Ten native shrubs and perennial plants to build a beautiful landscape
Story and Photos by Yvonne Lelong Bordelon
If you’d like to create a beautiful landscape that is also easy to maintain, consider giving native shrubs and perennials a try. Native doesn’t necessarily mean wild and unruly. There are hundreds of showy, hardy, low-maintenance indigenous plants that make perfect foundation plants.
When choosing plants, it’s best to use those from the same hardiness and climate zone as yours. Louisiana is in the East Gulf Coastal Plains floristic region of the United States, USDA Hardiness Zones 8-9. Some perennials that thrive in the Upper South will simply wither and die when transplanted to hot and humid Louisiana.
The most efficient way to garden is to plant the right plant in the right spot. If you do your research, any indigenous plants that you are considering should perform well with minimal care – little fertilizer and no pest control. However, even native plants will not thrive if they are improperly sited, and replacing these lovelies can be costly.
Native plants have many good attributes that make them excellent selections for home landscapes. These natives are adapted to our local soil, climate, and annual rainfall. By observing local species, you can also predict how large they will get and how they will fit into your garden. Natives improve biodiversity in an ecosystem because the local wildlife evolved with them.
Below are 10 of my favorite native shrubs and perennials that look wonderful in a landscape and will perform well in most North and South Louisiana landscapes.
Azaleas – Piedmont (Rhododendron canescens) and Florida flame (R. austrinum), Zones 6-9
Native deciduous azaleas are the glories of a Southern garden. The fragrant pink or gold flowers bloom on 5-8-feet tall shrubs as the leaves emerge in early spring. They grow best in sun or high shade in moist, well-drained, acidic soil. These multi-stemmed beauties are outstanding in mixed mass plantings or as specimen plants.
Deciduous hollies – possumhaw (Ilex decidua) and winterberry (I. verticillata), Zones 5-9
Unlike most deciduous plants, these hollies are at their peak after their leaves fall, revealing masses of red or yellow berries. Perfect additions to a sustainable landscape, female possumhaw and winterberry shrubs add winter color and provide food for hungry birds. In order to produce berries, a male pollinator planted nearby is needed to pollinate the females.
Possumhaw varieties with red berries include ‘Warrens Red’, a fruiting female and ‘Red Escort’, a pollinator male. ‘Council Fire’ and ‘Pocahontas’ are also good red-fruited females. Two yellow-fruited forms are ‘Byers Golden’ and ‘Finch’s Golden’.
Red-fruited winterberry cultivars include ‘Simpson Nursery’s Winter Red’, ‘Red Sprite’, ‘Sunset’, and ‘Bright Horizon’. ‘Jim Dandy’ is a recommended pollinator for ‘Red Sprite’. A yellow-fruited variety is ‘Winter Gold’.
Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus), Zones 4-9
Also known as sweetshrub, this hardy shrub grows 6-7-feet tall with dark red, fragrant flowers, aromatic bark and leaves, and bright yellow fall color. It thrives in rich, moist, well-drained acidic soil in a partially shady location. Red-flowering cultivars with aromatic blooms include ‘Michael Lindsey’ and ‘Urbana’. A yellow-flowered form is ‘Athens’ (aka ‘Katherine’).
St. Johnswort (Hypericum densiflorum and H. prolificum), Zones 5-8
If you need a dense, 4-5-feet tall, semi-evergreen flowering shrub, you should try St. Johnswort. These rounded, woody shrubs sport yellow summer flowers that attract bees and butterflies. They grow well in mildly acidic to lightly alkaline soils in full sun to part shade in mass plantings or as background shrubs for the perennial border.
Native blueberry – Elliot’s blueberry (Vaccinium elliotii) and rabbiteye blueberry (V. ashei), Zones 5-10
Wild blueberries, also called huckleberries, are among the best native sustainable landscape plants for Louisiana. These hardy shrubs bloom in very early spring, providing nectar for bees and hummingbirds. In late spring and summer, both humans and wildlife devour the delicious berries. In fall, the leaves turn deep shades of red. They grow best in full sun to part-shade in well-drained acidic soils. Wild blueberries can be used as a shrub border, specimen plant, or for fruit production.
False indigo – yellow (Baptisia sphaerocarpa), white (B. alba), and blue (B. australis), Zones 5-9
Also called wild lupine and redneck lupine, these colorful flowering perennials are good substitutes for the beloved lupines (Lupinus spp.), which wimp out in the Louisiana heat. Established plants produce spikes of yellow, white, or bluish purple spring flowers followed by attractive seedpods.
Yellow-flowered varieties include yellow indigo (B. sphaerocarpa) and dry-loving gopher weed (B. lanceolata). Yellow cultivars include ‘Screaming Yellow’ and hybrid ‘Carolina Moonlight’. A good blue is natural hybrid ‘Purple Smoke’, which is a cross between B. alba and B. australis.
Tickseed, lanceleaf (Coreopsis lanceolata) and dwarf (C. auriculata ‘Nana’,) Zone 5-9
Butterflies and other pollinators use the fragrant, golden-yellow flowers of this short-lived perennial that grows naturally in Louisiana. The 2-feet-tall plants do well in sunny beds and borders in moist, acidic soils and have a long springtime blooming period. Dwarf tickseed is an excellent ground cover.
Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Zones 2-9
The gorgeous tall red spires of cardinal flower are a favorite of hummingbirds, butterflies, and other pollinators. These plants have an upright habit, grow 2-6 feet tall, and perform best in partial shade and moist soil as a single specimen or massed in a perennial bed. There are also white- and pink-flowering forms.
Gulf Coast beardstongue (Penstemon tenuis), Zones 7-10
Probably the best penstemon for the South because it prefers moist soil and does well in partial shade. The rosy purple flower clusters bloom for many weeks beginning in spring through early summer. Beardstongue is an excellent selection for hummingbird and butterfly gardens.
Stokes’ aster (Stokesia laevis), Zones 5-9
A must for the butterfly garden, the exquisite 4-inch blue flowers and hardiness of Stokes’ aster make it one of the most popular native perennials. There are many cultivars with lavender blue to nearly purple flowers available in the trade. ‘Alba’ is good white-flowering variety. Plants grow 1-2 feet tall and wide, with 18-inch flower stalks that appear in early to midsummer. Deadheading will prolong the blooming period. Stokes’ aster blooms best in full sun and moist, average garden soil, but can tolerate some drought. Plant en masse for the most striking effect.