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Perennial favorites: Native wildflowers that will attract pollinators and praise

Perennial wildflowers are a very diverse group of plants that grow in all light conditions, soil types, and habitats.

Smooth aster. Uli Lorimer/Native Plant Trust

Excerpted from “The Northeast Native Plant Primer: 235 Plants for an Earth-Friendly Garden’’ by Uli Lorimer and the Native Plant Trust. Copyright © 2022 by Uli Lorimer and Native Plant Trust.

. – Uli Lorimer/Native Plant Trust

Wildflowers are the largest group in these plant profiles for good reason. Perennial wildflowers are a very diverse group of plants that grow in all light conditions, soil types, and habitats. They return to active growth year after year, producing larger clumps and broader colonies, often via newly established seedlings. Like native trees and shrubs, wildflowers offer tremendous benefits to insects, birds, and mammals in terms of food, forage, and shelter. As fall and winter arrive, leave the seed heads in place to provide food for birds, habitat for native bees, and of course interesting garden structure — a dusting of snow over mountain mint, goldenrod, and switchgrass seed heads can be a magical sight. In your garden, follow the basic tenets of design, placing taller species toward the back of the beds and smaller species in the front, closer to the path or lawn. Keep in mind that some wildflowers will form clumps and stay put while others will spread, fill in, or even take over a planting area. Seeing these plants in the wild, notice how they grow, which plants they grow beside, and what light and soil conditions they prefer. Identify patterns of growth or dispersal. This is valuable information about how each native wildflower may behave in your garden. Remember that editing, dividing, replacing, and introducing new plants into your garden are all part of the process. You will be privileged to bear witness to the changes that occur over time and to the abundance of life that wildflowers draw into your garden. Here are six wildflowers to grace your yards in various conditions:


(Full Sun/Part Sun) Symphyotrichum laeve — smooth aster

A must-have garden plant for its late-season blooms and ease of cultivation, this aster belongs in every pollinator garden, butterfly garden, or meadow planting. I have seen the flowers covered in monarch butterflies, skippers, and clouded sulphurs, to name just a few. Waxy, smooth stems and clasping foliage are backdrops for the open panicles of large, purple ray flowers with yellow centers. Plant it in full sun to part sun in well-drained soils. It can seed around a bit, but removing the seed heads can limit its spread.

. – Uli Lorimer/Native Plant Trust

(Full Sun/Part Sun)

Lilium superbum — Turk’s cap lily

This is the largest and arguably the showiest of all lilies in the Northeast. It is simply spectacular. With whorls of dense foliage at regular intervals along the length of its tall stem, Turk’s cap lily has evolved to impress. The flowers feature reflexive petals that bend backward to form a turban shape and are painted in hues of yellow and orange, covered in small brown spots. Its chief pollinator is the eastern tiger swallowtail, one of the largest butterflies of the Northeast. Plant it in full sun to part sun and in moist, organic-rich soils. As with all lilies, if deer are present in your area, do your best to keep them away from these plants.

. – Uli Lorimer/Native Plant Trust

(Part Sun/Part Shade)


Podophyllum peltatum — mayapple

When the foliage of mayapple first emerges, it looks like a leafy, folded umbrella. It expands into a single roundish, green leaf, often with maroon-colored, mottled markings. Hidden beneath the leaf are single white flowers on short stalks. Mayapples reproduce by creeping rhizomes and form dense colonies that spread in every direction, especially when growing in moist, rich organic woodland soils. Plant them in part sun to part shade, because the foliage will burn if it receives too much sun. As a groundcover, it can be aggressive, overwhelming smaller plants, so it is best paired with shrubs and taller perennials that can rise above the carpet of foliage, such as Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum). The fruits that result from pollination are dispersed primarily by box turtles, a delightful scene to imagine.

. – Uli Lorimer/Native Plant Trust

(Full Sun/Part Sun + Wet Soils)

Iris versicolor — blue flag iris

There are few sights more beautiful than clusters of vibrant blue and yellow iris flowers floating above a dense stand of green, sword-like foliage in a marsh. Blue flag iris is a versatile perennial that will bloom beautifully in full to part sun. Arising from a creeping rhizome, the plant is capable of growing in a variety of soils, from average garden soils to waterlogged soils. Blue flag is an excellent choice for a rain garden or bioswale, or along the edges of a pond, stream, or wetland.

. – Uli Lorimer/Native Plant Trust

(Part Sun/Part Shade + Rocky Soils)


Aquilegia canadensis — wild columbine

A curious, complex, and fascinating flower, our wild columbine delights humans and hummingbirds alike. The bright red flowers feature long nectar spurs that rise like crowns above yellow centers. Only hummingbirds or bees with long tongues can access the flower’s rich nectar. A host plant for the columbine dusky wing and columbine borer moth, this short-lived perennial is prone to seeding itself around the garden, though it can easily be edited if need be. Often found growing in rocky soils, I find it does not like areas where the leaf litter is deep or the soil overly moist. Wild columbine is a fine choice for a gravelly slope, rock ledge, or rock garden. Plant it in part sun to part shade in well-drained soils.

. – Uli Lorimer/Native Plant Trust

(Sandy/Coastal/Salt Soils)

Opuntia humifusa — eastern prickly pear cactus

No other plant elicits as much surprise as our eastern prickly pear, when garden visitors are astonished that we have a native cactus in the Northeast. Exceptionally drought tolerant and salt tolerant, it is the perfect plant for the hottest, driest spot in the garden. This shallow-rooted cactus grows in sand or in the crevices between rocks and is also a great choice for a green roof planting. The fleshy, round pads stand upright and produce large, yellow blooms in summer, well visited by pollinators. By autumn, red fruits develop and will remain on the plant into winter. When the weather cools, the pads become wrinkled and flat, which is a strategy to survive — don’t worry if they look shabby during the winter, because they will perk up again.


Where to buy the book

In person: Native Plant Trust’s Garden Shop at Garden in the Woods (180 Hemenway Road in Framingham) or Nasami Farm (Whately)

Online: or at your local independent bookstore

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