Choosing native plants when designing new gardens is becoming increasingly popular. Some of the benefits of using native plants include reduced use of chemicals, improvement of the soil, erosion and flood control, and increased habitat for birds and butterflies.
The four plant communities that existed in the Chicago area in pre-settlement times were woodland, wetland, savanna and prairie. Each of these communities evolved on the various clay soils left by glaciers. As a result, many of the native plants adapted to alkaline clay soil.
Many of these plants also have extensive root systems that extend deep into the soil. Roots naturally amend the soil with organic matter as old root cells fall off and transform impervious clay into spongy, rich black soil.
Deep loamy soil has excellent drainage that allows any precipitation to soak through the soil, filter through it, and fill aquifers and wetlands with clean ground water.
By choosing native plants for your landscape, you contribute to the restoration of the natural ground water hydrology and give rainwater a place to filter in the place where it falls. A bed of natives located in a rain garden provides a place for water to soak into the soil rather than run off.
Once the extensive root systems of native plants are established, common weeds cannot compete for space in the soil. Butterflies and birds are attracted to the flowers and seed heads of native plants. And because these plants thrived before pesticides were invented, they can thrive in today's gardens without these sprays and powders.
While all these benefits are welcomed, the best reason to choose native plants is their beauty. Familiar favorites include the purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan, bee balm, and butterfly weed. There are many more to consider.
Blue false indigo boasts spikes of blue flowers in late spring on tall, bushy rounded mounds of blue-green foliage. The flowers turn to charcoal colored pods in late summer. Blue false indigo naturally enriches the soil with its nitrogen fixing abilities. Grow this native in sun to part shade.
The purple spikes of blazing star glow in the garden from July to September. It is easily grown in full sun in most soils, but will not tolerate wet soils in winter.
Welcome hummingbirds to your garden with cardinal flower. The bright red tubular flowers in summer are a hummingbird favorite. Cardinal flowers grow best in part shade in moist, rich soil.
Prairie dropseed is a delightful grass resembling feathery pincushions. Long, fine leaves form a dense clump up to 2 feet tall and 3 feet wide. Brush the delicate flowers when you pass by and enjoy the fragrance of hot buttered popcorn!
Use purple love grass to edge a sunny border with billowing color. The flat, green leaf blades are completely covered by a translucent mass of purple, cloud-like inflorescences in summer.
Consider going native when choosing new plants for your landscape. Reintroducing native plants improves your soil and reduces your reliance on pesticides while creating a home for butterflies and birds.
• Diana Stoll is a horticulturist and the garden center manager at The Planter's Palette, 28W571 Roosevelt Road, Winfield. Call (630) 293-1040, ext. 2, or visit planterspalette.com.