13 Best Native Plants for Louisville

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Close-up of great blue lobelia flowers

Native plants for Louisville-Jefferson County have flourished in the area since it was all swampland and no settlers. These plants can pretty much take care of themselves under the right conditions and won’t need much (if any) care from you if you plant them in your landscape. 

Advantages of Kentucky native plants:

  • Low-maintenance: Native plants need far less watering, fertilization, weed control, pest control, and other maintenance than non-natives. 
  • Drought-tolerant: Because they’re adapted to Kentuckiana’s climate, native plants continue to thrive through those occasional periods of drought.
  • Ready for winter: Even when the weather forecast calls for heavy snow, you won’t need to worry about covering or heating native plants. They’ve got frost protection covered on their own. 

How to choose native plants for your Louisville yard:

Not all Kentucky natives will be suited for your specific yard. There are three main factors you have to consider when choosing any plants for your landscape, even native plants: hardiness zone, sun exposure, and soil type.

Parts of the Louisville-Jefferson County area fall under U.S. Department of Agriculture hardiness zone 7a, where the absolute coldest winter temperatures are around 0 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit, and other parts fall under zone 6b, where temps can drop as low as -5 degrees Fahrenheit. You need to know which zone your home is in and choose plants hardy enough for that zone. 

You also have to think about the amount of sun your yard gets (full sun, partial shade, or full shade) because some native plants will only do well under certain light conditions. Your soil type (whether rocky, sandy, loamy, clay, or limestone-based, to name a few) also will determine which native plants can grow successfully in your yard.

Before you ask — no, you won’t find mint juleps on our list of native plants, no matter how native they are to Louisville and the Derby. But you will find flowers, ground covers, vines, trees, shrubs, ornamental grasses, and ferns to meet all your landscaping needs. On your mark, get set, grow: here are the 13 best native plants for Louisville.  

1. Coral honeysuckle (lonicera sempervirens)

Coral honeysuckle is a good climbing vine if you’re looking to add some decoration to a trellis, pergola, fence, or around the base of a tree. It can grow in a bunchy, bushy habit if you want it to, and some people even use it as ground cover. 

The flowers of the coral honeysuckle plant are delicate and lovely to look at. They sort of resemble thin orangish-red tubes, with yellow stamens poking out of the end. Individual flowers grow in clusters that dangle from the vine itself. Their blooming season is usually March through June, when they attract several pollinators, in particular hummingbirds. You’ll get the most flowersif the vine is in full sun. 

The leaves of the coral honeysuckle are evergreen, which means they stay on the plant all year, including winter. In some cases, the vine may spread aggressively, but you can always prune it back if it grows too large for your liking. 

  • Plant type: Vine
  • Hardiness zones: 4a-9b
  • Sun: Full sun, partial shade
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Sandy, loamy, clay
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: Climbs up to 20 feet

2. Crossvine (bignonia capreolata)

If you want a slightly more impactful climbing vine, crossvine has the potential to climb quite a bit higher than coral honeysuckle, and its flowers are showier. Crossvine’s large, trumpet-shaped, golden and garnet blooms show up from March through May most years. Sometimes the tropical flowers are a lighter pinkish color instead. 

Outside of its blooming season, the vine will still keep its waxy, spear-shaped, evergreen leaves, which turn a purplish red as temperatures cool. Crossvine’s cold-season color is perfect if you’re looking for a plant to accent your lawn and landscape in fall and winter. 

Unlike many other vines, crossvine doesn’t need supports to climb up or trail along trees, fences, or stone walls thanks to small adhesive pads at the end of its tendrils. 

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

3. Eastern redbud (cercis canadensis)

The eastern redbud tree is a real showstopper in spring when light pink flowers bloom on bare maroon branches before new leaves grow. There’s a tradeoff for that spring beauty in that this deciduous tree loses all its leaves in fall and looks rather bare in winter. Flowers appear in early spring, usually from March to May. The tree provides a lot of architectural interest with its horizontal branches.

Eastern redbud trees can grow one or multiple trunks, from which branches spread out in a roundish crown. These trees often grow naturally along the banks of streams and rivers, and they’ll do best in moist but well-draining soil. Eastern redbud could be a particularly good choice for you if you live close to the Ohio River or another natural body of water. 

Though the eastern redbud’s flowers are mostly prized for their looks, you also can eat them. Mature flowers and flower buds have a sour taste and are high in vitamin C. 

Don’t confuse this native tree with the western redbud (Cercis orbiculata), which is an entirely separate species that grows in the drier climates of Arizona to California. 

  • Plant type: Tree
  • Hardiness zones: 4b-9a
  • Sun: Full sun, partial shade
  • Water needs: Low
  • Soil: Sandy, loamy, clay, limestone-based; moist, well-drained
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 20-30 feet

4. Great blue lobelia (lobelia siphilitica)

Great blue lobelia will pull its weight in your flower garden in fall, when spring perennials have gone dormant for the year. Its tiny flowers range in color from light blue to lavender, and they appear in upright clusters climbing up the tip of the stem. You’ll usually see these flowers between July and October. 

Beware that even though great blue lobelia is a Louisville-area native, it isn’t very drought-tolerant. It needs moist soil conditions to thrive, which means you’ll likely have to water it sometimes if you don’t live in a part of town with naturally wet soil (like near the Ohio River). When deciding where to plant great blue lobelia, keep in mind that soil in full sun tends to be drier than in shade because the heat from the sun evaporates moisture. 

Fun fact: Great blue lobelia earned its slightly suggestive scientific name (we were all thinking it) because Native Americans used to think it could treat syphilis. Don’t try using this plant as a home remedy, though, because overdosing could kill you. 

  • Plant type: Flower
  • Hardiness zones: 4a-9b
  • Sun: Full sun, partial shade
  • Water needs: Medium to high
  • Soil: Sandy, loamy, clay 
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 2-3 feet

5. New England aster (symphyotrichum novae-angliae)

New England aster is another fall bloomer. One New England aster plant will produce several small, daisy-like flowers with light purple petals around bright yellow centers from August until October. In the wild they are found in meadows and along roadsides.

These asters do well in several types of soil, and you can plant them in any spot where they’ll get at least a few hours of sunlight a day. This flower is so easy to grow that it often spreads a little too much and overpowers other plants. It’s what you might call an aggressive spreader. You can trim back the plant if it gets too big for its britches. They make great fresh-cut flowers.

New England asters are the perfect plant for starting a pollinator garden. Many species of bees and butterflies swarm these flowers, especially monarch butterflies. It serves as a host for checkerspot and pearl crescent butterfly larvae. 

  • Plant type: Flower
  • Hardiness zones: 4a-8b
  • Sun: Full sun, partial shade
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Sandy, loamy, clay; rich, well-drained
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 3-6 feet

6. Prairie dropseed (sporobolus heterolepis)

Prairie dropseed is an ornamental bunchgrass that forms round puffballs of very fine, bright green leaves. In the hottest part of summer, you’ll notice tufts of tan or brown seemingly floating around the tips of the leaves. These are the plant’s seedheads. The bloom has a unique coriander fragrance. In fall, the foliage turns a golden hue. 

Because this plant has “prairie” in its name, you can tell it likes lots of sun and doesn’t need much water to survive. Prairie dropseed is one of the best Kentucky natives to plant if you’re trying to create a water-wise, drought-tolerant landscape. 

One of the most popular ways to use prairie dropseed in the landscape is to plant several individual bunches in a line along the border of a plant bed or driveway.

  • Plant type: Grass
  • Hardiness zones: 3a-9b  
  • Sun: Full sun
  • Water needs: Low 
  • Soil: Sandy, rocky, clay
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 2-3 feet

7. Rusty blackhaw (viburnum rufidulum)

Rusty blackhaw is an excellent ornamental tree because it offers interesting colors in both spring and fall. In early spring, bulbous clusters of tiny white flowers stand out against the shiny, dark green leaves. Then in fall, those leaves turn a brilliant burgundy. It gets its name from the rusty brown hairs that grow on the underside of its leaves and stems.

Depending on how you prune it, you can grow rusty blackhaw as either a shrub or tree. Its look is most effective as a smallish tree, usually with multiple trunks and a spreading crown that sort of fountains out from the center if you let it grow naturally and don’t prune it into a particular shape. 

Beware that this tree is a slow grower. Don’t be surprised if you see less than a foot of growth per year, although you sometimes get up to 2 feet per year. 

  • Plant type: Tree
  • Hardiness zones: 5a-9b  
  • Sun: Full sun, partial shade
  • Water needs: Low
  • Soil: Sandy, loamy, clay, rocky, limestone-based
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 15-25 feet

8. Sensitive fern (onoclea sensibilis)

The sensitive fern has unusual ridged leaves that resemble several pea pods lined up on either side of a stem. This might be a good plant to fill shady space in the yard if you want something a little more special than the typical feathery look of most ferns. 

As is the case with pretty much any fern, this one needs a lot of water to thrive and doesn’t tolerate drought. For that reason, this plant is well-suited to rain gardens. 

Sensitive fern gets its name from the fact that it doesn’t do very well with freezing temperatures. It sometimes turns black after the first frost of the year. 

  • Plant type: Fern
  • Hardiness zones: 4a-8b
  • Sun: Partial shade, full shade
  • Water needs: Medium to high
  • Soil: Sandy, loamy, limestone-based
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 2-4 feet

9. Spicebush (lindera benzoin)

Spicebush is so named because both its leaves and fruit give off a pleasant spicy scent. You can brew the leaves for a fragrant tea or dry out the fruits and crush them up to use as a spice. 

But its potential in the kitchen isn’t what makes this fast-growing shrub such a great addition to home landscapes. The main appeal of spicebush is its vibrant golden-yellow leaves in fall. The plant also provides some visual interest in early spring, usually around April, when it produces tiny yellow flowers on bare branches. 

Keep in mind that spicebush is deciduous, which means it has no leaves in winter. If you’re looking for a shrub to create a hedge or windbreak, this probably isn’t the best choice. That being said, it’s a stunner as an ornamental bush in plant beds. 

  • Plant type: Shrub
  • Hardiness zones: 5a-9a 
  • Sun: Full sun, partial shade
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Sandy, loamy, limestone-based; well-drained
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 8-15 feet

10. Swamp milkweed (asclepias incarnata)

Swamp milkweed is a beautiful bright pink variety of the milkweed family, all species of which are known as an important food source for monarch butterflies. The flowers of the swamp milkweed are small and intricate, and they grow together in showy clusters which feature various shades of pink. 

So how is a swamp plant native to a place like Kentucky? Remember, native plants grew in the area long before we came along. Before it was drained and settled, a lot of the Louisville area used to be swamplands. Swamp milkweed thrived in the wet, mucky swamp then, and it can thrive in your landscape today provided the soil stays moist enough. 

Because swamp milkweed likes muddy conditions, it’s one of few plants that tolerates even the heaviest, poorest draining clay soils. 

  • Plant type: Flower
  • Hardiness zones: 3a-6b 
  • Sun: Full sun
  • Water needs: High
  • Soil: Clay
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 3-5 feet

11. Switchgrass (panicum virgatum)

Switchgrass is a tall, upright ornamental grass that can reach up to 6 feet. During the blooming season of August to October, delicate purplish-red seedheads adorn the tops of the bright green grass blades. In fall, this grass turns a pale yellow (don’t worry, it’s not dying, and it will be back to green come spring). 

No matter what your soil type, switchgrass can probably grow successfully in your yard. It likes everything from dry to moist conditions, and it’s even OK in soils with poor drainage. 

Switchgrass is great for native wildlife. All kinds of birds use it as a food source, cover from predators, and a source of material for nests. Don’t be surprised if you see a lot more birds hanging around your yard after planting switchgrass. Though it’s beloved by birds, switchgrass is highly deer-resistant, so you usually won’t have to worry about deer trampling a plant bed bordered with switchgrass.

  • Plant type: Grass
  • Hardiness zones: 5a-9b 
  • Sun: Full sun, partial shade
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Sandy, loamy, clay, limestone-based
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 3-6 feet

12. Wild blue phlox (phlox divaricata)

Looking to replace your thirsty, high-maintenance grass with a native ground cover that will be less work to take care of? Wild blue phlox might be an option. Also known as wild sweet William, this ground cover creates a blanket of pretty little blue to light purple flowers. 

Note that the stems of wild blue phlox can sometimes grow up to 18 inches high, which is taller than many other ground covers and may not be ideal for your landscape. However, the plant’s foliage grows low to the ground to form the mat appearance of a typical ground cover. 

  • Plant type: Ground cover
  • Hardiness zones: 3a-8b
  • Sun: Partial shade, full shade
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Sandy, loamy, clay; rich, well-drained
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 8-18 inches 

13. Wild hydrangea (hydrangea arborescens)

Wild hydrangea shrubs grow in a mound shape, so it’s typically wider than it is tall. The branches often droop toward the ground, especially when laden with heavy flowers. Flowers grow in huge, creamy-white clusters that typically appear in midsummer, from June to August. 

These shrubs will grow fast, but fast growth usually means brittle, short-lived growth. It’s a good idea to cut wild hydrangea down to the ground in winter to keep the weak branches from breaking as a result of frost. 

Because it grows so quickly, wild hydrangea tends to spread. If you want to contain the shrub and keep it from growing outside of a particular area, remove the suckers that it uses to spread. 

  • Plant type: Shrub
  • Hardiness zones: 3a-9b 
  • Sun: Full sun, partial shade
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Loamy
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 3-5 feet

Louisville native plants make gardening easier than ever 

Are you tired of keeping up with schedules for watering, fertilizing, and pest control? There’s an easier way. Louisville-Jefferson County native plants don’t need you to coddle them in order for them to thrive. You can have a variety of plants without all the hassle that comes with non-natives. 

Do you know what’s even easier than planting and taking care of native plants? Hiring a professional gardener to do it for you! Local garden pros are experts in native plants, the best places to plant them, and how to maintain them. 

Main Photo Credit: Doug McGrady | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

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