Season Your Yard with Native Herbs

In addition to being attractive, these plants help lure birds, butterflies and other wildlife to your garden

02-01-2001 // Melanie Radzicki McManus
Photo of red bee balm flower with butterfly pollinating

FOR YEARS, I admired a neighbor's expansive perennial flower garden. From spring to fall, something colorful was always blooming, and her yard continually attracted birds, butterflies and bees. When I finally got up the nerve to ask her for gardening advice, I was surprised to learn her flowering flora included certain types of plants that could be considered native herbs.

Most people think of plants such as dill, parsley or basil when they hear the term "herb." But in fact, there are hundreds of plants native to North America that have the qualities of herbs; they are used by people for medicinal purposes, or to flavor or scent foods. Many of these natives also provide fruit, nectar and larval food for wildlife.

"Winter is a good time to begin planning which plants to grow in your yard when spring arrives," says NWF Chief Naturalist Craig Tufts. "Native herbs are good choices because they're not only attractive, they also help lure wildlife to backyards. Such plants attract and support pollinators and help restore our ecosystems to a more diverse, healthy balance." A bonus, he adds, is that some native herbs can also be used as seasoning or made into tea.

With so many plants to choose from, which native herbs should you grow in your yard? That's not an easy question to answer, given all of the country's different climatic conditions. But some herbs do flourish from coast to coast.

Consider milkweeds, for instance. These easy-to-grow plants, found throughout the United States, are the sole source of food for the larvae of the monarch butterfly, which deposits its eggs on the leaves. Milkweeds also produce large clusters of flowers.

Joe-pye weed, another plant butterflies and bees love, makes an elegant backdrop for your garden. Growing from about 2 to 8 feet tall, the plant is named after Joe Pye, a Native American medicine man who hawked the herb in the late 1700s as a cure for ailments.

Purple coneflowers of the genus Echinacea are widely used today by people seeking relief from the common cold. Coneflowers typically have beautiful flowers filled with sweet nectar that butterflies and bees cannot resist. Birds—especially goldfinches--love the taste of the plants' seeds.

Another group of plants called bee balms (above), or monardas, are particularly effective as hummingbird and butterfly magnets. Twelve species of these herbs are native to this country, primarily east of the Rocky Mountains. Since bee balms are members of the mint family, you can make mint tea by steeping their leaves. "After the Boston Tea Party, Americans used the bee balm horsemint as an English tea substitute," says Jim Becker, co-owner of Goodwin Creek Gardens, an Oregon nursery.

Many of the plants mentioned above grow best in the eastern half and northern reaches of the country. But some native herbs thrive in arid parts of the West, such as Mexican bush sage, pineapple sage and Cleveland sage. All of these sages are salvias in the mint family; Mexican bush sage attracts butterflies; hummingbirds flock to pineapple and Cleveland sages. The leaves of pineapple sage can be used in cooking.

Most states have native plant societies that can steer you toward nurseries in your area or mail-order catalogs that offer these and other native herbs. However, warns Becker, make sure that the nursery you buy from propagates its own plants, rather than digging them up from the wild. If you prefer to grow from seed, keep in mind that many native plants have long growing seasons and many of them will not flower from seed during the first year in the ground—unless you give them a head start during winter or early spring by germinating them inside. Then, in late summer or early fall, you can collect seeds from the herbs in your yard for next year's garden.

While many nonnative herbs also attract wildlife, Scott Craven, an extension wildlife specialist with the University of Wisconsin, urges people to plant native herbs whenever possible. "Plant and wildlife communities have evolved together," he says, "and wildlife is accustomed to using native species as food and shelter sources."

Wisconsin writer Melanie Radzicki McManus has already drawn up plans for a native-herb garden this year.

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