Ten Native Perennials to Add to Your Garden
We talked about the importance of native plants, but not every native plant will automatically do well in your lawn or garden. Things to keep in mind when selecting any plant for an area are soil conditions, light exposure, and water levels.
I've broken the top ten lists into perennials, trees, and shrubs for the sake of simplicity. This list will break down perennials, which are herbaceous plants that will come back year after year, yet die back completely in winter. For more detailed information about why you should include native plants in your landscape, please read the article titled "Why Native Plants?"
I will be focusing on plants native to the Pittsburgh area, though many of these plants will have an extensive range. Some may be naturally spread all across the country and into our neighbors, Canada and Mexico. This is important to note, and it is always important to double check the native range of a plant before choosing it for your landscape.
1. Turtlehead Chelone sp.
Sun: full to part
Wildlife: hummingbirds, butterflies, bees
There are six species of Turtlehead, all of which are native to North America, but each have their own native range and tolerances. Their flowers, which look like the head of a turtle, can range in color from white to red. Turtlehead blooms in fall, a dire time for pollinators as they prepare for winter. Flowers can be hard to come by during this time of year, so not only will your garden still pop, but it will also give your native bees the sugary boost they need. Hummingbirds and butterflies will also frequent these flowers.
These plants naturally grow along stream banks and in floodplains or in wet woodlands, though they can tolerate average soils. Organic mulch will help to keep their roots more moist and benefit the plant's health. If you are putting together a rain garden and are in the native range of any of these species, Turtlehead would be a fantastic addition! There is a beautiful butterfly that uses this plant and only this plant as a food source for its caterpillars. This would be the Baltimore checkerspot butterfly, a mostly black butterfly with bright orange spots. There are, of course, other butterflies and moths that will use this plant as a food source in various stages of their life, as well.
Deer do not show interest in these plants and will typically leave them alone. These plants work well to create a border or in a mass planting.
2. Yellow Trout Lily Erythronium americanum
Sun: part sun to full shade
Wildlife: Bees, pollinators, small mammals
Trout lilies are a highly undervalued plant. Stunning bold yellow flowers contrast nicely with their mottled leaves. They're native to the woodlands of North America from the east into the Midwest where their mottled leaves help to camouflage them against browsing deer. As a spring ephemeral, their beauty is fleeting. They complete their active growth cycle before the trees leaf out, making them a very important part of the pollinator's diet when they are just waking up from their winter slumber. Native bees and specialty bees will frequent these flowers.
Their impact is greatest when several are grouped together in a mass planting. They also will spread via stolons, so a few plants will become many. Their seeds have an elaiosome, a fleshy attachment filled with lipids and proteins, that lure in ants. These ants will bring the seeds back to their colony where they will consume the elaiosome and the seed will eventually germinate. The process of using ants to spread seeds is called myrmecochory.
This plant will tolerate wetter soils.
3. Pennsylvania Sedge Carex pensylvanica
Sun: part to deep shade
Wildlife: caterpillars, small mammals, songbirds
People tend to forget about grasses and sedges when they are thinking about native plants. Both provide cover and food to lots of native wildlife! Birds will also use Carex pennsylvanica as nesting material. This species of sedge goes by the names Pennsylvania sedge, Penn sedge, and oak sedge due to it being found growing near oaks frequently. Penn sedge is a very tough plant that will tolerate conditions others won't. Deep shade (2 hours or less of light without direct sun) isn't a factor that most plants can handle. It can be added into a rain garden, though it does prefer dry shade. If being grown in sunnier conditions, wetter soils will benefit this plant.
This plant is found growing naturally in grasslands, forests, and woodlands on the eastern half of North America, west into Oklahoma. Penn sedge is an excellent lawn substitute where typical, nonnative turf grasses struggle and will not need mowing or irrigation, except when first installed.
4. Wild Hyacinth Camassia scilloides
Sun: Full to part
Wildlife: pollinators, mammals
Wild hyacinths aren't the same as the usual hyacinths you find in most landscapes. The ones that are likely planted in the landscape are in the genus Hyacinthus rather than the genus Camassia, as the wild hyacinth is. The common name comes from the similarities in appearance. Also going by the name Atlantic camas, the fragrant spring flowers will draw in pollinators galore. The bulbs are edible and were a common food source for indigenous peoples that inhabit the area in which it grows, however it is hard to distinguish from the Death camas, Zigadenus venenosus.
Camassia scilloides naturally grows in quite a few habitats, some of which include prairies, rocky slopes, woodland edges, and more. This plant is endangered in some portions of its native range. We can easily combat this by adding it to our landscape in the spring bulb mix many of us have. Instead of using non native Hyacinthus we can replace them with the native, fragrant, and useful Camassia. Even adding a few bulbs to your flower beds will spruce them up, as well as help restore some habitat that has been lost.
5. Wild Geranium Geranium maculatum
Sun: Full to part sun
Wildlife: Specialized bees, butterflies, pollinators, small mammals, bees
Also going by the names cranesbill, alum root and spotted geranium, this plant is native to much of North America. This is one of the showiest of the native geraniums. The spring flowers will draw in native bees, butterflies and specialized bees and other pollinators while songbirds will eat the seeds. While deer will occasionally munch on the leaves and flowers, but the plants can tolerate this. They need to eat, too! Several caterpillars and moths will also feed on the leaves.
Wild geranium grow naturally in mesic forests, sometimes near streams or ponds where they can get the sunlight they need. they will form clumps while staying close to the ground. While the plant does best in mesic (moderate moisture) soils, they are tolerant of drought once established.
6. Columbine Aquilegia canadensis
Sun: Full sun to shade
Wildlife: Butterflies, songbirds, moths, hummingbirds, pollinators
Another plant with a large native range, this species of Columbine is native from Canada to Florida and west to Texas. There are other species of Aquilegia that come in other colors, some native to North America, some not. If you want to add it to your garden intending to add the native species, please double check before your purchase. Aquilegia canadensis is also called red columbine. The interesting flowers appear in spring and will provide a food source for hummingbirds, bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. Columbine is a buffet to wildlife! Columbine duskywing butterflies will lay their eggs and their caterpillars will feast on the leaves.
Because columbine can tolerate a wide variety of conditions, they can be found in a large variety of ecosystems. That means they're an easier one to add to the landscape, as well!
7. Black Eyed Susan Rudbeckia hirta
Sun: full to part
Wildlife: pollinators, songbirds, small mammals
There are many species of black eyed Susan, all with small differences between them and all native to North America. This species is native to almost the entire United States and Canada. Many of us have seen black eyed Susans, and some may have them in our landscapes already. Butterflies and other pollinators are fond of this plant for the nectar the flowers provide from summer through fall, as well as laying their eggs for their caterpillars munching on their leaves. If you leave the seed heads up after the flower has finished blooming, songbirds will eat the seeds all winter long.
8. Big Bluestem Andropogon gerardi
Sun: Full to part sun
Wildlife: pollinators, birds, small mammals
When thinking about what plants to add to support pollinators, grasses don't often come to mind. Both big and little bluestem hold very important roles in the ecosystems. Big bluestem is a tall grass, growing 4-6 feet tall, but remaining narrow in comparison, typically staying 2-3 feet wide. As a bunching grass, it provides vital cover to birds and small mammals. Sod forming grasses do not allow the small paths that form between bunchgrasses. Without these paths, quail, woodcocks, and other small animals, do not have the cover they need in order to evade predators. After this grass goes to seed, different skipper butterflies will feed on their rotting fruit while songbirds feed on the fresh seeds. Native bees and birds will use the foliage for their nests.
This plant is a beautiful plant when used in the landscape. Not all grasses have a fall color, but this one sure does! The blades will turn a beautiful orange or red. As a drought tolerant plant, this grass is best for the drier regions of your landscape.
9. Wild Blue Lupine Lupinus perennis
Sun: Full to part sun
Wildlife: pollinators, including the endangered Karner blue butterfly
Lupines are a legume, which fix nitrogen back into the soil. Nitrogen is an essential nutrient needed for plant growth! This species of lupine blooms brilliantly with towers of blue-purple, pea like flowers. A drought-tolerant species, this plant requires dry soils and will do well in quick-draining soils. The fan shaped foliage adds to the interest this plant provides in the garden! When ripe, the seed pods burst open, throwing their seeds far away from the mother plant.
Several species of butterflies use this as a larval host plant, or a plant caterpillars feed on. One such species, the Karner blue butterfly, only uses this plant as a food source for their caterpillars. Because of this, without this beautiful plant, we will no longer have a beautiful butterfly to go along with it.
10. Spotted Bee Balm Monarda punctata
Sun: Full to part sun
Wildlife: pollinators, hummingbirds, specialized bees
A unique flower to add to your garden, spotted bee balm is a favorite among hummingbirds and bees. This member of the mint family is drought tolerant once established, layers of cream colored bracts decorate the space between the flower clusters, giving the plant its name. Also called dotted horsemint, the blooms are prolific enough to bring some indoors. They make great cut flowers and add a bit of pizzazz to any bouquet! Just remember to leave some flowers for the pollinators!
The previously mentioned Karner blue butterfly has been known to feed on the flowers as adults, as well as several species of bumblebees. The aroma given off by the foliage deters deer and rabbits, which rarely consume this plant.
I hope this list has given you some ideas on the best plants for your landscape! Remember that each plant has adapted to certain conditions, be them wet soils, full sun, shade, or rocky soils. Consider your environment before choosing which plant to add to your landscape to have the best chances of success. And don't forget to have fun and experiment! On behalf of all of the local wildlife, thank you for helping to combat habitat loss! If you have any questions, please don't be afraid to reach out.
Andropogon gerardii. Andropogon gerardii (Big Bluestem, Bluestem, Broomsedge, Turkey Foot) | North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox. (n.d.). Retrieved December 29, 2022, from https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/andropogon-gerardii/
Aquilegia canadensis - red columbine. Native Plant Trust: Go Botany. (n.d.). Retrieved December 29, 2022, from https://gobotany.nativeplanttrust.org/species/aquilegia/canadensis/
Geranium maculatum. Geranium maculatum - plant finder. (n.d.). Retrieved December 29, 2022, from https://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?kempercode=c850
Rudbeckia Hirta. Rudbeckia hirta (Black Eyed Susan, Black-eyed Susan, Gloriosa Daisy) | North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox. (n.d.). Retrieved December 29, 2022, from https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/rudbeckia-hirta/
Wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides). Wild Hyacinth (Camassia scilloides) - Wisconsin DNR. (n.d.). Retrieved December 29, 2022, from https://dnr.wi.gov/topic/EndangeredResources/Plants.asp?mode=detail&SpecCode=PMLIL0E050