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Ask the Experts: 11 Favorite Native Plant Combinations

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Ask the Experts: 11 Favorite Native Plant Combinations

April 4, 2024

This is part of a series with Perfect Earth Project, a nonprofit dedicated to toxic-free, nature-based gardening, on how you can be more sustainable in your landscapes at home.  

In our post last week, we heard from a group of horticulturists and garden designers on where they go to source native plants and seeds. Now we’ve asked the gardening superstars (plus a few more) to share the native plant combinations that make them swoon. Studies have shown that if we grow 70 percent—or about two-thirds—native plants in our yards, we’ll provide enough habitat for healthy populations of birds, bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. As we say at Perfect Earth Project, “Native plants need so little, and they give so much.” Why don’t you give them a try? 

Below, the experts recommend their favorite native planting combinations.

1. Stinking Benjamin + Squirrel Corn

“Squirrel corn, a bleeding heart relative, produces small yellow corms which resemble corn kernels, yet despite their small size produce lovely masses of fringed gray-blue foliage topped with gorgeous small white flowers. The more robust stinking Benjamin pushes through the abundance of leaves with its characteristic three leaves and striking deep maroon flowers,” says Lorimer. Photograph by Uli Lorimer, courtesy of Native Plant Trust.
Above: “Squirrel corn, a bleeding heart relative, produces small yellow corms which resemble corn kernels, yet despite their small size produce lovely masses of fringed gray-blue foliage topped with gorgeous small white flowers. The more robust stinking Benjamin pushes through the abundance of leaves with its characteristic three leaves and striking deep maroon flowers,” says Lorimer. Photograph by Uli Lorimer, courtesy of Native Plant Trust.

Uli Lorimer, Director of Horticulture at Native Plant Trust, Massachusetts: 

One of my absolute favorite combinations at Garden in the Woods is stinking Benjamin or wake Robin (Trillium erectum) with squirrel corn (Dicentra canadensis). Both are fleeting in their beauty, which makes me appreciate them even more. 

“I love this combination in the garden for several reasons. First, this took a long time to come together. In our fast-paced world, nature still has a lot to teach us about being patient, about delayed gratification. This scene took decades to develop, just that fact alone fills me with a sense of awe and gratitude. The second reason has to do with the relationships these plants have with insects. Trillium is pollinated by fungus gnats and flies, on account of its malodorous (to our noses) fragrance and flesh-colored blooms. Even better is when ants come along and help disperse the seeds of both species, each seed containing a fatty ant reward called an elaiosome. Lastly, who can deny their beauty? Seeing this scene says Eastern Deciduous Forest of the United States to me, it grounds me to the place that I call home.” 

2. Native Grasses + Pollinator-Attracting Flowers

This abundant and inviting planted pathway in Eastern Long Island by Lawless includes echinacea, mountain mint, and verbena, which attract birds, butterflies, and other wildlife. Photograph by Tria Giovan.
Above: This abundant and inviting planted pathway in Eastern Long Island by Lawless includes echinacea, mountain mint, and verbena, which attract birds, butterflies, and other wildlife. Photograph by Tria Giovan.

Abby Lawless, Principal of Farm Landscape Design, Long Island, New York

“I love to combine little bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium), prairie dropseed grass (Sporobolus heterolepis), switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), hyssops (Agastaches), Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Virginia mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), spotted bee balm (Monarda punctata), pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), sweet Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata spp. pulchera).

“The positive ecological impact of these plants cannot be overstated. When they are in bloom they provide nectar and pollen for insects from spring through fall, and the foliage of Asclepias provides food for monarch butterfly caterpillars. After flowering, the seeds provide nutrient-dense forage for birds and other wildlife. American goldfinches especially love echinacea seeds. Stems and foliage can provide nesting material for wildlife, and some insects even over-winter inside the stems. These are all good reasons not to cut back your native plants in the fall.”

3. Pearly Everlasting + Sideoats Grama + Purple Love Grass + ‘Red Midget’ Upright Prairie Coneflower

A detail of Lorenz’s current favorite plant combination. The planting provides habitat, reduces noise and pollution since it doesn’t require mowing or fertilizer, and helps manage stormwater. Photograph courtesy of Refugia Design.
Above: A detail of Lorenz’s current favorite plant combination. The planting provides habitat, reduces noise and pollution since it doesn’t require mowing or fertilizer, and helps manage stormwater. Photograph courtesy of Refugia Design.

Jeff Lorenz, Founder of Refugia Design, Pennsylvania:

“My current favorite combination is white-blooming pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea), sideoats grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis), purple love grass, and burgundy ‘Red Midget’ upright prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera ‘Red Midget’). These are all functional and resilient native perennials. Tough as nails, drought tolerant, long bloom times, understated, textural, and gorgeous.”

4. Foxglove Beardtongue + Native Grasses

Above: Hummingbirds and bumblebees love foxglove beardtongue (left). Bonus: It grows well in clay soils with poor drainage. Marroquin likes to mix them in with native grasses like switchgrass (right). Photographs via Prairie Moon.

Grace Fuller Marroquin, Founder and Creative Director of Grace Fuller Design, New York:

“I love to combine foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis) and native grasses, like switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) and prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis). They’re beautiful, romantic, and are great for pollinators. Plus, they’re drought-resistant and require minimum water to get them started.”

5. Coast Live Oak Tree + Island Alumroot

The coast live oak tree is a keystone species in the Mediterranean region of California (ecoregion \1\1). It serves as a host plant for \275 caterpillars, including Propertius Duskywing, Mournful Duskywing, White M Hairstreak, and Northern Hairstreak butterflies. Photograph by Caitlin Atkinson, courtesy of Terremoto.
Above: The coast live oak tree is a keystone species in the Mediterranean region of California (ecoregion 11). It serves as a host plant for 275 caterpillars, including Propertius Duskywing, Mournful Duskywing, White M Hairstreak, and Northern Hairstreak butterflies. Photograph by Caitlin Atkinson, courtesy of Terremoto.

David Godshall, principal and co-founder of California-based Terremoto.  

“We’ve slowly come to the realization that landscaping under coast live oak trees (Quercus agrifolia) is almost a different genre of garden-making. In their native habitats, very little grows in these dry, part sun, part-shade environments. Additionally, we have to be very sparing about adding irrigation to these trees, as they don’t like summer water! Luckily for us, Island Alumroot (Heuchera maxima) co-evolved to fill this very particular botanical niche, and we’ve had great success using them as drought tolerant, partial shade loving groundcover to make oak woodlands feel a bit more cultivated or purposeful. They push beautiful pink to white flowers in spring to boot.”

6. Jacob’s Ladder + Golden Ragwort

Left: Jacob’s ladder, a pale blue bloomer that reaches a foot in height, is deer-resistant and loved by native bumble bees. Right: Producing yellow flowers in early spring, golden ragwort attracts small native bees. Photography courtesy of Prairie Moon.

Jeff Lynch, Director of Horticulture at Wethersfield Estate & Garden, New York:

“Golden ragwort (Packera aurea) and Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans) is a great combo to use in partial shade to shaded areas where you want a lot of ground covered. Both plants spread in a nice way to cover a lot of real estate. They bloom at the same time: Golden ragwort in yellow, and Jacobs ladder in beautiful blue, which look spectacular together. These plants will fill in eventually to form a solid groundcover and will do a good job of keeping weeds out.”

7. Woodland Phlox + Foamflower

Above: Spring at Mt. Cuba Center in Delaware showcases an understory of woodland phlox, foamflower, and eastern columbine. Photograph by Toshi Yano.

Toshi Yano, Director of Perfect Earth Project, New York:

“In shady spots, one of my favorite combos for spring is woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata) and foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia). If you want to extend the flowering through the season, try adding spotted geranium (Geranium maculatum), and heart-leaved aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium). You can also add foliar interest with ferns and sedges.”

8. Louisiana Sage + Pale Purple Coneflower + Butterfly Weed + Stiff Coreopsis

On this steep, 45-degree slope at the Blank Performing Arts Center on the campus of Simpson College, Norris created a floriferous meadow with silvery Louisiana sage, which is kept in check by heavy soil, orange butterfly weed, pale purple coneflower, and yellow Coreopsis palmata, as shown in its June bloom.” Photograph by Kelly D. Norris.
Above: On this steep, 45-degree slope at the Blank Performing Arts Center on the campus of Simpson College, Norris created a floriferous meadow with silvery Louisiana sage, which is kept in check by heavy soil, orange butterfly weed, pale purple coneflower, and yellow Coreopsis palmata, as shown in its June bloom.” Photograph by Kelly D. Norris.

Kelly D. Norris, Plantsman, Kelly D. Norris, LLC /Three Oaks Garden, Iowa

“It’s hard to pick a favorite—every place offers an opportunity to discover its signature vegetation. Here on the historic tallgrass prairie, I love encountering Louisiana sage (Artemisia ludoviciana) with associates like pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), and stiff coreopsis (Coreopsis palmata)

“I try to capture that feeling of something unexpected in my plantings. Generalist, adaptable plants like Louisana sage (Artemisia ludoviciana) are often misunderstood, perceived as aggressive or worse yet ‘invasive’ because of their competitive tendencies. While not for every garden, they offer solutions for establishing vegetation on stressful sites. Heavy soils can regulate this competitive profile.”

9. Saw Palmetto + Southern Shield Fern + Rusty Lyonia + False Rosemary + Native Floridian Trees

 Above: Dept. incorporated this planting combination into beds at the Court hotel in Seaside, Florida. Photograph by Brittany Godbee.
Above: Dept. incorporated this planting combination into beds at the Court hotel in Seaside, Florida. Photograph by Brittany Godbee.

Maggie Tsang + Isaac Stein, Principals and Co-founders, Dept. Landscape Architecture and Urban Design, Texas:

“A mix of sand live oak (Quercus geminata), Sabal palm (Sabal Palmetto), saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), southern shield fern (Dryopteris ludoviciana), rusty lyonia (Lyonia ferruginea), and false rosemary (Conradina canescens) draws on the coastal scrub of northern Florida. Together, they are rich in texture and represent many shades of green—from the silvery hue of the saw palmetto to the bright fronds of the shield fern to the dark cupped leaves of the sand live oak. This diversity also provides mid-story and canopy habitat and ample food sources. They work well in sandy soils with minimal water use.” 

10. Bladderpod + White Sage + Buckwheat

 Above: Yellow-blooming bladderpod accompanies the flower stalks of white sage (Salvia apiana). Photograph by Jen Toy.
Above: Yellow-blooming bladderpod accompanies the flower stalks of white sage (Salvia apiana). Photograph by Jen Toy.
 Toy also loves combining white sage (Salvia apiana) with buckwheat, as shown here.
Above: Toy also loves combining white sage (Salvia apiana) with buckwheat, as shown here.

Jen Toy, Director of nonprofit Test Plot, California:

Bladderpod (Peritoma arborea) mixed with any of the Southern California sages (Salvia apiana, S. mellifera, S. spathacea). Bladderpod, which is not a great name for a fantastic plant, has evergreen silvery foliage, bright yellow flower clusters, and these really cool inflated fruit capsules that hold the seeds. It smells like onions and peppers. Nothing reminds me more of Los Angeles than opening my car door and brushing past all the fragrant natives planted in our median.”

11. Swamp Milkweed +Blue Lobelia + Blue Vervain

Above: Photograph of swamp milkweed courtesy of Wild Seed Project.
Above: Blue vervain (left) and blue lobelia. Photographs courtesy of Wild Seed Project.

Sefra Alexandra, aka The Seed Huntress and Directress of The Ecotype Project, Connecticut:

For areas with wet feet, Alexandra recommends a combination of blue vervain, swamp milkweed, and blue lobelia. “Blue vervain (Verbena hastata) blooms July to September and supports specialist bees. It is also a great medicinal plant for humans: anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antispasmodic, and analgesic (pain-relieving), even utilized for relieving anxiety. Songbirds love to eat the seeds. Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) blooms June-September. It’s a larval host, attracts beneficial insects, and provides important nesting sites. And Blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) is a great mid-summer stunner that supports a variety of butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds.”

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