Design

Native Plants That Make Great Supporting Players

Fine Gardening – Issue 203

Ecological generalists—plants with broad tolerances to where they root—power the planet. Many of these species lurk in the shadows of traditional gardens or sulk in obscurity on the garden floor. But prevalence is their virtue; they have adapted to a wide range of growing conditions across a considerable geographic footprint. You may find plants on this list you’ve previously regarded as weeds, perhaps only because you didn’t know their whole story. They don’t have to earn top billing; every garden needs a supporting cast. Many on this list work hard at a valuable moment of the year before yielding the stage to the showier flowers we’ll quickly snap for our Instagram feed. Here’s a handful of my favorite generalists, many of which are native across North America, that deserve a closer look.

 

Pussytoes

Pussytoes

Name: Antennaria spp.

Zones: 3–8

Size: Up to 8 inches tall and 18 inches wide

Conditions: Full sun; average to dry, well-drained soil

Native range: Most of North America

This is a genus of nearly 40 low-growing, silvery-leaved plants that form tight mats of foliage between other plants, particularly in meadows or at rock outcroppings or woodland edges.

 

Meadow sedge

Meadow sedge

Name: Carex praegracilis

Zones: 4–9

Size: Up to 2 feet tall and 3 feet wide

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; thrives in a wide range of soil conditions

Native range: Western North America

Just one of hundreds of useful sedges native to North America, meadow sedge spreads by small rhizomes to form bunchy crowns of finely textured foliage.

 

Purple lovegrass

Purple lovegrass

Name: Eragrostis spectabilis

Zones: 4–9

Size: Up to 18 inches tall and wide

Conditions: Full sun; average to dry, well-drained soil

Native range: Eastern and central United States and Canada

This showy summer grass starts the season out as an inconspicuous tussock that erupts into a cotton-candy cloud of pink and red. The plants spread gradually by rhizomes.

 

Annual fleabane

Annual fleabane

Name: Erigeron annuus

Zones: Annual

Size: Up to 3 feet tall and wide

Conditions: Full sun; thrives in a wide range of soil conditions

Native range: Most of North and Central America

Prized in Europe for its wildflowery personality, this native annual makes an easy, foamy spackle for all sorts of plantings. Plant size can vary, depending on soil conditions and competition from neighboring plants.

 

Wild strawberry

Wild strawberry
Photo: courtesy of Dr. Kim Hummer-USDA/commons.wikimedia.org

Name: Fragaria virginiana

Zones: 5–9

Size: 6 inches tall and 24 inches wide

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; thrives in a wide range of soil conditions

Native range: Most of North America

Growing from coast to coast, the common wild strawberry proves an effective interloper between taller perennials and shrubs. Spring flowers and early summer fruit are a seasonal treat.

 

Selfheal

Selfheal

Name: Prunella vulgaris

Zones: 3–9

Size: 6 inches tall and 2 feet wide

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; thrives in a wide range of soil conditions

Native range: Most of North America

Found across the globe in a seemingly endless array of colors, this hardworking ground cover tolerates browsing and mowing. It is an ideal component for no-mow or low-mow lawns.


Kelly D. Norris is the author of New Naturalism: Designing and Planting a Resilient, Ecologically Vibrant Home Garden.

Photos, except where noted: Kelly D. Norris

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