Native Alternatives to Common Garden Plants

Fine Gardening - Issue 197
Native alternative to common garden plants

The relatively adaptable and easygoing North American native plants in Great Natives From the Western United States—That Anyone Can Grow are excellent alternatives to commonly grown nonnative plants. These picks are as good—or even better—than the old standbys. Here’s how they compare.

Instead of: Meadow rue

Meadow rue
Photo: Michelle Gervais

Try: ‘Denver Gold’ columbine

‘Denver Gold’ columbine
Photo: courtesy of Panayoti Kelaidis

‘Denver Gold’ has beautifully textured foliage like meadow rue (Thalictrum spp. and cvs., Zones 5–9) and European columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris, Zones 3–9), but it blooms much longer and is more adaptable.

Instead of: Ajuga

Photo: Ann E. Stratton

Try: Sandia alumroot

Sandia alumroot
Photo: courtesy of Panayoti Kelaidis

If you are looking for an attractive edging plant, Sandia alumroot is less likely to invade the lawn than ajuga (Ajuga reptans, Zones 3–10) or many spreading sedums (Sedum spp. and cvs., Zones 4–9).

Instead of: Russian sage

Russian sage
Photo: Michelle Gervais

Try: Pink butterfly mint

Pink butterfly mint
Photo: courtesy of Panayoti Kelaidis

Pink butterfly mint is drought tolerant and adaptable to most well-drained soils, like Russian sage (Salvia yangii, Zones 5–9), but without its invasive tendencies. Or try it as an easier-to-grow substitute for lavender (Lavandula spp. and cvs., Zones 5–8).

Instead of: Eurasian sedums

Eurasian sedums
Photo: FG staff

Try: Old man’s bones

Old man’s bones
Photo: Joshua McCullough

Old man’s bones tolerates shade and is a noninvasive alternative to Eurasian sedums such as moss stonecrop (Sedum acre, Zones 4–9) and stringy stonecrop (S. sarmentosum, Zones 4–9).

Instead of: ‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass

‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass
Photo: Jennifer Benner

Try: Undaunted® ruby muhly grass

Undaunted® ruby muhly grass
Photo: courtesy of Panayoti Kelaidis

Hardier than most muhlies, Undaunted® makes a sophisticated replacement for overused ‘Karl Foerster’ (Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’, Zones 5–9).

Instead of: Spanish bluebell

Spanish bluebell
Photo: Steve Aitken

Try: Giant camas

Giant camas
Photo: courtesy of Panayoti Kelaidis

This Northwestern beauty is less invasive than Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica, Zones 3–8) and certain ornamental onions (Allium cvs.), which can become ineradicable garden pests.

Instead of: Calamint

Photo: FG staff

Try: ‘Marian Sampson’ scarlet horsemint

‘Marian Sampson’ scarlet horsemint
Photo: courtesy of Panayoti Kelaidis

With cultural needs similar to those of garden mints like calamint (Calamintha nepeta, Zones 5–7) and savories (Satureja spp. and cvs., Zones 6–8), ‘Marian Sampson’ is showier and has a much longer bloom time.

Instead of: Catmint

Photo: Michelle Gervais

Try: Pineleaf penstemon

Pineleaf penstemon
Photo: courtesy of Panayoti Kelaidis

Pineleaf penstemon’s unique color makes it an instant garden attraction. It can be used in the same way as catmints (Nepeta spp. and cvs., Zones 3–9), but it is more restrained.

Instead of: Eurasian salvias

Eurasian salvias
Photo: Jennifer Benner

Try: Mojave sage

Mojave sage
Photo: courtesy of Panayoti Kelaidis

Mojave sage is much more tolerant of heat and drought than commonly grown Eurasian salvias such as woodland sage (Salvia nemorosa, Zones 4–8) and meadow sage (S. pratensis, Zones 4–8).

Instead of: Spirea

Photo: Michelle Gervais

Try: Fernbush


Fernbush is an extremely tough customer, is more restrained than spireas (Spiraea spp. and cvs., Zones 3–9) or forsythias (Forsythia spp. and cvs., Zones 3–9), and has good midsummer color.

Instead of: Mugo pine

Mugo pine
Photo: Jennifer Benner

Try: Dwarf pinyon pine

Dwarf pinyon pine
Photo: Mark Turner/

Perfect for very sunny exposures with excellent drainage, dwarf pinyon pine is more restrained and drought tolerant than mugo pine (Pinus mugo, Zones 2–7).

Instead of: Yarrow

Photo: Jennifer Benner

Try: Kannah Creek® buckwheat

Kannah Creek® buckwheat
Photo: courtesy of Panayoti Kelaidis

Yarrows (Achillea spp. and cvs., Zones 3–8) and some spurges (Euphorbia spp. and cvs., Zones 3–10) can be weedy, seedy garden thugs. Kannah Creek® buckwheat provides carefree color without becoming invasive.


More on native plants:

Great Native Plants from the West–That Anyone Can Grow

Best Regional Native Woodies

Best Native Plants for Each Region of the United States


Panayoti Kelaidis is senior curator and director of outreach at Denver Botanic Gardens.

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  1. teakh 02/02/2021

    Interesting that you gave the botanical names for the plants you suggested replacing, but only the common names for the suggested native plants.

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