5 Native Perennials For Your Garden
When designing a sanctuary garden, a garden that provides food, water, and shelter to wildlife, it’s important to pick plants that’ll thrive with minimal care and provide maximum wildlife value. This article will help you determine your site conditions: the type of soil, the moisture content, and the amount of sun as well as give a few suggestions on what to plant.
Assessing Your Site:
First, determine the type of soil. How fine are the grains in the soil? Large grains indicate sandy, well-drained soil while very small grains indicate clay, absorbent soils. Soils can range between these two extremes or have a mixture of grain sizes indicating loamy soils which are generally best for gardening.
Next, determine how wet the soil is. If the soil crumbles in your hand it is dry, if it holds together it is wet. Clues such as the proximity of your site to wetlands and streams or drier ridges and hills can help to determine moisture content too.
Finally, determine the amount of light your site receives. Sites that receive more than 6 hours of sun are considered sunny, 2-6 hours partly sunny/shady, and less than 2 hours shady. This can be determined exactly by observing your site hourly or estimated based on the presence of buildings, trees, slopes, etcetera.
Goldenrod solidago sp.
While considered a weed by some and blamed for Hay Fever (although the real culprit is Ragweed (Richardson and Jaffe 74).) Goldenrod is an excellent choice for the sanctuary garden as it supports the most species of beneficial insects out of any native perennial, which in turn feed songbirds who rely on insects to feed their young. Goldenrods clusters of bright yellow flowers are also an attractive harbinger of fall.
Downy Goldenrod solidago puberula is more well-behaved than some of its more aggressive cousins, forming clumps over time. It grows best in dry, sunny sites and will grow from 1 to 3 feet depending on the fertility of the soil. For shady, dry soils pick Wreath Goldenrod solidago caesia instead (Richardson and Jaffe 76).
Downy Goldenrod by Peter DeGennaro
Wreath Goldenrod by Josiah Lau
Aster ionactis linariifolia, eurybia divaricata, and symphyotrichum sp.
Asters act as host plants for many species of beneficial insects coming second only to Goldenrods (Richardson and Jaffe 77). They also have attractive purple flowers which bloom in the fall.
New England Aster symphyotrichum novae-angliae is popular as a garden plant with its colorful flowers. Make sure to give it a moist, sunny site and lots of room to grow as it can get up to 6 feet tall! While some cultivars such as ‘Purple Dome’ are much shorter, they also have a different flower color than the straight species which research shows can make plants less attractive to pollinators (Richardson and Jaffe 77-78).
New England Aster (my photo)
Stiff Aster ionactis linariifolia is the best choice for sunny, drier soils. In addition to its flowers, Stiff Asters needle-like foliage turns vibrant shades of yellow to red to purple after its flowers are spent adding to its display. Pair with Butterfly Weed asclepias tuberosa and Little Bluestem schizachyrium scoparium. For shady, dry sites pick Blue symphyotrichum cordifolium and/or White Wood Asters eurybia divaricata instead and pair with Wreath Goldenrod solidago caesia (Richardson and Jaffe 78).
Stiff Aster by Tom Halliwell
Blue Wood Aster by Remi Scarlet
White Wood Aster by Tom Potterfield
Wild Columbine aquilegia canadensis
For spring bloom, pick Wild Columbine which has beautiful red and yellow flowers which attract hummingbirds and butterflies early in the season. This plant grows best in sunny, dry soils and is easy to grow from seed. You can scatter its seeds around where spring color is needed and be rewarded with lots of flowers and pollinators (Richardson and Jaffe 8).
Wild Columbine by Matt Champlin
Mountain Mint Pycnathemum sp.
While not particularly showy, Mountain Mints have attractive silvery foliage, a wonderful minty aroma, and small white flowers which pollinators love. I planted Broad-leaved Mountain Mint in my yard and loved to watch the many native wasps, native bees, and honeybees that would buzz around it on warm, sunny days.
Broad-leaved Mountain Mint pycnanthemum muticum is the most attractive of the Mountain Mints with its silvery bracts (modified leaves surrounding flowers) doing best in sunny, moist soils. Combine it with the pink flowers of Swamp Milkweed asclepias incarnata and/or New York Ironweed vernonia noveboracensis for an attractive display. For those with dry soils, plant Hoary Mountain Mint pycnanthemum incanum instead which has a similar appearance to the Broad-Leaved Mountain Mint (Richardson and Jaffe 62).
Harmless Great Golden Digger Wasps (pictured) and Great Black Wasps were
common visitors on my Broad-Leaved Mountain Mints (my photo.)
New York Ironweed by Tom Potterfield
Narrow-Leaved Mountain Mint is also an excellent choice for dry sites but lacks the other Mountain Mints silvery bracts having needle-like foliage instead, but has more showy flowers. Pair it or Hoary Mountain Mint with Butterfly Weed asclepias tuberosa and/or Stiff Aster ionactis linariifolia (Richardson and Jaffe 62-63.)
Narrow-Leaved Mountain Mint by Cyndy Sims Parr
Milkweed Asclepias sp.
Milkweeds are well known as the host for Monarch caterpillars, but did you know that there are many kinds of Milkweeds (native and not) that provide varying benefits to Monarchs and need different site conditions? One popular choice is Tropical Milkweed, but it isn’t native, try these Milkweeds instead.
Tropical Milkweed by Nancy Witthuhn. The Monarchs may like it, but native
choices are better overall for wildlife.
Swamp Milkweed asclepias incarnata does best in sunny, moist soils and has attractive pink clusters of flowers. The Swamp Milkweed in my yard attracted a variety of butterflies, bees, and wasps including Monarchs (although I didn’t get any caterpillars.)
Swamp Milkweed by Peter Gorman
For drier, well-drained soils (Leopold 79) pick Butterfly Milkweed asclepias tuberosa which is shorter than Swamp Milkweed, as well as having orange instead of pink flowers which contrast nicely with its deep green foliage. Butterfly Milkweed works well with plants like Stiff Aster ionacti linariifolia, Little Bluestem schizachyrium scoparium, and Downy Goldenrod solidago puberula (Richardson and Jaffe 15.)
Butterfly Milkweed by J Swanstrom
Little Bluestem by Carl Lewis
One issue that I’ve had with Milkweeds is the invasive, orange-colored Oleander Aphid which quickly forms colonies that suck the sap from and damage Milkweed plants. The honeydew they produce also attracts Monarch caterpillar predators. Pesticides and beneficial insects are not good solutions as they can both harm Monarch caterpillars as well, the only solution that will not hurt caterpillars is to regularly inspect your plants and squash small colonies before they can grow to damaging proportions.
Don’t limit yourself to just these plants though! There are a wide variety of native plants to choose from for almost every application. The Native Plant Trust has some great resources on choosing native plants like their Garden Plant Finder and the book “Native Plants for New England Gardens” which helped me write this article.
Champlin, Matt. “Wild Columbine.” Flickr, SmugMug, 20 May 2014, flic.kr/p/nphECb.
DeGennaro, Peter. “Downy Goldenrod.” Flickr, SmugMug, 26 Sept. 2015, flic.kr/p/zyEkw8.
Gorman, Peter. “Swamp Milkweed.” Flickr, SmugMug, 5 July 2010, www.flickr.com/photos/52421717@N00/4817334058/.
Halliwell, Tom. “Stiff Aster (Ionactis Lineariifolia), Morris County, NJ 9-17-17.” Flickr, SmugMug, 17 Sept. 2017, flic.kr/p/21GDAkb.
Lau, Josiah. “Solidago Caesia.” Flickr, SmugMug, 26 Oct. 2012, flic.kr/p/dpynGg.
Leopold, Donald J. Native Plants of the Northeast. Timber Press, 2005.
Lewis, Carl. “Schizachyrium Scoparium 'The Blues'.” Flickr, SmugMug, 31 July 2009, flic.kr/p/7PbP5p.
Parr, Cyndy Sims. “Narrow-Leaved Mountain-Mint.” Flickr, SmugMug, 29 Sept. 2010, flickr.com/photos/cyanocorax/5041527310.
Potterfield, Tom. “Eurybia Divaricata (White Wood Aster) [Tentative ID].” Flickr, SmugMug, 6 Oct. 2011, flic.kr/p/bAcbgT.
Potterfield, Tom. “Vernonia Noveboracensis (New York Ironweed).” Flickr, SmugMug, 9 Aug. 2013, flic.kr/p/kz7i2D.
Richardson, Mark, and Dan Jaffe. Native Plants for New England Gardens. Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.
Scarlet, Remi. “Symphyotrichum Cordifolium.” Flickr, SmugMug, 11 Oct. 2020, flic.kr/p/2jYTyqY.
Swanstrom, J. “Brilliant Orange.” Flickr, SmugMug, 14 June 2009, flic.kr/p/zwMGrt.
“Types of Soil.” Https://Www.aplustopper.com/Different-Types-Soil/, 2 Dec. 2020, www.aplustopper.com/different-types-soil/.
Witthuhn, Nancy. “Monarch's on Tropical Milkweed.” Flickr, SmugMug, 17 Sept. 2019, flic.kr/p/2heBo3u.