Tennessee Smart Yards Native Plants

A comprehensive database of Tennessee native plants

Category Archives: Favorite Native Plants

Buttonbush Offers Year-round Interest


Buttonbush Is Large Shrub

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), aka Button-willow or Honey Bells, is a medium to large native shrub with many fine landscape attributes. This unique flowering shrub is a favorite in attracting beneficial wildlife. It populates bogs, swamps and pond areas, as well as dry limestone bluffs in the eastern U.S. and southeastern Canada (USDA hardiness zones 5–9).

White pompom flowers are the unique ornamental asset. Tiny fragrant flowers appear in creamy white balls that are 1 – 1 ¼ inches in diameter in late spring (in Philadelphia, PA) to early summer (northern New England). Long projecting styles from the flower

Cephalanthus occidentalis at Chicago Botanical Garden

heads gives it a distinctive pincushion appearance. Flower heads mature into hard spherical ball-like fruits containing tiny two-seeded nutlets. Dried seed balls persist all winter long.

Give the buttonbush room to grow. This multi-stemmed deciduous shrub grows 6-12 feet tall and 4-7 feet wide. On older shrubs stems and trunks appear twisted when twigs are bare of leaves in winter. Pruning is usually unnecessary and is done in early spring to shape or reduce plant dimensions. Old neglected plants may be revitalized by cutting them back near to the ground in late winter.

Buttonbush has year-round garden interest with late spring flowers, summer and fall foliage, and fall/winter fruits. Narrow oval green deciduous leaves emerge in spring and turn shades of red in fall. It has no serious disease or insect problems. Foliage is poisonous to humans and livestock; deer may snack on new spring growth.

Buttonbush is best planted in wet, humus-rich soils and in full sun to part shade. Favorite landscape sites include in rain gardens or the edge of ponds. Established plants after 1-2 years are moderately drought tolerant.

Fragrant flowers attract butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds for nectar. Leaves are the larval host for some butterfly species. Waterfowl, quail, and other birds feed on the nut-like seeds. Cut flowers look great in fresh summer bouquets or in dried arrangements.

This blog is taken from “What Grows There”– a website created by Hugh Conlon. It provides a host of helpful information on a wide range of gardening topics, from many species of flowers, trees, shrubs and grasses to practical hints on garden maintenance, garden problems and lawn care. Hugh has worked for 30+ years as a horticultural educator. Before retiring, he was most recently horticulturist for University of Tennessee Extension, Washington County.

Link to original post on ” What Grow’s There” here.

Check out Lemon Mint/Purple Horse Mint (Monarda citriodora)



Lemon Mint or Purple Horse Mint (Monarda citriodora) is a Tennessee native annual wildflower, and it is turning into one of my absolute favorite flowers to grow.  I thought it would be fun to put up a post on it.  It is very pretty, gets about 2-3 feet tall (not so tall that it is likely to need staking), blooms most of the summer, is not fussy about soil (one site even says it prefers clay) and tolerates drought.  It also attracts lots of butterflies and bees.  I went out this morning and I had both a Tiger Swallowtail and a Red Admiral feeding on it.  Lots of native bees are always on it.  The only drawback that I have found is that since it is an annual, it needs to re-seed for the following year.  In my first major planting, it came up really well but disappeared after the first year, so it doesn’t seem to be too competitive with other plants.  I tried another new planting area this past spring, and I now  have lots of this plant.  I am hoping for better luck with it re-seeding for next year.  But even if I don’t get new plants next year, it does make a wonderful, spectacular “nurse crop” on a first year planting of native species.

My Top 10 Native Plants

I have spent 19 years  growing native plants in my yard, a little over 5 years of which has been in northeast Tennessee.   So I thought it would be fun to post a list of my favorite plant species in case they will be helpful to someone else.  My favorites are those plants that are dependable, good on a modest budget, and easy to grow from seed applied on bare ground.  They give me quick results that make me feel  like I know what I am doing and that I don’t look back on with regret, thinking I should have known better.

As a preface to the list, I should mention that I like to grow natives in a meadow-like setting as a replacement for lawn.  So I am not necessarily recommending these plants for use in a groomed, formal flower bed, which is a whole different creature.  I like to do larger areas from seed for a natural setting that draws lots of birds, butterflies and bees.

Here are my dependable favorites and why:

Purple Cone Flower (Echinacea purpurea)

1.   Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).   This is my top pick.  It is spectacular en masse, blooms for a long period, reseeds well on its own, and beloved by butterflies.  It is also a favorite food of goldfinches, who are so impatient to eat that they start checking for seed ripeness as soon as flowers appear.  When fall arrives, a flock of goldfinches hangs out in my yard for about two weeks while they stuff themselves.  The seed is also inexpensive.  You can get it for $2 an ounce (6,600 seeds).

Smooth Penstemon/Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis)

2.   Smooth  Penstemon/ Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon  digitalis).   This is a charming, white flower that is a very strong re-seeder so you need to be a bit careful in the amount of seed you use.   For such a tiny seed (130,000 per ounce), it has an amazingly successful germination rate.  You can depend on it to quickly cover bare ground (perhaps a little too quickly).  But again it is spectacular en masse, and a large, mass bloom comes alive with the hum of hundreds of bees.  It is also an inexpensive seed at only $5 per ounce.

3.  Lanceleaf Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata).  This is an easy coreopsis from seed and gives quick bloom in the first year.  I like its bright dependable color.  It makes a good nurse crop while other plants are getting started.  I find it does tend to decline after a few years.

Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea)

4.  Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea).   This is a dependable, bright yellow flower for spring.  Seed has a high germination rate, and plants re-seed readily so it is easy to get too much of it.  However, it is a favorite food of swallowtail caterpillars, so I don’t mind if I have a solid field of it in April and May.  (Even though prolific, it doesn’t seem to crowd out other plants.)  Seed is only $5 per ounce (11,000 seeds), but be careful how much you use.

Nodding Pink Onion (Allium cernuum)

5.   Nodding Pink Onion (Allium cernuum).  Personally I love the cute nodding heads of pink flowers.  Its dainty height and shape is a nice contrast to the large plant species. Given its small size, it is better placed along the garden edges.  This is another bee plant, and as far as the bees are concerned, you can’t have too much.  It is more expensive at $10 per ounce (7,600 seeds) but you can buy a ¼ oz. and depend on just a few plants to nicely reseed themselves over time.

6.  Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa).  This plant is the old-fashioned native from which many cultivars have been produced.  Unfortunately it has a bad, and in my opinion undeserved, reputation for mildew.  I find the bees like it better than the cultivars, and the flowers are unique and beautiful.   It is a little on the coarse side, but I wouldn’t be without it.  When you plant the seed, be forewarned that it will feel like every single seed that you planted germinated.   $10 per ounce (70,000 seeds), which is definitely an amount I do not recommend, so simply adjust the amount according to your needs.

7.  Bradbury’s Monarda (Monarda bradburiana).  If Wild Bergamot is too coarse for you, this is a tamer and smaller species that is easy from seed and spreads well.  It has lovely flowers and deep green leaves.  The bees and butterflies like it too.  Very expensive seed at $50 per ounce (35,000 seeds), but you only need a small fraction of an ounce and some patience.

Slender Mountain Mint ( Pycnanthemum tenuifolium)

8.  Slender Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium).  This is a mid-summer bloomer with many, small white flowers with purple-tinted edges.  It is not a spectacular flower from a distance but extremely pretty close-up.   It is very easy from seed, re-seeds readily, and very popular with butterflies and bees.  It will provide a mass bloom just after the Alexanders have finished.  Expensive seed at $30 per ounce (378,000 seeds), but you are better off with a fraction of an ounce.

9.  Side-oats Gramma (Bouteloua curtipendula).  This is a charming 2 foot tall grass that I have been told is a not a strong survivor in Tennessee.  Granted it will never replace Little Bluestem as a “backbone” grass species for a meadow garden, but I love the ease of growth, the cute teeny red flowers that line the grass stalks, and its simple charm.  So far mine are hanging in there for their 3rd succeeding year.  Cheap seed at only $2 an ounce (6,000 seeds).

Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica)

10.  Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica).  This is my “surprise plant.”  It has very small seeds, at 500,000 per ounce.  I have planted seed off and on over several years with very modest results.  But it only takes a few plants, and once you have them, Blue Lobelia will move quickly into the areas that it likes.  Although the books specify that it tends to be a wetland plant and likes wet to average moisture, it has planted itself on the steep, rather dry slope behind my garage.  When things are turning brown and straggly in the fall, the bright blue of this lobelia is most welcome.  After about 3 years, I have it scattered here and there across the entire slope.  When I went back and looked at my original seed mix for this site, I found that it didn’t even contain Blue Lobelia.  Although the seed is more expensive, you can buy 1/4 oz for $8, which is 125,000 seeds.

 P.S.  With all these quoted prices and amounts, I anticipate questions on where I buy my seed.  I get it from Prairie Moon Nursery in Winona, Minnesota.  While I am very happy with their quality and service, I am sure there are also other outlets with competitive prices.