Plants

Nantucket’s plant diversity is remarkable considering the island’s small size and low profile. The island landscape includes a mosaic of habitats, including dunes, salt marshes, hidden bogs, grassy plains, wooded hills and forested swamps, which in turn support a wide variety of plant species. Many of the island’s natural communities are quite rare, and are home to a variety of early successional plants that have declined elsewhere in the northeast. For example, globally rare sandplain grassland and coastal heathland provide vital habitat for rare plants such as New England blazing star, sandplain flax, and lion’s foot. Grasslands and shrublands are dependent on disturbances such as fire, wind, and salt spray. As land managers, we undertake prescribed burns, brush cutting, and harrowing to help these rare plants and the habitats they depend upon thrive. Another threat to Nantucket plant communities is the spread of non-native invasive plants, which crowd out rare plants and lower habitat value for wildlife. Click here to learn about landscaping with native plants to help our conservation efforts.

Below are brief descriptions of some of Nantucket’s diverse plant species – click on the individual photos for more detailed information.

Plant Name Details
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American Beech

Many of the Island’s largest trees are American Beeches. They thrive in the wooded areas of Squam Swamp and Sanford Farm and can be easily identified by their saw toothed leaves and smooth, pale gray bark.

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Arrowwood

Arrowwood is most notable for its lovely white, umbrella-like flowers in the spring and clusters of purple berries at the end of the summer. This species is an important source of food for birds passing through during migration.

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Bayberry

Bayberry is a common shrub species on Nantucket. Its berries are an important source of food for many species of birds that overwinter on the island. The waxy coating from the berries can be melted down to scent bayberry candles.

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Beach Plum

Beach Plums are common along the island’s roadsides and trails. The snowy white blossoms of this species are a harbinger of spring and its fruit is frequently collected to make beach plum jelly, a local New England favorite.

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Bearberry

This close relative of the blueberry and cranberry does not produce palatable berries, but it is an excellent native choice for landscaping applications requiring year-round ground cover because it is well-adapted to Nantucket’s soils and climatic conditions.

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Black Huckleberry

Black huckleberry is a common component of Nantucket’s sandplain grassland and heathland habitats. It is highly fire adapted and quickly regenerates following prescribed burns. Its berries are an important source of food for birds and other wildlife.

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Blue Flag Irises

These lovely flowers bloom in wet meadows and along pond shorelines around the island in early summer. The flowers are varying shades of purple veined in white with yellow markings.

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Bluets

Bluets are small wildflowers that carpet open, grassy habitats in the early springtime. The flowers can be white or pale blue, but can always be distinguished by their yellow center.

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Canada Toadflax

This pretty native wildflower is related to snapdragons. The leaves contain an acrid juice that causes livestock to leave them untouched.

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Cancer Root

This is a parasitic plant species that has no need for leaves, since its nutrients come from the host plant rather than photosynthesis.

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Cinnamon Fern

Cinnamon fern is a locally abundant species on Nantucket in moist forests or along wetland edges. The leaves of the adult plant are toxic.

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Coastal Joe-Pye Weed

Named for a Native American healer, the flowers of this native wildflower can be either white or purple. It prefers moist habitats with rich soil.

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Common Milkweed

Although this species is toxic to many animals, it is critical to the life cycle of the Monarch butterfly. It can be found in open grasslands, pastures, old fields, and road edges around Nantucket.

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Cranberry

The cranberry is one of the few fruit species native to North America. Cranberries are grown commercially and also occur naturally in bogs and other wetlands around Nantucket. The Foundation owns and operates both the Milestone and Windswept Cranberry Bogs.

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Dewberry

Dewberry is sometimes confused with poison ivy, as it also has “leaves of three.” It produces tiny dark fruits that closely resemble blackberries, but are smaller and usually more tart.

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Fox Grape

Common throughout the island, fox grapes are often smelled before they are seen when they ripen in early autumn. This native fruit can be green, red or dark purple and is highly suited for jelly making.

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Goat’s Rue

Goat’s rue produces distinctive yellow and pink blossoms in July and is found in patches throughout Nantucket’s sandplain grasslands.

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Golden Heather

This low growing plant produces prolific, bright yellow flowers in the springtime. It favors open habitats with recently disturbed soil.

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Groundsel

Also known as high tide bush, groundsel occurs along the edges of wetlands, ponds and salt marshes. The female plants are identifiable in the autumn when they become covered in white downy seed.

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High Bush Blueberry

High bush blueberry tends to grow near wetland edges and shrub swamps. The berries produced in late summer are an important food source for birds.

JAPANESE

Japanese Honeysuckle

This non-native vine produces fragrant cream to yellow flowers in late June through July.

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Little Bluestem

Little bluestem is the signature grass of Nantucket’s sandplain grasslands and heathlands. It responds well to management techniques such as prescribed fire.

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Low Bush Blueberry

Low Bush Blueberries tend to be less than 2’ in height, but cover many acres of Nantucket where they thrive in our acidic soils. The blueberries ripen between July and September and are a favorite food source of both birds and humans.

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New England Blazing Star

This showy purple flower blooms in late summer and early fall. Due to it’s rarity, it is protected under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act, so please do not pick or disturb this species.

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Northern White Violet

Northern white violet is common in moist meadows and grasslands in the early spring. It can be distinguished from other white flowers by its purple “whiskers,” which serve as guides for pollinating insects.

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Orange Milkweed

Orange milkweed, also known as butterfly weed, is a favorite of hummingbirds, bees and butterflies. Please do not disturb this rare and important plant in the wild; instead, purchase plants or seeds from a local garden center or nursery.

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Pasture Thistle

This native thistle blooms in June and July. Its purple or occasionally white flowers are an important source of nectar for bees and butterflies.

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Pink Lady’s Slipper

The delicate pink orchid blooms in early summer. Pink lady’s slipper is rare due to being over-picked and browsed by deer, so please enjoy this species, but don’t collect it.

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Poison Ivy

Poison ivy is common island-wide as a shrub, a ground cover and a vine. All parts of the plant contain urushiol, which causes an itchy rash and/or fluid-filled blisters. Its characteristic three leaf cluster inspired the saying, “leaves of three, let them be.”

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Porcelain-Berry

This non-native, invasive vine is a member of the grape family that grows rapidly, with vines reaching up to 20 feet long. It has attractive, multicolored berries that resemble porcelain beads as they ripen.

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Purple False Foxglove

The spotted flowers of the purple false foxglove make it attractive to many species of bees and other pollinators. This species blooms in late summer and can be found in moist areas and along wetland borders.

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Red Maple

Red maples (also known as swamp red maples due to their affinity for wetlands) are named for the red buds produced in the springtime and their brilliant red foliage in the fall.

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Rose Mallow

This member of the Hibiscus family can be found growing in moist soils adjacent to wetlands. It’s showy pink to white flowers are produced in late summer. It adapts well to cultivated gardens and is a good native addition to landscape plantings.

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Salt Spray Rose

This rose species is common in beach and dune habitats around the island because it can tolerate sandy soil and salt spray. It was introduced from Asia and has become naturalized, often out-competing native plant species. The flowers are white and various shades of pink.

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Sandplain Blue-Eyed Grass

This species is not a true grass, but a diminutive member of the Iris family. It is listed as a “Species of Special Concern” under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act and is only found in Southeastern Massachusetts.

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Sheep Laurel

This low-growing shrub is a member of the Heath family. Because it produces showy magenta flowers in mid-summer, it is often used in landscape plantings.

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Sickle-Leaved Golden Aster

The bright yellow flowers of this aster bloom during the summer and early fall. It does not tolerate shade, so it is usually found in open areas. It is rare in most regions, but does well on Nantucket due to its affinity for dry, sandy, nutrient-poor soils.

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Smooth and Winged Sumac

These early successional shrubs are closely related to poison sumac, but typically do not cause a rash. The large clusters of velvety dark red fruit produced in the fall are favored by birds.

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Starflower

This tiny, delicate white wildflower has 7 petals, 7 sepals, and 7 stamens. It blooms in forested areas in early spring, before the surrounding trees have leafed out.

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Swamp Azalea

The large white flowers of the swamp azalea bloom during mid-summer. This native shrub can reach 5 feet in height and is common along the edges of wetlands on many Foundation owned-properties.

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Sweet Goldenrod

The foliage of sweet goldenrod has a strong licorice scent. The yellow flowers bloom in late summer and are an important source of nectar for bees, butterflies and other insects.

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Sweet Pepperbush

This plant is also known as summer sweetbush. It has lovely and fragrant white to pink flowers that are arranged in spikes. Its sweet-smelling nectar attracts many species of bees, hummingbirds and butterflies.

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Sweetfern

This shrub can reach 2’ tall. It flowers in the early Spring and bears small urchin-like fruits in August. It is closely related to bayberry.

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Toothed Whitetop Aster

One of the few island asters to bloom in mid-summer, the toothed whitetop aster is a common plant of Nantucket’s sandplain grasslands and heathlands. Its composite flowers look like a single flower, but are actually composed of many small flowers.

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Tree Shadbush

These early blooming trees signal the arrival of Spring. They become visible on many Foundation properties in late April through early May, when their profusion of white flowers contrast sharply with the surrounding shrubs that have not yet leafed out.

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Virginia Creeper

This vine is often mistaken for poison ivy. Its fruit is toxic to humans, but very attractive to birds. Virginia creeper provides colorful fall foliage and excellent bird nesting habitat, making it a valuable wildlife planting in your home landscape.

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Wavy Hairgrass

This is a common grass in the Foundation’s Middle Moors. It is best identified by its purplish flowers in midsummer.

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Whorled Loosestrife

This common yellow wildflower blooms during the summer months. It can best be identified by the whorled arrangement of its leaves and flowers around the stem.

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Wild Strawberry

Wild strawberry can be found island-wide in overgrown lawns, fields and open grasslands. The fruits of this species are edible but much smaller than cultivated varieties, which are hybrids of Asian and European species.

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Winterberry Holly

One of the few shrubs that remain colorful during colder months, this native holly produces bright red fruits in the autumn. It is also notable as the only local species of holly that sheds its leaves each year.

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Wintergreen

The leaves and stems of this low growing, evergreen shrub contain Methyl salicylate oil, which gives it a characteristic wintergreen flavor and smell. It is found in open shrublands, forest clearings, and along trails edges.

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Yellow Thistle

This large, yellow thistle is in full bloom during the hottest part of the summer. Its impressive array of thorns and spines deter most animals from browsing on it. However, its seeds are a favorite food item of American goldfinches.

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Yellow Wild Indigo

Yellow wild indigo flourishes along sandy road edges and in recently burned areas. The bright yellow flowers provide an important nectar source for bees and other insects.