The garden Guru

Native Intelligence

Indigenous plants keep a garden healthy — and beautiful

By Cheryl Capaldo Traylor


Native plants are an important part of a healthy ecosystem, but can they also be beautiful additions to our landscapes? “Absolutely,” says Steve Windham, landscape designer and owner of Root & Branch Gardens in Greensboro. “A lot of people are already gardening with natives, they just might not know it.” Many popular landscape plants are North Carolina natives, including purple coneflower, woodland phlox and cardinal flower. They thrive in Southern gardens because they have adapted to our growing conditions over thousands of years.

Windham started his business to focus on landscape designs that included more native plants. He says homeowners often contact him expressly to create more eco-friendly landscapes. “Do you like birds and butterflies?” he asks them. The answer is almost always “yes.” Once they understand the connection, Windham says it’s not a difficult sale. 

Why? Because birds and butterflies, along with bees, bats and moths are pollinators. Noticing their dwindling numbers, gardeners are enthusiastically embracing native plants. Humans need pollinators. Our food supply depends on their work to pollinate the agricultural crops we eat. Habitat loss, climate change and insecticides contribute to their decline. An earlier trend toward exotic ornamentals was also detrimental to pollinators. According to a study in the journal Nature, yards landscaped predominantly with exotic ornamentals had reduced butterfly and moth populations and fewer other insects. Now, more than ever, pollinators need our help.

Having a good proportion of native plants in the garden helps support local biodiversity. About a third of my plants are exotics like hellebores and cyclamen — two of my favorite nonnatives. In my view, exotics that aren’t invasive are fine as long as they don’t displace native species or cause harm to wildlife. And yes, they do exist. Windham, who is also a member of the North Carolina Native Plant Society, agrees, citing camellias as the quintessential exotic evergreen that is useful, beautiful and not invasive. Conversely, some natives are extremely aggressive spreaders.

To complicate matters, a debate continues in the botanical community: whether to use only the straight species of natives or include nativars, plant varieties produced by selective breeding of native plant species. For example, echinacea purpurea “Razzmatazz” is a nativar of purple coneflower bred to transform the single flower of the native into a fancier, pom-pom-shaped bloom. Nativars don’t always offer the same benefits to insects and wildlife as the straight species does. Sometimes pollinators cannot gather the nectar from “improved” plants. In addition, many are sterile and don’t produce seeds, an essential food source for birds.

Gardeners can do their part by creating pollinator-friendly landscapes. Shape and color are also important factors in choosing plants. Bees are attracted to single, open flowers in shades of blue, purple, violet and white. Butterflies are drawn to red, orange, yellow, purple and pink blossoms, mostly of the cluster type. A garden design incorporating these colors creates a polychromatic feast for the eyes and food for pollinators, proving native plants can be both beneficial and beautiful.

Start small by replacing a few exotics with natives, or trade some lawn space to create a new bed. Choose a mixture of natives that flower, set seed and bear fruit throughout the seasons. And don’t forget to include grasses, ferns and vines. “Diversity is critical,” says Windham. “Plant more plants. If you have weeds, you don’t have enough plants.”

Below is a list of native plants that are beautiful, pollinator-friendly, long-blooming and grow reliably well in my garden. The challenge is deciding which native plants to exclude. As Windham says when asked about his favorite natives, “I love them all. There’s too many beautiful plants to choose just one.” And that’s something all gardeners can agree on.

Going Native

Lonicera sempervirens (coral honeysuckle): Orange-tipped scarlet trumpets bloom profusely and attract hummingbirds, with other birds devouring the red fruits come fall. A spectacular, well-behaved honeysuckle.

Asclepias: Both A. tuberosa and A. incarnata are essential to the pollinator garden and required host plants for caterpillars of the monarch and other butterfly species. A. tuberosa (butterfly weed) has a profusion of brilliant orange flowers. A. incarnata (swamp milkweed) bears copious clusters of pink-to-rose blossoms.

Passiflora incarnata (purple passionflower): A vine that resembles a rare tropical species with breathtaking, large, fringed flowers in shades of purple. Blooms are followed by chartreuse egg-shaped fruit.

Lobelia cardinalis (cardinal flower): Brilliant red flowers appear summer through fall and attract hummingbirds. Occurring naturally along streams and wetlands, Lobelia thrives in a moist spot in the garden. L. siphilitica (great blue lobelia) has light to bright blue tubular blooms.

Rudbeckia fulgida (orange coneflower) and R. hirta (black-eyed Susan): These old favorites need no introduction to Southern gardeners. The orange coneflower is reliably perennial. Black-eyed Susan flourishes as an annual.

Monarda didyma (scarlet beebalm): Vibrant red blooms attract throngs of bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. An aromatic herb, it boasts medicinal and culinary uses.

Helianthus angustifolius (swamp sunflower): Stately perennial with a multitude of yellow daisy-like flowers that bloom in late summer and into fall. Butterflies swarm the blossoms and songbirds fight over the seeds later in the season.

Chrysogonum virginianum (green and gold): The bright yellow flowers on this nonaggressive but nicely spreading ground cover light up the woodland garden as nearly evergreen leaves provide a backdrop for woodland plants.

Stokesia laevis (Stokes aster): An underused but superior wildflower. A bounty of lavender-blue blooms emerge above evergreen foliage for most of the summer. Plant near other flowers for vertical support.

Veronicastrum virginicum (Culver’s root ): The perfect vertical accent of this hardy plant can tower to up to 7 feet. Long spikes of white-to-pastel shades of flowers attract butterflies and bees. Dark-green leaves whorl around the stem, adding fine texture.

Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower): Large purple petals surround an orange-gold center in what is one of the South’s most endearing wildflowers. Drought-resistant, heat-loving and long-blooming, here’s a plant that draws bees and butterflies — and birds when in seed.

Clethra alnifolia (sweet pepperbush): Small shrub with white-to-pink spikes in summer. It blooms in shade and is highly fragrant, attracting both wildlife and human admirers.  h

Cheryl Capaldo Traylor is a writer, gardener, reader and hiker. She blogs at Giving Voice to My Astonishment (

For more information: visit North Carolina Native Plant Society, Also, Greensboro’s Guilford Garden Center features native trees, shrubs and perennials.

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