Plants That Are Good for Wet Areas

Fighting Drainage Problems by Landscaping With Native Plants

Ilex verticillata
Original Image by 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 poor 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. Most of these plants are generally cold hardy at least to zone 3.

Since the objective is to find hardy plants 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, one exotic plant should be considered, too, the popular tropical elephant ear plant.

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    Black Chokeberry

    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 eastern North American natives 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.

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    Arrowood Viburnum

    Arrowwood viburnum shrubs provide another example of a white-flowered specimen with excellent fall foliage and pretty berries that is suitable for wet areas. Aronia melanocarpa is relatively tolerant of wet soils, making it a living solution to drainage problems.

  • 03 of 15

    Winterberry Holly

    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 most swamp plants, 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—another fact to keep in mind for berry production. 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 holly, winterberry is a deciduous shrub.

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    Inkberry Bush

    Inkberry bush (Ilex glabra "Densa"), a native plant in eastern North America, is a more typical 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 (Ilex glabra) prefers full sun to partial shade with acidic soil.

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    Pussy Willows

    Like the plants already mentioned, pussy willows (Salix discolor) are 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 bushes (Clethra alnifolia) are wetland plants that produce fragrant white blooms in July and August. The flowers of these wetland plants 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.

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    Must-haves on this list are the dogwood shrubs renowned for their vibrantly-colored bark. For example, red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea), which is native to 31 states in the northern U.S. (including Alaska), is valued for the red color of its bark, as its common plant name suggests. Other examples include:

  • 08 of 15

    Meadowsweet Shrubs

    Meadowsweet shrubs (Spiraea latifolia) are wetland plants indigenous to 18 states in the northeastern U.S., ranging from Maine to Minnesota and as far south as North Carolina. Meadowsweet tolerates all soil types except heavy clay soils. Its white floral spikes waft pleasing aromas from June to September. These 4-foot wetland plants are members of the rose family.

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  • 09 of 15

    Horsetail Plants

    Horsetail plants 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.

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    Leopard Plants

    Lastly, there are water garden plants. Leopard plants are a great option. Its blooms are attractive and interesting, as are the leaves. This plant is a good perennial for shade but will also take some sun (with sufficient irrigation).

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    Wild Bergamot

    Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) is a close relative of a perennial sold at nurseries: bee balm (Monarda didyma). It is a fine choice for water garden plants 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.

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    Marsh Marigolds

    Marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) are an early-spring bloomer. If you have ever been hiking through the woods in spring and encountered this plant'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 plants; the latter make an even better specimen in water gardens because they offer longer display value. 

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  • 13 of 15

    Lilies and Irises

    Trout lilies and blue bead lilies, 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. 

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    Joe Pye Weed

    If you need water garden plants of a taller stature, Joe Pye weed may be a good choice. It 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, namely, in masses. At the opposite end of the spectrum, for a plant that stays short in stature, you can try the white-blooming bunchberry.

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    Cardinal Flowers

    Finally, 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 as water garden plants. 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.