No-Fail Native Plants

In July 2020, the Tennessee Valley Chapter of Wild Ones presented an online Roundtable Discussion, hosted by Lisa Lemza, to share collective knowledge from several of our experienced members with native plant gardens.  Here, we’re posting some of the information that was presented and discussed.

Introduction by Lisa Lemza:

  • Plants don’t grow in isolation, but in communities based on long evolution in shared conditions.
  • Nature exploits every niche available.  The more specialized and unique the environment, the more specialized and unique the plant.  And, the more temperamental!
  • Plants are like people:  most are generalists which can survive in many and broadly found conditions, but some are specialists with extremely particular niche environments.  Extreme example of specialist plant:  lady slipper orchid.
  • This presentation is about no-fail natives, the generalists.
  • Trees and shrubs tend to be generalists, and although they may have preferences for specific growing conditions, they are more tolerant (than perennials, forbs) of wider conditions.  Exceptions may be riverine and bog species.
  • Note on spring ephemeral wildflowers:  many are specialists for mature woodland soils in a deciduous mixed forest, with a mature mix of humic materials, fungi, and moisture levels.
  • Plant lists come from many sources and many regions.  Look for those plants that overlap as ‘recommended’ in multiple regions. Particularly note the wildlife plant support database by the National Wildlife Federation and the bird support plant database from Audubon.  Many recommendations overlap.  Plug into these databases from their websites, by zip code desired.
  • Our chapter website provides several downloadable lists of native plants for the Tennessee Valley area.

Recommended books and resources by Lisa Lemza & Kristina Shaneyfelt:

  • Native Plants of the Southeast by Larry Mellichamp
  • Wildflowers of Tennessee the Ohio Valley and the Southern Appalachians by Dennis Horn and Tavia Cathcart
  • Nature’s Best Hope by Doug Tallamy
  • The Southeast Native Plant Primer by Larry Mellichamp (New)
  • Garden Revolution by Weaner & Christopher, recommended for detailed analysis of plant communities
  • Wildflower & Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachian Mountains & Piedmont by Tim Spira – a more technical reference.
  • Butterflies of Tennessee by Rita Venable
  • Larry Weaner’s webinar recordings are available at
  • View eco-region maps
  • Download eco-region map for Tennessee Valley area
  • Download our Native Plant Gardener Guide
  • BONAP, the Biota of North America Program

Nora Bernhardt’s favorites:

Link to Nora’s presentation about native plants for shade gardens.

Lena Hall’s favorites:

Broad families that have a variety for most conditions, varieties other than the exuberant old field types (Canada Goldenrod, I’m lookin’ at YOU!!!!): Asters, Susans, Goldenrods, Milkweeds, Liatris, Joe Pyes, Monardas, Mountain Mints, Coneflowers.

Easy to start from seed:

  • Nodding Onion
  • Asters
  • Common Milkweed, Poke Milkweed
  • Columbine
  • Penstemon
  • Cardinal
  • Hibiscus moscheutos and coccineus
  • Senna (forgot to mention this one)

Ann Brown’s Favorites:

 Link to Ann’s presentation about native plants for hot, dry yards.

Lisa Lemza’s favorites:

Spring: Biennials and free reseeders:  columbine, phacelia.  Any species (one is an annual).

Late Spring, Early Summer:
Spiderworts, any species (tradescantia virginiana, ohioensis).
Any species of Monarda: didyma (red), fistulosa, bradburiana, punctata.

Mid-Late Summer:
Rudbeckias, any, per previous recommendations.
Bonesets, any: Eupatorium perfoliatum, E.serotinium, E rotundifolium (common name round leaf thoroughwort).  Plant with wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium) for long bloom of similar color (white) and structure on hot, clay soils.
Tall Summer Phlox,:P. paniculata.  Many varieties and types.  Long blooming, stiff stemmed, reseeding.  Note:  Phlox paniculatas and Monardas are prone to late summer mildew.

Any sunflower/helianthus.
Any aster
Goldenrods: there are 20+ species; some are more aggressive than others. Do your research.

Lonicera sempervirens:  thick, semi- evergreen native coral honeysuckle.  Birds love to nest in it.

Ground covers:
•  Shade: Wild ginger (Asarum canadense) WILL MAKE A THICK MAT, crowding out other perennials, especially ephemeral wildflowers.
•  Sun: Native strawberry (Fragaria virginiana).  Superb filler that twines between and among other perennials without choking them.

Other comments and tips:

  • During May, cut back asters by 1/2 or a 1/3 so they will bloom more profusely in August and September. Do the same to Goldenrods so they will not bloom early or grow as tall; if not cut back, they will start blooming end of July.
  • “Fireworks” Goldenrods are amazing.
  • Let Monarda (Bee Balm) reseed.
  • Cardinal flowers seeds should come in contact with bare soil in order to self seed; otherwise the plant will be short lived
  • Grow butterfly milkweed like you would lavender. It needs sharp drainage, but also might need some watering in the middle of the summer.
  • Nodding onions are easy to grow from seed.
  • Frostweed reseeds with abandon.
  • Boneset reseeds where it wants to grow, not always where it’s planted.
  • Many “fancy” coneflower species don’t like our acidic soil.
  • Yellow aster disease is appearing on some common coneflowers this year. No treatment works on this disease. Just pull up the plant and discard it in the trash.
  • Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’ (summer phlox) is one of the few cultivars that attracts more pollinators than the straight species. Usually straight species are better for that. However, it was also reported that big butterflies prefer the straight species of Phlox over ‘Jeana.’
  • If you are interested in the CHAPP (Chattanooga Area Pollinator Partnership) signs, you can email us at