9 Best Native Plants for Your Detroit Garden

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Close-up of a butterfly on orange and yellow flowers, resembling butterfly weed

Kick your Motor City garden into gear by planting native trees, vines, and wildflowers. Your landscape will thrive with plants that celebrate Detroit’s distinct seasons and tolerate the urban area’s varying soil conditions. Not to mention, a native garden means less work for you. Sounds like a win, right?

Pros of native plants for Michigan gardeners:

  • Adaptable: Urban environments often have unpredictable soil. Many of these plants are drought tolerant and can do well in poor soil conditions.
  • Biodiversity: We know you’ve heard of the birds and the bees, but what about the butterflies? Native plants attract all kinds of interesting pollinators.
  • Low-maintenance: A lot of native plants are resistant to pests and need less maintenance than non-native varieties.

Because these plants are often resistant to disease and insects, there’s less need for pesticides. That means more peace of mind and less money spent on plant care. Fewer chemicals in your yard is good for the environment, too. And with their pollinator appeal, these plant species contribute to a healthy ecosystem all around.

These are our favorites, but there are many more native species to explore. If all these options seem overwhelming, narrow it down by determining your ground’s qualities with a soil test.

1. New England aster (symphyotrichum novae-angliae)

grouping of purple New England aster with a moth sitting on one
Steve Byrne | Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0

The New England Aster is a classic choice for native flowers. It sports lavender to deep violet petals with a golden center. The daisy-like flower blooms late summer to early fall – plant it alongside spring and summer bloomers so you always have something flowering. 

Growing this plant from seed is easy. Though it prefers moist, rich soil, it tolerates a range of conditions and can do fine in full sun to light shade. Don’t worry about forgetting to water this plant, because it can thrive on rainwater alone. If you’re trying to avoid staking the plant, you can cut back stems in June and early July to encourage bushiness. Otherwise, it can grow up to 6 feet high.

  • Plant type: Flower
  • Hardiness zones: 4-8
  • Sun: Full sun
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Moist, rich, well-draining
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 3-6 feet

2. Butterfly weed (asclepias tuberosa)

bright orange butterfly milkweed
Sharon Sullivan | Lawn Love

Butterfly weed is a fantastic addition to any backyard, especially for beginner gardeners. The vibrant flowers range from marigold to tiger orange and are sure to bring a lively pop of color to your landscape in the summer. True to its name, butterfly weed will bring new winged friends to your backyard.

If you’ve had trouble keeping your new plants alive in the past, butterfly weed might be an easier option. It’s a hardy plant that tolerates drought and poor soil. Transplanting can be tricky, though, and it’ll take two to three years to flower if grown from seed. The only pest to look out for is aphids, which can be knocked off with a strong spray of water.

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

3. Virgin’s bower (clematis virginiana)

white flowers on a vine of virgin's bower
Virginia State Parks | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Also known as Devil’s Darning Needles, Old Man’s Beard, and woodbine, Virgin’s bower is a native vine found in wet environments like stream banks. Its cascading, small white flowers bloom from August to October, ensuring a graceful transition from summer into fall. After blossom, long, wispy seed heads appear (looking, yes, something like an old man’s beard!). 

It can tolerate a range of soils, but be careful not to plant it in soil that’s overly sandy or rocky. This vine will spread horizontally without stakes as a ground cover or will climb as high as 20 feet with support. Try growing it on an arbor for a beautiful entryway to your garden. It can be an aggressive spreader, so be prepared to cut it back.

  • Plant type: Vine
  • Hardiness zones: 3-8
  • Sun: Partial sun preferred
  • Water needs: Medium to high
  • Soil: Loamy, silty, well-drained
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 12-20 feet

4. Black-eyed Susan (rudbeckia hirta)

grouping of bright yellow black-eyed susans
Jim, the Photographer | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Black-eyed Susans are the perfect plant to get you through winter. They add a little sunshine when they appear in spring with their large, daisy-like yellow flowers and dark centers. This is a great plant for any Michigan gardener who wants to attract butterflies, bees, and other insects to their yard. 

It’s also suitable for impatient gardeners because it blooms the first year after planting from seed. Grow it in a container or in the ground as a border. While it prefers moist, rich soil, it can do just fine in average soils of medium wetness. It will survive heat and drought just fine without the need for extra watering.

  • Plant type: Wildflower
  • Hardiness zones: 3-7
  • Sun: Full sun, partial shade
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Acidic, rich, well-drained
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 15-25 feet

5. Blackhaw viburnum (viburnum prunifolium)

bunches of white flowers from a blackhaw viburnum shrub
Kayja Schulz | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Grown as a shrub or small tree, you’ll find this native plant growing on streambanks and throughout moist woods. Among the dark green foliage are domed clusters of white flowers that open in May. In fall, yellow berries ripen to rich, blue-black drupes and the foliage turns a showy burgundy color. Blackhaw’s berries are beloved by birds, so be sure to take time to get acquainted with your new visitors. 

Blackhaw is a resilient, low-maintenance shrub. It can thrive in poor soil and tolerate drought. It has no serious insect or disease problems. The only care you’ll want to focus on is pruning right after flowers bloom so the flower buds for the next summer can form.  

  • Plant type: Shrub
  • Hardiness zones: 3-9
  • Sun: Full sun, part shade
  • Water needs: Dry to medium
  • Soil: Average, clay, dry, well-drained
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 12-15 feet

6. Little bluestem (schizachyrium scoparium)

close-up of ornamental grass little bluestem
David J. Stang | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0

If you’re looking to fill a lackluster corner in your garden, consider adding an ornamental grass like little bluestem. Not only will it add texture, but it also provides color year-round. The blue-green stems form dense, fluffy mounds in the spring, then adopt a bright rust color throughout fall and most of winter. You can spot dark purple flowers in August and white seed tufts rising out of the bunches in fall.

This is a resilient grass that grows freely in prairies, clearings, and glades. It’s one of the most low-maintenance plants on this list with no serious problems with insects or disease. You can rest easy knowing it thrives in a variety of soil types and is tolerant of drought, high temperatures, and humidity once well established.

  • Plant type: Ornamental grass
  • Hardiness zones: 3-9
  • Sun: Full sun
  • Water needs: Low to medium 
  • Soil: Dry to medium, average, well-drained
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 2-4 feet

7. Trembling aspen (populus tremuloides)

golden leaves and white bark of a trembling aspen tree
Dave Shaver | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

The aspen is a mighty tree, and the trembling or “quaking” aspen is no exception. It’s a tall, graceful tree that features beautiful white bark and rounded green leaves that shiver in the slightest breeze. If you listen closely, you’ll hear a constant fluttering noise. This tree will add spring green, fall gold, and delightful movement to your backyard.

Trembling aspen requires more maintenance than other native plants on this list, so be sure to assess your soil and water it generously. It prefers a minimum of four hours of direct sunlight each day.

Healthy aspen can live as long as 150 years, though you’ll also hear an aspen “clone” in Minnesota is estimated to be 8,000 years old, making it one of the oldest living organisms in the world. What’s that about? Aspens grow in stands (referred to as clones) that reproduce by sprouting from their roots, resulting in pretty much all the trees in a clone being connected via their root system. 

  • Plant type: Tree
  • Hardiness zones: 1-6
  • Sun: Full, partial sun
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Rich, moist, well-drained
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 20-50 feet

8. Swamp milkweed (asclepias incarnata)

cluster of small pink swamp milkweed
Justin Meissen | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

True to its name, you’ll usually find swamp milkweed in wet meadows, river bottomlands, and, you guessed it, swamps. Though the word “swamp” can conjure images of threatening vines, algae-infested water, and soggy monsters, there’s nothing dark about this delicate pink flower. Swamp milkweed’s tightly clustered, fragrant blooms come in colors from mauve to rosy purple with white centers. 

Though it’s found naturally in wet environments, it’s also tolerant of average, well-drained soils. No need to worry about pests – the only visitors you’ll attract are pollinators. In fact, swamp milkweed is an important food source for the endangered Monarch butterfly.

  • Plant type: Flower
  • Hardiness zones: 3-6
  • Sun: Full sun
  • Water needs: Medium to high
  • Soil: Average, well-drained, medium to wet
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 4-5 feet

9. Ninebark (physocarpus opulifolius)

pale pink and white flowers of ninebark
Peter Stenzel | Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0

Ninebark is a great choice if you’re looking for a versatile shrub to provide privacy or borders. When your summer flowers have dropped, this plant will provide winter interest because of its “exfoliating bark.” The shrub’s bark peels back to reveal layers of different colors from reddish to light brown. That’s where ninebark gets its name. 

In the summer, the bark is mostly hidden by green foliage with round clusters of white or pink flowers. In the fall, the flowers are replaced by red seed heads. Prune it minimally to retain its natural shape, but cut dead or damaged branches in early spring. Ninebark is a tough shrub that is hardy through the winter. Because Detroit is on the northern end of its preferred hardiness zones, it benefits from some sun.

  • Plant type: Shrub
  • Hardiness zones: 2-8
  • Sun: Full sun, partial sun
  • Water needs: Low to medium
  • Soil: Average, slightly acidic, dry to medium moisture
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 5-8 feet

Creative uses for native plants

Now that you have a place to start with your native plant garden, think of the possibilities! These wildflowers, vines, and trees aren’t just pretty. Here are a few ways to utilize your new plants and take your landscape to the next level.

Try creating a…

  • Butterfly sanctuary: Your yard will not only be the delight of neighbors and kids, but also contribute to important wildlife conservation. To attract a rainbow of winged pollinators, plant swamp milkweed, butterfly weed, and black-eyed Susans.
  • Rain garden: A rain garden is a garden planted in a depression like a natural slope that collects rainwater to support itself. That means no more hauling out the sprinkler or paying for a complex irrigation system. Instead, try installing plants that tolerate moist conditions like New England aster, blackhaw viburnum, and swamp milkweed.

Whatever design you decide on, rest easy knowing your native garden is a good choice for wildlife, the earth, and your wallet. 

Even though native plants are less maintenance, they’ll still need care. Hire a landscaping professional in the greater Detroit area to lend a helping hand with design, installation, and routine maintenance.

Main Photo Credit: Pexels

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