Five Native Plants to Grow in Your Home Garden

Hummingbird at a red flower

Need some gardening inspiration this spring and summer? Robb Telfer of the Keller Science Action Center at The Field Museum shares some native plants that will spruce up your yard and are good for the environment.

I always like to recommend my two favorite native Illinois plants, Kankakee mallow (Iliamna remota) and leafy prairie clover (Dalea foliosa), but there are many great native plants to consider for your yard.

Native plants often look unique and can make your garden one-of-a-kind. They also provide better food and habitat for our native animals, who ignore many nonnative plants. I advise never taking seeds or plants from the wild. There are many native plant nurseries where you can find these varieties, and plant poaching damages our fragile and endangered ecosystems.

Here are five native Illinois plants to liven up your yard this spring and summer:

Spotted Bee Balm (Monarda punctata)

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A plant with pink petals and green, spiky leaves
Photo by Robb Telfer

Also known as horsemint, spotted bee balm flowers look like little pineapples with pink and white leaves. Bees indeed love it, and it does well in shallow soils. Bee balm thrives in bright sun and, like many natives, it is drought-resistant. Small mammals that might frequently raid your garden, like rabbits or my dog, won't touch this plant.

Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum)

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Tall yellow flowers in front of blue sky with clouds
© Flickr user Frank Mayfield

This is a great prairie flower for full sun and deep soils, with long roots that pull up groundwater. Its giant leaves feel like lizard skin and are cool to the touch even on hot days. Prairie dock has a unique look, with yellow flowers and green buds that can grow several feet tall. It attracts bees and other native pollinators. In grassy plains, its leaves and stems are even a tasty snack for American bison. Prairie dock blooms from late summer to early fall, so now is the time to plant!

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

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Looking down on a plant with large green leaves and bunches of small pink and white flowers
Photo by Robb Telfer

This native plant works well both in containers and in the ground. All milkweeds not only have beautiful flowers, but they're also the only plants on which monarch butterflies will lay their eggs. Monarchs have adorable caterpillars, and their chrysalises look like emerald and gold earrings. Most butterflies like to eat the nectar from the flowers, too.

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis

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Bright red flower with hummingbird next to it
© Flickr user Steven Severinghaus

Okay, I've never been able to successfully grow this one, but I chalk that up to a series of garden blunders on my part. It's a tall red flower that hummingbirds love; I'm told hummingbirds prefer red flowers in general. Cardinal flower is a great late-blooming addition to the garden. It may be easier to start out with a transplant rather than seeds or seedlings, which I've learned are fragile.

Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum pedatum)

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Green fern with fan-shaped leaves
Photo by Robb Telfer
Subtle beauty can be just as rewarding as the big firework displays elsewhere on this list. A good plant for low light situations, the maidenhair doesn't look like most other ferns: its fan-shaped leaves branch out into a dramatic pattern. Also, this fern may deter white-tailed deer that like to nibble on many plants.

With any plant you choose for your garden, it's important to know what soil and sun conditions you have to work with. Luckily, woodland and savanna plants are good for low light spaces, and plenty of shallow root plants can succeed in containers. Wherever you live, you can help steward your region’s botanic heritage by familiarizing yourself with and planting some of the plants that evolved there. 

Robb Telfer is the Calumet Outreach Coordinator at The Field Museum and an avid gardener. Join him in volunteering at an upcoming habitat restoration day.