Native plants add beauty, hardiness, local feel to landscapes

Updated Jul 31, 2018
Native plants such as this Timeless Beauty Desert Willow are defined as vegetation that has adapted to a certain region’s soil, temperatures and rainfall. Photo: Doreen Wynja for MonroviaNative plants such as this Timeless Beauty Desert Willow are defined as vegetation that has adapted to a certain region’s soil, temperatures and rainfall.
Photo: Doreen Wynja for Monrovia

Native plants are experiencing a surge in popularity. But what does “native” really mean?

“There’s a lot of confusion about the term,” says Andrea DeLong-Amaya, director of horticulture at Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin. “In shorthand, it’s a plant that occurs where it evolved, without human intervention.”

Native plants are adapted to the region’s soil, temperatures and rainfall, so they’re usually not fussy once established. “The main reason people have become more interested in native plants is for water conservation,” says DeLong-Amaya. “In addition, they require little fertilizer. They also attract and provide shelter for native pollinators and wildlife, drawing more diverse species.” They’re ideal in settings such as a rain garden.

On one hand, some horticultural purists say that the only true natives are plants that grew in North America prior to European colonization. But other experts say going native doesn’t require such a strict definition and that cultivars, which are selected and bred for specific characteristics such as color, improved disease resistance or size, are acceptable landscape options.

Designing with natives is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Natives can be incorporated into existing landscapes, as well as into new beds. “These plants work in any setting, traditional or informal,” says DeLong-Amaya. “People often categorically dismiss natives because they think they’re messy or maintenance-heavy, but good design and some maintenance are what makes a garden look like a garden.”

To learn about your region’s native plants, visit botanical gardens and arboretums, look for native plant societies that offer workshops, or partner with a landscape architect who specializes in natives. Many nurseries and gardens also offer catalogues for research. Or consider a few of these options for your next design:

FLOWERING PLANTS

Bee Balm ‘Pardon My Pink’ Photo: Proven WinnersBee Balm ‘Pardon My Pink’
Photo: Proven Winners

Bee Balm “Pardon My Pink” (‘Pardon My Pink’ Monarda didyma PP 24244)

Bright pink flowers work well in the front of mixed borders. Mildew resistant selection. Grows 10-12 inches tall and wide.

Part sun to sun.

Hardy to USDA zone 4

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False Indigo Decadence ‘Blueberry Sundae’ Photo: Proven WinnersFalse Indigo Decadence ‘Blueberry Sundae’
Photo: Proven Winners

False Indigo Decadence “Blueberry Sundae” (False indigo Baptisia hybrid PP 23891)

Vibrant blue spikes atop mounded blue-green plants. Drought tolerant and adaptable to poor soil. Decorative fall seed pods. New “Decadence” series offers many other colors, including maroon, yellow and pink. Deer resistant. Grows 30-36 inches tall and wide.

Part sun to sun

Hardy to USDA zone 4

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Smooth Aster Photo: American Beauties Native PlantsSmooth Aster
Photo: American Beauties Native Plants

Smooth Aster (Symphyotrichum laeve ‘Bluebird’)

Tall, vase-shaped blue flower fills in mixed borders. Drought tolerant. Attracts butterflies. Grows 36-48 inches tall, 24-30 inches wide.

Full sun

Hardy to USDA zone 3

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Wild Pinks ‘Short and Sweet’ Photo: American Beauties Native PlantsWild Pinks ‘Short and Sweet’
Photo: American Beauties Native Plants

Wild Pinks (Silene caroliniana ‘Short and Sweet’)

Blooms bright pink in late spring; alternative to dianthus. Blooms in sun or shade, though less profuse blooms in shade. Attracts hummingbirds and butterflies. Grows 6 to 8 inches tall, 10-15 inches wide.

Shade or sun

Hard to USDA zone 4

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GROUNDCOVERS

Cranesbill ‘Espresso’ Photo: American Beauties Native PlantsCranesbill ‘Espresso’
Photo: American Beauties Native Plants

Cranesbill (Geranium maculatum ‘Espresso’)

Hardy plant with attractive red-brown foliage and pale pinkish-purple flowers in spring. Spreads relatively quickly. Nice mounded shape. Grows 12-15 inches tall and 18-24 inches wide.

Part shade

Hardy to USDA zone 3

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Pink Chablis ‘Dead Nettle’ Photo: Proven WinnersPink Chablis ‘Dead Nettle’
Photo: Proven Winners

Pink Chablis Dead Nettle (Lamium maculatum ‘Checkin’ PP 17925)

Silvery green with pink flowers, creeps along and makes a pretty groundcover. Also works in containers. Adaptable, cold-hardy and drought tolerant. No deadheading needed. Grows 8-12 inches tall, trailing to 24 inches.

Sun or shade

Hardy to USDA zone 4

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Tucson Sun Sundrop Photo: American Beauties Native PlantsTucson Sun Sundrop
Photo: American Beauties Native Plants

Tucson Sun Sundrop (Calyophus berlandieri ‘Tucson Sun’)

Fast growing shrubby but tidy habit. Flowers from spring through summer. Buttercup-shaped flowers open yellow and fade to orange and pink. Attracts butterflies. Grows 12 inches tall, 2-3 feet wide.

Sun to part shade

Hardy to USDA zone 7

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Blond Ambition Blue Grama Grass Photo: Doreen Wynja for MonroviaBlond Ambition Blue Grama Grass
Photo: Doreen Wynja for Monrovia

Blonde Ambition Blue Grama Grass (Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’ PP 22048)

Rugged blue-green clumping foliage with flag-like flowers and golden seedheads. Plant en masse as a drought-tolerant turf substitute. Grows 36 inches tall and wide.

Part to full sun

Hardy to USDA zone 5

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SHRUBS

Invincibelle Spirit Smooth Hydrangea Photo: Proven WinnersInvincibelle Spirit Smooth Hydrangea
Photo: Proven Winners

Invincibelle Spirit Smooth Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens ‘NCHA1’ USPP 20765)

Super-hardy, reliable bloomer with pink flowers. Reblooms. Second generation, Invincibelle Spirit II was introduced this year and boasts even stronger stems and larger flowers. Adaptable to most soils. Grows 36-48 inches tall and wide.

Full sun

Hardy to USDA zone 3

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Kodiak Black Bush Photo: Proven WinnersKodiak Black Bush
Photo: Proven Winners

Kodiak Black Bush Honeysuckle  (Diervilla rivularis ‘SMNDRSF’ USPPAF)

Adaptable and hardy new plant. Striking burgundy-black foliage with bright yellow flowers. Attracts hummingbirds and butterflies. Deer resistant. Grows 36-48 inches tall and wide.

Sun or shade

Hardy to USDA zone 5

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Sugar Shack Buttonbush Photo: Proven WinnersSugar Shack Buttonbush
Photo: Proven Winners

Sugar Shack Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis ‘SMCOSS’ USPPAF)

Eye-catching button-like white flowers and red fruit. Dwarf size fits in most landscapes. Works well for rain gardens. Grows 36-48 inches tall, 36-48 inches wide.

Part sun to sun

Hardy to USDA zone 4

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Sugartina ‘Crystalina’ Summersweet Photo: Proven WinnersSugartina ‘Crystalina’ Summersweet
Photo: Proven Winners

Sugartina ‘Crystalina’ Summersweet (Summersweet Clethra alnifolia PP 21561)

Fragrant white flowers in late summer with yellow autumn color. Requires little care and maintains a tight, dense shape. Attracts butterflies. Grows 28-36 inches tall and wide.

Part sun to sun

Hardy to USDA zone 4

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TREES

Blue Surprise Port Oxford Cedar Photo: Doreen Wynja for MonroviaBlue Surprise Port Oxford Cedar
Photo: Doreen Wynja for Monrovia

Blue Surprise Port Orford Cedar, Guardian series (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Blue Surprise’)

Silvery-blue foliage with purplish cast in winter. Disease-resistant to the soilborne pathogen that killed many cedars in recent decades. Grows 6 feet tall, 2 feet wide.

Full sun

Hardy to USDA zone 6

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Forest Pansy Redbud Photo: MonroviaForest Pansy Redbud
Photo: Monrovia

Forest Pansy Redbud (Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’)

Tiny purple-red flowers on bare branches in the spring, followed by attractive reddish heart-shaped leaves. Grows 20 feet tall, 25 feet wide.

Full sun

Hardy to USDA zone 5

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Timeless Beauty Desert Willow Photo: Doreen Wynja for MonroviaTimeless Beauty Desert Willow
Photo: Doreen Wynja for Monrovia

Timeless Beauty Desert Willow (Chilopsis linearis ‘Monhews’ PP 11078)

Long flowering period but doesn’t set seed. Fragrant burgundy-lavender blooms appear in clusters. Drought tolerant. Grows 15-20 feet tall and wide.

Full sun

Hardy to USDA zone 7

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Venus Dogwood Photo: MonroviaVenus Dogwood
Photo: Monrovia

Venus Dogwood (Cornus x ‘KN30-8’ PP 16309)

New, fast-growing hybrid. Disease-resistant to powdery mildew and dogwood anthracnose. Very large flower bracts 6-8 inches wide. Good fall color. Grows 15-20 feet tall and wide.

Part to full sun

Hardy to USDA zone 5

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