Gardeners Pick Their “Gold Medal” Favorites
Want to add beauty and wildlife value to your yard? Consider these native plant champions.
Edited by Kelly Senser
Updated February 10, 2014—As the Winter Olympic Games get underway, athletes from around the world are making headlines. It’s exciting to read about their successes, but the news has editors at National Wildlife thinking about champions of a different sort—wildlife-friendly native plants. To identify North American species worthy of “gold medals,” we turned to gardeners across the country for their recommendations. Following are the descriptions and images they shared.
“One of my favorite native plants for wildlife is the firebush (Hamelia patens). The first hummingbird I ever saw in our yard was feeding on a firebush right after a hurricane. Their beautiful scarlet red flowers are also favorites of butterflies, bees and other insects; their berries are loved by birds such as cardinals and tanagers (above); and their branches are favorite hangouts for chameleons, frogs and snakes!”—Betsy Franz of Brevard County, Florida
“This large shrub wins multiple gold medals from me for its usefulness to many species of wildlife, its adaptability to most types of soil and for the great windbreak it provides to control erosion. Various species of birds call silver buffaloberry their home, eating, breeding and nesting all in the same thorny space! Deer do love to browse the silvery green leaves, but it keeps the deer from eating your veggies!”—Kathy Green of Monument, Colorado
“The purple flowers of aromatic aster (Aster oblongifolius) provide color in the late summer and fall and attract swarms of pollinators. The plant’s short, shrublike appearance makes it a good candidate for more formal landscaping applications. The silvery checkerspot butterfly, pearl crescent butterfly, and asteroid moth utilize this plant as a host. Tolerance to poor soil conditions has allowed me to add it to my own suburban residential lot. This aster is naturally found in the eastern and north-central United States.”—Perry Eckhardt of St. Charles, Missouri
Orange Bush Monkeyflower
(aka Mimulus aurantiacus
“Perfectly suited to the canyons of the Santa Monica Mountains, orange bush monkeyflower is a pretty, drought-tolerant native that always makes me smile when I run across it. A shy, unassuming plant with yellow-orange blossoms, it is a magnet for hummingbirds. In Southern California, monkeyflower's most common visitors are Anna’s hummingbirds and Allen’s hummingbirds. Also, it is a forage source for common checkerspot and buckeye butterflies. Monkeyflowers do well planted alongside buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum), which brings in bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects to the yard or hillside. Monkeyflowers occur naturally on rocky cliffs, hillsides and borders of chaparral.”—Kathy Vilim of Topanga Canyon, California
(aka Garberia heterophylla
“It’s hard to compete with the thousands of blooms on the native Garberia fruticosa (garberia) and the hundreds of pollinators that visit for nectar in fall and winter.”—Cathy Brown of Clermont, Florida
“In every landscape I design and with the volunteer consultations that I do there is one plant that I always suggest: Asclepias (milkweed). I try to use native varieties, and A. incarnata (swamp), A. speciosa (showy) and A. verticillata (whorled) milkweeds are my gold medal winners—the wildlife garden equivalents to Shaun White. I like them not just for their importance in habitats—they are host plants for the monarch butterfly—but because of their educational value for children. My kids love to go out into our flower garden and check to see if there are any new monarch eggs, larvae or chrysalides, and they love watching the butterflies fly in to feed on the nectar.”—Mat Paulson of Moorhead, Minnesota
“Every pollinating insect in the neighborhood goes crazy over the wonderfully fragrant flowers of summersweet (Clethra altinifolia). This native flowering shrub blooms in late July or early August when very few other shrubs bloom, and it thrives in our moist, acidic soil. This pink-flowering cultivar is called Ruby Spice, but the species variety has white flowers. The seeds persist right through winter, providing valuable forage for some of the birds that spend the winter here.”—Ellen Sousa of Spencer, Massachusetts
“Firecrackers always draw attention to themselves, and the firecracker penstemon is no exception! This native flowering perennial attracts multiple types of pollinators, including bees, butterflies, hawk moths and my favorite pollinator of all, the hummingbird. As an extra bonus, it runs very lean and mean, requiring little water, well-drained soil, and no extra fertilizers. Pests are few, and the flowers are brilliant red. All of these attributes make this penstemon a true all-around gold medal winner.”—Kathy Green of Monument, Colorado
“We have large blooms in late spring of the showy firewheel or Indian blanket wildflower (Gaillardia pulchella). They do well here in Central Texas because they tolerate the heat and dryness. A major attraction for the butterflies and other insects, they look almost like Fourth of July pinwheels.”—Howard Cheek of Kempner, Texas
“While frost may kill the tender foliage of other plants, the Conradina grandiflora (large-flowered rosemary) is not affected by freezing temperatures and, in fact, remains filled with blooms.”—Cathy Brown of Clermont, Florida
“Oregon grape is an evergreen native shrub with dark green, hollylike foliage, turning various shades of bronze in the fall. It hosts bright yellow flowers in spring and blue berries in autumn. It is highly adaptable to light and soil conditions, tolerating sun or shade and dry to moderate moisture. Several varieties of varying heights and growth habits make it suitable as an understory planting in woodlands or in hedgerows for more open areas. Mahonia aquifolium (tall Oregon grape or hollyleaved barberry) is a medium-size (5-10’) upright shrub, reaching taller heights in shade; Mahonia nervosa (low Oregon grape or Cascade barberry) is a sub-shrub (up to 2'), needing no pruning; Mahonia repens (creeping Oregon grape, above) is a prostrate, groundcover with matte blue-green leaves that turn reddish purple in fall/winter. These plants provide food (nectar, berries) and shelter for wildlife. Their pest-resistant and drought-tolerant characteristics make it a sustainable choice.”—Jean Bach of Camano Island, Washington
“Bee balm (Monarda didyma) is a hummingbird magnet in our garden. We have a large patch of it growing alongside our farm pond, and we often see hummingbirds engaged in aerial dogfights, all trying to claim the patch as their own personal feeding ground. Bee balm is also attractive to long-tongued pollinating bees.”—Ellen Sousa of Spencer, Massachusetts
Prairie Blazing Star
“Liatris pycnostachya, known as the prairie blazing star, is my favorite perennial plant that belongs to the aster family. Once abundant in native prairie landscapes, populations have become fragmented due to agriculture and urbanization. The blazing star is good for wildlife food and habitat. We’ve left our six acres of Central Texas Hill Country in their natural state, so they appear in good numbers here every summer.”—Howard Cheek of Kempner, Texas
“Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) shows off orange blossoms from late spring throughout the entire summer. The beautiful flowers provide nectar to all types of insect pollinators and more importantly the entire plant is a host for monarch butterflies. This sun-loving plant tolerates a wide range of soil conditions (even the poor ones we find in a typical urban/suburban residential lot). Its native range is the southern and eastern United States. I’ve got it scattered throughout several of my prairie gardens.”—Perry Eckhardt of St. Charles, Missouri
"Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) thrives in an area with good drainage, so we have planted it on sunny slopes on our farm. I try to have something in bloom right through the season to provide a constant source of nectar and pollen for pollinators, and butterfly milkweed flowers peak in early July at a time when very few other perennials bloom. Here is Speck, our farm tour supervisor, showing off the butterfly milkweed in full bloom. Another of Speck’s jobs is running out of town the voles who like to eat the plant’s tuberous roots in winter!”—Ellen Sousa of Spencer, Massachusetts
“Purple coneflower (Echinachea purpurea) is a great nectar plant in any butterfly garden and is used by many other insects as well. I think it's like candy to them. Purple coneflower is also a favorite of American goldfinches and sparrows, who love the seeds. Plant big clumps for the best effect.”—Carole Brown of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
“One of my favorite native beauties, which is also a hit with the birds, is the American beautyberry. This large shrub makes a wonderful understory plant, perfect for shady areas in your yard or along riparian areas in need of restoration. This beautyberry takes care of itself in the maintenance department, requiring little effort on the part of the caretaker. The open branching structure, brilliant green leaves, and fuchsia-colored berries of this plant make it a lovely addition to any habitat garden. The birds will thank you by devouring the tasty berries, and the butterflies will come calling to taste the sweet nectar of the dainty whitish pink flowers.”—Alice Nance of Austin, Texas
“Callicarpa americana not only adds beauty and grace to the garden, it also provides wildlife cover and food. Its inconspicuous flowers attract bees in the spring, and birds (black-throated blue warbler, above) flock to the clusters of berries in the late summer and fall. With the branches barely able to support the weight of their own fruit, they wait for the birds to feast and relieve their burden. This deciduous shrub with medium green foliage is ideal for a sunny or part shady spot in the garden.”—Helen Yoest of Raleigh, North Carolina
“Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) is one of my all-time favorite trees. The gorgeous, early spring flowers, stunning fall color, and tolerance to a wide variety of soil and light conditions make it an amazing addition to the home landscape. More importantly its berries are delicious, so yummy in fact, that I rarely get any because the birds beat me to them! This small tree may attain a height of just over twenty feet although it can get much taller in the wilds of eastern North America.”—Perry Eckhardt of St. Charles, Missouri
To learn more about the plants mentioned, including whether they are native to your part of the country, visit the USDA Plants Database or the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
About the Contributors
Julia Adamson is a Canadian photographer based in the Saskatoon area of Saskatchewan.
Jean Bach has been a member of the Camano Wildlife Habitat Project’s steering committee since 2002. Although the group achieved their initial goal of helping Camano Island become the nation’s tenth Community Wildlife Habitat in 2005, Jean has continued to advance the project in many ways, including working with a local nursery to expand its native plant selection. The Camano Wildlife Habitat Project strives “to create an island in harmony with nature—one yard at a time.”
Carole Brown is a conservation biologist who has spent nearly 20 years designing, installing and maintaining gardens for people who want to share their space with birds, butterflies and other wildlife. She is the author of Ecosystem Gardening. Follow her on Twitter: @CB4wildlife
Cathy Brown and her husband Bruce own B.B. Brown’s Gardens, a native plant nursery. They are also the founders of the nonprofit Florida Scrub-Jay Trail and longtime NWF Habitat Steward Hosts.
Howard Cheek is a photographer whose images have appeared in numerous publications, including National Wildlife. Visit the Howard Cheek Photography website.
Perry Eckhardt has recently been employed as the Missouri Department of Conservation’s urban forester for the St. Louis area. He has spent the last several years promoting native plants for urban conservation purposes, such as stormwater control. Visit Perry’s photostream on Flickr.
Betsy Franz is a freelance writer, photographer and self-proclaimed nature nerd. She recently finished a new book titled How to Take Care of Your Share of the Planet. Visit her website.
Kathy Green is a garden designer, garden coach and master gardener who loves helping people learn about plants, nature and the environment. Her yard is a Certified Wildlife Habitat. Visit her Gardening for Nature blog.
Louise Hunt is a retired college professor. Since leaving academia in 1998, she has become an avid birder and amateur photographer. Many of her images of native plants are displayed at the Florida Scrub-Jay Trail, where she has volunteered since 2003.
Cliff Hutson resides on the “Left Coast.” View more of his photographic work.
Alice Nance is the conservation program coordinator for Wildlife Austin and contributed to the city’s efforts to become a Community Wildlife Habitat.
Mat Paulson is volunteer Habitat Ambassador and the owner of 3 Little Birds Landscaping. Read about his family’s Birds for Brains project, designed to bring “kids closer to seniors and everyone closer to nature.”
Ellen Sousa is a garden coach, speaker, writer and educator, specializing in natural habitat landscaping. Her Turkey Hill Brook Farm is a Certified Wildlife Habitat and Monarch Waystation. Read Sousa's New England ‘Habitat Gardening’ Blog.
Kathy Vilim is the author of the Native Gardener blog. Follow her on Twitter: @nativegardener
Helen Yoest is a garden coach, writer, speaker and designer. Her home garden, dubbed Helen’s Haven, is a Certified Wildlife Habitat. Visit her Gardening with Confidence website; follow her on Twitter: @HelenYoest.