Michigan native species are diverse and ecologically important in the Great Lakes State. Using native plants in a landscape, prairie or wildflower planting is an excellent practice in conservation and preservation. Native flora, with its deciduous and coniferous trees, shrubs and wildflowers, provides important functions in the ecosystem.
The red maple (Acer rubrum) thrives in forests throughout the lower and upper peninsulas of Michigan. It does remarkably well in landscape situations if given enough water to establish. Its best features are deep, rosy-pink, delicate flowers in the spring and a brilliant red fall color.
Sugar maple (Acer saccharum) thrives on well-drained soils, usually in maple-beech forests, which are a spectacular sight year round, but especially in the fall when leaves turn a brilliant gold to bronze. Sugar aple is also a wonderful landscape tree and is readily available in the Michigan nursery trade. Plant sugar maples on well-drained soils and water regularly until established. After establishment a sugar maple will withstand summer drought and heat.
The tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) is a beautiful tree although not as well known as the maple, beech and oak natives. A tulip poplar will grow to an astounding 90 to 100 feet tall and will develop tulip shaped, fragrant flowers usually after five years of establishment. The fall color is a light to golden yellow and, because of its unusual shape, some compare the leaf to a duck's foot. Tulip poplars grow quickly to mature height and for that reason they are not as long-lived as other hardwood deciduous trees. Tulip poplar trees are available at native plant and mail order nurseries.
The eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) is the majestic evergreen of Michigan’s upper peninsula, where it dominates the landscape in large, pristine stands. In the wild, the red cedar will grow 40 to 50 feet high, with a narrow spread of 8 to 15 feet. The bark is gray to red brown, and when mature it peels in long strips making it easy to identify the species. The leaves are connected scales overlapping and grow in an upright form, with blue to gray-green cast underneath and a brighter color on the upper side. Bruised leaves have an odor reminiscent of a cedar-lined chest. Cones are quite small, about 1/4 inch across. While the eastern red cedar is native to Michigan, it has a wide range throughout North America. There are many useful cultivars, but they may be difficult to find. Bakers Blue supposedly has a more bluish cast than normal. Pendulum has weeping, spreading branches and is useful as an unusual specimen or focal point in the landscape. Specialty nurseries and online retailers are the best bet for purchasing this carefree conifer.
White cedar (Thuja occidentalis) also goes by the common name of eastern arborvitae. It has many useful qualities both for landscaping and in the wild, growing 40 to 60’ high and is quite narrow at 10 to 15 feet. Some cultivars remain smaller, wider and best used in the back of a border. For a tall hedge, you can try the cultivar Mission. It grows to 20 feet tall by 5 to 6 feet wide and makes a beautiful backdrop for perennial borders. The leaves are flat and bright-green overlapping scales, with a paler underside. When bruised, the leaves have a pungent fragrance. The bark is a beautiful graying to reddish-brown with obvious vertical ridges and furrows. In youth, the leaves mostly cover the bark until maturity, when the lower branches fall. White cedar is available in most local garden centers and is a grand and beautiful sight when viewed in mature cedar forests of Michigan’s upper peninsula.
Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida) is as ubiquitous to Michigan as oranges are to Florida. Few roadsides in northern Michigan are without grand summer displays of this native, golden gem. Rudbeckia is a perennial plant that grows in meadows of moist, well-drained soil to a height of 24 to 36 inches tall. In the last twenty years, it has become a common site in home and commercial landscapes, paired with popular ornamental grass. Black-eyed Susan loves full sun and just average soil--fertilizer will only encourage green, leafy growth. When establishing, plants will develop into large colonies if watered regularly. There are some newer cultivars available, but in a native planting use the straight species.
Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurpea) is a well-known Michigan native. It grows in prairies where full sun is plentiful and will tolerate light shade found at the edge of a forest or woodland. Coneflowers grow in average to poor soil, to a height of 24 to 48 inches. When left natural, they will reseed and colonize into large, showy stands of pinkish-mauve, daisy-like flowers. This is one easy plant to grow and will stand out in any landscape with its dark-green course foliage. The Native Americans used coneflower for medicinal purposes and it is now widely available as a supplement to boost immune health.
Joe-pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum) is another plant that grows freely on Michigan roadsides, drainage ditches and wetlands on moist, rich soil. In recent years, joe-pye weed has become an important plant in perennial borders as it offers height, mass and a focal point in planting arrangements. Joe-pye weed will grow 4 to 8 feet tall depending on the amount of water, sunlight and nutrients it receives. This plant loves lots of moisture usually, but once established it can withstand some periods of drought. The flowers stand upright and are dome shaped on tall, stately stems. They range in colors from wine red to dusky pink.