Nurture Natives: 4-Hers Take a Stand to Protect Maryland’s Ecosystems, Economy, and Agriculture

This is a guest post by Esther Bonney, a student in Charles County, Maryland, and a member of the University of Maryland Extension 4-H Program.

Invasive plants are detrimental to Maryland’s well-being, and their damaging effects are becoming more evident each year as we witness declines in crop productivity, reductions in pollinators critical to maintaining stable ecosystems, and widespread displacement of native habitats. Between 2008 and 2013, wild bees declined by 23 percent across the U.S.—a serious concern to farmers and consumers alike. Through educational programs, guides, and native giveaways, Nurture Natives is taking a stand against invasive species to protect native plants and pollinators, restore natural habitats, and support farmers. Nurture Natives is led by University of Maryland 4-Hers Esther Bonney and Samantha Rutherford and Extension 4-H Educator Amy Lang and UME Charles County Master Gardener Marlene Smith. 

people line up for native trees at Maryland Day
Visitors line up for native trees at Maryland Day, stretching down the courtyard and around the sidewalk, sometimes longer than the line for free ice cream!

In March 2022, our team was selected to attend the National 4-H Youth Summit on Agriscience. There, we developed our project, Nurture Natives, to address a prevalent agricultural issue in our community: invasive plant species. Invasive plants choke out native species and are a major cause of crop loss and food insecurity. Invasive trees such as the Tree of Heaven rapidly overtake farmlands and attract invasive pests such as the Spotted Lanternfly, which is a serious threat to grape crops. In the U.S. alone, invasive species cause $40 billion worth of production losses to crops and forests per year. 

Nurture Natives is dedicated to increasing biodiversity through the planting of native trees and the eradication of invasive plants. In the past year, Nurture Natives has been featured on the National 4-H and University of Maryland Extension websites, won a Lead to Change Grant, and was selected by the National 4-H Council as one of two projects nationwide to receive the highly-competitive Scale for Success Award. Nurture Natives was also recently featured in the Southern Maryland Independent: Nurturing natives and the next generation of environmental scientists

Our team began our work by educating and raising awareness about invasive species in our community of Charles County. We hosted educational programs at schools and camps and, in October 2022, partnered with eight local organizations to host the first annual Nurture Natives Giveaway. We hosted games, crafts, presentations, and a honey-tasting to showcase the importance of native species and pollinators. In just two hours, we distributed 150 native trees and shrubs and reached over 70 families. 

Our team recently published Nurture Natives, a guide to the native alternatives of 12 invasive yet highly-popular ornamental plants, including the Bradford pear and burning bush. Take a look at the online version of our guide here: Nurture Natives (PDF). We are currently distributing hundreds of our guides to nurseries across Maryland. Through our guide, we hope to educate homeowners on the harmful impacts of invasive species and encourage more native purchases. We are also working on publishing an expanded version of the Nurture Natives guide by August 2023. 

The Nurture Natives display at Maryland Day
The Nurture Natives booth at Maryland Day showcased a variety of outreach and education materials, including tri-folds, flyers, and guides.

On Saturday, April 29, our team made a splash at the University of Maryland’s Maryland Day! We ran games, crafts, activities, and an information table, in addition to distributing 400 free native trees and shrubs in just 2 ½ hours! The line for the trees stretched down the courtyard and around the sidewalk, at times even longer than the line for free ice cream! Our team had the incredible opportunity to share our journey and mission with hundreds of Marylanders and the University of Maryland faculty, including Dr. Craig Beyrouty, Dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. We were thrilled to see so many people getting excited about native species and taking action to support them. 

Esther and Marlene speaking with the Dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources
Esther Bonney and Marlene Smith speak with Dr. Craig Beyrouty, Dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Maryland, about the Nurture Natives journey.

Our Nurture Natives team is passionately working to protect Maryland’s native species. Our recent success at Maryland Day is only the beginning. We are working with legislators to pass a law prohibiting the propagation, importation, selling, and purchasing of the Callery pear in Maryland. The Callery pear tree (Pyrus calleryana), a non-native species from Asia, was one of the most popular ornamental trees in the U.S., with various cultivars, including Bradford pear, Aristocrat, and Cleveland Select. However, the MD Department of Agriculture now recognizes the Callery pear tree as an invasive species in Maryland due to its rapid growth, prolific seeding, and ability to outcompete native plants, wreaking havoc on our state’s biodiversity, agriculture, and economy (MDA). The tree’s invasive traits and probability of causing environmental and economic harm have led three U.S. states to prohibit its cultivation (Morning Ag Clips). 

Esther with the Governor and Lt. Governor
Esther Bonney speaks with Governor Wes Moore and Lt. Governor Aruna Miller about the Nurture Natives journey.

Follow Nurture Natives on Facebook to stay updated on our journey and future events (including free tree giveaways)!

Esther Bonney, a sophomore in high school and dual enrollment student at the College of Southern Maryland, is actively working toward a brighter and greener future for Maryland. Recognizing the urgent need to address the decline of local biodiversity, Esther founded Nurture Natives as a platform to engage youth in environmental initiatives, with a specific focus on planting native trees and eradicating invasive plants. Esther was recently selected as a 4-H Youth in Action 2023 Finalist for her work within 4-H and with Nurture Natives. Esther plans to pursue a career in environmental law, where she can continue her advocacy and drive transformative change on a larger scale. Alongside Nurture Natives, Esther enjoys playing the violin and caring for her five goats.

Azaleas and Home Gardens

Spring is incomplete without the bold and soft hues of azaleas in your home garden. These spectacular plants are prevalent and have dominated yards and countless gardens in North America. These plants originated in Asia and made their way to the US via Europe around two hundred years ago. Since then, according to the American Azalea Society (ARS), over 10,000 different cultivars, or cultivated varieties, have been registered or named. The high demand for cultivated azalea can be attributed to its small manageable dwarf sizes, diverse attractive colors, deep green leaves year-round, and adaptability to the climate, making them easy to grow.

However, there are equally beautiful native azaleas in North America that are seldom seen in home gardens and are still not as well-known as their Asian cousins. To find them, it would be best to wander from the landscaped yards into the woods. In this post, I talk about the extraordinary beauty and ecology of native azaleas, as they require more attention and care from the gardening community.

What are native azaleas?

Azaleas are members of the heaths (Ericaceae) plant family, which includes cranberry, blueberry, and huckleberries. Because there is often confusion among people between azaleas and rhododendrons, it is much easier to remember that all azaleas are rhododendrons, but that all rhododendrons are not azaleas. In fact, azaleas belong to the genus Rhododendron. Azaleas native to North America are usually medium-sized or tall shrubs with soft, deciduous leaves, funnel-shaped flower lobes, and long tubular flowers with stamens extending beyond their showy petals. There are eighteen North American native azaleas (visit the American Azalea Society and American Rhododendron Society to learn more).

Why grow native azaleas?

Native azaleas display shades of white, orange, pink, red, and yellow throughout the spring and summer. Although most people associate azaleas with spring, several native ones bloom in mid and late summer. It is often noticed that azaleas in their natural habitat show some staggering in their flowering timing, and their flowering durations usually range between 15 to 20 days. So, if you carefully select species based on their flowering timing, you can have azaleas bloom in your home gardens for at least four to five months. Unlike the evergreen cultivated ones, native azaleas have exceptional fall color before they shed their leaves for winter. Most native Azaleas can reach heights of 4’-8’ and can be used in hedgerows and as the background to other flowering dwarf shrubs. Some of the common native azaleas in the woodlands of Maryland, Virginia, and DC are smooth azalea (Rhododendron arborescens), swamp azalea (Rhododendron viscosum), pinxter azalea (Rhododendron periclymenoides), coast azalea (Rhododendron atlanticum) and early azalea (Rhododendron prinophyllum).  

Besides the colorful hues in your green space, growing azaleas will also help maintain the native pollinator network in your local environment. Native azaleas can sustain a variety of fauna through their flowers; they are attractive to bees, butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds. The quantity and quality of nectar and pollen among these plants are often observed to be higher than in the cultivated ones. In general, they have a high amount of concentrated nectar and string-like pollen threads that help attract myriad forms of floral visitors native to North America.

Some azalea species have attractive warm orange and red flowers, and birds can detect warm colors easily. At the same time, insects, including bumblebees and smaller bees (e.g., Andrena sp.), are attracted to light pink, purple, and white palettes. Certain native species, such as sweet azalea and piedmont azalea, have a strong sweet fragrance. Besides providing a sweet smell, their fragrance also helps attract night pollinators such as moths. Nectar volume among the azalea flowers is relatively low compared to its nectar concentration; therefore, the migratory ruby-throated hummingbird makes occasional visits, as birds usually prefer flowers with high voluminous nectar. Their unique floral characteristics also attract diverse butterflies, recognized as potential pollinators for these species. Commonly observed butterflies are eastern tiger swallowtails (Papilio glaucus), silver spotted skippers (Epargyreus clarus), and great spangled fritillaries (Speyeria cybele). The flapping of butterfly wings helps transfer pollen from the male to the female organ and facilitates successful reproduction in these plants. Therefore, growing different shades of native azaleas in your yards and home gardens will be a good idea to support native pollinators.

Native azaleas are also relatively free of pests and diseases compared to cultivars, making them low-maintenance plants. They do not require regular pruning and are moderately slow growers. However, knowing the ecology of these species may be helpful for plant growers. For example, in the forest, these plants are mostly found as an understory of other tall hardwood trees like oaks and chestnuts; therefore, they will do well in less light and shaded areas in the home gardens. Most of them require moisture with good drainage and humus-rich acidic soil. You can learn more about the detailed requirements of the conditions preferred by these plants at the American Azalea Society.

It is never too late to add these cool plants to your home garden.

By Shweta Basnett, Fulbright Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Entomology, University of Maryland. Visit her website for more information about her current research.


Native Plants Add Beauty and Support Wildlife 

wild bergamot flowers are lavender color
Native wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) attracts pollinators from butterflies to hummingbird moths and is both deer and rabbit-proof. Photo: Elmer Verhasselt,

I love native plants. I garden for beauty and wildlife and nothing supports healthy habitats better than native plants. 

So what are native plants? They are beautiful, resilient plants that naturally occur in an area.

Having evolved over millennia with native wildlife, they naturally support them best. A native white oak supports 557 species of butterflies and moths while a non-native gingko tree supports just five.  

So if you want to support bees, butterflies, and beneficial insects that help control pests, native plants are the way to go. 

They also support larger wildlife such as birds with their seeds, fruit, shelter, and places to raise young. Again, native plants evolved with them, so they naturally provide what they need.  

According to conservationist, author, and entomologist Doug Tallamy who penned the bestsellers “Bringing Nature Home” and “Nature’s Best Hope,” native plants support 29 times more wildlife diversity than non-native plants.  

Well adapted to our soil and climate, native plants are resilient with a capital “R.” They’ve persisted through many hot, dry, wet, and cold years, surviving all previous climate change that has occurred, positioning them well to adapt to future changes. 

Adapting over eons makes you tough. Native plants have fewer pest and disease issues and some have deep roots which make them drought resistant. That means less watering, fewer chemicals, and a healthier landscape. 

Did I mention how beautiful they are? There is a nasty rumor out there that native plants are weedy. Bosh and balderdash.   

Native coral honeysuckle trumpets red/yellow/orange flowers that welcome hummingbirds. Threadleaf coreopsis wafts a riot of petite yellow daisies in a drift of lacy foliage.  

Wild blue indigo sports 4-foot stems of deep blue sweet-pea-like blooms. Cardinal flower flashes brilliant red and is a magnet for hummingbirds and butterflies.  

Bees love to rummage among the pure white blossoms of native foxglove. And goldenrods carousing with purple asters are the very definition of fall beauty.

Don’t get me started on native trees and shrubs. I love ninebark’s white pompoms, the red dangling fruit of chokeberry, the deep maroon flowers of Carolina allspice (native from our South), skinny willow oak leaves, and the giant leaves of pawpaws

red flower of Carolina allspice
Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus). Photo: Miri Talabac

How can you find out what native plants might work in your landscape?  

Discover many resources – including recommended native plants for Maryland on our website and on the Maryland Native Plant Society website.

My favorite native plant reference, “Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping,” has color photos and plant profiles. Download it for free.

Where do you find native plants? Visit your favorite garden center. Native plants are becoming more common. If they’re not there, ask. Nurseries grow and buy based on client interest.  

The Maryland Native Plant Society website also lists native plant sales and nurseries on their website.

Many Master Gardener groups – including ours – hold spring plant sales that include native plants. Contact your county/city coordinator to learn if one is scheduled near you.

I hope I’ve encouraged you to include some native plants in your landscape to add beauty, invite wildlife and support a healthy ecosystem.  

By Annette Cormany, Principal Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Washington County, University of Maryland Extension. This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media. Read more by Annette.

This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media.

Fruit Trees & Small Fruits: The Garden Thyme Podcast

Listen to the podcast

In this month’s episode, we’re talking about selecting and growing small fruits and fruit trees. With spring blooming around us, many garden centers and stores will have fruit trees and small fruit shrubs for sale. Creating a home orchard can provide a source of delicious fruit. However, fruit trees and shrubs have their own unique challenges. In this month’s episode, we discuss tips for planning your orchard, growing small fruit (~11:05), tips for growing tree fruit (~27:53) and native fruits (~38:15). 

We also have our: 

  • Native Plant of the Month – Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.) ~43:30
  • Bug of the Month –  Plum Curculio ~47:30
  • Garden Tips of the Month – ~52:38

We currently have an open survey for ALL listeners; whether you’ve listened to all of our episodes, or this is your first time. We developed an evaluation to find out if the information we share on the podcast has made a difference in your practices at home. We promise that it is a short, easy 5-minute survey, and we even have exclusive podcast stickers to give to those who participate. We are so thankful for the feedback, and we appreciate you tuning in for the podcast! 

You can take our survey here.

If you have any garden-related questions, please email us at or look us up on Facebook. For more information about the University of Maryland Extension (UME) and these topics, please check out the UME Home and Garden Information Center.

The Garden Thyme Podcast is brought to you by the University of Maryland Extension. Hosts are Mikaela Boley- Senior Agent Associate (Talbot County) for Horticulture, Rachel Rhodes- Agent Associate for Horticulture (Queen Anne’s County), and Emily Zobel-Senior Agent Associate for Agriculture (Dorchester County).

Theme Song: By Jason Inc

Invasive Trees in Maryland: Princess Tree, Callery Pear & Tree-of-Heaven

Last month, my blog post was an introduction to invasive plants and today I want to share information on three invasive, deciduous trees found in Maryland. 

Springtime provides a breathtaking display of contrasting flowers in a wide array of colors, shapes, and sizes, which are found in herbaceous plants, as well as woody shrubs and trees. Unfortunately, some of these spring flowering trees are invasive and you need to be aware of their negative effects on ecosystems such as competition for resources including sunlight, soil nutrients, and space.

Q: What medium-sized invasive tree has white blooms in the early spring in Maryland?

invasive callery pear trees crowded along a road
Callery pear (Pyrus calleryana) in flower. Photo: Britt Slattery, US Fish and Wildlife Service,

Callery Pear (Pyrus calleryana), sometimes referred to as ‘Bradford’ Pear, has several cultivars including ‘Chanticleer,’ ‘ Cleveland Select’, and ‘Autumn Blaze’, all of which will be in bloom around this time of year. The Callery pear was imported from Asia to Maryland with the hope of being able to help edible Bartlett pears, which were being threatened by a disease called fire blight. The plan was to cross these pears to gain disease resistance in the pear industry. Unfortunately, this experiment was unsuccessful in preventing fire blight, but these crosses seemed to have potential for the ornamental industry and were planted widely. Bloom time often coincides with our native serviceberry, which produces white flowers too.

The ‘Bradford’ cultivar was thought to be sterile; however, when new cultivars of Callery pear were developed, it was able to cross-pollinate with those and produce viable seeds. Birds and other wildlife eat the fruits, which results in spreading them to different areas. The seeds sprout and grow into dense thorny thickets, which are very difficult to control and result in crowding out native vegetation. Callery pear provides a stunning show of beautiful white blossoms; unfortunately, these trees are highly invasive, which has led a few states to ban all cultivars of Callery pear (Pennsylvania, Ohio, and South Carolina). This tree has an attractive V-shaped crotch that unfortunately will often split from high wind and snow weight damage. 

For more information, history, and control options, please visit the University of Maryland Extension webpages: Invasives in Your Woodland and Bradford Pear.

Q:  What invasive tree has purple blooms in early spring?

lavender flowers of princess tree

Princess Tree (Paulownia tomentosa). Photo: Leslie J. Mehrhoff, University of Connecticut,

Paulownia (Paulownia tomentosa), also called princess tree or empress tree, has purple, pleasant-scented blooms that appear before the foliage in early spring. I saw this tree for the first time when I traveled to Howard County for training in 2012, as this is not a tree we have in Garrett County. Its striking, large, heart-shaped leaves automatically caught my attention and reminded me of the Northern catalpa tree, a great native tree that should not be mistaken for Paulownia. According to Plant Invaders of the Mid-Atlantic Areas, one empress tree is capable of producing 20 million seeds that mature to flowering in only 10 years! These trees prefer full sun but can grow on disturbed soils, creek banks, and even forested areas which gives them a big advantage over native species that often require more special environments to grow and thrive. Paulownia’s ability to sprout from adventitious buds on stems and roots allows it to survive fire, cutting, and bulldozing. It is, therefore, a very difficult and costly invasive plant to control, according to the Maryland Invasive Species Council Plant Invader of the Month listing. 

A great alternative to Paulownia is the native Eastern redbud, which produces early, purple/reddish-purple blooms. 

For additional information, history, and control options for Paulownia, visit the University of Maryland Extension web pages Invasives in your Woodland and Princess Tree. 

Q: What invasive tree looks similar to black walnut?

tree of heaven foliage looks very similar to that of black walnut and sumac
Tree-of-Heaven (Ailanthus altissima). Photo: Chuck Bargeron, University of Georgia,

Tree-of-Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) was introduced in the late 1700’s and thrives in many soil conditions. It has an amazing ability to grow very quickly and can disturb building foundations and even pavement! It was widely planted as a street tree and thus is found far and wide in the Eastern United States. This tree is called by other names including China-sumac, stinking sumac, or varnish tree due to its strong unpleasant odor. Tree-of-Heaven is sometimes mistaken for sumac, hickory, or black walnut because of similarities in leaf shape; however, look for the glands on the bottom of each leaflet to confirm its identity. 

Just in case you needed one more reason to remove Tree-of-Heaven, it is a preferred food source for the new, exotic, invasive insect pest, spotted lanternfly.  

For more specific information, history, and control options, visit these web pages:

Keep an eye out this spring for non-native, invasive trees as there are many others that I did not address in this article. Take any opportunity to help educate friends or family about the negative impact of invasive plants on biodiversity.   

Resources for invasive plant identification: 

Resources for non-invasive plant suggestions: 

Check out the University of Maryland Extension website on Introduction to Invasive Plants for more information on how to reduce invasive plants.

Remember, the absolute best way to avoid invasive plants is to never plant or introduce them into your landscape! 

By Ashley Bodkins, Senior Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Garrett County, Maryland. Read more posts by Ashley.

Q&A: What can I do about rust fungus on my juniper?

  A rust gall on juniper with spore “horns” just starting to emerge. As soon as it rains after this point, the “horns” turn gelatinous and bright orange. Photo: M. Talabac

Q:  I heard rust fungus can infect junipers but they aren’t worth spraying to treat. Is there anything else I can do to reduce the fungal spread from them to my other trees?

A:  If you see and can reach fungal galls on the branches, clip them off. Some rust fungi (though not all) create a gall on their juniper hosts. Plant galls are tumor-like in that they’re clusters of malformed tissue, often in response to a pest or (in this case) an infection. When the weather starts to be consistently mild in spring and we receive enough rainfall, the galls where the fungus is spending the winter will begin to exude their spores.

These rust spores blow on the wind or wind-driven rain to vulnerable host plants like various members of the rose family. In our gardens, this includes apples and pears, hawthorn, serviceberry, quince, and crabapple. Fungus spores are extremely tiny, so how will you know what to look for? If the gall is producing orange goo, you’re missing the window since spores are already being dispersed. Ideally, remove all visible galls before this point, while they’re still hard and dry. Now is an excellent time to inspect junipers on your property for galls. Trim them off with hand pruners and toss them in the trash (don’t compost).

This is not a foolproof method for eliminating the risk of rust infection on other plants this year, but it certainly could help reduce the disease pressure. Fortunately, infections like cedar-apple rust, while an aesthetic nuisance from time to time, generally don’t cause serious damage to all hosts, though they can be more serious for some, like apple.

Find photos and more information about Rust Diseases of Trees on the Home and Garden Information Center website.

By Miri Talabac, Horticulturist, University of Maryland Extension Home & Garden Information Center. Miri writes the Garden Q&A for The Baltimore Sun and Washington Gardener Magazine. Read more by Miri.

Have a plant or insect question? The University of Maryland Extension has answers! Send your questions and photos to Ask ExtensionOur horticulturists are available to answer your questions online, year-round.

Plant shopping soon? Avoid buying invasive plants

It’s a sunny day in late February and that means I’m looking at seed catalogs and dreaming of new plants! Have you been plant shopping yet this year? Adding new plants and seeds to your garden creates new scents, textures, colors, and shapes and is the easiest way to increase biodiversity in your landscape!  

As you begin revitalizing your garden space this spring, I want to bring some attention to invasive plants, a category of plants that should strike fear and dread in your heart! Okay, maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but truly this is a topic that everyone needs to learn more about. 

Q. What is an invasive plant?

A. An invasive plant is a non-native, “alien” species that was introduced intentionally or by accident into the landscape and causes ecological and/or economic harm. These plants tend to be free from predators, parasites, and diseases that could help keep them in check. These plants reproduce rapidly with multiple methods (i.e. seeds, stolons, root cuttings, runners, etc.) and spread aggressively. They tend to be deer resistant or deer tolerant, a big reason why they are purchased and planted in landscapes. Below is a photo of purple loosestrife. Notice how it is creating a monoculture, a visual key that might mean the plant is “invasive.”

purple loosestrife flowers crowding a field
Invasive purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria).
Photo: Richard Gardner,

Did you know that some invasives are still for sale at nurseries, greenhouses, and in mail-order catalogs?   

It’s true. Many of the plants on “watch lists” are still readily available to purchase. Japanese barberry is an invasive plant that is a very popular landscape plant still being widely planted today; however, research shows that black legged ticks have been found in areas with invasive barberry thickets because these non-native, invasive forest shrub thickets create ideal microclimates.   

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