Add Attractive Natives


Our Native Plants are Key to Our Ecosystems

Our native plants are the flowers, trees, and other plants that have been growing in northeastern Illinois for centuries, long before the first Europeans arrived. They evolved here and are key to our ecosystems. Examples include white oak, prairie rose, wild ginger, and little bluestem.

Why add natives?

  • Many of our songbirds, butterflies, frogs and other wildlife need native plants to survive – and are declining because so few native plants remain today. They cannot survive solely on the European and Asian plants that cover so much of our suburban landscape. They need plants native to this specific area because of intricate food chain requirements subtly timed to synchronize with each other during pollination, migration, seed dispersal, and other seasonal rhythms. Your natives will help our wildlife and create habitat connections between our remaining natural areas.
  • Many absorb large quantities of rainwater. Your natives can help reduce flooding.  
  • Most are long-lived and easy to grow. The trick here – whether shopping for natives or ‘horticultural varieties’ – is to choose ones well-suited to your planting spots.
  • There are so many choices rarely found in garden centers. Some are perfect for formal landscaping, and others work best in casual designs.

Though a species might be native to a different part of North America, we focus on supporting those that are native to Lake County and the Chicago region. For instance, there are many species of milkweed, but only 14 of them are native to our area.

See below for how to tell if a plant is native, how to add natives, and where to shop for natives.

coneflower native flower to the midwest
Butterfly Weed
Butterfly Weed

How to Tell if a Plant is Native

If you’re not a botanist and wonder about the flowers, trees, and other plants growing on your property, you could easily become puzzled. You might have natives, horticultural varieties, or even invasives. For help identifying ecological treasures or nuisance species that might be on your property, schedule a property appointment.

When shopping for flowers, trees, and other plants, the only way to know if a plant is native is if the label has a two-part scientific name. For instance, the beautiful native hydrangea is Hydrangea arborescens while the horticultural variety is Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle.’ If you’re hoping to attract butterflies, you’ll want the former. Horticultural varieties always have a third word in the scientific name, always in single quotation marks.

Ornamental plants work well in landscaping, of course, but slight alterations made by horticulturalists can impact nectar, blooms, fruits, thorns, leaves, and roots in ways that interfere with an animal’s critical needs.

Our local flora is inventoried in the authoritative books Plants of the Chicago Region by Floyd Swink and Gerould Wilhelm, and Flora of the Chicago Region by Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rericha. The Chicago area has over 1,600 species, more than any national park. Please help us protect them.  

For an easy-to-use guide, access our list of native trees and shrubs and Possibility Place.

Design considerations

  1. There’s no need to rip out your beautiful ginkgoes, tulips, or lilacs. Instead, look for ways to incorporate new trees and other plants into your existing landscape.
  2. Trees and shrubs generally have more impact on property value and wildlife habitat than gardens and tend to outlast changes in property ownership over time. They also consume less maintenance time than gardens. Consider your goals, budget, and lifestyle.
  3. Choose trees and other plants that will thrive in the spot you’ve picked out based on their sunlight and moisture preferences.
  4. Is the summer sun beating down on your air conditioner or patio? Consider a shade tree or tall shrubs.
  5. Is there an area where a great deal of water collects or travels through your property? Install plants that absorb a lot of water. These are frequently labeled as good for ‘bio-swales’ or ‘rain gardens.’ These plants can bounce between wet and dry conditions.
  6. Aesthetics are important. Natives can work beautifully in both formal and casual landscapes. 
Common Milkweed
Common Milkweed
Cup Plant
Cup Plant

For a More Formal Look

  • Symmetry and rows create order and balance.
  • A large quantity of one to three species creates an impressive impact. For instance, a hedge of black haw viburnum is stunning, as is a garden of graceful sedge, wild geranium, and maidenhair fern.
  • Select short plants.
  • Use well-edged borders.
  • A touch of hardscaping does wonders: garden walls, benches, walkways, arbors, lighting, or artwork.

How to Plant

  1. SOAK the plant in its container thoroughly before planting. A quick tip is to plunge the container into a bucket of water and wait for all the bubbles to stop, which happens when the soil is saturated.
  2. DIG a hole big enough for the plant – use the container as a measure.
  3. REMOVE the plant from its container and carefully break up the lower roots, to encourage new root growth.
  4. PLACE the plant in the hole, making sure that it sits at the existing ground level, neither too high nor low.
  5. FILL the soil back in around the plant, taking care to push it firmly back in place and not leave air pockets.
  6. WATER deeply, and saturate the soil around the plant. At least 1″ of water, 2″ if the soil is dry, to begin with.
  7. Wait several days before watering again – always water DEEPLY.
  8. Check the soil regularly and WATER when it feels dry.
  9. Watch how the plants are growing (wilting can come from over-watering, too, because the roots rot). Periodic SOAKING is much better than sprinkling water daily.

Where to Shop for Native Plants

Native plants are rarely available in garden centers. May is the easiest month to find them, as some conservation organizations such as Openlands offer native plant sales then. 

Our local flora is inventoried in the authoritative books Plants of the Chicago Region by Floyd Swink and Gerould Wilhelm, and Flora of the Chicago Region by Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rericha.  You can also find where a plant is native range is by going to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s PLANTS database.

Meet Our Expert Staff

Landscaping Specialist
Director of Lake County Programs
Landscape Ecologist
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