Plants That Are Good for Wet Areas

Fighting Drainage Problems the Natural Way

Ilex verticillata
Winterberry is a wetland plant.

Van Swearingen / Getty Images

Solutions to drainage problems sometimes take the form of installing dry creek beds or drainage systems, such as French drains. But another possible route is simply to use suitable plants that prefer to live in wet areas. Many naturalized and native plants have evolved to grow in wet soils, so they are natural landscaping solutions for drainage problems.

The term, "native," in the plant world, is a relative term. After all, except for hybrids and cultivars developed by humans, every specimen is a native plant somewhere. Here we are referring to plants native to North America. All of these plants are cold-hardy at least to zone 5; some are hardy to zone 3.

Since the objective is to find hardy natives for wet areas, it should come as no surprise that many of these specimens are wetland plants in the wild. Some of these specimens you will not find at just any nursery. But if you conduct a web search for "wildflower society," followed by the name of the region in which you live, you may find someone who specializes in the sale of native plants for your locale.

Although this list focuses on native plants, it mentions other cold-hardy plants suited to wet areas, too. In addition, note that the popular tropical elephant ear plant (Colocasia esculenta) is a good choice for summer plantings in the North.

  • 01 of 16

    Black Chokeberry

    Black chokeberry with berries.

    aga7ta/Getty Images

    Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) is a white-flowering, deciduous bush approximately four feet tall and four feet wide. Adaptable to full sun or partial shade, it will bear more flowers (and, therefore, berries) and more vibrant fall leaves if given full sun.

    Its mid-spring flowers take a back seat in importance to its fall attributes. The leaves of these natives of eastern North America become purplish or reddish in autumn. The fall foliage is complemented by its namesake berries. Although bitter-tasting to some human palates, the berries, which remain on the shrub into early winter, serve as an emergency food source for birds.

  • 02 of 16

    Arrowood Viburnum

    Arrowwood viburnum's fall foliage.
    Courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden

    Arrowwood viburnum shrub (Viburnum dentatum) provides another example of a white-flowered, deciduous specimen native to North America with excellent fall foliage. This shrub bears bluish berries that are also a selling point. It becomes 6 to 15 feet tall, with a similar spread.

    Again, while it will adapt to a range of conditions from full sun to full shade, the former is better if you want a lot of berries and the best possible fall foliage. Its colorful name comes from the fact that indigenous peoples made arrows from its wood.

  • 03 of 16

    Winterberry Holly

    Winterberry bush with berries.
    David Beaulieu

    Winterberry hollies (Ilex verticillata) are native plants in eastern North America. Their natural habitat is wetlands—an attribute you can exploit if you are looking for something to grow in those problematic swampy spots in the yard. As you would expect from a swamp plant, winterberry holly likes growing on acidic ground.

    Winterberry bushes can be grown in partial shade or full sun, but you will probably get superior berry production in full sun. Winterberry holly is dioecious, meaning you need a corresponding plant of the opposite sex growing in or around your landscaping in order for the plants to bear fruit.

    Height and width will vary greatly, depending on growing conditions, but a rough average is about 9 feet in height and 9 feet wide. The berries of this shrub attract songbirds such as the bluebird and game birds such as quail. Unlike the typical holly, winterberry is a deciduous shrub.

  • 04 of 16

    Inkberry Bush

    Inkberry holly against a wooden fence.
    David Beaulieu

    Inkberry bush (Ilex glabra 'Densa'), a native plant in eastern North America, is a more typical holly than is winterberry holly: It is evergreen. Reaching as much as 8 feet tall and wide when mature, it bears a black berry that gives this shrub its name. Clump-forming with shiny leaves, inkberry holly prefers full sun to partial shade with acidic soil.

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  • 05 of 16

    Pussy Willows

    Pussy willow catkins.
    David Beaulieu

    Pussy willows (Salix discolor) are also wetland plants in nature, making them excellent plant choices for wet areas on your landscape. Pussy willows are deciduous shrubs that can reach a height of 20 feet (with a narrower spread), but they can be pruned back to keep them shrub-sized. They can take full sun to partial shade, but you will get more of their signature furry catkins if you grow pussy willows in full sun.

    Like winterberry holly, pussy willows are dioecious. Salix discolor is indigenous to 27 states across the northern half of the U.S. from Maine to Montana and as far south as North Carolina.

  • 06 of 16

    Sweet Pepper Bushes

    Sweet pepper bush in bloom.

    Holcy/Getty Images 

    Sweet pepper bushes (Clethra alnifolia) are wetland plants in the wild that produce fragrant white blooms in July and August. The flowers appear on 8-inch, upright spikes.

    Sweet pepper bush can be grown either in sun or shade and reaches a height of 6 feet (with a similar width). The deciduous bush is indigenous to 20 states in the eastern U.S., ranging from Maine to Texas. The wild version is rather unremarkable (except for its fragrance), but cultivars can be bought for your landscaping that have nice pink flowers, such as 'Pink Spires.'

  • 07 of 16

    Dogwood

    Red twig Dogwood
    Paul Hart/Getty Images

    Must-haves on this list are the dogwood shrubs, renowned for their vibrantly-colored bark. Red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea) is native to 31 states in the northern U.S. (including Alaska). It is valued for the red color of its bark, as its common plant name suggests. So is the similar Tatarian (or "red-twig") dogwood (Cornus alba), although it is not a North-American native. Or enjoy golden bark color with yellow twig dogwood (Cornus servicea 'Flamiramea'), another North-American native.

    All can become 8 feet high (with a similar spread) but are more likely to be shorter, want full sun for best bark color, and prefer an acidic soil.

  • 08 of 16

    Pigsqueak

    Bergenia plants blooming.

     Ron Evans/Getty Images

    Pigsqueak (Bergenia cordifolia) is a perennial that not only tolerates wet soil but also grows well in shade. It spreads via rhizomes and gives your landscape early (April or May) color. The leaves literally do squeak when you rub them.

    Pigsqueak is 12 to 18 inches tall and wide. The plant is native to central Asia.

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  • 09 of 16

    Horsetail Plants

    Stalks of horsetail rush plants growing in a mass.

    Frederic Cirou/Getty Images 

    Horsetail plants (Equisetum hyemale) can be grown in a wide variety of habitats, including those where the soil is damp. It doesn't matter to them whether they grow in full sun or partial shade. They are aggressive spreaders, so do not plant them unless you really want them. They spread via rhizomes to form tightly-packed colonies.

    They are native both to North America and to Eurasia. Tall, skinny plants, horsetails grow 2 to 6 feet in height.

  • 10 of 16

    Leopard Plants

    Leopard plant in bloom.
    David Beaulieu

    Leopard plant (Ligularia dentata 'Britt-Marie Crawford') is a great option to grow around water features. Its blooms are attractive and interesting, as are its big leaves. This Eurasian plant is a good perennial for shade but will also take some sun (with sufficient irrigation). Leopard plant becomes 2 to 3 feet tall, with a slightly narrower spread.

  • 11 of 16

    Wild Bergamot and Bee Balm

    Bee balm in bloom.
    Bee balm comes in red, as well as purple and lavender. David Beaulieu

    Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) is a close relative of a perennial sold at nurseries: bee balm (Monarda didyma). It is a fine choice to plant at the edge of a water garden. This member of the mint family most commonly bears lavender-colored blooms in July and August (bee balm is also widely available in red or purple). The flowers are tubular and grow in rounded clusters.

    Wild bergamot likes soil that is slightly acidic. It grows to a height of up to 4 feet (but usually less) and grows best in full sun to partial shade. Wild bergamot is widespread in the U.S., being indigenous to every state except Alaska, Hawaii, Florida, Washington, California, and Nevada.

  • 12 of 16

    Marsh Marigolds

    Marsh marigolds in bloom.
    David Beaulieu

    Marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) are an early-spring bloomer. If you have ever been hiking through the woods in spring and encountered this North-American native's cheerful yellow blossoms while traversing swampy ground, you should not be surprised that marsh marigolds can work well as water garden plants. They will grow in a bit of standing water, as will purple pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea subsp. purpurea); the latter makes an even better specimen in water gardens because it offers longer display value. 

    Marsh marigolds become 1 to 2 feet in height (when in bloom), with a similar spread. Grow these perennials in partial to full shade.

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  • 13 of 16

    Lilies Native to North America

    Trout lily in bloom.
    Trout lily is a North-American native.

    David Beaulieu

    Trout lilies (Erythronium americanum) and blue bead lilies (Clintonia borealis), both of which also flower in yellow, grow in damp, acidic ground in the wild. They can be located in moist spots in your native plant garden. Give them partial shade. Trout lily stands 6 inches tall when in bloom, blue bead lily up to 12 inches. Both of these perennials spread to form colonies.

  • 14 of 16

    Irises Native to North America

    Blue flag iris in bloom.

    David Beaulieu

    Continuing with the yellow theme, as tempting as it may be to grow yellow flag (Iris pseudacorus), be aware that it is a non-native, invasive plant. A native choice for a wild iris to grow in full sun is the northern blue flag (Iris versicolor). This perennial is 2 to 3 feet in height and spread.

  • 15 of 16

    Joe Pye Weed

    Joe-pye weed in bloom.
    David Beaulieu

    If you need water garden plants of a taller stature for a wet place in full sun, perennial Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum) may be a good choice. This North-American native is tall and thin: It can attain a height of 6 feet. It bears mauve-colored flowers. If you have a large area to fill in, you may wish to grow Joe Pye weed the way it grows in nature: in masses. 

    At the opposite end of the spectrum, for a plant that stays short in stature, you can try the white-blooming bunchberry (Cornus canadensis). But this is a plant for the shade. Grow tiny bunchberry in acidic soil. It is an herbaceous subshrub that can function as a perennial in native plant gardens.

  • 16 of 16

    Cardinal Flowers

    Cardinal flower in bloom.

    Gratysanna/Getty Images 

    Use cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) as water garden plants if you crave a showy, scarlet-red bloom that will turn heads. Its tubular flowers grow on spikes. This perennial's bloom time ranges from July to September.

    Cardinal flowers have been known to reach 4 feet (with a narrower spread) if grown in the sun; in partial shade, they stay shorter but are still attractive specimens. Cardinal flowers are native to all of the lower 48 states in the U.S., except for Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas.