Using native plants in their landscapes is one way Upper Midwestern gardeners--those in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, the Dakotas and Iowa--can ensure a happy outcome. Native plants were growing in this area of the U.S. before the first European settlers arrived, according to the State of Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources. Trees and shrubs of the great northern forests, and native grasses and wildflowers that once spread to the prairie horizon, thrive in the region's cool summers and sub-freezing winters.
Eastern Red Cedar
Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), a 30-to-40-foot, silvery-barked evergreen native to the Upper Midwest's prairies, fields and fencerows. Its aromatic foliage, in variable shades of green in spring and summer, becomes brown in winter. Inconspicuous flowers appear from March to May, with blue berries following on pollinated female trees. The berries, mildly toxic to people, are a cedar waxwing favorite, according to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Plant this tree in sun to shade and dry, neutral (pH between 6.8 and 7.2) limestone-based soil.
Red baneberry (Actaea rubra) is a buttercup family perennial of the Upper Midwest's hardwood and coniferous forests. This 1- to 3-foot bush has compound, toothed green leaves that become dull yellow in fall. Between April and June, according to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, its branches have dense clusters of white, bristly blooms. Bright red berries follow. Note that consuming them, or the plant's roots, in large amounts is toxic. Red baneberry tolerates sun or shade, and performs best in moist, acidic, well-drained and humus-rich locations.
One of many grasses native to the Upper Midwest's prairies, brushlands and rocky slopes, sideoats grama reaches 2 to 3 feet high. Its green basal foliage brings red or purple color to the autumn garden. Erect stems have small, spiky red to purple flowerheads from June to November. Birds use the foliage as nesting material and feed on the tan seeds. Use the grass, according to Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, in a mixed border with spring-blooming wildflowers. It grows in sun or partial shade and prefers well-drained, disturbed, rocky or limestone-based soils.
Like sideoats grama, butterfly weed (Alscepias tuberose) once sank its roots deep into the Upper Midwestern prairies. A milkweed family perennial, it stands 18 to 30 inches high, with an erect stem and rigid, deep green lance-like leaves. From May to September, butterfly weed blooms with flat clusters of brilliant orange or yellow-orange flowers. Making a dazzling show against the plant's foliage, the blooms have butterflies flocking to the garden. Use the plant, according to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, in a perennial bed with similar-sized plants. Drought-tolerant, butterfly weed grows in sun to partial shade and performs best in sandy, well-drained soil. Expect aphids to find this plant.