11 Best Native Plants for Your Cincinnati Garden

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Monarch butterfly sitting on bright orange butterfly weed

Living in “The Queen City” doesn’t mean your backyard has to look like Gardens of Versailles, but you can definitely impress your neighbors by adding a few native plants to your Cincinnati garden. With harsh Midwest winters and humid summers in Ohio, you’ll benefit from hardy native perennials and annuals that tolerate moist conditions.

Native plants have several advantages for Cincinnati gardeners:

  • Pollinators: Wildflowers provide the perfect ecosystem for butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds.
  • Low-maintenance landscaping: Native plants know how to grow in Cincinnati on their own. They’ll still need care, but not as much as cultivated types.
  • Pest resistant: Many native plants are naturally resistant to deer, rabbits, and insects.

Less maintenance means more time to enjoy the fruits of your labor. We mean that literally – you’ll need free time to munch on your new pawpaw fruit. Cincinnati, Ohio, is in U.S. Department of Agriculture hardiness zones 6a and 6b and receives higher than average rainfall, so keep that in mind when looking for the right plants for your yard. 

Keep reading to find out our picks for the best native plants for Cincinnati, and don’t forget, there are many more native plants to choose from.

1. Pawpaw (asimina triloba

single deep purple pawpaw flower on a branch
Wendell Smith | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Producer of Ohio’s state fruit, the pawpaw tree is a wonderful addition to any Cincinnati backyard. The tree has been in North America for at least five centuries, and its sweet, custard-like fruit with a flavor reminiscent of bananas is a favorite for travelers.

Young pawpaw shrubs need partial shade, which can be achieved with a screen cover. Though the transplanting process is risky for pawpaws, once established, they’re naturally resistant to pests. Pawpaws don’t self-pollinate, so you’ll need a different type of tree within 10-15 feet, and you may need to hand pollinate with a soft paintbrush to produce fruit.

  • Plant type: Tree or shrub
  • Hardiness zones: 5-9
  • Sun: Partial shade during the first year. Once established, pawpaws can handle full sun to full shade.
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Rich, deep, and well-draining
  • Duration: Deciduous perennial
  • Mature height: Between 10-25 feet

2. Black-eyed susan (rudbeckia hirta)

Andres Alvarado | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Making it through the harsh Cincinnati winter deserves a sunny celebration. Black-eyed Susans welcome early spring with their bright yellow daisy-like flowers. They’ll flower the first year you plant them, so you can grow them as an annual or perennial. 

Black-eyed Susans are a great low-maintenance option for your garden. Butterflies and other insects love the nectar, and as they drink it move pollen from one plant to another. Black-eyed Susans do well as a border or in a container and are tolerant of tough conditions. Plant them in moist, well-draining soil, preferably in full sun, when soil temperatures have reached 70 degrees.

  • Plant type: Flower
  • Hardiness zones: 3-7
  • Sun: Full sun
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Moist, well-drained
  • Duration: Perennial or annual
  • Mature height: 2-3 feet

3. Bee balm (monarda bradburiana)

close-up of a pale purple bee balm flower with a bee sitting on top of it
John Lodder | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

If your garden is lacking in life, bee balm is just the thing to revive it. This member of the mint family sports vibrant whorled flowers in red, pink, purple, and white and a spicy, citrusy fragrance. Their showstopper color and memorable scent isn’t just beloved by gardeners; bee balm will bring butterflies, hummingbirds, and, of course, bees to your yard. Not to mention, bee balm is known for its antimicrobial, nervine qualities soothing to the stomach, skin, and mind.

Grow bee balm, also known as bergamot, in moist, rich soil. Bee balm prefers sun but will tolerate shade (but be careful not to give bee balm too much shade, though, because Cincinnati’s humid summers can cause powdery mildew). Another way to prevent the fungus is to water regularly and mulch your plant so the soil doesn’t dry out. Bee balm is generally easy to grow, so don’t stress too much about its care.

  • Plant type: Flower
  • Hardiness zones: 3-9
  • Sun: Full to partial sun
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Rich
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 4 feet

4. Blue false indigo (baptisia australis)

bright bluish-purple flowers from a blue false indigo plant
Fritz Flohr Reynolds | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

There’s nothing false about this plant’s beauty. Blue false indigo is an upright perennial with elegant flowers colored by a deep, twilight blue. With its tolerance for both cooler weather and humidity, it’s perfect for a Cincinnati backyard. After the flowers bloom from spring to early summer, they’re replaced by seed pods that turn charcoal black and make a rattling sound in the breeze.

Blue false indigo takes a few years to go from seed to flower, but it can last a long time in your garden. If you’re after a rounded appearance, trim or shear the foliage after bloom. The leaves can be unattractive in the fall, so cutting them back is recommended. 

  • Plant type: Flower
  • Hardiness zones: 3-9
  • Sun: Full or partial sun
  • Water needs: Low to medium
  • Soil: Drier, well-drained
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 3-4 feet

5. Joe-pye weed (eutrochium fistulosum)

close-up of pink blooms from joe-pye weed
liz west | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

If you prefer a wilder, more unkempt look in your garden, Joe-Pye weeds are a great addition. These hardy perennials will do just fine in Cincinnati winters and hot summers. Though they prefer slightly moist soil, they’ll tolerate a bit of drought. Their feathery crowns of pinkish-lavender blooms appear late in the summer and into fall, so plant them alongside earlier bloomers if you want continuous color. 

Joe-Pye can grow to 6 feet, so give it room in your yard. It’s a wildflower and will spread easily as long as it has enough sun. Pests shouldn’t be a problem, though you can expect visits from butterflies, moths, and bees drawn to the flowers’ vanilla scent.

  • Plant type: Flower
  • Hardiness zones: 4-8
  • Sun: Full sun
  • Water needs: Low
  • Soil: Rocky, sandy, loamy
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 4-6 feet

6. Prairie dropseed (sporobolus heterolepis)

large bush-like plant of prairie dropseed
Joshua Mayer | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Add prairie dropseed to your yard if you want some green that won’t mind when you forget to water it. The warm-season grass has soft, fine-textured leaves that rise and fall in a fountain shape. Fluffy, pyramidal flower clusters in pink and brown shades appear on long stems in late summer. 

This plant tolerates a range of soils and prefers dry, rocky ground. It’s a great addition to a rock garden or your foundation’s border. Don’t forget to stop and smell your prairie grass – you’ll get a whiff of its unique, coriander-like scent.

  • Plant type: Ornamental grass
  • Hardiness zones: 3-9
  • Sun: Full sun
  • Water needs: Low
  • Soil: Clay, dry, rocky
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 2-3 feet

7. Goldenrod (solidago)

close-up of yellow goldenrod flowers
John Benson | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

True to its name, goldenrod sports brilliant, full clusters of yellow flowers that open in the late summer. You can remove spent flowers to encourage more blooms. 

The vibrant color provides a perfect contrast for borders and wild gardens, but be careful to monitor its growth because goldenrod can spread aggressively. The Ohio species has disease-free foliage and is one of the showier types. If you associate these fluffy flowers with a stuffy nose, fret not: Goldenrod’s connection with hay fever is a myth. 

  • Plant type: Flower
  • Hardiness zones: 3-8
  • Sun: Full sun
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Clay, loam, sand
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 2-3 feet

8. Wild hydrangea (hydrangea arborescens)

Clusters of white flowers from a wild hydrangea plant
F. D. Richards | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Wild hydrangea, also known as smooth hydrangea, will thrive in the shadier parts of your garden. The milky white flowers grow in flat clusters from dark green leaves. This deciduous shrub will bloom from June to September.

Since bloom happens on new wood, prune your plant close to the ground at the end of winter to encourage stem growth. You’ll find this shrub growing wild on streambanks and wooded slopes, which means it likes moisture. Cincinnati has enough rainfall to keep wild hydrangea satisfied, but be sure to keep it well-watered if you plant it in a sunnier location.

  • Plant type: Shrub
  • Hardiness zones: 3-9
  • Sun: Partial shade
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Tolerates clay, wet, rocky
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 3-5 feet

9. Wild strawberry (fragaria virginiana)

close-up of bright red wild strawberries with long stems
grabadonut | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

What’s better than celebrating summer by biting into a juicy strawberry you grew yourself? Wild strawberry — with bright green leaves and rounded, white flower petals — spreads by runners that stay low to the ground. The miniature fruits will be smaller than the ones bought in the store, but with the same wonderful flavor you love.

Strawberry plants can do well in areas that get a lot of sun. Because of Cincinnati’s rainfall, you might do well to plant wild strawberry in a raised garden bed where they’re sure to get proper drainage. Wild strawberry also can help with erosion control when planted on slopes.

  • Plant type: Fruit
  • Hardiness zones: 5-9
  • Sun: Full to partial sun 
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Fertile, moist to dry-mesic, well-drained
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: .25-.75 feet

10. Butterfly weed (asclepias tuberosa)

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

This showy milkweed variety is true to its name and is beloved by butterflies. In fact, milkweed is the only host plant for the monarch butterfly. Its orange-yellow flowers bloom from late spring through summer. Prominent, light green seed pods grow after the flowering period.

Drought tolerant, butterfly weed will do just fine in poor soils and without supplemental watering. You can let aphids be eaten by ladybugs or you can remove them with a blast of water. Because of its deep taproot, the plant struggles with transplantation. 

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

11. Ohio buckeye (aesculus glabra)

single buckeye hanging from a ohio buckeye plant
Dan Keck | Flickr | public domain

A list of native plants for Cincinnati isn’t complete without the Ohio buckeye. You’ll get several seasons of delight from this tree. It’s one of the first to bloom in spring and in the fall, the leaves turn a lovely orange and yellow color. With fissured, gray bark, these trees have a dense, round canopy when mature.

Be careful: The seeds may be said to bring good luck, but are poisonous unless boiled and leached. The seeds also are poisonous to your furry friends, too, so think twice before planting a buckeye if you have a curious pet.

  • Plant type: Tree
  • Hardiness zones: 3-7
  • Sun: Full sun to partial shade
  • Water needs: Medium to high – doesn’t tolerate drought
  • Soil: Moist, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Duration: Deciduous perennial
  • Mature height: 20-40 feet

How to Get the Most Out of Your Native Garden

Cincinnati’s options for native wildflowers, trees, and herbs cover every color of the rainbow and are sure to inject life into your yard. Whether you need ground cover, flowers, or something that will provide you with a tasty snack, these plants have you covered.

As with all gardens, native plant placement is important. Try contrasting two bright colors next to each other, like goldenrod and blue false indigo, for a showstopper combo. Shrubs can fill out lackluster areas in your garden.

Finally, don’t forget to put those sweet-smelling plants like bee balm in view of your window – you’ll want a front-row seat to watch your new buzzing friends.

If you’re excited about these native plants but not sure where to start, hire a Cincinnati landscaping professional to help design, install, and maintain your garden.

For more native plants and information on how to care for them, visit the website of the Native Plant Society of Northeastern Ohio.

Main Photo Credit: Kopph | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0

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