Natives for Those Wet Places

So far this fall and winter have been wet and often muddy. (I’d personally rather have snow but realize I’m in the minority.) After this weather you are probably well aware of the wet areas of your landscape and might think there wouldn’t be anything that would grow there. Not true, there are many natives that not only grow in damp to wet soil but thrive there. Just picture all the plants that grow in swamps, marshes and areas that are flooded seasonally.

In addition to having a lovely plant in a difficult area, their root systems help to absorb water from the soil, rather like nature’s drainage tiles. The following are a few suggestions of native trees, shrubs and perennials that can be utilized in these difficult areas. There are many more possibilities than those listed here but these will give you some ideas. As with any new planting the site needs to match the plant’s growing conditions. Be aware of the soil type, sun and wind exposure as well as the final size the plant will achieve.


Swamp White Oak (Quercus laurifolia) is one of the best trees to plant for nature as they provide food for over 500 species. It is a huge tree, over 75 feet, sun to part sun.

Black Willow (Salix nigra) grows much like the better known (nonnative) weeping willow except the branches don’t have that weeping characteristic. It prefers full sun and will grow to 60 feet. This would not be a good choice near sewer or water pipes as their roots can penetrate pipes and cause problems.

Red Maple (Acer rubrum) prefers sun to part shade and will grow to over 60 feet tall. It is the best native maple for a wide range of growing conditions. Beautiful fall color; red, yellow and orange is one of the good landscape features.


Serviceberry/ Shadbush (Amelanchier canadensis) tolerates sun to shade, grows to 10 to 20 feet high. Blooms white in early spring followed by edible dark purple berries that birds (and people) love. There are other varieties including a tree form; Allegheny Serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis).

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) gets its name from the round white flowers that look like little fireworks which show up in contrast to the dark green glossy leaves. It prefers growing in continually moist soil and can even take standing water in full sun. It will grow up to 9 feet high and wide.

Summersweet Clethra (Clethra alnifolia) prefers moist to wet acidic soil in partial shade to sun. Will grow up to 8 feet high and gets elongated white sweet smelling flowers in mid-summer. This has become one of the bestselling shrubs for our region.

Red Osier Dogwood (Cornbus sericea) prefers wet to moist soil and will tolerate standing water. It grows to 9 feet high and wide. The red stems that give it its name are a beautiful color contrast for the winter garden. Its leaves have a beautiful deep red fall color.


Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnate) one of the best plants for pollinators and Monarch butterflies. It is better behaved than field milkweed for the home garden and is often recommended for rain gardens. It prefers part shade to sun and will grow to 24 to 48 inches tall. It blooms pink in summer.

Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris) will grow in sun to shade. It blooms bright yellow in early spring and has dark green heart shaped leaves for interest during the rest of the year. It’s low growing, 12 to 24 inches.

Joe-pye-weed (Eupatorium fistulosum) is a stunning tall, 36 to 96 inches, plant that blooms pink/rose in late summer and is an important late season nectar source for pollinators. It prefers full sun and can grow in moist soil and standing water.

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) is a hummingbird magnet. It has tall red spikes of flowers in late summer and grows 24 to 48 inches tall. Lobelia does best in continually moist soil in sun to part shade.

Although all the above plants prefer moist to wet soil many of them grow well in average garden conditions. I grow all the above listed perennials with occasional irrigation in dry periods. They may not achieve their optimal growth and flowering but they are surviving quite well.

Most of the plants listed have been hybridized to develop “cultivars” for improved features like size of bloom and overall size. It’s always best for supporting nature to go with the species as some of the cultivars do not have the food value that the natives do.