How would you like to plant beautiful, long-lived flowers that return year after year and are better suited to your local climate than many other plants? Welcome to the world of landscaping with native perennials.

“Native perennials” are perennial plants that return year after year and are indigenous to your part of the country. For the purposes of this article, only the United States will be covered, but the overall concept of landscaping with native perennials applies to any part of the world. Native species evolved without the intervention of people, and as such, they co-existed with many insect and animal species successfully for thousands, perhaps millions, of years.

The concept of landscaping with native perennials is simple: plant what grows naturally in your gardening zone, climate, and soil. Plants native to your area are well-adapted to the unique climate and soil conditions found locally. As a result, they are often hardier, drought-tolerant, and naturally resistant to insects.

Even more importantly, however, native plants provide food and shelter to many species of insects, birds and other wildlife that imported plants cannot. Monarch butterflies rely upon milkweed plants (Asclepias spp) to nurture their young; without these native species, monarchs cannot survive. Many other native plants provide similar functions in the landscape. When you plant native perennials in your yard, more butterflies and birds visit to seek food and shelter among the plants.

As homeowners across America plant more native species, they repopulate species lost to urban and suburban development and help the environment while beautifying their yards. Now that’s what most people would call a noble goal!

Finding Native Perennials

It’s important to find a reputable local grower for native perennials. Native plants usually transplant best when grown under similar conditions to those in your garden, so the closer the grower is to your location, the better. If you live in Virginia, for example, purchase native plants from a Virginia grower. If you buy them from an Oregon grower, the climate is different enough so that the plants may have a tough time adapting to their new home in Virginia.

Choosing Native Perennials

To choose great native perennials for your landscape, use the following steps as a guideline.

  • Look around your front, back and side yards to assess potential areas where you can add native plants. Do you have spaces in your landscape that need to be filled with plants? Make a sketch of your yard and note where you can add plants.
  • Next, note where any buried power or telecommunications lines are in your yard. If you’re not sure, contact your local utilities. It’s never a good idea to dig if you’re not sure where utilities are buried.
  • Note the light conditions in the areas available to add plants. Do these areas receive full sunlight, or are they in dappled shade, such as spaces next to a building or a tall tree? Take notes on the light conditions. You can always adjust the soil conditions, but you may be stuck with whatever light conditions you have in the garden.
  • Take a soil sample to your local Cooperative Extension Office for testing and tell them you want to plant some native perennials. They probably have a booklet, pamphlet or handout with a list of plants that will do well in your unique growing conditions.
  • Most native plants don’t need extensive soil amendments to be happy. Do keep them well-watered during the initial transplanting period to avoid transplant shock.

Some Ideas for Native Perennials

This list is by no means comprehensive, but it will give most gardeners in temperate climates an idea of what they can grow in a native plant garden. Not all species will thrive everywhere in the United States; obviously a zone 3 garden is quite different from a zone 10 garden. Again, check with your local Cooperative Extension Office for a detailed local plant list of native species.

Flowering Native Perennials for Temperate Climates

  • Achillea millefolium (common yarrow)
  • Aquilegia canadensis (wild columbine)
  • Ascelpias tuberosa (butterfly weed)
  • Baptisia tinctoria (wild indigo)
  • Coreopsis tinctoria (golden tickseed)
  • Echinacea species
  • Geranium maculatum (wild geranium)
  • Helianthus and heliopsis species (sunflower types)
  • Lobelia cardinalis (cardinal flower)
  • Lupinus perennis (lupine)
  • Monarda fistulosa (wild bergamot)
  • Passiflora incarnata (passionflower vine)

Create a Native Plant Landscape

You can add beds filled with native plants or simply work in a few plants among your existing landscape to add natives. Even a few plants will help local wildlife populations.

When planting native perennials, many look best in a “natural” landscaping structure rather than a formal planting bed. Try working them into the garden in odd-numbered groups such as groups of three, five or seven plants, rather than even numbers. Space them in circular or triangular planting arrangements rather than in strict lines, which may appear too formal for many species of native plants.

Many species of butterflies prefer large swathes of native plants, such as they would encounter in a large, open meadow or pasture. This can be difficult to recreate in a suburban environment. If you have a section behind your garage, why not plant a small patch of native butterfly or meadow seeds? Instead of grass, which you have to mow, you can have a small butterfly garden that nurtures wildlife.

Resources

The following links will take you to plant lists for your region so you can start exploring the world of beautiful native perennials