6 Must-Have Plants For A Thriving Native Garden

These wide-ranging species are native to nearly all parts of the U.S. and keep your garden filled with the wildlife you love.

April 25, 2017
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Tough as nails and beautiful. What better combination is there? For the conscientious gardener, there’s even more to love about native plants than that: Natives attract more pollinators, more birds, and more of the microbiota that build the garden’s soil than any of their exotic counterparts. 

Plant a native and you’re laying the foundations for an entire thriving backyard ecosystem. Whether your planting grounds are in Washington, Maine, or somewhere in between, try these six wide-ranging native species to keep the garden looking its best and filled with the wildlife you love. 

(Whether you're starting your first garden or switching to organic, Rodale’s Basic Organic Gardening has all the answers and advice you need—get your copy today.)

panic grass
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It might seem a relatively lackluster candidate, but switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) is a garden essential for wildlife lovers. Providing cover for insects, quail, and rabbits (which in turn attract predators like songbirds, bobcat, and raptors), warm season grasses like the broad ranging switchgrass also add winter interest to the garden.

Native across most of North America, this hardy, drought tolerant grass grows in a variety of soil types from part shade to full sun. Leave switchgrass’s tall culms standing through the chilly months to let the winter sun illuminate the species’ pale, translucent leaves.

new england aster
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New England Aster

Asters make their way into almost every kind of habitat, cultivated or wild. They’re in fields, roadside ditches, and forests. New England Aster (Aster novae-angliae) is the tall, leggy, impossibly purple wild cousin of the neatly balled potted variety that emerges every Halloween. 

Producing excellent, copious nectar for late season insects, New England Aster has the garden buzzing, flitting, and wiggling with activity right through November. It’s tolerant of all soil types and thrives in a rain garden setting with intermittent and prolonged wet and dry spells. Plant in full sun for the best floral display, but don’t worry if your chosen spot is partly shaded, either.

Related: 3 Shade-Loving Perennials That Shine In Spring

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Viburnums are the all-you-can-eat buffets of the plant world, producing oodles of nutritious fruit each summer and fall. Grow one of these chunky, white-blossomed shrubs in your garden and you’ll have the touchstone of a real native plant garden. Birds adore the fat, sweet berries (in fact, viburnums are consistently ranked as having some of the highest quality food for wildlife) and a myriad of insects rely on the plant’s leaves for shelter and food, too.

Rusty blackhaw (Viburnum rufidulum) is a good pick for pollinators. Native from Texas to Illinois and all the way into Virginia, this huge shrub requires a lot of space to really branch out (it can grow up to 18 feet tall). Its glossy leaves turn a reddish orange in the fall and clusters of black fruit attract wildlife. If you live in an area colder than USDA Zone 5, try the closely related nannyberry (Viburnum lentago), also known as simply black haw.

Related: 5 Plants That Attract Hummingbirds



swamp milkweed native garden
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Swamp Milkweed

Like asters, the milkweeds are a large, widespread genus occurring across North America. The swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) might be the most common species of all, ranging from Maine to Nevada, and Texas to far northeastern Canada. As the name suggests, this flower likes to get its feet wet, although it will tolerate most freely draining garden soils thanks to a deep taproot.

A favorite of butterflies, the pink tubular flowers of swamp milkweed are just the right length for their long, curled tongues. When damaged, all milkweeds exude a sticky white sap, which is toxic to most animals except monarchs (in fact, once monarchs consume milkweed, they too become toxic to predators). If you’re lacking a moist spot for this species, try its cousin common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), or better yet, the splendidly orange butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), which relishes hard packed, broiling hot sandy soils.

Related: 3 Reasons To Never Plant Butterfly Bush Again

columbine flower
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Columbine Flowers

Columbine flowers are a favorite of one pollinator we have yet to address: the hummingbird. One species of columbine or another is native to every state in North America. The common red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is a denizen of rich rocky outcroppings in the forests of Texas to Maine and relatively easy to grow if you have moist garden soil in light shade. Just give the dainty plants a bit of space. Blooming in early spring, these flowers herald the return of hummingbirds to their summer homes in the north. Equipped with long nectar spurs, the columbine is the first flower the hummingbirds will visit, homing in on the red blossoms with amazing speed—even in the midst of a dense and gloomy forest.

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A mainstay of any perennial garden worth its salt (native or not), coneflower is popular for good reason. This genus of big, flashy, colorful daisy-like flowers is native across much of North America and is easy to grow to boot. The most common purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) can be found at virtually any and every nursery, attracting bees by the hive-full—however, there are other, perhaps more interesting coneflower species to grow.

Looking a little like a jellyfish, the thin-petaled glade coneflower (Echinacea simulata) is native to the dolomite cliffs of the Ozarks. Needless to say, it’s a good pick if you live in an incredibly dry, rocky, hot climate. Black Samson (Echinacea augustifolia), a coneflower native to the Rocky mountain and prairie states is similarly tolerant of dry soils, and handles part shade well, too. All species of this group have been deemed of special value to native bees by The Xerces Society—plus they attract hoards of butterflies. 

Related: Grow These 50 Pollen-Rich Plants To Help Your Local Honeybees