13 Plants That Are Perfect for Your Rain Garden

The perfect plants for each area of your project

Group of Blue flag irises

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Rain gardens take a bit of planning and work, but one of the most fun parts is selecting the plant material. This is a crucial step in the success of your rain garden. Choosing the right plants and knowing where to put them will decide whether you have a swampy puddle full of dead plants or a thriving mini-ecosystem with native plants that helps the environment after every rainstorm while still looking beautiful.

There are three planting zones to a rain garden: the edge, the slope, and the base. The following list will recommend where to plant each plant, but the general rule is to place plants tolerant of dry conditions on the highest locations or the edge. Plants that can handle conditions that are medium moisture with occasional dry conditions should go on the slopes. Finally, plants that can thrive in wet conditions and standing water should be placed in the bottom of the garden.

  • 01 of 13

    Common Milk Weed (Asclepias syriaca)

    Common Milkweed flowers

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    Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is a fabulous plant to include in your rain garden that will serve multiple functions. Besides being the primary food source for the Monarch Butterfly, common milkweed also hosts many beneficial insects that prey on pests. Planting your milkweed along the edge of the garden will create a root system that will act as a sponge for high rain events that need water to be absorbed fast. Milkweed grows a profuse rhizomatous root system.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 9
    • Color Varieties: Pink, mauve, white
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs:  Dry to medium, well-drained soil
    • Rain Garden Placement: On the edge
  • 02 of 13

    Smooth Blue Aster (Symphyotrichum laeve)

    Smooth blue aster flower closeup

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    Smooth blue aster is an ideal choice for offering some color to your rain garden around the top edge that provides pollinators, especially the Pearl Crescent butterfly, with a food source.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to8
    • Color Varieties: Violet to purple rays and yellow centers
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Dry to medium, well-drained soil
    • Rain Garden Placement: On the edge
  • 03 of 13

    Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)

    Big Bluestem tall grass prairie with blue sky

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    Including native grasses, sedges, and rushes into your rain garden is essential. The deep root systems act as a filtration method for contaminates while also allowing for efficient groundwater infiltration. As with every selection, you want to try to make the plant have multiple functions. Big Bluestem is an excellent choice because it does serve multiple purposes besides water absorption and filtration. It is an attractive grass while in bloom and during the fall and winter, but it also is a food source for birds and other wildlife while offering shelter for insects and butterfly and moth larvae.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 4 to 9
    • Color Varieties: Purplish-red
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Moist, well-draining
    • Rain Garden Placement: In the base
  • 04 of 13

    New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis)

    A field of New York Iron Weed

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    New York ironweed is an ideal plant to place in the base of your garden. It grows in a dense mounding shrub-like form and is tolerant to almost all growing conditions.
    Ironweed offers ecological benefits to pollinators and shelter to small wildlife if you allow it to grow shrubby, which can happen if it is not kept orderly.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 5 to 9
    • Color Varieties: Purple
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Medium to wet soils
    • Rain Garden Placement: On the slope or in the base
    Continue to 5 of 13 below.
  • 05 of 13

    Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)

    Flowers of Scarlet Beebalm

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    Wild bergamot is a stunning flower and a no-brainer for inclusion when planning your rain garden. It attracts pollinators, provides beauty, and helps with water infiltration. The main draw with any bergamot besides the hummingbirds it attracts is the complimentary tea you can make from the flowers.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 9
    • Color Varieties: Pink/lavender
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Medium moisture
    • Rain Garden Placement: On the slope

     

  • 06 of 13

    Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)

    Close up of cardinal flower blooms

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    This attractive red flower can be placed either in the bottom or along the slope of the rain garden, making it a valuable plant to add that lends some flexibility to your design. Like all plants on the list, it is valuable to water absorption and as a nectar source for pollinators.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to9
    • Color Varieties: Red
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Medium to wet soils
    • Rain Garden Placement: On the slope or in the base

     

  • 07 of 13

    Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)

    A bunch of Switch Grass

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    Switchgrass is another option for a non-flowering plant that will suit your needs in the wet areas of your rain garden. It looks great in all seasons and performs wonders at absorbing water into its fibrous root system while filtering out pollutants.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 9
    • Color Varieties: Pink
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Moist to wet soils
    • Rain Garden Placement: In the base
  • 08 of 13

    Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)

    Red Columbine flower after light rain

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    Besides being a unique-looking flower, the columbine’s root system is ideal for water absorption and creating a dense matrix to manage erosion along the slope of your garden if water overruns its edge or along the inlet.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 8
    • Color Varieties: Light pink/yellow to red/yellow
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Average, medium
    • Rain Garden Placement: On the slope
    Continue to 9 of 13 below.
  • 09 of 13

    Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos)

    Swamp mallow flowers

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    Swamp Mallow’s strikingly beautiful large, almost dinner plate size flowers can act
    as a centerpiece of a rain garden if placed at the base in a prominent position.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 5 to 9
    • Color Varieties: White to pink
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Medium to wet soils 
    • Rain Garden Placement: In the base
  • 10 of 13

    Hairy Beardtongue (Penstemon hirsutus)

    Hairy Beard Tongue in bloom

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    This unusually named plant gets its name from the follicles growing on the flower. It grows in a wide variety of conditions but thrives in dry areas, making the edge of your rain garden the perfect spot for its pleasing blooms to attract bumblebees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. 

    • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 8
    • Color Varieties: White
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Dry to medium moisture
    • Rain Garden Placement: On the edge
  • 11 of 13

    Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata)

    Blue Vervain Flowers

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    Blue Vervain is another valuable plant because of its flexibility. You can place it along
    the slope or at the bottom in the garden’s base, and it will thrive in both locations.  

    • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 9
    • Color Varieties: Purplish-blue
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Medium to wet
    • Rain Garden Placement: On the slope or in the base
  • 12 of 13

    Ohio Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohioensis)

    Bloom of the ohio spidewort

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    Ohio Spiderwort is a drought-tolerant native with flowers that open only a single day on grass-like leaves that grow two to three feet tall, making it a perfect plant to provide some height and structure to your garden.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 4 to 9
    • Color Varieties: Deep blue
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Dry to medium
    • Rain Garden Placement: On the edge
    Continue to 13 of 13 below.
  • 13 of 13

    Blue Flag Iris (Iris versicolor)

    Bloom of the blue flag iris

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    Another possible showpiece for your garden, the Blue Flag Iris should have all the other plants arranged around it because it can steal the show. The exotic look of the iris plus its height makes this a great addition; the only drawback is the short-lived nature of its flowers. However, even after the flowers have gone, the plant’s root system sticks around and does the functional work of the rain garden.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 3-9
    • Color Varieties: Violet-blue
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Moist, wet, rich
    • Rain Garden Placement: In the base

These 13 herbaceous native plants only scratch the surface of what you can place in and around your rain garden. The list does not include shrubs or trees, which are certainly possible and add a whole new level of interest to a rain garden. To make sure these plants are native to your area or have direct regional natives, do your research and speak with your local extension office.