9 Best Native Plants for Charleston

bright yellow goldenrod

Here in the Holy City, native plants are the angels of lawn care. They’re specifically adapted to thrive in Charleston’s humid, storm-prone climate, making them the perfect addition to your verdant southern lawn.

Advantages of South Carolina native plants:

  • Hurricane-resistant: Native plants stand up to high winds and heavy rain, while non-native plants may get damaged or uprooted during storms. 
  • Low-maintenance: Native plants are adapted to our humid subtropical climate, so they grow strong during hot, humid summers and mild, wet winters without the need for fertilizer and pesticide. 
  • Low water needs: Native plants have long, strong roots that grow well in our sandy coastal soil, so they require little to no additional water. 
  • Pollinator-friendly: Native plants attract a gorgeous assortment of birds, butterflies, and bees.
  • Disease-resistant: While non-native plants and turfgrasses are often susceptible to fungal diseases in our moist climate, native plants stand up to common South Carolina lawn diseases like dollar spot, rust, gray leaf spot, powdery mildew, and anthracnose.

When looking for native plants, check out species that thrive in USDA Hardiness Zones 8b and 9a (where the lowest temperatures are 15 to 25 degrees Fahrenheit). We’re located right on the cusp of the two zones, on South Carolina’s coastal plain.

Palmetto isn’t the only native plant to thrive in the Palmetto State. We’ve compiled a list of the city’s top native plants to give you inspiration for an eco-friendly, low-maintenance lawn that’ll give our historic landscapes a run for their money. (Hear that, Middleton Place?)

1. Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia)

Perfect pyramids of fragrant, showy white flowers make oakleaf hydrangeas a neighborhood showstopper. These native shrubs bloom in late spring (May to June) and flowers last throughout the summer, turning a lovely light pink and purple before fading to tan in fall. 

Flowers aren’t the only eye-catching feature of oakleaf hydrangeas: Emerald green leaves turn red and purple to give your lawn visual appeal through fall and into winter. 

Spread a 1- to 3-inch layer of organic mulch around your oakleaf hydrangea to give roots a nutrient boost and keep the soil moist. Be sure to leave 3 to 6 inches of space between the base of your hydrangea and your mulch ring to prevent internal rot and bark disease. 

Want to preserve your hydrangeas in their summer glory? Cut and dry them for a beautiful bouquet that will last all winter. 

  • Plant type: Deciduous shrub
  • Hardiness zones: 5a-9b
  • Sun: Full sun to partial shade
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Rich, loamy or sandy soil
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 4-8 feet

2. Ear-leaved tickseed (Coreopsis auriculata)

close-up of an ear-leaved tickseed flower
David J. Stang | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0

When it comes to ear-leaved tickseed (AKA mouse-eared coreopsis), South Carolina homeowners are all ears. These daisy-like yellow wildflowers (with leaves shaped like — you guessed it — small ears) are a favorite in Charleston for their tolerance to humidity, deer resistance, and long blooming season.

These mighty perennials blossom from April to June. Deadhead your flowers with scissors or garden shears in mid-summer to keep your tickseed tidy and to encourage another flower display come fall. 

Tickseed is perfect as a border around pathways and in planting beds. If flowers start to spread too much for your liking, give them a healthy trim. They also make great gifts: Divide them in spring, plant them in pretty pots, and give a pop of cheerful color to your neighbors. 

  • Plant type: Wildflower
  • Hardiness zones: 4a-9b
  • Sun: Full sun to partial shade
  • Water needs: Low
  • Soil: Loamy or sandy soil
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 1-2 feet

3. Sabal palmetto

Who can resist planting a palmetto tree in the Palmetto State? Sabal palmettos (also known as cabbage palmettos) are tall, evergreen stunners that stand up to hurricanes, resist deer, and thrive in our salty coastal soil. With beautiful, fragrant white flowers, sabal palmettos were built for Charleston lawns. 

Expect your sabal palmetto to bloom in July and produce purple and black berries in October and November. These berries aren’t ideal for human consumption (they don’t contain much fruit), but they’re a favorite among native birds. 

While sabal palmettos won’t need additional water once established, young transplants require regular watering (two to three times per week, to a depth of 18 inches) for the first six months. With proper care, your sabal palmetto can live for over 100 years!

  • Plant type: Tree
  • Hardiness zones: 7b-11b
  • Sun: Full sun to partial shade
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Wet, loamy or sandy soil with good drainage
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 20-30 feet (can grow over 90 feet in the woods)

4. Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

Black-eyed Susans aren’t just an old reliable. They’re hardy growers that stand strong against deer, drought, and salty soil, and they come in far more colors, shapes, and styles than the traditional yellow petals with black centers.

With new cultivars available, you now have your pick of rich mahogany and orange flowers (“Cherokee sunset” cultivar); deep red flowers with yellow tips (“Moreno” cultivar); and dense, marigold-like double flowers (“Maya rudbeckia” cultivar).

Black-eyed Susans grow tall and upright and bloom from May to July, attracting native birds, bees, and monarch butterflies. Deadhead your black-eyed Susans to encourage fresh blossoms.

Pro Tip: Keep an eye out for slugs on young black-eyed susans. 

  • Plant type: Wildflower
  • Hardiness zones: 3a-8b
  • Sun: Full sun to partial shade
  • Water needs: Low
  • Soil: Loamy, sandy, or clay soil with good drainage
  • Duration: Biennial or short-lived perennial
  • Mature height: 2-4 feet

5. Goldenrod (Solidago species)

There’s a reason that goldenrod is South Carolina’s official state wildflower. These gorgeous perennials grow tall and proud, with single stems that branch out at the top to reveal clusters of showstopping yellow flowers. They’ll catch the attention of your neighbors and beautiful butterflies, bees, and birds.

Known by the Native Americans as “sun medicine,” goldenrod is a member of the aster family that has long been used to treat infections and inflammation. You also can use its flowers and leaves to make tea and garnish soups, salads, and stir-fry dishes.

Gearing up for your next knitting project? Go all-natural and use goldenrod’s rich flower pigment to dye your yarn or fabric. 

Goldenrod is often blamed for seasonal allergies, but the real culprit is the pollen-heavy ragweed, which blooms at the same time (mid-August to early October). 

  • Plant type: Wildflower
  • Hardiness zones: 2a-8b
  • Sun: Full sun
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Rich, loamy or clay soil
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 2-3 feet

6. Sea oats (Uniola paniculata)

For a breezy, beachy lawn look, sea oats are the ornamental grass for you. They’re tall grasses with narrow green leaves, attractive drooping seedheads, and deep roots that prevent erosion and resist heavy winds. Sea oats are an excellent, drought-tolerant beach grass to contrast colorful flowers and evergreen trees. 

Want an ornamental addition for a fresh bouquet or dried floral arrangement? Dry your sea oats! Also, consider wild oats (Uniola latifolia) for a more delicate aesthetic.

  • Plant type: Ornamental grass
  • Hardiness zones: 7a-11b
  • Sun: Full sun
  • Water needs: Low
  • Soil: Sandy soil with good drainage
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 4-6 feet

7. Red maple (Acer rubrum)

Love to see those tiny “helicopters” (AKA samaras) twirl down from the sky in spring? Plant a red maple tree! These tall, deciduous trees are hardy, fast growers that thrive in our hot summers and wet weather.

Red maples (also known as Carolina maple or swamp maple) boast golden and orange fall foliage, delicate red flowers in late winter and early spring, and red-winged samaras in late spring and early summer. Give your red maple a healthy dose of organic mulch to support strong, year-round growth. 

When it comes to a yard with soil compaction, red maples are South Carolina superstars. However, they can be susceptible to pests and diseases. Watch out for insects like aphids, leafhoppers, scale, borers, and diseases like canker, fungal leaf spot, and root rot.

  • Plant type: Tree
  • Hardiness zones: 2a-9b
  • Sun: Full sun, partial shade
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Rich loamy, sandy, or clay soil
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 40-120 feet

8. Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora)

With enormous, creamy white flowers, southern magnolia trees are a slice of Charleston heaven that’ll make you and your neighbors stop and smell the roses — or, in this case, the magnolia blossoms. These evergreens boast attractive, deep green leaves and a delightful floral aroma that sweetens the air in late spring and early summer. 

Southern magnolias are more than just pretty faces. They’re fast growers that resist diseases and pests, grow well in shady areas, and thrive in our highly saline soil. Plus, they’re exceptionally sturdy and can withstand hurricane winds and heavy rain.

As with oakleaf hydrangea and red maple, it’s a good idea to spread a layer of mulch around your southern magnolia to prevent erosion and insulate roots.

  • Plant type: Evergreen tree
  • Hardiness zones: 6a-10b
  • Sun: Can tolerate full sun, but prefers part shade
  • Water needs: High
  • Soil: Acidic, loamy or clay soil with good drainage and high levels of organic matter
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 60-80 feet

9. Dwarf azalea (Rhododendron atlanticum)

A compact shrub with fragrant, funnel-shaped white flowers, dwarf azalea (also known as coastal azalea) is an eye-catching accent piece for shady areas in your front lawn, around fences, or in your butterfly garden.

Their pink-tinged spring blossoms attract a host of pollinators, with special appearances from hummingbirds and specialized bees (Andrena cornelli, known as the “azalea miner”). 

Dwarf azaleas thrive in acidic, sandy soil with good drainage, which makes Charleston soil perfect for healthy growth and lots of blossoms. Just keep an eye out for diseases like leaf spot and powdery mildew and pests like aphids, thrips, and whiteflies. While azaleas are native, they aren’t as resistant to disease and pests as other native species. 

Plant your azaleas in areas with dappled sunlight, as full sun can scorch their leaves. Most dwarf azaleas mature at a height of 2 to 3 feet, but some can grow to 6 feet while others may grow just 1 foot tall. It depends on which variety of dwarf azalea you choose and your soil conditions. 

Note: Do not eat any part of your azalea bush. Azaleas are highly poisonous and can be fatal if consumed.

  • Plant type: Flowering shrub
  • Hardiness zones: 6a-8b
  • Sun: Partial shade
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Light, acidic, sandy soil
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 2-6 feet

Go natural with native plants

Chucktown is famous for its rich history, so why not embrace the plants that have a history here, too? Native plants have been here since far before the colonial days, so they’re old pros when it comes to handling our climate. They’re a low-maintenance, eco-friendly alternative to turfgrasses and disease-prone non-native plants.

Want more inspiration for your Palmetto State lawn? Check out the South Carolina Native Plant Society’s native plant list. Look for plants common to the coastal plain region, like American beautyberry and Virginia sweetspire. Once you’ve picked out your favorite native plants, visit the Lowcountry Native Plant Market

While native plants don’t require much care once established, preparing your lawn, removing turfgrass, and planting your new growers can take some elbow grease — and we all know Charleston’s humidity has a special talent for turning the freshest, cleanest human into a sweaty monster in minutes.

If you’d rather splash the day away at Folly Beach or enjoy a picnic at the Battery, call a team of Lawn Love’s Charleston lawn care pros. They’ll make your lawn as radiant as Rainbow Row while you soak up downtown Charleston.

Main Photo Credit: liz west | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY 2.0

Maille Smith

Maille-Rose Smith is a freelance writer and actor based in New York. She graduated from the University of Virginia. She enjoys watching theatre, reading mysteries, and listening to psychology podcasts. She is an orchid enthusiast and always has a basil plant growing in her kitchen.