The southeastern region of the US is blessed with some exceptional growing conditions, and the native plants that have always made it their home are rich in diversity. With a region that encompasses mountain tops and coastal plains, a variety of plants exists to satisfy every condition you could have in a garden.
Yet we know that we can’t always just plunk these plants into the average garden – anyone that has ever tried to transplant a pink ladyslipper (Cypripedium acaule) has learned that. In the case of the pink ladyslipper, special mycorrhizal fungi relationships, careful treatment of the sensitive roots AND the right growing conditions are keys to that plant’s survival.
There are native plants that do adapt very well to our gardens, many of which have been used for years: coneflower, black-eyed Susan, tickseed and beardtongue to name a few. Here is a list of sun perennials that you can use when researching what to add.
When looking to purchase native plants, I encourage you to think locally: use plants that are generally indigenous to the same region as the garden and purchase plants that are grown from indigenous seed/cuttings and raised in the region itself. If you’re not sure how to find plants that are native to your area, the post linked here might be of use.
Perennial plants are those that come back each year. Trees and shrubs are “woody” perennials. Generally the term “perennials” indicates herbaceous plants. Herbaceous plants die back to the soil line each year, leaving no woody remnants, and sprout all new growth come spring.
These are perennials for sunny areas that receive 5 or more hours of direct sun or receive several hours of afternoon sun (which is very harsh):
Asclepias – Milkweed is the host plant of the Monarch butterfly. Several species are native throughout the southeast and thrive in both dry (A. tuberosa, shown above) and wet conditions (A. incarnata).
Agastache – Hyssop is popular both with pollinators (nectar rich flowers) and songbirds (small seeds). I find it to have a very long bloom time which is a nice bonus.
Amsonia tabernaemontana – Eastern bluestar is popular with hummingbirds and sphinx moths. The pale blue flowers pair very well with other plants.
Aquilegia canadensis – Red columbine is a favorite perennial and easily shared among friends for generations. Hummingbirds love it too.
Baptisia – Wild indigo species come in a range of colors. Individual plants are robust and handsome additions to the sunny garden.
Chrysogonum virginianum – Tiny little Green and Gold offers a profusion of flowers in spring (shown below) and occasional flowers throughout the growing season. In Atlanta, it is a nice evergreen.
Coreopsis – Tickseed comes in a range of colors and sizes to suit all growing conditions. The dwarf C. auriculata is almost a groundcover in my garden and retains most of its leaves in winter.
Echinacea – Coneflower, especially E. purpurea, is certainly one of the gardening success stories for native plants. A variety of cultivars have been bred as well as a wide range of colors.
Helianthus – Sunflowers come in a wide number of species, most of them perennial. Swamp sunflower (H. angustifolius) is a stunning late summer bloomer that likes wet feet (but is ok not being wet).
Hibiscus – There are some gorgeous native members of this genus, including the spectacularly showy scarlet rosemallow (H. coccineus, shown above).
Hypericum – St. John’s worts are tough, drought tolerant sub-shrubs. Several showy ones are available in nurseries (like H. frondosum ‘Sunburst’ pictured above) but ordinary ol’ H. densiflorum has been a real superstar for me.
Iris – Some great native irises await you, especially if you have a wet area. Copper iris (Iris fulva, shown above) is a stunning one, but try the dwarf irises too (I. verna for sun, I. cristata for shade). If they spread too much, pot some up for friends!
Liatris – Blazing star is well known as a prairie wildflower, but plenty of them grow elsewhere. I’ve grown L. pilosa for years (shown above), but this year I picked up a new one to try at my local native plant sale - Liatris aspera.
Lilium – Native lilies are remarkably showy with bright yellows, oranges and reds being the predominant colors. Full sun and good moisture will give you a fabulous display.
Lobelia – Red cardinal flower (L. cardinalis) and the great blue lobelia (L. siphilitica, above) are widely distributed members of this genus. No summer garden is complete without the hummer-attracting red one.
Monarda – Beebalm is a long standing favorite, especially M. didyma, the scarlet beebalm. Paler cousins are just as attractive, but be warned – this is a spreader when it’s happy.
Penstemon – Beardtongue has enjoyed some cultivation. P. digitalis ‘Husker Red’ has beautiful purple foliage and white flowers. I am partial to the purple-flowered P. smallii (shown above) which has adopted my yard as a new distribution center (but I love to share it with friends). This year I’m trying Penstemon ‘Red Riding Hood’.
Phlox – There are so many native Phlox that it is hard to decide which to mention. From low growing (P. subulata) to spring blooming (P. pilosa, above) to fall blooming (P. paniculata), this genus has something for everyone.
Rudbeckia – Black-eyed Susans are part of this wide ranging genus. Every species is beautiful, dependable and loves the sunshine.
Salvia – Sages are more of a southwestern plant, but they do very well in our southeastern gardens. Blood sage (Salvia coccinea) is a reseeding annual that needs more usage. The hummingbirds love it.
Solidago – If I had a dollar for every time I explained that this plant does not cause allergies, I’d be rich. Not all species will run all over your garden either. Look for clumpers like grey goldenrod (S. nemoralis), showy goldenrod (S. erecta) and others. You and the insects will be happy come fall. Remember, this genus supports more Lepidoptera than any other herbaceous perennial in our area.
Stokesia – Stoke’s aster is a guaranteed fabulous plant, a showy flower, loved by pollinators and pretty well behaved. If it spreads, do your friends a favor and dig one up for them.
Symphyotrichum – Asters are the workhorses of the fall garden, especially when paired with goldenrods. Get yourself some, enough said!
Tradescantia – Spiderwort can be a thug, but you need to look for the better behaved species. Or rather, just remember that smooth spiderwort (T. ohiensis) is NOT the one you want and feel confident getting any other one. Don’t let that smooth-talking plant into rich soil or you’ll be sharing it with strangers. The other ones are truly a delight.
Verbena – Verbena canadensis ‘Homestead Purple’ is another nursery success story. This plant has been thoroughly embraced by mainstream gardeners and it does a fabulous job.
Separately I have posted a list of the tried and true perennials for the southeastern shade garden. Although keep in mind that if the shade garden gets 4-5 hours of morning sun, many of these “sun” perennials will do fine there too. I hope that these ideas will help you find some new ways to incorporate native plants into your garden.
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