Overlooked native plants with ornamental potential

Often gardeners and landscape architects seem to have a fixation for few, very famous and usually non-native species for public green spaces.
Some of these species are alien and potentially invasive, others may be allergenic. Some require narrow environmental conditions and sometimes tend to give bad results when not cared. Other are simply boring because they have been over-planted in almost every urban green space and possibly not even so ornamental.
So, the question is: if you should make a list of native plant species with some ornamental potential that are underutilized in public green spaces, which one would you propose? Which are their favourable characteristics that made you choose these species?

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I just get exhausted of seeing the same combination of pink knock-out roses and yellow stella d’oro daylilies. Or boxwoods.

I think the midwestern US (Ohio here) has a lot of plant species that would make for great ornamenals, but people have to get comfortable with a more crowded and less manicured look to their gardens, since a lot of the showier flowers are prarie species, or at least ones that will naturally tend to grow in very dense grouping. And I will say, some of these are already ones you can find at commercial garden centers, thankfully

But seriously, all you have to do is look at a website like prarie nursery (that sells native plants) and see the potential https://www.prairienursery.com/plants-seeds/native-plants/native-wildflowers.html?_=1690295124626&distribution_range=412&filterApplied=1&p=3

Monarda, Baptisia, Liatris, Penstemon, Rudbeckia, Echinacea, Transcendentia, etc all have multiple native species with beautiful flowers that do well in the sort of full-sun environment that public landscapes tend to have.

Though, I will say, my city at least seems to be planting plenty of Echinacea purpureum in public beds, so that’s at least a start

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Context: Southern California

I think a landscaping deal-breaker for many natives in my region is that they die back / dry up over the hot summer months. I get the impression that landscaping plants are chosen for being able to grow quickly and stay green so that landscapers always have some work to do.

I’m partial to these three:

A good resource for choosing natives for gardening in my area is Calscape.org

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The main reason I didn’t even get into spring ephemerals. I love me some Trillium and Erythronium, but they just don’t last long enough for commercial beds

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Every region of the globe will have a different list. Most regions of the U.S., I think, have recommended species native to the region which are best for public spaces (there are some great regional books out there–for the U.S. at least). The ideal public green space species are attractive throughout the growing season (at least–preferably year round) and require minimum maintenance–hence the boxwoods that someone mentioned. Unfortunately, most native species in many regions don’t check both of these boxes.

Many perennials require knowledge of when to cut them back, when to divide them, when to replace them, etc…and these often differ for each species. Public space landscapers won’t have this knowledge.

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We like how these natives (to us) look:

Penstemon grandiflorus: lane pink flowers
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/153351-Penstemon-grandiflorus

Blazing stars (genus Liatris): like fireworks
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/48690-Liatris

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium): unique shape
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/128695-Eryngium-yuccifolium

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I presume there are evergreen native shrubs and small trees that do not dry in summer.

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We have similar tastes in native plants. I plant multiple types of Penstemon (including P. palmeri), as well as Blanket Flower, Rudbeckia, and Columbine. I also don’t limit the Aquilegia to blue, I put in as many colors as I can manage.

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The unfortunate bit with Columbine in the east is our native eastern species, Aguilegia canadensis, is definitely a spring ephemeral and dies back after flowering. So phenomenal for like, rain garden that has a mix of ephemerals and other perennials, but less good for more persistent landscaping beds

Yeah, much as I love A. canadensis (I’m a transplanted Southeasterner, after all), it’s not the most abiding of flowers. The native species out here don’t die back until they get hit with a frost, and they respond to deadheading amazingly well.

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Seriously I’m jealous of the more persistant native Columbines out west

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Context: Midwest USA

Silphiums are my absolute favs. Nothing says summer like 4-12 foot tall stalks with bright yellow flowers. Compass plants (Silphium laciniatum) in particular are great garden plants. They don’t need tons of horizontal room, just vertical room and sun. Most people shy away when I tell them it takes three years to get to flowering maturity or think, oh I don’t have room for such a big plant. But they’re not really big. Just tall.

Silphium Perfoliatum (cup plant) on the other hand, does need space and I get it if they don’t have a big yard for it, but it’s worth the space for a minimum-effort plant with a maximum level show of yellow flowers (plus bumblebees love them). [Note: this plant can be invasive out of its native range, so not a good idea if you’re not in the Midwest/east plains/Mississippi Delta area]

Another fav overlooked plant is Philadelphia Fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus). It looks a lot like English daisies (Bellis perennis), but it’s native. I actually know a lawn guy who grows it, but not too many others are aware of it as a possibility. It stays compact and isn’t any more of a weed than “regular” English and oxeye daisies. Bonus: rabbits don’t annihilate it like they do the English daisies.

I also love rattlesnake master and anise hyssop, but I’ve seen both at the local greenhouse, so not as much overlooked.

Lots of people plant spring ephemeral species like tulips, daffodils, snowdrops, etc so I don’t see why they can’t enjoy Virginia Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica), wild hyacinths (Camassia scilloides), and native Pasque flowers (Anemone patens) all of which would do the same and are just as pretty.

P.S. I also think euphorbia maculata (spotted spurge) is quite pretty, but good luck selling that one as a garden plant.

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I mean, personally, I’m trying to cultivate a bunch of native ephemerals in my shade garden - I’ve got Claytonia virginica, Aguilegia canadensis, Mertensia virginica, Arisaema triphyllum, and a few Trillium and Dicentra species… but I think the reason bulb ephemerals like Tulips are so popular is because they’re easy to transplant and generally tolerant of full sun. I’m basically waiting with my fingers crossed hoping that they’ll survive the first year and come back in the spring

I should definitely plant some Erigeron next year though

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Indeed. Twice now have I witnessed the cycle of a piece of lawn being removed to install a native plant garden only to have a clueless grounds maintenance crew spray it all with herbicide and mulch it to death and/or sow grass seed over it again.

For NC, the native plant society has a list of recommended species. Around here, a lot of gardeners are also concerned with deer eating their plants. Besides ornamental potential, that’s probably the #1 question at our local plant sales. Up in the mountains another question we get asked is for plants that help with erosion control on slopes.

I’ve planted a lot of natives around my yard and some are doing better than others. Some of my favorite natives that seem to be doing well in a home garden setting (3,000 ft elevation) that are maybe overlooked sometimes:

  • Flowering trees: Hamamelis virginiana - blooms Oct.-Nov. accompanied by some great fall color
  • Conifers: Juniperus virginiana - not sure why but I had a really hard time finding any for sale when I was looking to add some evergreens to my yard
  • Shrubs: Ceanothus americanus - great pollinator plant and stays small so ideal for garden use
  • Ferns: Polystichum acrostichoides - leaves stay green through the winter
  • Grasses: Deschampsia flexuosa - I know it’s been renamed but the nurseries still call it by its old name
  • Sedges: Carex pensylvanica - again, something that is getting renamed but the nurseries still have it under this name
  • Ground covers: Antennaria plantaginifolia - I’m happy to have added this to my yard, it’s doing exactly what I wanted by spreading and covering bare ground in the shade so I don’t have to weed and/or mulch
  • Spring flowers: Phacelia bipinnatifida - biennial that reseeds itself reliably and a bumble bee favorite
  • Summer flowers: Eupatorium perfoliatum - easy to grow from seed, attracts lots of beneficial insects (not just the usual pollinators)
  • Fall flowers: Vernonia noveboracensis - tip: cut it back in June to reduce height and encourage fuller growth for even more purple blooms

Hard to limit myself to listing just one per category. There are so many neat natives that do well if you give them a try! Some showy plants will come in on their own and I encourage them once they show up. My favorite of those may be Packera aurea.

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My philosophy for spring ephemerals is to plant something nearby that grows like mad in midsummer. Currently, my Dutchman’s Breeches and trilliums are completely covered by three billowing plants of Pycnanthemum muticum. Not that I actually planned it that way, mind you - I don’t think that hard - but it works. I also plant lots and lots of plants so if something dies or the deer nibble something, it’s hardly visible. Is the garden tidy and resembling the standard heavily mulched landscaping bed? No. It resembles a riotous moist meadow more than anything. I’m in New England, for reference.

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It would be very interesting (at least for me) to know which traits makes these species preferred above others.
For example, here for central Italy I would be happy to see in urban green spaces Arbutus unedo (strawberry tree) which is similar to the American A. menziesii and is remarkable for its winter flowering which is contemporary with fruits ripening and extremely useful for pollinators.
For similar reasons another favorite is Viburnum tinus.

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Ironically, Arbutus unedo is quite popular as a street tree here in California, while the native A. menziesii is rarely planted in urban areas. I’m pretty sure this is because A. menziesii can grow to 30 m when mature and is well-known for its propensity to spread. In contrast, A. unedo grows to about 7 m tall and appears to be easier to prune into a single, upright trunk with a small canopy above. City planners and property owners like street trees that shade the sidewalk but don’t obstruct the road or overhang buildings.

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This might be out of context here, but in my hometown (I live in Poland) authorities are trying to plant as many native plants as they can, so we have many flowering meadows in place of grass lawn, and it looks like that:

I don’t know if there are more projects like that outside of my country, but it’s very beneficial for so many pollinating animals.

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I live in the Midlands of SC. These are the ones I love the most in my yard:

  • American Holly - flowers for pollinators in Spring, berries for birds in fall, winter
  • Itea Virginica - long white raceme blooms for pollinators in Spring, colorful leaves in fall, host plant for moths
  • Sweetbay Magnolia - blooms attract tumbling flower beetles & bees, host plant for Eastern Swallowtail butterfly, seeds attract birds in fall - Red-eyed Vireos in my yard
  • Black Cherry - blooms attract pollinators, berries attact birds, also supports moth
  • Virburnum obovatum - host plant for Hymeris Thysbe hummingbird moth and other clearwing moth in my yard
  • American Beautyberry - blooms for small bees, berries attract great birds in fall
  • Lance-leaved Coreopsis - attracts lots of bees
  • Small’s Ragwort - just learning to harness this one… attracts tons of pollinators; takes a little effort to move them in the fall to where you want them in the Spring
  • Tall goldenrod - the best variety of insects of any plant but difficult to control; need to define your area for it and pull all the volunteers around it

This is a favorite topic so I could go on and on.

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Living in Alabama, Rosepink (Sabatia angularis) and Grey Headed coneflower are a stunning duo that don’t get used often. Another one seen in southern Alabama growing wild is compass plant (silphium laciniatum) and various Liatris species. Very beautiful when paired. I never see these at nurseries.