9 Best Native Plants for Your Chicago Garden

Close-up of an oakleaf hydrangea leaf and white flowers

You can help Chicago live up to its “City in a Garden” motto by bringing your backyard to life with flowers, trees, and vines native to the Midwest. Native plants are a great way to liven up your outdoor space and help local wildlife while spending less time landscaping. 

The benefits of native plants include:

  • Cost effective: Once established, native plants generally need little to no supplemental water or fertilizer. This means money saved on water bills, irrigation installation, and nitrogen fertilizer.
  • Environmentally friendly: Native plants are less susceptible to pests and diseases so you don’t need to worry about pesticides. Plus, their deep root systems absorb more carbon than non-native species and help prevent flooding.
  • Attract pollinators: Native plants attract birds, bees, and butterflies, encouraging a healthy ecosystem for endangered species.

Have you ever looked across a meadow or a riverbank and thought, how are these wildflowers growing all by themselves while my garden needs constant work? Native plants are adapted to the Illinois landscape. That doesn’t mean you can totally forget about them, but it does mean if planted in the right place, they will thrive.

Remember, this is by no means a comprehensive list. You can find more options for plants that do well in Chicago’s USDA hardiness zones 5b and 6a here, or take a trip to your local garden center and ask someone about native plant sales.

1. Wild bergamot (monarda fistulosa)

The first plant on our list looks like something out of a Dr. Suess story. Wild bergamot features lavender or pink petals extending out from upright tubes in the center. They bring a lively feel to a garden and bloom midsummer. Bumblebees and ruby-throated hummingbirds are drawn to the showy flowers and minty oregano scent.

This flower prefers full to part sun but can do fine in shade too. During dry periods in the Chicago summer, you might notice the lower leaves turning yellow or dropping off. This is a normal reaction to drought. Because of its deep roots, this is a great plant to use for erosion control and stabilization on slopes.

  • Plant type: Flower
  • Hardiness zones: 3-9
  • Sun: Full sun to part shade
  • Water needs: Low to medium
  • Soil: Dry to medium moisture, somewhat poor, well-drained
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 2-4 feet

2. Oakleaf hydrangea (hydrangea quercifolia)

light pink flowers from oakleaf hydrangea
Carol VanHook | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

With creamy white, pyramidal flowers, oakleaf hydrangea is a great shrub option for bordering your home or as an informal hedge. This variety is named for its broad, six-fingered leaves (resembling oak leaves) that have a rich, dark green color. It usually grows between 4 and 6 feet, and its exfoliating bark provides winter interest once the flowers have dropped. 

There are no serious insect or disease problems to worry about with these hydrangeas. If you notice aphids, a strong spray of water a few times a week will clear them off. They’ll thrive in moist soils, so consider adding a layer of mulch around the base to keep moisture in during hot summers. Mulch is helpful in winter, too, especially if you have a plant still getting established. 

  • Plant type: Shrub
  • Hardiness zones: 5-9
  • Sun: Full sun, partial shade
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Moist, rich, well-drained
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 6-8 feet

3. Black cherry (prunus serotina)

black cherry tree
andy carter | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

The black cherry is the largest native cherry tree and highly valued for its wood. In your garden, it provides several seasons of interest: It has bountiful white blooms in spring; green foliage and purple fruit in summer; and orange-red color in autumn. While the bark is toxic, the fruit can be used for jams and jellies.

This tree does best in full sun. It can tolerate average soils but likes moist loam best. Because of its long taproot, transplanting can be difficult. It does have problems with diseases like leaf spot, leaf curl, die back, and fire blight, and with pests like aphids, Japanese beetles, and spider mites.

The black cherry is invaluable to wildlife. Its nectar draws pollinators, its leaves draw helpful insects and caterpillars, and the fruit feeds songbirds, foxes, raccoons, chipmunks, and white-footed mice.

  • Plant type: Tree
  • Hardiness zones: 3-9
  • Sun: Full sun, partial shade
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Average, well-drained, loam
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 50-80 feet

4. Culver’s root (veronicastrum virginicum)

long and skinny stalk with white flowers of a culver's root plant
Tim Green | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

As long as it gets some sun, Culver’s root is an impressive perennial to add to your garden. Its tall spikes of small, tubular light blue or white flowers provide height and texture contrast amid traditional flowers. When it’s in full bloom from June to August, the branching plant resembles a candelabra. 

Culver’s root appreciates moisture, and it may need supplemental watering in the summer. You can plant it in a depression along with other water-loving plants to form a beautiful and environmentally friendly rain garden (a garden that supports itself only using rainwater). 

  • Plant type: Flower
  • Hardiness zones: 3-8
  • Sun: Full sun
  • Water needs: Medium to high
  • Soil: Average, medium to wet, well-drained
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 4-7 feet

5. Garden phlox

vibrant pink flowers from garden phlox
Michele Dorsey Walfred | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Garden phlox adds a smattering of purplish-pink flowers around your yard. The blooms feature five dainty, symmetrical petals that open in July. Some plants get tall enough that they need staking, especially during heavy rain. It’s best to stake them early in the growing season.

When winter arrives, cut your plant back to the ground to rejuvenate it and lessen the risk of powdery mildew. You also can protect against mildew by taking out some stems to create better airflow, or look for cultivars that are mildew resistant. During summer, a layer of mulch helps keep the roots cool. Monitor the soil moisture of this plant, especially during a summer dry spell.

  • Plant type: Flower
  • Hardiness zones: 4-8
  • Sun: Full sun, partial shade
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Fertile, medium moisture, well-drained
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 2-4 feet

6. Foxglove beardtongue (penstemon digitalis)

close-up of a small white flower from foxglove beardtongue
Stephen Horvath | Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0

If you’re looking for a sprinkling of attractive white flowers in your yard, foxglove beardtongue is a great choice. The delicate, bell-shaped flowers bloom in late spring through early summer. In the fall, the leaves turn a beautiful red and green. Its unique name comes from sterile stamen that extends out from the center like a tongue and sports a spiky scruff at the top.

The only common problem with this flower is root rot, which can be avoided by making sure the soil you plant it in is well-draining. You can perform an easy soil test to make sure your soil is suitable. 

  • Plant type: Flower
  • Hardiness zones: 3-8
  • Sun: Full sun
  • Water needs: Low to medium
  • Soil: Average, dry to medium, well-drained
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 3-5 feet

7. Elderberry bush

cluster of dark elderberries within an elderberry bush
JustTooLazy | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Elderberry bush is a sun-loving shrub native to North America. It can grow up to 12 feet tall, though you can control its growth with regular pruning. Its small, white flowers create domed clusters and emit a lemony fragrance. Toward the end of summer, the flowers are replaced by black elderberry fruit. The fruit is edible (and snacked on by birds like pheasants, finches, cardinals, robins, and northern mockingbirds) and touted for its immune-supporting properties.

Elderberry bush thrives in full to partial sun and in moist, loamy soil. After heavy snow or ice, be sure to check your plant for damaged branches and clear them away. In addition, you can shorten the stems or cut it back to the ground in late winter or early spring to rejuvenate the plant. 

  • Plant type: Shrub
  • Hardiness zones: 3-9
  • Sun: Full sun, partial shade
  • Water needs: Medium to high
  • Soil: Medium to wet, well-drained, humusy
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 5-12 feet

8. Sweetgum

close-up of "gumballs" from a sweetgum tree
Mark Bonica | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

If you don’t have a lot of space for a tree but still want a tree that will provide some shade, try the sweetgum. This narrow tree is shaped like a pyramid but becomes more rounded as it ages. Its star-shaped leaves will put on a fiery show in fall with hues of orange, yellow, red, and purple. 

Pick a sunny area to plant your tree. It will thrive in fertile soil rich with organic matter but can handle average soil, too, as long as it’s not overly alkaline. After the flowering season, you’ll notice bristly gumballs that drop to the ground.

  • Plant type: Tree
  • Hardiness zones: 5-9
  • Sun: Full sun
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Average, well-drained, medium moisture
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 60-80 feet

9. Butterfly weed

bright orange clusters of butterfly weed flowers
Rachel Kramer | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

If you need a splash of color and want to attract butterflies to your yard, butterfly weed is a sure bet. Butterfly weed is a member of the milkweed family, which is the only host plant for the endangered Monarch butterfly. You get to feel good about encouraging biodiversity and having a beautiful garden. 

You can identify butterfly weed by its brilliant yellow to bright orange flower clusters. If you want a flower that adds color to your yard from early spring to the first frost, butterfly weed is a perfect choice. It’s easy to care for, even in dry, rocky, or clay soil. It is a plant that thrives in full sun and is drought-resistant. 

  • Plant type: Flower
  • Hardiness zones: 3-9
  • Sun: Full sun
  • Water needs: Dry to medium
  • Soil: Average, dry to medium moisture, well-drained
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 1-2.5 feet 

I want to add native plants, so now what?

Low maintenance, good for the environment, and nice to look at? If you’re sold on native plants like we are, here are the next steps.

  1. Determine your yard’s conditions: Where are the shady areas and places with full sun? Does my soil drain well? Is it rocky, loamy, or clay? This info will help with the next step.
  2. Map it out: Design your garden with your conditions and mind. Try vibrant color combinations like butterfly weed and garden phlox or plants with different seasons of interest.
  3. Get your plants: Decide which plants you want to grow from seed and which you want to try transplanting. Your local nursery can help you choose.

After that, you’re ready to create your very own native landscape. Don’t forget to keep an eye out for butterflies, songbirds, and bees. They’ll definitely be fans of your work!

If you don’t have time to complete these steps yourself, hire a professional landscaping company in the Chicago area. Tell them you want a native garden and they’ll help with design, installation, and maintenance.

Main Photo Credit: normanack | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

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