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Maryland and Virginia Native Garden Building Blocks: Best Perennials

Growing your native garden from the ground up.

Maryland and Virginia native plants

Growing your native garden from the ground up is a breeze with these easy to grow plants. Last week we looked at ground covers. This week, it's perennials. These are the ten best perennials I know of based on a preference for plants that look good for most or all of the growing season, can easily be divided or spread to create more plants, add color or texture, are easy to grow and are widely available.

Full sun: Amsonia, Baptisia, Black-eyed susan, Indian pink, Penstemon, Zizia

Part sun: Amsonia, Black-eyed susan, Heuchera 'Autumn Bride,' Indian pink, Liatris, Penstemon, Zizia

Part shade: Black-eyed susan, Blue cardinal flower, Heuchera 'Autumn Bride,' Indian pink, Turtlehead

Full shade: Blue cardinal flower, Heuchera 'Autumn Bride,' Turtlehead

native plant amsonia

Amsonia, also called bluestar, emerges early and blooms with small blue flowers in May. Mature plants are vase shaped and green. The graceful foliage stays strong all summer. These plants sway beautifully in the breeze, work well in groups or interspersed between other perennials to fill spaces in flower beds. In late fall, amsonia turns a distinctive gold or yellow. The plants turn brown in winter but often remain upright providing winter interest. They also take four to five years to mature to their full width and height, around 4 feet high and wide so one needs to be patient. It's totally worth the wait though. Amsonia thrives in full sun and will grow in part sun as well. The plant above is amsonia hubrichtii, native to Arkansas. The native amsonia in the Chesapeake is amsonia tabernaemontana which has wider leaves but all of the same attributes. You can more about amsonia here.

Maryland native blue false indigo

Baptisia, also called blue false indigo, emerges early and blooms with bright blue flower spikes in late May. Mature plants are vase shaped and the bluish green foliage stays strong all summer. These plants work well in groups or placed between other perennials to fill spaces in flower beds. The plants produce interesting seed pods in fall but have no fall color. Baptisia grow best in full sun. These plants grow by a tap root so are very difficult to move once established. Mature plants are around 4 feet high and wide and are drought tolerant. Some people experience issues with flopping. Chances of flopping can be reduced by planting in full sun and surrounding the baptisia with other plants.

maryland native black-eyed susan

Black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia fulgida)

There is nothing new about this perennial but it's a tried and true native. Foliage emerges early and greens up the ground. Blooms arrive in July, are profuse and a sure thing. Black-eyed susan is easy to divide and spread. It also grows in full sun and partial shade. Think of it as a simple classic! These flowers also attract pollinators galore and if you leave the stems standing, you will have winter interest and feed birds.

virginia native cultivar

Heuchera 'Autumn Bride' (Heuchera villosa 'autumn bride')

Heuchera emerges very early in spring and lasts through late fall, and often into winter. Along the way, the 3 foot high and wide mounding plant provides springy lime green color early in the season which morphs to a slightly darker green in summer. In late summer, wand like white flowers emerge and last into September. When planted en masse, the flowers are stellar swaying in autumn breezes. They are easy to grow in range of light from part sun to shade and moisture conditions. This is a hybrid of the straight species native "Heuchera villosa."

maryland native indian pink

Yellow and red blooms and strong green foliage in sun and filtered shade are the positives of this perennial. Indian pink emerges in summer and blooms in early summer. The red and yellow flowers add bright tones. The foliage grows to 3 feet in height and is a darker green. It lasts through fall. These attract hummingbirds. Please note that although Indian Pink is listed as a Maryland native by the USDA on its map of native ranges, Indian Pink is believed to be originally native to several southeast states.

virginia native liatris

Liatris, known for its purple flower wands in summer, adds structure in summer, fall and winter. It looks good planted alone as a specimen can stand alone or planted in drifts. It grows best in full sun and medium moist soils but can take a range of soils.

maryland native blue cardinal flower

Blue Cardinal flower (Lobelia siphilitica)

There aren't many perennials that provide tall bluish purple flowers in shade in August. Blue cardinal flower does. At Washington DC's National Cathedral Bishops Garden, above, blue cardinal flowers thrive beneath a non-native kousa dogwood. In our garden, they thrive in dappled shade. These flowers are things of beauty. These must have moist soils or, if in drier areas, full shade. When they are in the right spot, they will readily self seed. Plants develop into low rosettes which send up the flower spikes as they mature. In some winters, the rosettes seem semi-evergreen as well.

Penstemon blooms in late spring or early summer and the flowers resemble small snap dragons. Once they are finished blooming, penstemon seed heads remain upright for most of the summer. The penstemon above is 'red husker' a cultivar of the straight species that is commonly available. The foliage is a dusky red color whereas the straight species has green foliage. Penstemon also form low rosettes of foliage at the base of the flower. Those rosettes often remain semi-evergreen through winter. They grow well in full sun or part shade in dry or moist soil.

pink turtlehead in native garden setting

Turtlehead (Chelone lyonii)

Turtlehead is another flower that resembles a snap dragon. It blooms in August in deep shade. The pink or white (Chelone glabra) flowers are long lasting and the foliage is strong. White turtlehead is the host plant for the Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly. Being a host plant means the plant provides the food that Baltimore Checkerspot caterpillars must have to survive.

maryland native golden alexander

Zizia (Zizia Aurea)

Zizia, also called golden alexander, is an effervescent yellow blooming perennial. It sends up lots of flowers in early June. After several weeks of profuse flowering, we get sporadic blooms through the rest of summer. The foliage remains through summer and fall, turning a purply red in fall. Zizia spreads fairly easily, grows in full sun or part shade and takes a range of soils. This plant doesn't necessarily flop but it also does not stand straight. It's a more informal type of plant.

Like many, when I started gardening with native plants, I started with perennials. There are so many fabulous ones to choose from. These ten are great choices whether you are just getting started or wanting to plant perennials that will not require much from you.

I don't know about you but I am really looking forward to this year's perennials!


We want you to be as excited about planting Chesapeake natives as we are. “Plant This or That” gives you a native alternative to popular plants. Other posts highlight really fabulous fauna native to the Chesapeake.

Nuts for Natives, avid gardener, Baltimore City admirer, Chesapeake Bay Watershed restoration enthusiast, and public service fan.

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