Gardening with Wildflowers and Other Native Plants

Robert Mugaas
University of Minnesota Extension Educator, Environmental Horticulture

Over the last 150 years many midwestern tallgrass prairies and natural woodlands have been converted to residential housing, agricultural fields, municipalities, shopping centers, parking lots, roads and highways. In the process, this development has consumed large areas of natural plant and animal habitat. In an attempt to restore some of what’s been lost, many gardeners have increased the amount of garden space dedicated to native prairie and woodland plants. There is also greater interest in the use of native trees and shrubs in our landscapes. Below is some general information about using native plants in landscapes, followed by a very brief list of widely adaptable native trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowering plants for home gardens.

Native Plants

Native plants are usually defined as those growing naturally in an area before European settlement. Wildflowers, also known as forbs, are native plants growing without the need for human care. Non-native plants, often called “exotics,” refer to those plants introduced by early settlers and travelers as well as those recently purchased from a mail order nursery. Plants can also be relocated by more natural means, such as through actions associated with birds, animals, wind and water.

Do native plants need greater care?

The answer to this question depends on the plant and the specific garden site. Many native plants, such as brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) or purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), are easy to grow in a wide range of conditions. Others, such as some native orchids, require specific site conditions as found only in limited areas of the state. We would all love a no-work garden. However, like other landscape plants, natives do require some care, including management of a prairie setting or control of insects and diseases in a flower garden setting. With careful selection and planning, you can have a very low-maintenance garden of native plants, but no planned landscape can keep its original good looks without some occasional care.

Aren’t native plants better for the environment?

Ethically, no plant is “better” than another – it all depends on the way the plant is or needs to be utilized in our landscape. Natives are an excellent choice when it comes to giving landscapes a more natural, regional look. However, they are not automatically more disease resistant, insect resistant, drought tolerant, hardier or easier to grow than are non-natives. The “best” landscape is one where a broad range of plants is carefully chosen to fit the local site, soil, climate conditions, and preferences of the homeowner. A good landscape plan can be accomplished with only native plant materials, or interesting combinations of native and non-native plant materials. Gardens are for people and are often highly individualized, but most importantly they are meant to be enjoyed.

But won’t any non-native plant eventually crowd out my native plants and damage the environment?

It is true that some exotics, like purple loosestrife and European buckthorn, can be very invasive and detrimental to native vegetation and the environment. However, the vast majority of non-native plants, such as flowering crabapples or peonies, are well-behaved garden plants. Adding these and other non-invasive, non-natives to your home landscape will help create a highly diverse landscape planting. To be sure, planting all natives can be an attractive landscape alternative, just be sure to include a wide range of plants to keep diversity high. Below is a brief list of plant materials native to Minnesota that can be easily grown and are adaptable to a wide range of site conditions. Give some a try in your landscape and flower gardens!

Shade Trees (height: 50 feet or more):

Deciduous (trees lose leaves in autumn) White Ash (Fraxinus americana) Large-toothed Aspen (Populus grandidentata) River Birch (Betula nigra) Bitternut Hickory (Carya cordiformis) Red Maple (Acer rubrum) Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor) Coniferous (evergreens) Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) White Cedar or Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana) Red Pine (Pinus resinosa) White Spruce (Picea glauca) Small Trees/Large Shrubs Blue beech (Carpinus caroliniana) Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) Ironwood (Ostrya virginiana) Serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis) Nannyberry (Viburnum lentago) American Hazelnut (Corylus americana) Red-osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea) Prairie Flowers Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) Meadow Blazing Star (Liatris pycnostachya) Blue False Indigo (Baptisa australis) Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) Brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) Grey-headed Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) Prairie Grasses Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) Sideoats Grama (Bouteloua curtipendula) Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) See Also: Arts: Permaculture Arts: Wild Foods Arts: Exotic Plants

Native Plants

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