Retired Louisville Courier-Journal columnist Bob Hill has written extensively on gardening for several regional and national magazines. He and his wife, Janet, own Hidden Hill Nursery and Sculpture Garden near Jeffersonville. For more information visit

This article applies to:



Bringing Natives into Your Landscape
by Bob Hill    

Incorporating native plants into your garden doesn’t mean that the space will look wild and messy. Here are some neat natives to add for a sophisticated pop of color and texture.

Too often, lost in the growing passion to use native plants in the garden, is the fact that they are also perfectly at home blended in with other ornamental plants in the landscape.

In fact, natives often add color, texture, multi-season charm and toughness to places our more domesticated plants can’t.

They’re best used to “anchor” specific areas, serving as stable focal points as the endless new cultivars of grasses, perennials, trees and shrubs bid for recognition alongside time-proven natives.

Lists of native plants are everywhere: magazines, books and online. Some gardeners will prefer the straight species while others will add the cultivars that inevitably — if not literally — crop up. There’s an all-encompassing list of natives offered by the Indiana Native Plant and Wildflower Society.

Just think carefully about which plants would work best in your environment: wet, dry, sun or full shade. But when you do choose, seek out the more unusual, the least known and the most fun.

Here’s a random sampling of what has worked well in our Southern Indiana garden — all of them totally hardy to Zones 5 and 6.


Downy Serviceberry

Leading off our early spring parade is the downy serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea). In shrub or tree form its brief, but brilliant, burst of white pendulous flowers offer much-needed proof that winter never lasts forever.

The serviceberry’s white flowers give way to bright red edible fruit — if you can beat the birds to them — and its leaf color in fall will flow from yellow to orange to red. The winter bark is a lovely gray; the serviceberry never takes a day off.

To best display downy serviceberry in your landscape, plant it in front of some dark green arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis), which is another useful native, and underplant it with spring bulbs, such as daffodils or tulips.

Carolina Silverbell

Another rarely used native beauty is the Carolina silverbell (Halesia carolina), a small, spreading to 20-foot, tree that will be covered with hundreds of dainty, pendulous white flowers in April and May. Even more special are the pink forms — ‘Arnold Pink’, ‘Rosea’ or ‘Rosy Ridge’ — which add a subtle glow of color in light shade.

Carolina silverbell is another candidate to be underplanted with bulbs, native wildflowers, heuchera or native foam flowers (Tiarella spp.)

The red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) can brighten a partially shaded corner with orange-red tubular flowers in late spring. It can be shaped into a large shrub or small tree and its show of dangling buckeyes in fall only add to its interest.

The dark green leaves of the native black gum (Nyssa sylvatica) turn into a parade of vivid red, yellow and orange colors in the fall. It also grows well in moist sites.

Red Buckeye

A small native tree that will make a large statement is the red buckeye (Aesculus pavia), a spreading tree or large, clumping shrub that takes full morning sun or part shade. It displays long, tubular red flowers above dark green leaves in early spring — a show enjoyed by both gardeners and hummingbirds.

The soil beneath our red buckeye is covered with ferns, bleeding hearts (Dicentra spp.) and hellebores (Helleborus spp.) — all of which are set off by a small fountain adding sound to the setting.

Black Gum

If a single native specimen tree fits your landscape needs — especially in a moist, acidic well-drained area — use the black gum or tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) with its shiny green leaves in spring and summer and its almost luminescent red, orange and yellow leaves in the fall.

If space is an issue — or you are in need of something  a little different — there is an ‘Autumn Cascades’ weeping  black gum and one called ‘Zydeco Twist’, with twisty,  contorted stems.

The hardy native flame azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum) — hardy in Zones 5 to 7 — would thrive beneath its branches.

Franklin Tree 

A stunning small native tree that comes with much history is the Franklin tree (Franklinia alatamaha); it has camellia-like 3-inch flowers with gold centers, great fall color and was named for Ben Franklin. It is also totally extinct in the wild. 


For gardeners with limited space there are many native shrubs that can be incorporated into the landscape for multi-season enjoyment.

The bright red berries of the shrubby winterholly (Ilex verticilata) liven up any winter landscape and provide food for the birds. It will do well in the wetter areas of the yard.

Winterberry Holly

We have set out a row of winterberry hollies (Ilex verticillata) near the beginning of a garden walk, the clusters of brilliant red berries of the Winter Red cultivar offering a real treat for pedestrians — and the cedar waxwings.

Sweet Pepperbush

If it is fragrant blooms and excellent fall color you seek, plant the native sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia). The clethra does well in moist sites, takes a lot of shade and is also best planted in a high-traffic area where its fragrance will waft across the yard from dangling panicles of pink or white. Better yet, it blooms in late summer when other shrubs are looking for time off.


Also fragrant are fothergillas (Fothergilla gardenii and F. major).The fothergilla has a more funky, tightly wrapped, bottle-brush-like flower with the scent of honey that blooms in late spring and will last for at least 10 days.


Two other native shrubs that are becoming more popular are the red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) and the black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa). Both bloom in spring to early summer, produce plenty of berries commensurate with their names and have outstanding fall leaf color.

They can get leggy — and will sucker — so give them some room, but both also provide large splashes of interest among the more ordinary.


One of the best and most useful three-season perennials is the blue star (Amsonia hubrectii), which displays blue flowers in late spring, frothy green upright foliage to 3 feet in the summer and a lovely yellow-gold color in the fall.

Blue Star

When it comes to native perennials, my favorite is the blue star (Amsonia hubrectii), a 3-foot, three-season wonder with powdery blue blooms, feathery foliage and fine yellow fall color. We use it in a recurring pattern along the perennial border.

Butterfly Weed

A great complementary plant among the store-bought is the butterfly weed (Aclepias tuberosa), a drought-tolerant beauty with electric orange color that is a butterfly magnet.

Compass Plant

If you want some tall color as a backdrop we use the compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), which can stretch to 9 feet of yellow sunflower blooms. If you want to place it in small seas of grass use the little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and its larger buddy, big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), which can almost look the compass plant in the eye. Both bluestems have great purplish-red fall color — another fine mix with the more domesticated asters and mums in the fall garden.

More Native Possibilities in the Home Garden

The sourwood tree (Oxydendrum arboreum) does well as an understory tree, offers panicles of white flowers in the spring, a shiny green leaf and guaranteed orange-red fall color.

Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum)
A small, native, understory tree that prefers acidic, rich, well-drained soil. Finely toothed, glossy green leaves that turn crimson red in fall. Waxy, lily-of-the-valley-type flowers bloom on fragrant, drooping panicles.

Yellowwood (Cladrastis kentukea)
A native tree so great they named a state forest for it near Bloomington. Its lovely green foliage, fragrant white wisteria-like blooms and beech-like bark make it a great anchor point in a home garden.

Fringe Tree (Chionanthus virginicus)
This native delights every spring with clouds of  fragrant white, fluffy flowers. It is also best planted in front of a row of arborvitae, or as a single specimen with native perennials, such as red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis).

Redosier Dogwood (Cornus sericea)
Don’t neglect the winter landscape in your search for native shrubs for the garden. This water-loving plant will offer red stems all winter and provide cover for birds near your feeder.

Shrubby St. John’s Wort (Hypericum prolificum)
Use it in a dry, rocky corner where it will produce bright yellow flowers and seed capsules for the birds.

Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium)
Rarely used as a specimen, but another tough, lanky native shrub with bright white blooms, blue-black fruit and outstanding purple-red color, especially in wet areas.

Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica)
Our woodland garden wakes every year with a rush of Virginia bluebells that push up trumpet-shaped baby-blue flowers — the best way to herald spring. A perfect choice for shaded moist areas, and they will fill in.

Dwarf Crested Iris (Iris cristata)
A nice understory plant that prefers afternoon shade, the dwarf crested iris will create an entire drift of blue or lavender color in a rock garden area. Great for filling in holes under trees or between tall shrubs.

New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)
It has a New England name, a Missouri birthplace and a home in Indiana gardens. Its showy purple flowers will rise 3 to 6 feet, and stems should be pinched back several times in spring and early summer. Makes a nice mix with more modern cultivars of daisies (Leucanthemum spp.), chrysanthemums, bee balm (Monarda spp.) and gallardia.

From Indiana Gardening Volume III Issue III. Photos by Bob Hill.


Posted: 07/01/13   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Other People Are Reading