Plastic Plants in the Garden

Sourwood, Oxydendrum arboreum

Would you have plastic plants in your garden? Pest free, drought tolerant and ever blooming, what’s not to like? Yet despite these benefits, very few gardeners use them. For most gardeners, only the “real” things will do even though they have to work harder to keep them going. However these same gardeners don’t seem to mind that some of the plants they use might as well be plastic to some of the critters with which we share our space.

Consider crape myrtle for instance – Lagerstroemia indica. This plant and all its relatives are native to areas outside of North America – southeast Asia, India, Australia. The native bugs in the United States look at this plant and keep moving because they are not adapted to eating the foliage of this plant. The more of it that we plant, the less food they have because each and every plant equals at least one less native plant for them. Surround it by a small sea of lawn and the problem is compounded because lawn grasses aren’t food for native bugs either. Add in a common landscape shrub like Indian hawthorn (Rhaphiolepis indica) and some exotic annuals like Catharanthus roseus (annual vinca) and your plastic garden is complete. Beautiful but literally “tasteless” as far as native insects are concerned.

You might ask why I care about what native insects want to eat. We want our gardens to beautiful, don’t we … and leaves riddled with holes are not beautiful! I would say that you might want such leaves – if you like birds. Birds LOVE insects; they love to EAT them. And feed them to their baby chicks. So if you like birds, you should like insects.

You can still have a beautiful garden and support the insects by carefully selecting native plants for your area. Instead of the summer flowering crape myrtle, consider our summer flowering sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) [see above] or choose a spring flowering tree and train a vine up through it. I have seen some beautiful examples lately of trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans) growing up and through small trees and large shrubs. The trumpet creeper vines near me have been flowering for almost 4 weeks straight – some plants are developing seed pods and new flowers simultaneously. The large red flowers are a favorite with hummingbirds. Yellow and orange cultivars are available as well.

Clethra alnifolia ‘Hummingbird’

A shrub replacement for the Indian hawthorn might be Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia). The cultivar ‘Hummingbird’ is both a low growing and a heavy flowering selection. It can also be lightly pruned to encourage a form that is more in keeping with the look of the hawthorn (which is often sheared into forms). The flowers of summersweet are a treat for pollinators and the fragrance is pleasing to most people too.

Bushy St. John’s wort, Hypericum densiflorum

Other summer flowering shrubs for the southeast include oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) and St. John’s wort such as Hypericum densiflorum.

Red sage, Salvia coccinea

Long-flowering annuals are a bit harder to replace. Native annuals tend to reproduce a lot of seed which makes them “weedy” to most people. Tropical annuals generally either don’t set seed here or the seed needs more favorable conditions to germinate. One native annual that I love is our red sage – Salvia coccinea. This plant actually does triple duty in my yard – the insects can feed on the foliage, the hummingbirds love the flowers, and the songbirds love the seeds. Extra seedlings are easily pulled up or potted up to share with friends. If you can’t find any native annuals, at least consider choosing annuals that provide a good pollen and nectar source for pollinators – look for flower clusters made of many tiny flowers or single flowers with obvious pollen-rich centers: gazania, zinnia, heliotrope, yarrow, sunflowers, black-eyed Susan are some to consider. Think like a bee when evaluating choices.

So – if a plastic garden is not your thing, consider giving our native insect friends the benefit of the “real” thing too.

Note: I live and garden in the southeastern U.S. so my examples are relative to that area. Please research what is applicable for your region when making your selections.

[About Ellen Honeycutt: I am a passionate native plant gardener near Atlanta, GA who is learning to appreciate more every day the relationship that plants have with our native fauna. I created a personal blog, Using Georgia Native Plants, to help increase the level of regional native plant information available to average gardeners. I try to emphasize the beauty and versatility of native plants as landscape choices as well as the value to the local ecosystem.]

© 2012, Ellen Honeycutt. All rights reserved. This article is the property of We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. says

    This is a great post. . .comparing non-natives to plastic plants makes an effective argument against them. I receive many garden catalogs each year with plants that have been so hybridized that they do indeed look entirely fake, as if made of plastic. Many of them have had their pollen bred out of them, which I find utterly confounding. Pollenless sunflowers?

    Do you have a source you like for salvia coccinea and trumpet creeper seeds? Do you know if trumpet creeper is difficult to grow from seed?

    Thank you.

    • says

      Hi Ruth – a friend gave me the Salvia coccinea, I don’t know where to buy it. But I would be happy to send you some seeds. I am not familiar with growing the trumpet creeper from seeds. Perhaps someone else can chime in on that.
      Ellen Honeycutt recently posted..Hooray for Helianthus!

      • says


        I would love some Salvia seeds if you have any at the end of the season. (I’ll figure out about the trumpet creeper later.)

        You can send to my business address: Ruth Henriquez/Paloma Textiles; 1125 West Victoria St.; Duluth, MN 55811-1694.

        Thank you for your kind offer, and I promise to “pay it forward” with seed sharing among my pollinator gardening friends. . .R

      • says

        Thank you for the kind offer. . .I am looking on the usda map of wild plants, and it looks like the trumpet creeper vine is not native to my state (MN). . .and I have to admit I have never seen any here. (I do remember them growing up in Maryland, so I know what they look like.) Also, my MN native plant book does not list them. I’m thinking I should not introduce a plant not generally found here.

  2. says

    Ellen, you are SO on with this one! Love that you included Clethra alnifolia in this post–I recently specified that specific cultivar for a pollinator lover next to state park land. Any flower that’s actually made up of bunches of other flowers is always a potential winner–unless it’s “plastic!”
    Becky Young recently posted..Lily of the Valley Tree–Sourwood

  3. says

    Ellen, I love the analogy of non-native plants being like plastic plants to insects. I’m going to be ‘borrowing’ it since I think it perfectly conveys why native pants are so important. The clethra in my gaden (CT) in in full bloom and while the scent is intoxicating, it’s even more exciting to watch the bevvy of pollinators that are swarming around the flowers.

  4. says

    Reminds me of a conversation I had some years ago with some of my plant buds. The topic was “The Perfect Plant” and we devised a list of what the average homeowner expects from a landscape plant. Attributes included – evergreen, colorful flowers all the time, needs no maintenance, drought tolerant, less than 3′ tall… You get the idea. Only a plastic plant could meet all the criteria.

  5. says

    I have been planting my garden now for five years emphasizing native plants. This summer I spotted my first Hummingbird Moth and Eastern Black and Tiger Swallowtails. I witnessed Robins and their young, and a small flock of Cedar Waxwings eating Dogwood berries. They are what makes my garden beautiful and real. What a great analogy comparing non-native plants to plastic!
    thevioletfern recently posted..Going Native: Flowering Raspberry

  6. says

    Ellen, This one really had me laughing because I had a lot of fun with this same idea when I was on the circuit giving talks for the use of natives. I used to take a big clump of white plastic flowers with me. After making the points you have so beautifully itemized here relating to the crucial function of natives in whatever ecosystem you find yourself in, I would take out the plastic flowers. Then, stating the merits of the hardiness of plastic flowers, I would whack them vigorously on top of the podium and ask the audience if they thought these were a good choice for their gardens. Always brought the house down. Great post, as usual; I really appreciate the thoughtful and thorough approach you bring to all your writing.
    sue dingwell recently posted..The Secret Life of Plants

  7. says

    Super post, Ellen

    Funny that you mention plastic plants and crepe myrtle and indian hawthorne. “Before I knew (natives)”, I was given two crepe myrtle saplings which are still in my yard. They don’t grow very fast and 6 years later are barely 3 ft tall. As I walk past them in my quest for insect photos, I’m always shocked that they flower prolifically, yet no insects beyond an occasional honeybee make use of them and then the honeybee seems lost or tired. The same with the indian hawthorne which also was a starting gift. No insects, it might as well be plastic. On a good note, the hawthorne is making a wonderful trellis for my maypop!

    I’ve often remarked at some of our outreach programs that if you are going to put in a crepe myrtle, might as well just buy plastic.

    The Clethra alnifolia looks beautiful, but I guess it doesn’t like the swelter of Central Florida. It’s only listed for northern Florida, so I guess I’ll just have to sit and gaze jealously at your photo.

    Salvia is the “red” in my red, white and blue garden that surrounds my American Flag. I’m always surprised that the hummingbirds will fly that low to take a sip.
    Loret T. Setters recently posted..It Just Never Goes Away

  8. says

    I like the salvia, I like the st. Johns wort in all of it’s variety, but I think those trumpet creepers should all come with a warning label. They may be natives, and pretty, but let them come in contact with the vegetable garden, and you will be plagued with the things!

    There’s a lot of great perennial salvia, we aren’t limited to the coccinea, which is a bit unpredictable in my garden.

    When planting for humming birds, we can all go a bit tropical… I’m thrilled with diclipta erecta, even though it’s a Uruguayan import, and let’s hear it for the 4 0’clock… even if it’s a bit seedy… While planting for the hummingbirds, let’s remember that the morning glories have a lot of attraction, and there’s some great climbing beans…

    I’m wild about tithonia, lantana and clasping heliotrope, for the butterflies… they scoff at the heat and the drought. Also… the native maypop should definitely be in this list, butterfly host plant, beautiful flowers, and deer proof.

    Plastic plants… Interesting concept, hadn’t considered those exotics that way, but had definitely noticed that they did nothing for the landscape.
    stone recently posted..Gardening for Butterflies

    • says

      I think the point of planting natives for butterflies is to provide food for the butterfly larvae, which don’t feed on most non-native plants. (There are some exceptions, as I have seen butterfly larvae on my fennel and parsley plants.) But at any rate, by planting natives, you can support many types of creatures, the hummingbirds and the moth and butterfly larvae, as well as native pollinators. Whereas you are feeding a more limited range of critters with every non-native plant.

      I do have some non-native plants, like sage and hyssop. I do try to keep them to a minimum, plus make sure they are plants the bees like.


  1. […] Would you have plastic plants in your garden? Pest free, drought tolerant and ever blooming, what’s not to like? Yet despite these benefits, very few gardeners use them. For most gardeners, only the “real” things will do even though they have to work harder to keep them going. However these same gardeners don’t seem to mind that some of the plants they use might as well be plastic to some of the critters with which we share our space.  […]

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