In celebration of Independence Day, I present the all-American perennial winners for wildlife*. It is amazing how many wonderful and beautiful native perennials we have. Just ask people in other countries – they love our plants and new cultivars are being bred overseas all the time. Our plants are so great, I often wonder why people feel the need to use non-natives!
* eastern part of the US
Enough about beauty – that is not the only point of this post. These plants are not just beautiful, they are beneficial. That’s right, while you’re oohing and aahing over their pretty petals, the wildlife around you is eying your plants and their leaves like a hungry man at a buffet. And we’ve got the data to prove it!
These all-American winners are taken from Doug Tallamy’s list of top 20 mid-Atlantic herbaceous perennials based on the number of Lepidoptera that use them for host plants. So these plants support wildlife by feeding the insect babies some of which then become food for birds and their babies. Of course we also know that they provide nectar and seeds for wildlife as well, but they are specifically on the list because they support wildlife as insect host plants – something that the vast majority of non-native plants cannot do in America.
So here they are, in order of most species supported (as noted by the number in parentheses):
Solidago (115) – This is the genus of goldenrod, that bright yellow fall flower that suffers from a sorry misconception that it causes allergy problems. That is not true for the simple reason that its pollen is too heavy to be wind-borne. Another misconception with Solidago is that it is a runaway mess of a plant. Also not true when one considers some of the many species that are considered “clumping” forms.
Aster (Symphyotrichum) (112) – The North American members of this group are now in the genus Symphyotrichum, but this was published by Tallamy as Aster. These are most familiar to people as fall-blooming standouts and a significant nectar source on wild roadsides.
Helianthus (73) – Another fall-blooming treasure, Helianthus is best known as the sunflower genus. Beyond the annual flower so familiar to most, Helianthus has mostly perennial forms that are noted by their bright yellow flowers and sandpaper-y leaves.
Eupatorium (42) – Some of the familiar names in this genus are Joe Pye weed and boneset. They bloom in summer and fall, many of them with tall and statuesque flowers that attract butterflies.
Ipomoea (39) – Several members of this genus are the roadside morning glory flowers that come in shades of white, pink, blue and purple. I’ve always wondered why their leaves have holes in them; now I know why.
Carex (36) – Sedges are often regarded as grasses by the casual observer, but they have their own family: Cyperaceae. This hard working genus provides some excellent landscape plants while supporting a significant number of species.
Lonicera (36) – There are a number of native species of honeysuckle in the US, but I think that in the eastern US the coral honeysuckle (L. sempervirens) probably gets the most attention thanks to its showy red flowers and support for hummingbirds.
Lupinus (33) – This is the one genus that I don’t know. Much more common in the western US, only two species grow in Georgia and they are in the Coastal Plain.
Viola (29) – Yes, the lowly little violet is a relative powerhouse of nutrition to our butterflies and moths. With many species found throughout the eastern US and in a variety of habitats, there’s something for everyone.
Geranium (23) – The lovely spotted Geranium maculatum is the most garden worthy one in the southeast, but you can find Geranium robertianum ssp. robertianum in the northeast.
Rudbeckia (17) – Humans have always loved black-eyed Susans and their relatives and now it’s official that insects do too! Well, Rudbeckia was always good for pollinators, but now you have two reasons to love it.
Iris (17) – Who knew that Iris was host to 17 different species? I’ve never seen any damage but that’s just how thoughtful those insects are … they only take a few bites. I certainly don’t mind sharing.
Oenothera (16) – Sundrops and primroses are such pretty names for this genus. Native throughout the US in a big way, the east does not lack its share of species. Plant the aggressive ones if you have space, otherwise seek out the more behaved members of this genus.
Asclepias (12) – Ah ha! Asclepias is the poster child for host plant relationships thanks to our beautiful friend the Monarch butterfly. Expand your senses by seeking out more regionally native members of this genus. Each one is uniquely beautiful. I added poke milkweed (Asclepias exaltata) to my garden this year.
Verbena (11) – Tall Verbena (like Verbena hastata var. hastata) and trailing Verbena (now Glandularia canadensis and others) are probably both represented here. ‘Homestead Purple’ has been a popular cultivar of the trailing Verbena.
Penstemon (8) – Loved by gardeners for years, beardtongue flowers are also a favorite with bees. Now you have a third reason to add them with abandon.
Phlox (8) – Another all American flower that is appreciated outside our borders. There are many worthy species outside the tried and true garden favorite, Phlox paniculata. Get exploring and bring new ones home. I’ve heard that Phlox pilosa is practically perfect in addition to being pink!
Monarda (7) – Another American standout, but is it really any surprise? Our native plants can be strikingly beautiful and uniquely ours. Bring home a sense of place by using what already loves to live here. I recently acquired Monarda punctata and am smitten with its outrageous blooms.
Veronica (6) – A modest blue bloomer in the figwort family (Scrophulariaceae) just like Penstemon. I recently discovered the Buckeye butterfly in my area and Veronica is one of the hosts for it.
Schizachyrium (6) – Now here’s a grass we can all love especially thanks to some propagation work. This beautiful grass is known as little bluestem. It’s not “little” unless you get some of the smaller cultivars but they all have beautiful foliage.
Lobelia (4) – One of the few plants I know that comes naturally in all 3 patriotic colors: red (Lobelia cardinalis), blue (Lobelia siphilitica and L. puberula), and white (Lobelia inflata and L. spicata). It truly is a great summer perennial.
So celebrate your patriotism by adding some of these all-American flowers to your garden this year!
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