Landscaping went through a long period of people choosing plants simply because they looked pretty. Lately, however, there’s been a shift toward both form and function. Homeowners, businesses and landscapers are increasingly understanding the importance of using native plants in projects.

According to the National Audubon Society, native plants matter because they’re adapted to local environmental conditions and they often require far less water, saving time, money and that most valuable natural resource, water. Natives provide vital habitat for birds and many other species of wildlife benefit too.

At Cultivate’22, Elliott Duemler, native perennial manager for Taylor Creek Restoration Nurseries in Douglas County, KS, presented a fast-paced listing of his favorite Midwest natives during “Demystifying Native Plants for Use in Designed Landscapes.” He said utilizing natives is “where beauty meets ecology.”

“People are sick of ‘meatballs in mulch,’” Duemler said of the played-out design of a single plant poised near nothing else. “They want rich, diverse plantings, things that create their own mulch. We want to do things to help, even reducing the amount of lawn they’re mowing.” The goal, he added, is to mimic Mother Nature – to create an ecosystem.

Below are some of the plants Duemler is advocating for:

  • Pussytoes (Antennaria neglecta, A. plantagnifolia, A. parlinii) – Reaching six to 12 inches, they spread into dense patches for a strong ground cover and do well in dry soils and part to full sun
  • Wild calamint – Growing six to 12 inches, it spreads widely, needs full sun, prefers slightly moist soils and is a cool season grower
  • Robin’s plantain – Reaching a height of 18 to 24 inches and a spread of 12 to 24 inches, this flower that looks like a daisy provides great ground cover for dappled sun and is a cool season grower
  • Wild strawberry – Best in part to full sun and in dry soils, this is a win-win-win for those who plant it: it works as a ground cover, it grows well around taller plants and people can eat the fruits
  • Virginia waterleaf – Spreading and growing from 12 to 24 inches, it likes average to moist soil and part shade to part sun; it greens up early, stays green through autumn and was described as “a thriver”
  • False dandelion – It looks like the real deal and reseeds in gaps well; its flowers close at night, so they can last a while
  • Packera species – Spreading and growing from 12 to 24 inches, they are easy to grow, “awesome” to fill in space, have nearly evergreen basal foliage and are cool season growers

Duemler waxes poetic when he talks about the various Carex species, though. Carex is a large genus of more than 2,000 species of grass-like plants commonly referred to as sedges. “I am a sedge-head,” he joked. But he believes sedges are beginning to replace a lot of more traditional sections of sod in lawns because of their aesthetic and the lower amount of maintenance they require.

Using plants that belong in a certain region and provide more than the “meatball in mulch” look is becoming more popular. Landscapers and homeowners are moving toward more native plant use.

There were 18 species he pointed out as great options for Midwest landscapers. Briefly, with his descriptions, they are:

  • Carex albicans, white tinge sedge – Mound-forming, a clumper, nice for mass plantings
  • C. annectens, yellowfruit sedge – Good ground cover; nice, wispy appearance
  • C. blanda, Eastern woodland sedge – Coarser texture, performs really well in heavy clay soils; the downside is they will yellow out when dry and in full sun, but will green up again quickly
  • C. brevior, plains oval sedge – Does well in sandy soils; post-flower/late summer; it does flop over but it will smother weeds in doing so
  • C. grayi, bur sedge – Stays upright really well; its seed has deep dormancy
  • C. grisea, wood gray sedge – Greens up really early, being almost “evergreen”
  • C. jamesii, James’ sedge – Currently there’s only one opportunity a year to grow it now, so supply and demand are low; in a lawn, it reseeds great and can almost become a turf
  • C. lupulina, hop sedge – Readily available; also a great alternative for bur sedge
  • C. meadii, prairie sedge – A conservative species, it’s easy to grow in production; it has almost blue-green foliage
  • C. muehlenbergii, sand bracted sedge – Clumper, grows up to 24 inches tall, performs great in nearly full sun, dry conditions
  • C. pensylvanica, Pennsylvania sedge – Illinois ecotype is very vigorous; it likes organic matter or sandy soil
  • C. plantaginea, plantain-leaved sedge – “A cool sedge!” but it’s hard to produce
  • C. praegracilis, tollway sedge – Found everywhere in the Midwest, it has wispy foliage
  • C. radiata/rosea, eastern star sedge – Both clumpers with fine texture, it’s hard to differentiate between the two (C. rosea tends to stay more upright)
  • C. richardsonii, Richardson’s sedge – Duemler’s “new favorite,” it’s a really useful plant, but growers probably won’t see commercial availability for two to three years
  • C. sprengelii, long-beaked sedge – Pretty forgiving; will tolerate heavier soils
  • C. stricta, tussock sedge – Good for a stormwater basin, very vigorous
  • C. texensis, Catlin sedge – Really diminutive species, very popular on the West Coast; can get a lawn-type setting with it

“Use some education to get homeowner associations on board with sedges,” Duemler suggested. Point out that sedges aren’t unmown lawns – they are landscape features.

The important thing to take into consideration with natives like these is knowing how the plants behave to create a plant community. Do they grow up versus out? Do they clump or spread? Are they better in a woodland or a prairie setting? Once growers know how native plants cooperate, they can construct a landscape that is a perfect fit for a native ecosystem.

by Courtney Llewellyn