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. Most of these plants are cold-hardy at least 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 15

    Black Chokeberry

    Black chokeberry with berries.

    aga7ta/Getty Images

    Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) is a white-flowering bush approximately four feet tall and four feet wide. 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 15

    Arrowood Viburnum

    Arrowwood viburnum's fall foliage.
    Courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden

    Arrowwood viburnum shrub (Viburnum dentatum) provides another example of a white-flowered specimen native to North America with excellent fall foliage. it bears bluish berries that are also a selling point.

  • 03 of 15

    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 15

    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 when mature, it bears a blackberry 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 15

    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, but they can be pruned back to keep them shrub-sized. 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 15

    Sweet Pepper Bushes

    Sweet pepper bush in bloom.

    Holcy/Getty Images 

    Sweet pepper bushes (Clethra alnifolia) are wetland plants 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. The bush is indigenous to 20 states in the eastern U.S., ranging from Maine to Texas.

  • 07 of 15

    Dogwood

    Red twig Dogwood
    Red twig dogwood offers striking color. 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.

  • 08 of 15

    Pigsqueak

    Bergenia plants blooming.

     Ron Evans/Getty Images

    Pigsqueak (Bergenia cordifolia) is a perennial that not only tolerates wet soil but also grows in shade. It spreads via rhizomes and gives your landscape early (April or May) color.

    Continue to 9 of 15 below.
  • 09 of 15

    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. They are aggressive spreaders, so do not plant them unless you really want them. They are native both to North America and to Eurasia.

  • 10 of 15

    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 the leaves. This Eurasian plant is a good perennial for shade but will also take some sun (with sufficient irrigation).

  • 11 of 15

    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 for a water garden plant in hardiness zones 4 through 9. This member of the mint family most commonly bears lavender-colored blooms in July and August. 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 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 15

    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. 

    Continue to 13 of 15 below.
  • 13 of 15

    Lilies and Irises

    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 ground in the wild and can be located in moist spots in your native plant garden. 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 is the northern blue flag (Iris versicolor). 

  • 14 of 15

    Joe Pye Weed

    Joe-pye weed in bloom.
    David Beaulieu

    If you need water garden plants of a taller stature, Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum) may be a good choice. This North-American native can attain a height of 6 feet and 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).

  • 15 of 15

    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. Its bloom time ranges from July to September. Cardinal flowers have been known to reach 4 feet 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.