Landscaping With Native Plants, Northeast U.S.: Perennial Sun Gardens

Grow These Native Perennials in Sunny Areas

We all know that there's no accounting for tastes, and this is as true of our appreciation for native plants (or lack thereof) as it is for any other aspect of our lives. Some will regard this or that selection of mine below as little more than a weed; in fact, three of them have "weed" in their common names. That's OK, because other gardeners will regard the perennial in question as the best thing since gluten-free sliced bread. 

All of the native plants presented below are indigenous to the Northeastern U.S. and nearby American states and Canadian provinces. They are best suited for landscaping use in perennial sun gardens or along the sunny edges of woodland gardens. To inform yourself in greater detail about any of these native perennials, simply click on the corresponding photo below.

  • 01 of 17

    Northern Blue Flag: Native Iris

    northern blue flag
    Northern blue flag is a kind of iris. David Beaulieu

    The first four perennials native to the Northeastern U.S. that I feature here are all good plants to grow in wet areas of your landscaping. Two of them, in particular, are typically found growing near water in the wild: namely, Northern blue flag and marsh marigold. Another that is commonly found growing in moist conditions is the horsetail plant.

    I esteem irises as one of the most exquisite perennials in the plant world. If you agree, then, like me, you may be intrigued by the prospect of growing a native iris in your landscaping. Northern blue flag (Iris versicolor) furnishes you with an opportunity to do just that if you are a resident of such areas as New England, Kentucky, Minnesota, Ontario, and Newfoundland.

  • 02 of 17

    Joe-Pye Weed

    Joe-pye weed (image) is a tall, slim weed. But some use it in the garden.
    Joe-pye weed: long and lanky. David Beaulieu

    Names can be deceiving, and plant names are no exception. As I stated above, some of the native plants that made my list have names that make them sound like they come from the seedy part of town. Does Joe-Pye weed (picture) deserve to be classified as a weed? Or is this stately plant with fluffy mauve flower clusters deserving of a spot in perennial sun gardens? Only you can decide. But if you're the type influenced by what  the avant-garde have to say, take note that many designers hold Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum) in high regard.

  • 03 of 17

    Marsh Marigold

    Marsh marigolds (image): New England swamp plants.
    Marsh marigolds are New England swamp plants. David Beaulieu

     The common name "marsh marigold" for Caltha palustris is both revealing and deceiving. The "marsh" part of the name accurately reveals its tolerance for soggy soil, a trait that makes it a logical choice for a ground cover to use around a water feature where you seek spring color. It is not, however, a true marigold.

  • 04 of 17

    Bee Balm

    Bee balm (image) is a perennial herb. I like the types with red flowers, like this one.
    Some classify bee balm as a perennial, others as an herb. David Beaulieu

    Bee balm cultivars have become so popular in landscaping that many of you who live in regions where bee balm is a native perennial might not readily recognize it as such. I'll excuse most of you for that oversight, but not residents of Oswego, New York. Due to the fact that the Oswego Indians concocted a medicinal tea using the leaves of bee balm (Monarda didyma), a nickname for this plant is "Oswego tea."

    Continue to 5 of 17 below.
  • 05 of 17

    Black-Eyed Susans

    Black-eyed susan flower (image) is known for its cheer. It is a drought-tolerant perennial.
    Black-eyed susan is summer cheer incarnate. David Beaulieu

    Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) are tough and make good full-sun plants. They tolerate considerable neglect, although you surely can improve their appearance in your perennial sun garden by supplying a modicum of TLC. As is often the case with tough plants, black-eyed Susans, under some conditions, can be even more carefree than we would ideally like them to be. In fact, some gardeners have called them "thuggish."

  • 06 of 17

    Wild Violets

    purple violets
    Purple violets add rich color to lawn areas. David Beaulieu

    Wild violets (Viola sororia) don't have "weed" in their common name, but they might as well -- in the opinion, at least, of many homeowners who lump them together with other common lawn weeds and wage war upon them. I do not concur. What's not to like about a flowering ground cover with a pretty bloom and that requires no maintenance?

  • 07 of 17

    Columbine

    Image of yellow columbine. Columbine comes in many colors, including yellow.
    Columbine comes in a number of flower colors, including yellow. David Beaulieu

    Columbine (Aquilegia) comes in many colors, and I have shown you a yellow cultivated type in my image. But the native type that qualifies columbine for inclusion in this article is red (A. canadensis); I often see it growing on rocky cliffs in New England. Columbine is one of those "swing" plants (at least at the northern end of its range): you can use it in perennial sun gardens, but, if you're willing to tolerate reduced flowering, it will also work in areas with partial shade.

  • 08 of 17

    Azure Bluets

    image of wild bluets
    Bluets carpet the ground in spring along many a roadside in the Northeastern U.S. David Beaulieu

    Azure bluets (Houstonia caerulea) are the "whatchamacallit" of the plant world in eastern North America. The range of this omnipresent native perennial stretches from the northern reaches of Quebec to the southern tip of the toe of Louisiana. This tiny ground cover spills across roadsides far and wide in great drifts, although we're aware of it only in the springtime, when it's flowering. Its ubiquitousness notwithstanding, hardly anybody knows what it's called. Just by reading this article, you know something that 99+% of people do not know!

    Continue to 9 of 17 below.
  • 09 of 17

    Common Milkweed

    Picture of milkweed seed pod. Milkweed pods are dried and used in crafts.
    Picture of milkweed seed pod and seeds. Note the white, milky sap running down the damaged stem. David Beaulieu

    While some people find a sort of odd beauty in the flowers of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), most gardeners grow it with butterflies in mind. Specifically, common milkweed plays host to the wormy young of the prized monarch butterfly. If you're not riddled with entomophobia, you might even enjoy watching the caterpillars, themselves eating the milkweed vegetation (I do).

  • 10 of 17

    Butterfly Weed

    Butterfly weed (image) has orange flowers. This butterfly magnet is an Asclepias.
    Butterfly weed sports brightly colored flowers in addition to being a butterfly magnet. David Beaulieu

    Asclepias tuberosa is also a kind of milkweed, albeit one not quite as well known to the general public as the prior entry. Gardeners, however, are well acquainted with this native perennial: its lively orange flowers have made it more successful commercially than its more demure cousin.

  • 11 of 17

    Yarrow Plants

    yarrow in the wild
    The wild yarrow I see growing in New England has clusters of white flowers. David Beaulieu

    Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is native both to North America and to Europe. This fact has given rise to questions as to the provenance of some yarrow communities in the former. According to Doug Ladd, "Some scientists think that most North Woods populations are introduced European weeds, while others believe most local Yarrow plants are native to the region" ( p.161). Those of you who aren't sticklers for such details will be more interested to know that this common wildflower is easy to grow: it's not easily deterred by poor soil and is considered a drought-tolerant perennial.

  • 12 of 17

    Culver's Root

    Culvers root image.
    Culver's root is a North American native. David Beaulieu

    I spoke earlier of the ruggedness of black-eyed Susans, but Culver's root is every bit as upper-echelon in the category of tough plants. It is also one of four native perennials covered in this article that is tall enough to make an impact in the background even when smaller plants or other objects occupy the foreground, the other three being Joe-Pye weed, common milkweed, and goldenrod (see below).

    Continue to 13 of 17 below.
  • 13 of 17

    Purple Love Grass

    Picture: purple love grass. This wild grass is often seen along roadsides.
    Purple love grass is commonly seen along roadsides. David Beaulieu

    The last three native perennials on my list come into their own in late summer or early fall (depending on the specific type grown, where you live, and the growing conditions present).

    Purple love grass (Eragrostis spectabilis) is the odd-ball on my list. For one thing, it's a grass. Secondly, I doubt that many people (even plant lovers) pay it much mind. I guess that makes me an odd-ball, too, because I've always admired the masses of small, red flowers it produces when I espy it growing on median strips on the highway. When it is present in sufficient numbers, it gives the appearance of a reddish haze hovering over the ground. When it's done flowering, the stalk breaks off in a curious fashion that has led me to dub it our "native tumbleweed." Clearly, since it grows wild along roadsides, it must be highly tolerant of poor soil, road salt, and other pollutants (which suggests a potential use for it in the landscape). 

    Not everyone will love purple love grass. Most of you will relegate it to weed status. But I can think of worse ground covers to try growing along the roadside on a large, rural property, where whatever you grow will be battered by road salt and other pollutants, and where growing conventional ground covers might be cost-prohibitive. 

  • 14 of 17

    Goldenrod

    Goldenrod (image) is not only breathtaking when in bloom but also not a health hazard.
    Think goldenrod is the source of your hay fever? Think again!. David Beaulieu

    Many North Americans despise goldenrod, a native perennial that grows in thick stands, forming a monoculture. Giving the naysayers the benefit of the doubt, I'll attribute their disdain to the fact that goldenrod is so common. Don't we often take for granted the things closest to us?

    But viewed objectively, goldenrod is a magnificent wildflower. Pretend you had never laid eyes on it before, prior to observing it in my photo. How could you not admire those large plumes of flowers in that bright golden color? Admit it: if goldenrod were native, instead, to some distant land, and you saw it for sale in a garden catalog, you'd probably be itching to buy it.

    In fact, if you do not live in North America and are considering growing goldenrod, be aware that, while it can naturalize readily,  this vigorous spreader may, in fact, naturalize so easily as to become an invasive plant.

  • 15 of 17

    New England Aster

    Picture of New England asters.
    Picture of New England asters. David Beaulieu

    Despite its common name, this treat for late summer and early fall is native to most of North America, not just the New England states. Although we commonly call this and similar plants "asters," they are also part of the overall aster family. This family of flowers is the North's largest. Among the plants mentioned above, alone, the following are all members of the aster family:

    • Joe-Pye weed
    • Black-eyed Susan
    • Yarrow
    • Goldenrod

    To view more images of perennials native to the Northeastern U.S., browse my gallery of pictures of native New England plants.

  • 16 of 17

    Purple Pitcher Plant

    Purple pitcher plant image.
    Purple pitcher plant are known for their deep red flowers and vein-marked pitchers. David Beaulieu

    Like Northern blue flag and marsh marigold (see Page 1), purple pitcher plant likes water. If you ever do encounter it in the wild (many never do -- you have to be willing to get off the beaten path to find it), it will likely be in a swampy area. I grow it at home in a small water garden. Watching the development of its flower annually is priceless, as I describe in the article linked to here. 

    Continue to 17 of 17 below.
  • 17 of 17

    Pokeweed Plants

    Image of pokeweed berries.
    Pokeweed's poisonous purple berries are ever so tempting to children. David Beaulieu

    Pokeweed is attractive, but the purple berries (its best feature, aesthetically) are quite poisonous (so beware if young kids will be playing in the yard). This is an herbaceous perennial that can get quite tall (8 feet) under the right conditions (namely, partial sun, ample water, and a fertile loam). A large pokeweed plant covered with racemes of berries in fall is an impressive sight.