Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Native Plant You Want

In our busy world, sometimes we just want the basics of something. You want me to plant native plants? Just tell me which ones give me the most bang for the time and money spent (or I have a small yard so I can only fit so much). There is no perfect answer to that, and certainly one must consider regionally appropriate answers. Ok, twist my arm, here are a few suggestions that are my personal go-to, must-have plants.

Quercus alba
Oaks (Quercus spp.) – research by Doug Tallamy and his students/colleagues have found data to indicate that well over 500 different species of butterflies and moths use oaks as a host plant so they are very beneficial to wildlife (not to mention the acorn aspect). They are also beautiful and long-lived; many of them have excellent fall color and some species are drought tolerant while others can handle periodic wet conditions.

Viburnums (Viburnum spp.) are versatile shrubs that offer a little something for everyone: beautiful flowers in the spring that are used by early pollinators, fruit for birds and other critters, and awesome fall color.  Twelve different species are found in Georgia and they like a variety of conditions from wet/sun to dry/shade. You should not be surprised to know that I've written about these before.

Native azaleas (Rhododendron spp.) are widely available these days and make beautiful miniature trees in smaller yards. I like to recommend one of the fragrant species (in my area that would be R. canescens or R. austrinum) so that you get more benefit. My earlier blog on native azaleas is here.

Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.) rounds out my woody recommendations as a small tree that deserves more usage. More sun tolerant than the overused flowering dogwoods and redbuds, it has beautiful flowers, tasty fruit, and good fall color. Yep, you guessed it - I've profiled this before.

Trilliums (Trillium spp.) are special spring plants throughout the state (read my earlier blog here), never failing to invoke a sense of wonder as they return each spring. Along with native azaleas, this is one genus that can lure people into a love of native plants. Create a grouping of these and fall in love again every year when they emerge.

Milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) are a hot plant choice these days and for good reason: they are the host plant for the monarch butterfly, a migrating species whose declining populations has been linked to a decline in available milkweed. Read more about the Georgia choices from my spring blog on them.

Mountain mints (Pycnanthemum spp.) are fantastic perennials for tough, part-sun conditions. Pollinators adore them, but they will spread to fill up the available space. Plants in the mint family (Lamiaceae) can be a boon to a lazy gardener but bedevil the neatnik. Look also into beebalm (Monarda spp.).

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) is a fun and gorgeous plant to have to support hummingbirds. Sure I have a nectar feeder, but the real thrill is watching hummingbirds sip from a plant that you put there. It’s also a welcome spot of color during the hot days of summer. Mine are still blooming now.

Migrating monarchs need goldenrod
Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) and boneset (Eupatorium spp.) are happening right now all over roadsides (that haven’t been mowed to oblivion) and the insects are so grateful! These two species are absolute lifesavers during the hot, dry days of late summer, and there are wonderful choices to include in your garden. Read more about the well-behaved species of goldenrod and thoroughwort (aka boneset) that you can be using. And for more year-round pollinator choices, check out this earlier blog of mine.

Hard-working, carefree green stuff: ferns and sedges. Georgia has over 20 native ferns in a variety of shapes and shades of green (read my 2012 blog on ferns for a rundown). There are dozens of sedges (Carex spp.) native to Georgia and some species thrive in dry shade! If you’ve got partial shade and want to do something at least for the moment, check out ferns and sedges. You might just decide you like them for good.

I’ve tried to be general here (e.g., listing “oaks” instead of a specific one); if you’re interested in using some of these plants, find the species most appropriate for you. How to find what species is most appropriate for you? Just follow these steps:

  1. Go to USDA plants database website:
  2. Look for the Name Search box in the upper left section. Enter the Latin name for best results and choose the “Scientific Name” below that; click “Go” [We’ll use Quercus for an example.]
  3. In the search results, find the entry that is just the genus, click on that.
  4. Now you should be on the genus page. This page has tabs, choose the “Subordinate Taxa” tab to see all the species and hybrids. Each has a mini-map of its distribution. Click one of the ones that has a presence in your state. [We’ll use Quercus alba as an example of species in Georgia.]
  5. That should bring you to the species page for what you selected. Now you can expand the map (with your fingers on a mobile device, with the mouse on a desktop) and see the county details. Of course this data is only as good as the people who recorded it; for example, Quercus alba is not shown for my county but it definitely is here and has been for a very long time. Alabama looks like it had more thorough reporting.


  1. I am going to share a link to this post in the Facebook group, Gardening with Nature in Mind. A number of us are in Nebraska, but a lot of these plants are also native here. I also use the Lady Bird Johnson site a lot.