5 Spectacular Native Plants for the Southern Midwest

5 Spectacular Native Plants for the Southern Midwest

southern midwest header

With the arid environment that characterizes the Southwestern United States, plants must develop to withstand the brutal summer heat. These plants have developed to seek out and thrive in environments that would otherwise be inhospitable.

In the last of our six-part Native Regional Plants Series, we will show off hardy natives that grow in the Southern Midwest States, we'll discuss five native plants from the Southern Midwest! The Southwest in general consists of USDA planting zones 6 through 11.

Native plants are defined as plants that have been established in a given area for hundreds of years. It is challenging to pinpoint an exact geographical boundary, as plants do not follow the same boundaries people do. So for argument's sake, we’ll focus on native plants commonly found in Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma, and to some extent Kansas, Arkansas, and Louisiana.

Top Natives For The Upper Southern States

These rugged and incredibly durable plants have adapted to the heat, drought, and poor soil of the westernmost parts of the Southern Midwestern climate. But behind the “evergreen curtain” to the eastern parts of these southern-most Midwestern states are highly varied from plains and prairie, to bayou and wetlands.

Many plants in the Western parts of this region may have waxy, evaporation-resistant foliage, and resist drying out with deep roots that seek out moisture. From cold nights, hot days, periodic rain, and sandy conditions. While the plants in the eastern parts of the region need to handle higher soil moisture, high humidity, and heat.

Then there is Texas which has about every type of biome possible, including tropical environments, within the expansive size of the enormous state! The mid-Southern States will put any plant to the test!

Western South Midwest

1. Evergreen Tree - Arizona Cypress Tree (Hesperocyparis arizonica)

Arizona Cypress Tree

Arizona Cypress (formerly Cupressus arizonica) The soft grey-green evergreen foliage of the Arizona Cypress provides a subtle backdrop to colorful landscape plantings in the foreground or can stand alone as a centerpiece. As it ages, the bark begins to exfoliate, revealing red-brown bark. Reaching 50 feet high at maturity, the Arizona Cypress tree is a fast-growing conifer with dense needles that are a vibrant grey-green hue, with just enough silver to catch your eye in the sunlight.

  • Grey Green Needles
  • Dense & Fast Growing
  • Heat Tolerant USDA Zones 7 to 9
  • Drought Tolerant Coniferous Evergreen
  • Mature Height 40 - 50 feet
  • Mature Spread 25 - 35 feet

As your Arizona Cypress tree matures, the bark displays exfoliating, red-tinted, brown bark for added decorative interest. Arizona Cypress has adapted to the arid Southwest, requiring less maintenance and upkeep compared to other evergreen species.

2. Deciduous Tree - Hackberry Tree (Celtis occidentalis)

Hackberry Trees are fantastic deciduous shade trees that thrive in an incredibly wide range of USDA growing zones 3-9 and an equally wide range of climates and conditions! They are well known as one of the "best urban trees", and although they are native to rich soils, Hackberry trees are very tolerant of clay soils, pollution, and salt, including poor soils. Hackberry is a very tough, fast-growing shade tree. Hackberry grows into an expansive shade tree for your yard with a cylindrical shape. This fast-growing, deciduous tree produces edible tiny date-like fruit that people and birds eat.

  • Growing Zones 3-9
  • Low Moisture Once Established
  • Lush Lime-Green Foliage & Adaptable Shade Tree
  • Fast Growing!
  • Mature Height 50 - 75 feet
  • Mature Spread 25 - 40 feet

The Southern relative the Sugarberry Tree (Celtis laevigata) does especially well in hotter climates Growing Zones 6-9. Early spring brings green flowers for pollinators and early fall offers sweet and nutritious reddish-brown fruit for birds! The abundant fleshy berry-like drupes mature to deep purple and are edible by people too.

3. Native Shrub - Threeleaf Sumac (Rhus trilobata)

Threeleaf (or Three-Leaf) Sumac has soft, velvety hairs on the stems and pungent leaves.

Threeleaf Sumac

The tiny yellow flowers that pollinators adore and become berry-like fruits that are orange-red. It is found at elevations ranging from 2500 to 7500 feet in dry slopes, mesa, and a wide range of other conditions. Nature Hills has a cultivar of this hardy native and the Autumn Amber Sumac which has a fall color that deepens into a rich range of hues from deep amber to bright yellows and oranges from year to year. Very low-growing, these shrubs can spread up to 8 feet wide to provide excellent groundcover and erosion control.

  • Growing Zones 4-8
  • Low-Growing Wide-Spreading Shrub
  • Loves Hot Dry Climates

Once established, the Trifolate Sumac can tolerate drought very well. This is an excellent choice for your xeriscape planting. Autumn Amber Sumac really loves the sun and high elevations throughout USDA planting zones 4 to 8, tolerating extreme cold well too!

4. Native Perennial - Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium)

A unique perennial with spikey bluish-gray round flowers/seed heads, the Rattlesnake Master is a tough, xeric plant with strappy green leaves and a fun texture and form! Blooming throughout June through September, these perennials were hallmarks of the tallgrass prairies. Xeric plants, Rattlesnake Master thrives in tough conditions and a wide array of climates, Rattlesnake Master is quite xeric once established and handles tricky soil situations.

  • Spikey Clusters of Blue/Gray Flowers & Seed Heads
  • Strappy Yucca-Like Foliage
  • Deep Roots & Resilient
  • Mature Height 3 - 5 feet
  • Mature Spread 2 - 3 feet
  • Growing Zones 3-8

Each stem can hold anywhere from 3 to 20 flower heads, up to an inch in diameter each! Rattlesnake Master is a hardy perennial native throughout USDA growing zones 3 to 8, there's few climates and conditions that won't suit these tough plants!

5. Ornamental Grass - Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium)

Northern Sea Oats

The flat clustered seed heads of Northern Sea Oats dance in the summer breeze above bamboo-like green foliage. A spreading warm-season grass, Northern Sea Oats will provide both summer interest with the seedheads before turning a glowing gold in the fall. The ornamental seed heads are a favorite treat for birds and are unique additions to your cut-flower arrangements.

  • Growing Zones 3-8
  • Bamboo-Like Foliage
  • Mature Height 2 - 3 feet
  • Mature Spread 1 - 2 feet
  • Unique Flat Seed Heads
  • Great Erosion, En Masse & Accents
  • Adaptable Wet, Average, & Dry Soils

Also known as Spangle Grass, you’ll love the waving motion and unique texture these Ornamental Grasses provide your landscape! Handling both drought and xeric sites, as well as Rain gardens and periodically wet soils!

Eastern-Most Southern Midwest

1. Evergreen Tree - Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa)

The mighty Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa), also called Western Yellow Pine, is a towering and strong native Conifer. These trees then steadily grow into magnificent specimens! Reaching soaring heights of 65-80 feet tall and 30-40 feet in width when planted in optimal conditions. The Ponderosa Pine is the most frequently planted of the large, long-needled native western Pine species.

  • Long Dark Green Needles
  • Tall & Straight Conifer
  • Large Cones & Bird-Friendly
  • Mature Height 65 - 80 feet
  • Mature Spread 30 - 40 feet
  • Growing Zones 3-7

The soft dark green needles, 6-10 inches long, are arranged in bundles of three. Cones are 3 to 5 inches long and feed a wide variety of songbirds and wildlife!

2. Deciduous Tree - Bald Cypress Tree (Taxodium distichum)

Bald Cypress Tree

At first glance, Bald Cypress looks like an evergreen in the spring and summer. With light green-feathered foliage, reddish-brown bark, and round seed pods, the Bald Cypress makes an interesting addition to any landscape. But the interesting thing about Bald Cypress is that come fall, the ferny shed, and the tree becomes “bald” as the origin of the common name implies. Adaptable to wetland conditions like the easternmost bayous of Louisiana, and eastern Texas.

  • Lush Green Ferny Frond-Like Needles
  • Tall Straight Trunk & Reddish Brown Bark
  • Round Ornamental Seed Pods
  • Wildlife & Bird-Friendly
  • A Unique Deciduous Coniferous Evergreen Tree
  • Loves Moist Soil Conditions But Also Drought-Tolerant
  • Excellent late russet and orange fall color

A stunning tree at full maturity, Bald Cypress can reach up to 65 feet high, and will be sure to be an interesting talking point in your landscape. Nature Hills has several varieties of Baldcypress available for you including weeping, columnar, and ornamental varieties.

3. Native Shrub - Coralberry Bushes (Symphoricarpos)

Coralberry - Small pink fruits persist throughout the winter months, giving you something other than the evergreens and dormant plants to admire. While not edible, they do make a beautiful addition to any cut flower arrangement. In the summer, the bright green foliage contrasts with the small pink flowers. Pollinator and bird-friendly shrubs, there is a wide range of sizes and forms to choose from!

  • Ornamental Foliage & Form
  • Pretty Pink/White Flowers
  • Pink/White Bubble-Like Berries - Persist Til Winter
  • Highly Adaptable Small Deciduous Shrubs
  • Growing Zones 2-8
  • Range Of Sizes & Shapes!

These deciduous shrubs have closely related Snowberry Bushes that instead have white berries in place of pink. Coralberry bushes tolerate poor soil and alkaline soils. They are heat and humidity-tolerant, as well as very cold-hardy!

4. Perennial - White Prairie Clover (Dalea candida)

Pretty wands of waving white, the native wildflower White Prairie Clover (Dalea candida) is a long-blooming prairie plant with loads of support for beneficial insects, plus lots of modern gardening applications! The white flower spikes open from the bottom up, lasting from late spring until fall! Growing just 18-24 inches tall when in bloom, these airy, clumping herbaceous perennials spread just 12-15 inches wide.

  • Long-Lasting White Pollinator-Friendly Blooms
  • Hardy Native Wildflower
  • Growing Zones 3-8
  • Very Xeric Once Established
  • Clumping & Politely Spreading Prairie Native

Thriving throughout much of the midwest and USDA growing zones 3 through 8, there is little that fazes these natives once they are established!

5. Ornamental Grass - Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)

Big Bluestem Grass is the dominant Grass that grew throughout American prairies, providing breathtaking seasonal color change and food and protection for wildlife. Also known as Turkey Foot Grass because of the forked seed heads that resemble their nickname, Bluestem sends up yellowish-reddish-orange seed heads from July to October. Transitioning from gray to blue-green in spring, to green with red tinges in summer, and finally to reddish bronze with lavender tones in autumn after frost.

Big Bluestem
  • Tall Columnar Ornamental Grass
  • Colorful! Gray-Green, Blue-Green, to Red-Green & Then Red-Bronze
  • Forked Seedheads For Birds & Fall/Winter Interest
  • Growing Zones 4-10
  • Mature Height 4 - 6 feet
  • Mature Spread 2 - 3 feet

Columnar in form, Big Bluestem quickly grows to its full-sized 4-6 feet in height while remaining a space-saving 2-3 feet in width. These native grasses are wonderfully adaptable throughout a wide swath of the US, Bluestem does fantastic throughout the USDA hardiness zones 4 through 10!

Honorable Mentions

  • Slash Pine (Pinus elliottii) is a large tree with a narrow, pointed crown of horizontal branches and long needles. The Slash Pine is highly versatile and adaptable, and readily grows in infertile soils, sandy sites, and xeric sites, as well as wet lowlands, swamps, and ponds!
  • Liatris - Also known as Gayfeather or Blazing Star, Liatris is a perennial that will not be ignored in the summer months. Tall purple flowers demand attention, and the green foliage provides the contrast necessary to make that purple pop. Liatris will reach up to two feet tall when flowering, making it a beautiful addition to any landscape.
  • Mexican Feather Grass (Nassella tenuissima) is an airy wispy ornamental grass with very fine textured blades and plumes. In June when its leaves begin to soften to beautiful gold, and its silky flowers have a chance to dance and sway in the breeze. Hardy throughout USDA 7 to 11, this smaller plant grows just 12-24 inches tall when in flower and spreads 18-24 inches wide!
  • Desert Willow (Chilopsis linearis) has spritely, curved medium-to-yellow-green slender leaves that stick upward and outward from narrow branches and form a rounded canopy about 30 feet tall and wide. As a desert native originating in Arizona, it does a remarkable job holding up to heat and drought with minimal watering from time to time. Related to the Catalpa tree, Nature Hills has the ornamental pink-flowering Bubba Desert Willow cultivar.
  • Red Yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora) is a native favorite for dry areas in your yard, plus tall red blooms that bring the butterflies and hummingbirds fluttering by! Growing Zones 5-11, this low-maintenance, broadleaved evergreen perennial requires very little water and produces dramatic spikes of vibrant red and pink flowers all season long.

Supporting Plants in the Southern Midwest US Climate

How can you help your plants along in the Southern Midwest? There are a few key tactics to remember to give your new plants the best start and keep them growing beautifully. One good thing about the Southern Midwestern is the fantastic drainage and plenty of sun.

Set your plants up for lifelong success by picking the right plant for your area, picking the right site for your plant, and providing ample care and attention to your new plants during their first year in your landscape.

  • Choosing The Right Plants
  • Good Drainage or Raised Beds
  • Proper Way To Water
  • Mulch Mulch Mulch!
  • Nature Hills Root Booster

caring for plants southern midwest

Choosing native plants that grow in your Growing Zone and weather, means they will not require as much care once established. Ensure they can handle the sunlight quality and quantity in your planting area, then find your Hardiness Zone. Then find more information on choosing Perennials and Shrubs for your area. Search for native plants for your state on the NatureHills.com site, or you can contact your local County Extension Office for more localized information and support in choosing plants for your immediate area.

When you can’t plant in your landscape’s soil due to it having poor drainage, hardpan, or especially poor, barren soil - instead grow up! Raised beds, berms, and large planters allow you to control the soil your plants are in, and pinpoint water the plants without having to water an entire area.

In hot sunny sites with little rain per year, you need to water at the roots of your plants and spread mulch around their root zone to stop evaporation while holding moisture in consistently. Use the Finger Test method to ensure whether they need moisture or not. Drip irrigation or soaker hoses installed beneath the surface of the soil and mulch layers help save you time!

Speaking of mulch, this 3-4 inch deep layer of shredded bark, compost, and/or arborist mulch will make or break any success you have with your landscaping! Mulch holds moisture in the soil by preventing evaporation, and keeps roots insulated from heat and chill, while slowly breaking down and enriching the soil by adding organic matter to improve soil health.

Using Nature Hills Root Booster when planting helps you and your plant roots harness the power of mycorrhizal fungi that have a symbiotic relationship with feeder roots for the life of the plant! This living support network lives underground and helps roots take up moisture better and break down nutrients faster!

Tough Native Hardiness

These Native plants are already adapted to the soils and climate of the area, increasing their chances of success.

Including these trees, shrubs, and plants in your Upper Midwest landscape not only provides beauty to your space but also enriches the habitat available for pollinators and wildlife by providing them shelter and food resources!

Be amazed at how they thrive and watch the wildlife around you thrive as well!

Nature Hills loves native plants and offers many in our extensive online catalog. Never fear, because we also protect local ecosystems with Plant Sentry™ to block shipments of any plant that does "too well" in your area.

Nature Hills ships plants with mature root systems that establish faster in your Southern Midwest landscape and thrive beautifully regardless of the conditions your region will throw at them!

Happy Planting!

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