11 Best Native Plants for Columbia

Columbia is “Famously Hot,” as the city’s slogan says, so what are the best plants for your garden that can take the heat? Go native. Native plants have adapted to Columbia’s hot summers and mild winters. 

Better yet? Native plants often create a small oasis for birds and pollinators. 

Advantages of native plants:

  • Require less water
  • Fertilizers are unnecessary
  • Less pesticide use
  • No special care in winter
  • Benefit local wildlife

What are the best native plants for your Columbia garden or yard? Lawn Love surveyed the hundreds of options to spotlight 11 best native plants to add color and texture to your home landscaping. 

1. Black cohosh (Actaea racemosa)          

tiny white flowers from a black cohosh
Fritzflohrreynolds | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 3.0

Black cohosh is a woody, deer-resistant perennial native to shady forest edges. The tall flower spikes full of small white pom-pom-like flowers are perfect for the back of a border garden. The lobed leaves make a nice round shape even when not in flower. 

The black cohosh is a host plant for the Spring Azure butterfly, and the dark burgundy fruit and seeds are popular with small birds. The black cohosh’s impressive fall color display often rivals that of a red maple. 

  • Plant type: Flower
  • Hardiness zones: 3a-8b
  • Sun: Prefers dappled shade
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Rich, slightly acidic loam
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 3-5 feet

2. Goldenrod (Solidago spp.)

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

Tall goldenrod is the state wildflower of South Carolina, and it’s easy to see why. Goldenrod’s rich yellow flower display starts in August and continues, in some cases, through November. Bees and butterflies flock to goldenrod for nectar. 

There are several new cultivars of this native. The renewed interest is caused by goldenrod’s desirable blooming season. 

Note: Don’t be afraid of goldenrod, as it doesn’t cause seasonal allergies as you have probably heard. The pollen is thick and heavy so it can’t be caught up in the air to be inhaled. 

  • Plant type: Flower
  • Hardiness zones: 2a-8b
  • Sun: Full sun 
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Tolerant of dry soils
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 2-6 feet

3. Crested iris (Iris cristata)

Crested iris is a woodland perennial that blooms in spring with delicate lavender and white flowers. Crested iris attracts bees and hummingbirds. 

This wildflower spreads by underground rhizomes and will make an impressive clump. Being a woodland native, crested iris does best in dappled shade. 

Note: If your soil is sandy, you’ll need to add some loam to help keep the moisture levels ideal for goldenrod. Don’t overdo the loam or the water or else the crested iris may develop rot on its leaves.

  • Plant type: Flower
  • Hardiness zones: 3a-8b
  • Sun: Shade
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Moist and well-draining
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 4-16 inches

4. Carolina phlox (Phlox carolina)

bright purple Carolina phlox flowers
peganum from Small Dole, England | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 2.0

Carolina phlox is a native flowering perennial that is every bit as lovely as the better known tall garden phlox. The Carolina phlox variety doesn’t suffer from powdery mildew like its better-known cousin.

Carolina phlox blooms May through October, with the heaviest blooming in the hottest parts of summer. It sometimes blooms right up until the first frost. During that time, it provides nectar for hummingbirds and bees. 

Note: Carolina phlox can reproduce by division and will reseed freely without being aggressive.

  • Plant type: Flower
  • Hardiness zones: 5a-9b
  • Sun: Prefers sun but will tolerate shade
  • Water needs: Tolerant of dry conditions
  • Soil: Acidic or neutral clay, loamy, and sandy soils
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 2-3 feet

5. Deciduous azalea (Rhododendron spp)

bright pink rhododendron flowers
Kor!An (Андрей Корзун) | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 3.0

The native deciduous azaleas that brighten the forest all over South Carolina are every bit as impressive as the more popular Asian azaleas. Of the 13 deciduous azalea species native to the U.S., seven have natural populations in the state. One is exclusively found in South Carolina. 

Deciduous azaleas bloom from early spring to mid-summer with flowers of white, sweet azalea- pink, piedmont azalea-yellow, orange, and red. Along with the main species, there are many named hybrids and cultivars available. 

Deciduous azaleas, as the name implies, have leaves that change color in autumn, which adds some more color to your landscape. The native species in this group, like magnolias and evergreen azaleas, should have a place in every southern garden.

  • Plant type: Shrub
  • Hardiness zones: Depends on the species, typically 7a-9b
  • Sun: Shade with morning sun is best
  • Water needs: Medium water after established
  • Soil: Acidic, well-draining soil
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: Ranges from 2-15 feet depending on species

6. Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia)

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

Oakleaf hydrangea is a medium to large woody shrub with leaves that are bright green in summer and deep burgundy in fall. The flowers are tiny, hidden in creamy white bracts in clusters at the ends of the branches. 

The bracts (flowers) turn pink as the summer progresses. They hang on through autumn and into winter, giving interest late into winter. The flowers are perfect for dried flower arrangements. 

The flowers have a honey scent and are a magnet for bees. Oakleaf hydrangeas grow and bloom best in sun, but should be protected from the afternoon sun. Plant them along an east-facing wall or the eastern or southern edge of a tree line. 

  • Plant type: Shrub
  • Hardiness zones: 5a-9b
  • Sun: Full sun to partial shade
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Well-draining soils with high organic matter
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 4-8 feet

7. American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)

close-up of bright purple berries from a beautyberry plant, found in Inidiana
Jeff Herman

American beautyberry, a medium-size shrub, is a standout with round clusters of purple berries — like Barney the dinosaur purple — which ripen in late June or July. The berries are a favorite food of bobwhite and other berry-eating birds. 

The American beautyberry grows with slightly arching branches, giving it a fountain shape. In the spring, a ball of small pink flowers appears at each leaf node. 

Note: There is a Japanese plant species that looks similar but is much more prolific and very invasive. Check with your garden center to make certain it’s American beautyberry you’re buying.

  • Plant type: Shrub
  • Hardiness zones: 8a-10b
  • Sun: Full sun to partial shade
  • Water needs: Low
  • Soil: Loamy or sandy soils
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 4-8 feet

8. Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata)

vibrant crossvine flowers with yellow petals and red centers
Melissa McMasters | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Crossvine blooms early and is a nectar source for butterflies and hummingbirds. The trumpet-shaped flowers are produced in clusters of two to five and can be yellow with a red throat, red with a yellow throat, or brick red. There are cultivars that are solid yellow, bright red, and peach. 

The foliage is thick and glossy, and it’s evergreen. In winter, cross vine’s foliage takes on a purple hue, and deer will graze on the lower leaves. Most of the flowers are produced above 6 feet, so the deer seldom cause a problem for them. 

Crossvine climbs trees using tendrils and holdfasts, small adhesive pads at the tendril ends. The holdfasts allow crossvine to climb rocks and walls, so be careful where you plant it. 

Note: Crossvine is a good alternative to the non-native Japanese honeysuckle so often planted in the South.

  • Plant type: Vine
  • Hardiness zones: 6a-9b
  • Sun: Full sun to partial shade
  • Water needs: Low to medium
  • Soil: Sandy, loamy, and clay soils
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: Climbs up to 50 feet

9. Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens)

Large bush with yellow flowers of Carolina jessamine
Surely Shirly | Flickr | CC0 1.0

Carolina jessamine, South Carolina’s state flower, is a twining vine that blooms with clusters of yellow, sweetly fragrant flowers. The flowers can begin in December and bloom through spring, sometimes with another short burst in early autumn. 

Carolina jessamine can reach 20 feet in length, but not quickly. The old gardening adage, the first year it sleeps, the second year it creeps, the third year it leaps, is very appropriate with Carolina jessamine. 

Carolina jessamine is tolerant of drier soil, but not too dry, so add a good layer of mulch when planting. Choose the location carefully. Try to avoid planting near small trees and shrubs, because eventually Carolina jessamine will cover them.

  • Plant type: Vine
  • Hardiness zones: 7a-10b
  • Sun: Full sun to partial shade
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Well-draining and acidic clay, sandy, or loamy soils
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: Climbs up to 20 feet

10. Pink muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris)

Pink muhly grass blowing in the wind
Paul Brennan | Pixabay

Pink muhly grass is native perennial grass with much appeal. The needle-like green foliage makes a thick clump that can be used on slopes to stop erosion or planted in your home garden to provide an accent. For the most impact, plant in larger groupings so the long plumes of pink are concentrated. 

In autumn the plumes turn a dark brown and are full of seeds that are great feeding spots for smaller seed-eating birds. When blooming en masse the display is truly magnificent, especially if you can enjoy the plumes with the evening sun shining through them.

  • Plant type: Ornamental grass
  • Hardiness zones: 5a-9b
  • Sun: Full sun
  • Water needs: Low 
  • Soil: Clay, loamy, sandy, and shallow rocky soils
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 1-3 feet

11. Palmetto palm (Sabal palmetto)

large grouping of sable palms
James St. John | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

The Palmetto palm, South Carolina’s state tree, is a great addition for your native plant garden. Its fan-shaped blue-green leaves give a tropical feel to any yard. Bonus points: You don’t have to worry about palmetto palms freezing here in South Carolina. 

Palmetto palms grow in full sun and need no special care, unless you want to trim off the old growth. Palmettos do bloom in June and are a great source of nectar for honeybees, and the honey is wonderful. 

Plant Palmetto palms in groups or as a single specimen, depending on your space and your desired effect. As a moderate-growing palm, it grows about 3 feet per year.

  • Plant type: Palm
  • Hardiness zones: 8a-11b
  • Sun: Full sun to full shade
  • Water needs: Low
  • Soil: Loamy or sandy soils
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: Up to 100 feet

Native plants are colorful and a whole lot less work

Native plants just make sense for your Columbia garden. You’ll be surprised how much color they produce and how much less work they require to thrive in your yard. 

Want an expert’s help to pick the best native plants for your home’s unique landscape or to produce a variety of colorful flowers? Contact a Lawn Love pro near you. Or, for even more information about native plants, visit the website of the SCNPS – South Carolina Native Plant Society.

Main Photo Credit: Calmuziclover | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Tim Hill

Tim Hill, who lives in Tampa, Florida, has been gardening since an early age, starting with a famous mail-order nursery’s 15-cent kids pack of mixed seeds. Not being a typical child he separated the seeds into like piles to plant together and began the journey of seed recognition. That morphed into a lifelong hobby of plant identification. As a dear friend once said, “A simple walk in the woods with Tim is not just a walk, it’s an educational experience!”