.  

Why is this important?

If you incorporate native shrubs or trees into your landscape, many of our songbirds and butterflies will have much-needed habitat.

Our remaining songbirds cannot survive solely on the Eurasian trees and shrubs that cover so much of our suburban landscape. They also need native trees and shrubs because of intricate food chain requirements. Many butterflies face the same issues. Shrubs and trees provide food, places to hide and rest, and places to lay eggs and raise young.

Native shrubs and trees provide a wise investment compared to delicate or high-maintenance cultivars. They are generally more resistant to disease and, once established, require relatively small amounts of water and NO fertilizer. Research repeatedly shows that a well-designed landscape that incorporates trees and shrubs leads to higher home values due to beauty, shade and sound absorption.

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