Bring life to your yard

A dozen native plants that will have your yard abuzz with activity

|  Story by Meghan McMahon |


As you get starry-eyed with visions of how to spruce up your home landscape this year, take some time to consider adding native plants to your yard. Native plants are the trees, shrubs, flowers and grasses that grow naturally in the region in which they evolved. These are the plants that are adapted to our climate and soil and are meant to grow here because they have historically, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Why are native plants best? Because they are easy to care for — requiring less water and maintenance than many non-native plants — and they support all manner of wildlife, including the much-needed pollinators that are on the decline like butterflies, bees and other insects. 


Native wildflowers include dozens of species in a rainbow of colors, so there’s sure to be something that will fit well in your yard. Once native plants become established, they won’t just provide a splash of color, they’ll also attract all sorts of beneficial insects and birds. 

Just like with any other gardening project, the key to adding native plants to your yard is planning — finding the right plants for the right spots. In addition to soil type, space and light exposure, another factor to consider when planting natives is bloom time. If you want pops of color in your yard from spring to fall, make sure to consider when the flowers bloom to achieve your desired look. Some native flowers, like moss phlox, bloom in early spring, while others, like New England aster, don’t bloom until late summer and linger into fall. 

Below is just a sampling of the native wildflowers you can include in your yard.

Black-eyed Susan

A black-eyed Susan.

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

The bright yellow flowers of black-eyed Susans are one of the most identifiable wildflowers, native to almost the entire United States. Black-eyed Susans grow to heights of 1 foot to 2 feet, and the flowers are 2 inches to 3 inches in diameter, according to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. They are long-lasting flowers, with blooms starting to appear in June and lasting into October.

These plants, which are sometimes called brown-eyed Susans, grow best in full sun and can tolerate either dry or moist, well-drained soils. In the wild, they often grow in prairies, savannas and along the edges of wooded areas.

Black-eyed Susans will attract bees, butterflies and other insects in search of nectar as well as birds, which eat the seeds, the wildflower center reports. The plant is also a larval host for gorgone checkerspot caterpillars.   

Butterfly weed

A monarch butterfly on butterfly weed.

(Photo via Shutterstock)

If a bright pop of orange is just what your yard needs, look no further than butterfly weed. The orange flowers are reminiscent of other milkweed plants, but butterfly weed is the only milkweed to produce orange blooms.

Butterfly weed, which is also called butterfly milkweed and orange milkweed, produces large clusters of tiny orange flowers. The plant can reach heights of 1 foot to 2 feet tall, but it’s a bushy plant that can be as wide as it is tall, according to the Morton Arboretum.

At home, plant butterfly weed in a sunny spot with either dry or moist (but not wet) soil conditions. Keep in mind that it may take a few years for the plant to become well established in your landscape. In the wild, the plant is most often seen in prairies, along roadsides and railroad tracks and in other open areas.

Butterfly weed is a summer bloomer, and the flowers will last about six weeks, the arboretum reports. Milkweed is the larval host of monarch caterpillars as well as gray hairstreak caterpillars. It will also attract a variety of butterflies and insects as well as hummingbirds. 

Butterfly milkweed is one of several milkweed plants native to our area, and all serve as the larval host for monarch caterpillars and also attract a wide variety of other butterflies and other insects. Other milkweeds to consider planting at home are common milkweed, poke milkweed, prairie milkweed, purple milkweed, swamp milkweed (also called rose milkweed) and whorled milkweed, according to the University of Illinois Extension.

Golden alexander

Golden alexander.

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Golden alexanders are part of the carrot family, and they look the part. Like other plants from this family, they produce lacy clusters of small flowers, with each bloom only about 1/8 of an inch long, according to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

The plants can reach heights of 1 foot to 3 feet tall. They can bloom from April through August, but the individual flowers are short-lived. In the Midwest, the bloom time for golden alexander is usually early in the growing season.

Also called golden Zizia, because its scientific name is Zizia aurea, it typically grows in moist prairies and open wooded areas in the wild. It can be confused with wild parsnip, another yellow-blooming flower from the carrot family. In areas where both are common, knowing the difference is important because contact with the sap from wild parsnip can cause a blistering rash.


At home, it can tolerate either full sun or partial shade, and it does best in moist soils. Golden alexander will attract butterflies, and it is a larval host for black swallowtail caterpillars, according to the wildflower center.

Lance-leaf coreopsis

Lance-leaf coreopsis.

(Photo via Shutterstock)

Coreopsis is from the aster family, and the flowers look like other asters and daisies. Lance-leaf coreopsis produces bright yellow flowers that look like daisies, usually about 1 inch to 1½ inches in diameter.

Lance-leaf coreopsis often grows in clumps, and the plants can stand 1 foot to 2 ½ feet tall, according to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. In the wild, it often grows in colonies, and it’s most often seen in prairies, meadows, savannas and open woodlands.

At home, you can grow coreopsis in full sun or part shade. It does best in dry soil, including sandy soils. Blooms typically begin appearing in late spring and can last well into summer. You can encourage a longer blooming season by deadheading the dying blooms, the wildflower center advises.

Butterflies and native bees are among the insects that will visit coreopsis blooms. Lance-leaf coreopsis is one of several coreopsis plants native to Illinois. Others include prairie coreopsis and sand coreopsis. Collectively, coreopsis plants are often referred to as tickseed because the seeds are said to look like ticks.

New England aster and smooth aster

New England aster.

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Asters are late-blooming wildflowers, so they’ll provide a pop of color in your yard even as the leaves turn and begin to fall. Both New England aster and smooth aster produce purple or lavender blooms around yellow or yellowish-orange centers from August to October.

New England aster is the larger of the two, sometimes reaching heights of 6 feet or more, according to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Smooth aster usually grows between 2 feet and 4 feet tall, the wildflower center reports. New England aster produces more purply blooms, although they can be more bluish or even whitish, while smooth aster flowers are more lavender in color.

The two types of aster have different growing needs. New England aster grows best in part shade and prefers moist soil, while smooth aster prefers a sunny location and dry soil, the wildflower center reports. In the wild, both types of aster are often seen in woodlands and prairies.

Both aster plants are valuable to native bees and are a larval host for pearl crescent caterpillars. New England aster is also important to bumble bees and honey bees. Both aster plants will also attract a variety of birds and butterflies. 

Prairie blazing star

Prairie blazing star.

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Prairie blazing star is an eye-catching addition to a landscape, producing spikes of purple feathery tufts of flowers that have been compared to fairy wands, according to Illinois Wildflowers. The blooms open first at the top of the spike, then work their way down.

Prairie blazing star is a tall wildflower, reaching heights of up to 6 feet, according to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Most typically, it stands between 3 feet and 4 feet tall.

In the wild, it is usually seen in dry prairies or rocky areas. In home landscapes, it grows best in full sun and will tolerate either dry or moist soils. The blooms emerge in late summer, around August or September. Once the plant blooms, the flowers will last about a month.

Blazing star will attract all manner of nectar-seeking creatures, including bees, butterflies and other insects. Prairie blazing star is one of many blazing stars in the Liatris genus of wildflowers. Others include bottlebrush blazing star, button blazing star, dense blazing star, dotted blazing star, dwarf blazing star, meadow blazing star and northern blazing star. 

Purple coneflower

A bee on purple coneflower.

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Purple coneflower is a showy plant for home landscapes, producing bright purple flowers with drooping petals arranged around orange seed heads. 

At home, plant purple coneflower in a sunny spot with moist, well-drained soil, the Morton Arboretum advises. It typically reaches heights of 2 feet to 4 feet tall. 

In wild areas, purple coneflower most often grows in prairies, savannas and at woodland edges. The plant produces long-lasting blooms typically beginning in early summer and lasting throughout the season, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center reports.

Many species of butterflies visit purple coneflower, and it’s also valuable to native bees. Birds, particularly American goldfinches, will eat seeds from the seed heads, the arboretum reports.

Purple coneflower is one of several coneflowers native to Illinois and the surrounding area. Some, like pale purple coneflower, also produce purple blossoms, but there are also coneflowers that produce yellow flowers, including yellow coneflower and orange coneflower, which grows yellowish-orange blooms. 

Showy goldenrod

A bee on goldenrod.

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

About 125 species of goldenrod grow across the Unites States, but as the common name would imply, showy goldenrod produces some of the showiest and colorful golden yellow flowers. The plants can range in size, from 1 foot to 6 feet tall, but they are most typically 3 feet to 6 feet tall, according to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. The individual blooms are small, but they grow in clusters extending along a column.

Showy goldenrod is a late summer bloomer, splashing yellow across the landscape in August and September. It is usually found in prairies and open spots in wooded areas. It will grow best in partial shade and moist soils.

Goldenrod plants, including showy goldenrod, will attract birds, bees, butterflies and other insects. Goldenrods are also considered important because they attract beneficial insects that prey on nuisance insects, according to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation

Ohio spiderwort


(Photo by Cindy Cain)

Anyone who loves purple will enjoy the cheerful blooms of Ohio spiderwort. The plant produces purple blooms that are about 1-inch across, but when touched during the hottest part of the day, the blooms can shrivel up and disintegrate into a jelly-like substance, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center reports.

These plants can grow between 2 feet and 3 feet tall, and they grow best in partial shade in dry soil. In the wild, Ohio spiderwort commonly grows in meadows and prairies. 

Ohio spiderwort can bloom in spring or summer. The plants are beneficial to native bees and bumble bees.  

Ohio spiderwort is one of several similar-looking spiderwort plants. Others are prairie spiderwort, Virginia spiderwort and western spiderwort.

Wild bergamot

Wild bergamot.

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Wild bergamot is a member of the mint family, but it produces must showier flowers than other mint plants. The blooms of wild bergamot are typically purple, but they can also be more pink or lavender. It can bloom as early as May, and the flowers can last into September, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center reports. 

Wild bergamot, which is also called bee balm, can grow to heights of 2 feet to 5 feet. In the wild, it typically grows in fields, meadows, ditches and other open areas. In your own yard, it can grow in either full sun or partial shade, and it will tolerate either dry or moist soils. It is prone to mildew, so it does best in well-drained soils and in places with good air flow.

Wild bergamot is valuable to native bees and bumble bees, and it will attract butterflies and other insects as well as birds, including hummingbirds.

Wild petunia

Wild petunia.

(Photo via Shutterstock)

If petunias are a favorite annual, wild petunia would be a good choice when adding native plants to your landscape because the blooms of wild petunia look similar to annual petunias. Wild petunia produces purple blooms, but they vary from very light lavender to deeper shades.

Wild petunia grows in a more sprawling manner than upright, giving it a low, bushy appearance. It can reach heights of 2 feet tall, but often appears shorter, according to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. In the wild, it’s often spotted along the edges of wooded areas.

To grow wild petunia, look for a sunny spot with moist soil. It will also grow in part shade, but may not produce as many flowers, according to Grow Native! These flowers are summer bloomers, with the plants beginning to bloom as early as May and continuing as late as September.

Wild petunia will attract butterflies and other nectar-seeking insects. The plant is also the larval host of common buckeye caterpillars, the wildflower center reports. 

White wild indigo

White wild indigo.

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

White wild indigo belongs to the pea family, and its creamy white blooms resemble other pea flowers. It’s an early bloomer, flowering as soon as April and lasting into July, according to the wildflower center.

The flowers grow on stiff stems that are covered in the small blooms. The plants are typically 2 feet to 3 feet tall, but they can grow as tall as 6 feet. White wild indigo is often seen in prairies and open woodlands in the wild. 

The plant will do well in full sun, and it can tolerate either dry or moist soils. If you like the look of white wild indigo but would prefer more colorful flowers, there are many indigos to choose from. Others include false indigo, blue wild indigo, cream wild indigo, large yellow wild indigo and small yellow wild indigo.

Indigo plants will attract native bees and bumble bees as well as other insects.

(Lead image by Anthony Schalk) 

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