Beautiful and Easy to Grow Native Plants for Your Garden

Joe Pye weed, goldenrod, Maximilian sunflower, Culver’s root, inula (non native) and filipendula (not native to Manitoba).

By Debbie Innes, Master Gardener

Oh, the beauty and reliability of native plants! I have grown to appreciate native plants for their variety, hardiness, and reliability, as well as for their value to our birds, bees and butterflies, in my home landscape as well as Albrin Bay Park. Albrin Bay Park, a project of mine since 1998, now contains 70 native perennial plant species and some cool native shrubs as well, with more going in this summer. But the main focus of this article will be on beautiful and easy to grow natives for your yard.

Native plants have been part of my home landscape for many years, but in the last three years I have been replacing cultivars with native species because I was finding native plants performed better in some spaces in my yard. I’m going to share my selections with you and perhaps you‘ll decide to add some of these easy care natives to your own landscape.

Lilies, miniature roses and peonies are still feature flowers in my garden. My husband makes cuttings of lantana that we add to our borders, and I usually try to add zinnias, snapdragons, dianthus, marigolds, and petunias. I also grow about four different varieties of perennial salvia. Although these are not native they have good value to our pollinators. I am a creator of florals for teaching, competition, and pure enjoyment, so I am always looking for good plant material to arrange. I have chosen many native plants with this in mind.

My first big success with growing native plants was with showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa). No stratification was needed, but I didn’t expect well over 200 goldenrod plants which I had to find a home for! Goldenrod has handled the heat of my backyard border very well and has thrived without a lot of work.

Showy goldenrod.

The native plant with the most tenure is false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides). It has been a part of our garden since we owned our first property in Winnipeg, roughly 40 years ago. Beautiful, ray-flowered, reliable, and long blooming. It multiplies quite easily and you can fill an area quickly. The birds will help keep it in check by feeding on its seeds, and it has good strong stems for designing.

False sunflower.

Other long-time full sun garden residents are Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), a white spiked flower (and great bee plant), and narrow-leaved purple coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia). I also grow turtlehead, the pink species, Chelone obliqua, a late bloomer and Echinacea pupurea ‘White Swan’ both, like E. angustifolia, great late food sources for butterflies although not native to Manitoba.

Meadowsweet or “Queen of the Prairie” (Filipendula rubra), another non-native to Manitoba with a pink plume flower was added for its beauty and fragrance. I have to confess this one has taken some time to reach its full potential. It does like a damp meadow location as does turtlehead and smooth aster.

Some more recent additions that are performing well are white and pink Swamp milkweeds (Asclepius incarnata). Both are host plants for the monarch butterfly. These plants feature prominently in our back border and make a nice show. We are out there daily searching for feeding caterpillars, which creates some excitement. Discovering their chrysalises and getting to see a butterfly emerge is pretty special. The blooms on the white milkweed are like pearls on a stem, and although they are second choice for the caterpillars it‘s good to have them as a backup because when the caterpillars are plentiful the milkweeds will get eaten right down.

White milkweed,
Monarch caterpillar on white milkweed.

While on the subject of plants the butterflies like to feed on, I have golden Alexander in a pretty well full sun garden. Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea) is a host plant for the swallowtail butterfly. A real beauty! This plant seeds quite readily and this might be the best way to propagate it as it requires three months of stratification. I‘m having quite a time keeping ahead of the rabbits on golden Alexander as it belongs to the carrot family and must taste like carrots! Cages work well. Fortunately all these plants I’ve mentioned are excellent growers in my garden.

Golden Alexander with swallowtail caterpillar.

Pussy toes, small-leaf and plantain-leaved (Antennaria parvifolia and A. plantaginifolia, respectively) are in numerous places in our yard and act as food for caterpillars for the painted lady butterfly.

I grow many flowers from seed and this year I have already started a few natives to add to my garden: I have smooth aster (Symphyotrichum laeve) a late blooming blue aster, a great one for some late colour in the fall garden, black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), which I‘ve learned is a biennial, or short-lived perennial so I’ll let some seed fall to start new plants every year.

Upland white aster (Solidago ptarmicoides), 12-18 inches tall, and flat topped goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia), are two of my favourites. Both are priority pollinator plants. Last but not least is meadow blazing star (Liatris ligulistylis). It is a favourite of the bees and butterflies, and has beautiful deep pink spiked flowers.

Upland white aster.
Flat-topped goldenrod.

For sun to part shade I grow blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium montanum) a cute 1 ft high little plant of the Iris family that has blue flowers. Cutleaf anenome (Anemone multifida), and Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum). Native plants have pretty interesting names, don‘t they?

Cutleaf anemone.

Some favourite native shade plants that I have are early blue violets (Viola adunca), Canada wild ginger (Asarum canadense), Canada violets (Viola canadensis) and northern bog violets (Viola nephrophylla).

Canadian ginger.
Joe Pye weed.

I cannot forget to mention my favourite and most useful shade plant: tall meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum)! It is happy growing in pretty deep shade and I have seen it growing in almost full sun. It is very tall and never needs staking. It is well liked by bees and butterflies and a host plant for the Canadian owlet moth among others. I harvest a few leaves for designing.

My Solomon seal (Polygonatum biflorum) grows under our blue spruce, which is a tough thing for many plants to do. I also have a very pretty variegated Solomon seal in deep shade at the side of the house.

A grass that does well in shade is purple oat grass (Schizachne purpurascens). It has a lovely soft texture and gray green colour.

A few new additions are bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) a spring bloomer, Philadelphia fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus) an easy to grow little daisy flower, lilac-flowered penstemon (Penstemon gracilis), a June bloomer with small spikes and closed gentian (Gentiana andrewsii), an exquisite sapphire blue closed flower that is an interesting sight when it blooms.

In addition we have lead plant (Amorpha canescens) and highbush cranberry native shrubs, both of which I highly recommend planting. The lead plant with its beautiful early purple spikes is a buzz with tiny specialized bees while in bloom and a sight to see, while the highbush cranberry (Viburnum opulus var. americanum) provides winter interest and food for the birds.

So finally in summation: these are the plants I have chosen to suit the conditions for pleasing colour or beautiful foliage, for birds, bees and butterflies in our yard.

If you want to see more drop round Albrin Bay Park, 40 Lake Albrin Bay, Tuesday evening or Wednesday mornings in the summer (subject to change).

Possibly volunteer and learn at the same time about native plants. Please note: you do not need to be a Master Gardener or Master Gardener Intern to volunteer at Albrin Bay Park.  You can contact Debbie Innes at:  info@mgmanitoba.com

Photos by Debbie Innes

Resources:
https://www.minnesotawildflowers.info
Plant list: Native Flowers, Grasses and Vines for Shade, Linda Dietrick, Master Gardener
Publication: Hector MacDonald, Native Manitoba Wildflowers, Manitoba Dept. of Agriculture, September 1972.

Published: May 2023