Natives rock! They invite all kinds of wildlife into a garden. And because all native plants are not created equal, striving to plant the most beneficial of our natives is an important goal. Here are some beauties that are not only critter approved but are also ‘carefree’ and thriving in my garden in Northern Virginia.
The first native shrubs we planted as little mail order twigs, these now tower at about 8 feet and make an excellent summer screen at the back of our property. Silky dogwood is perfect for streamside planting and erosion control. It is the larval host for the Spring Azure — and wildlife love the small purple fruit.
Note: Find a local source for purchasing native plants. Since this purchase I have learned that mail order plants grown in far away states may not do well in your specific region and can be drenched in pesticides in order to cross state lines. Local ecotypes are the best choices.
Vivid red flowers adorn tall spikes for most of the summer. Cardinal flower is a favorite source of nectar for our ruby-throated hummingbirds. This riparian beauty demands a consistently moist site, near a pond, or water feature — I plant them next to a birdbath in part sun. Cardinal flower is a short lived perennial however the tiny seeds easily self sow in optimum conditions (nature does all the work). This is one native I will always grow in my garden to energize our resident hummingbirds.
Pretty rose-purple flowers bloom from late summer into early fall. Because this is a late bloomer, the pollinators swarm to it… in droves! New England aster is a great nectar source when there isn’t much else blooming. Robust and showy, pinching back the stems is recommended to obviate the need for staking — however the blooms may be compromised or delayed. Plant in full or part sun. This perennial will thrive with typical garden moisture but is not happy in times of drought. New England aster is the larval host for the pretty Pearl Crescent and checkerspot butterflies.
The clouds of tiny white rays and yellow centers illuminate the shady area under our black cherry tree. A tall and airy perennial, it is beautiful when massed. Plant white wood aster for our tiny pollinators and feathered friends who consume the seeds. The dried stems add interest to the winter landscape and birds also use the dried seedheads for nesting material. Low maintenance, once established it does well in dry dappled shade.
Butterflyweed is a lovely branching and erect plant that attracts our native bumblebees and butterflies. All asclepias species (and there are over 140 of them) are larval host plants for the endangered monarch and queen butterflies. This species is not a preferred host plant for monarchs in my garden, however; the large leaves of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) are definitely more attractive to egg-laying monarchs. But no matter! Tuberosa has neon orange flower clusters that light up the garden. It has a long bloom time and thrives in sunny dry areas. But please don’t let the inevitable aphids and milkweed bugs discourage you from this planting this perennial. The aphids feed beneficial ladybugs and other insects and the orange and black milkweed bugs are just plain fascinating.
Here’s another one of those underused natives. American hazelnut has a pretty habit and long, soft catkins decorate this adaptable shrub from fall through spring. The edible nuts are relished by small mammals, birds and humans and are highly nutritional. This is a versatile shrub that does well in partial sun to shady areas and once established is drought tolerant. Its fall color is fleeting but fabulous.
Imagine every native bee on one flowering perennial. That’s what you get with clustered mountain mint. This powerhouse of a perennial also has a long bloom time. Happy in sun or part sun, clustered mountain mint prefers moderate moisture. Give it lots of room because it quickly spreads by rhizomes; happily divide and share it with your neighbors. In the winter the multiple stems resemble a miniature forest of trees.
I had always grown black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) until I discovered orange coneflower. A short-lived perennial, orange coneflower holds its green foliage longer than black-eyed Susan and blooms for a much longer period. I plant it with purple lovegrass (Eragrostis spectabilis) and low growing wild basil (Clinopodium vulgare) — the combination of yellows and purples is quite lovely. Small butterflies and other pollinators visit frequently and the goldfinches and other birds consume the ripened seeds. Situate in full to part sun in dryish to moist soil. As with all our meadow forbs, if grown with a high density of native grasses, orange coneflower can better handle dry conditions. It propagates freely.
Wild Bergamot is a popular plant for gardeners as well as unusual insects. Our native long-tongued bumblebees and hummingbird moths are wildly attracted to the pretty pom-pom blooms. This mint family perennial prefers some moisture but is adaptable to drier soil. Plant in sun or part sun. Staking or support may be required as wild bergamot can grow to five feet tall and in my garden it likes to sprawl.
This beautiful goldenrod is also called wreath goldenrod. Its arching branches bloom in the fall with many of our other native goldenrods but unlike our sun-loving species, Solidago caesia tolerates shady conditions. It is adaptable to moist or dry soil. Small insects find it irresistible. Blue-stemmed goldenrod self-sows but not too aggressively.
Such a handsome shrub this is! Low growing and tolerant of drought, New Jersey tea is both versatile and no maintenance. I’ve seen it growing in open woods in New Jersey where it was about four feet tall. In my garden it’s in full morning and early afternoon sun and has reached a height of about three feet. Although Ceanothus americanus doesn’t have a long flowering period, the tiny insects that attract hungry hummingbirds buzz about non-stop while it is in bloom.
Updated November 7, 2016.