Illinois Native Plants for Landscaping [with Pictures]
Illinois is home to natural forests, prairies, wetlands, and meadows. The state has more than 100 native plant species, many found nowhere else in the world. Unfortunately, Illinois natives are at risk from an invasion of non-native plants. Both wildflowers and invasive plants can grow in our state’s biologically diverse environments. Identifying these non-native invaders is important for protecting this wonderful natural resource Illinois offers us all to enjoy!
Join me in exploring the magic of this wonderfully diverse landscape in Illinois to learn about our unique native plants.
This is a member of the sunflower family that grows in full sun to partial shade and is native to the Illinois Prairie; it can grow up to two feet tall on stems with opposite leaves. In July and August, it produces clusters of 2-3 inch long tubular flowers primarily in the violet color range with contrasting yellow tips at the base of each petal. Bumblebees pollinate the flowers.
This wildflower blooms in late summer and can stand cold weather and light snow. The Indian paintbrush can be consumed by livestock, and wild animals graze on the prairies.
This wildflower is found in the Illinois prairies and other areas with deep, loose soils and full sun to partial shade. It is an herbaceous perennial plant, meaning they die in winter each year but grow back from their roots rather than seed. It grows erect, leafy stems that are multi-branched with alternate, heart-shaped leaves. The flowers are small, white, and sweet-smelling. The flowers bloom from June to September.
Sedge is a perennial herbaceous wildflower found throughout Illinois with a preference for moist soils in full sun to partial shade. The grass-like leaves can grow up to 3 inches long, and grass-like stems can be anywhere from 10 to 50 inches tall. They have yellow florets and spike at the end of the stem.
White yarrow is a perennial wildflower native to Illinois that comes in many sizes, typically 1 to 2 feet tall; it prefers full sun to partial shade and moist soils. The leaves are opposite and sessile, while the flowers are small and white. This plant provides nectar for butterflies, bees, and other insects.
Spiderwort is a perennial wildflower found throughout Illinois in full sun to part shade and prefers moist soils. It is between 12 and 36 inches tall, has opposite leaves, and has a scape of 1-3 feet. They have spikes of small lilac flowers.
Sweet Flag, also known as Ribes cereum, is a herbaceous wildflower native to Illinois, found in full sun to part shade, and prefers moist soil. It is up to 4 feet tall and has opposite leaves and stems that are multi-branched with alternate, heart-shaped leaves. The flowers are small, white, and sweet-smelling.
The Black Cohosh is a perennial herbaceous wildflower found in Illinois and other states with moist soil in full sun to partial shade. The leaves are opposite, stalkless, or only slightly stalked. The flowers are small, bell-shaped, dirty white, and sweet-smelling.
Dwarf Blue Violet
Violets are lovely wildflowers with sideways, stalkless leaves and small flowers. This violet is native to Illinois but can be found in other states with moist soil and full sun to partial shade. It is up to 26 inches tall with large flowers, and its leaves can be 8 to 16 inches long.
The gentianella flower is a wildflower found in Illinois and other states with moist soil, full or partial sun in full sun to partial shade, and prefers moist soil. The flowers are yellow, bell-shaped, and sweet-smelling. The stems are up to 12 inches tall, while the leaves are up to 12 inches long.
This wildflower has opposite leaves and stems that are multi-branched with alternate, heart-shaped leaves. It typically grows 2 to 3 feet tall; flowers are white or pink clusters on the end of the stems.
These flowers have been known to grow as tall as 4 feet. However, they are not very robust and can be damaged by wind. The leaves are opposite, stalkless, or only slightly stalked. The flowers are small, white, and sweet-smelling.
It prefers full sun to partial shade and moist soil, growing 6 to 8 feet tall. It has opposite leaves that are stalkless or just slightly stalked. The flowers are small, yellowish green, and sweet-smelling. They are renowned for being genuine pollinators of bees.
This is a native herbaceous shrub found throughout Illinois, especially along lake shores, and can be found in other states with moist soil in full sun to partial shade. It has opposite leaves that are stalkless or only slightly stalked. It is low maintenance and can be pruned for any season and cultivated for home use.
Bladdernut is a type of shrub native to the United States. It is found most commonly in northeastern Illinois and the Midwest and Southeast.
The bladdernut shrub usually has clusters of flowers that bloom from March until April and prefers moist soil. Bladdernut’s growth can be spurred by cutting or pollarding, but it tends to grow tall after being pollarded. The shrub will grow around 8–15 feet tall and weigh about 6 pounds. The flowers on the bladdernut shrub are flat-topped and have five white petals. A single flower is primarily located at the center of foliage clusters, or cymes. The fruit of the bladdernut is shaped like a rattlesnake’s rattle and is covered in prickly spikes. The fruit of this shrub ripens from July to August, while its seeds mature in September or October. The American bladdernut shrub prefers soils composed of loam or sand, which does best in areas with full to partial sunlight. It is resistant to drought and other diseases, such as blister rust and powdery mildew. The shrub can also resist deer, rabbits, moles, and other pests.
People sometimes use the wood from the American bladdernut shrub for tool handles, fence posts, and fuelwood. Additionally, Native Americans use the bark of this plant as a soap substitute.
The leaves and stems of goldenrod have a distinctive light scent when crushed or broken. People often use flowers for medicinal purposes. The plant’s roots contain salicin, a chemical that acts as a natural pain reliever. The stems of the goldenrod are usually shaped like three to five-sided clover. The stems can be green, reddish, or purple.
The leaves are in alternate arrangement and divided into three-lobed sections; they vary in shape from lanceolate to ovate leaves and form a basal rosette at the base of the plant. The seedlings appear as rosettes.
The flowers are borne in spikes and arranged in compound umbels or whorl fashion. The individual flowers are five-petaled and have a yellow or golden yellow color. Female flowers mature into fruit with several overlapping scales, known as florets, which turn purple, red, or black after insects pollinate them.
The pawpaw shrub is a small tree that has what many call a bizarre blooming period. What starts as a flower bud will quickly be overtaken by a large number of fruit that grows on the palm of the plant. These are not fruits in the sense we know them, but they are clusters of flowers that remind us of pineapples with their many individual petals.
This fruit looks something like a pineapple or an eggplant. It is often served as a dessert at dinner parties but will likely not be eaten in the usual sense of the word. The leaves are opposite, stalkless, or only slightly stalked. The flowers are small, greenish-white. Their fruits are nutritious and have been known to have medicinal value.
This shrub has alternate leaves that are stalkless or only slightly stalked with long stems. Flowers are orange-red or white and occur in clusters; they bloom from April to July in Illinois. Snowberries can grow up to 12 feet and 6 feet wide across branches. These shrubs are known for their sweet smell and are used as a resource for food and drink.
Leatherwood can grow in either low-lying or upland areas. However, it tends to have a very specific habitat: it prefers wet, acidic soil environments that have lots of shade and little water. The shrub is also unable to survive in hot regions as well as it can tolerate low temperatures without losing its leaves and flowers.
Its leaves are made up of three leaves. It has a leathery look to its leaves which is caused by the presence of resin chemicals in its leaves. There are no known parasites or diseases associated with leatherwood.
This shrub is also a favorite ornamental plant because of its beauty and tendency not to require much care.
Besides the birds and animals that profit from leatherwood, people can also use it for Christmas decorations and edible plants. Leatherwood leaves can be used to make tea and syrup; candies are made from berries. Leatherwood shrub tea is a common way to use the leaves of this majestic shrub.
It is valued for its medicinal properties. The shrub is found in Illinois and other states with moist soil in full sun to partial shade. It has opposite leaves that are stalkless or just slightly stalked. It is also a flavoring in foods, such as baked beans, chowders, and sausage. They are seed propagated and require moist loam soils and shade to thrive.
This is a perennial herbaceous shrub found in Illinois and other states with moist soil and full sun to partial shade. The leaves are opposite, stalkless, or only slightly stalked. It has small, red, sweet-smelling flowers bloom from July to September in Illinois. This plant has no underground parts like roots or rhizomes, and instead, it grows from an underground stem called a caudex, which is used for propagation.
The yellow birch is one of the most-recognized trees in Illinois, with its smooth white bark and delicate foliage. It grows from the eastern U.S. coast to parts of Central Canada. The scientific name for this tree is Betula alleghaniensis, which means ‘upper country birches’ because it is known to grow abundantly in certain regions at a higher altitude than lower ones.
Contrasting with the white bark, the leaves are light green with yellowish-green blotches, turning pale yellow in autumn. The flowers are small and yellowish-green in color. The fruits it bears are winged seeds. The bark is very thin and splits into irregular plates that are light grey to white, shiny and smooth.
The trees have an average height and width of about 30m (100feet), occasionally growing up to 40m (130ft). The wood is hard and has a density of 0.83 grams per cubic centimeter. It is used to make furniture and barrels and carve wood.
Its uses are very limited; the trees were largely planted as ornamentals because of their decorative bark, though they were useful. Native Americans used the bark to paint their tools and clothing, and the Irish to make baskets. The trees’ wood was also used for building houses and shipping barrels using wooden poles.
This deciduous tree blooms during the summer in Illinois. The leaves are one of the most diverse leaf forms found in the maple family. The sugar maple is a host plant for several other trees, including the Red Maple and Red Oak, which support the sugar maple’s growth. In addition, sugar Maple leaves are what are used for tapping.
The Red Maple has a layered, fan-shaped canopy with palmate leaves. Its branches are often bent into fantastical shapes. It is a large deciduous tree that has a droopy, fluttering appearance. The shape of its branches is long, thin, and curved up at the ends. They can reach up to fifty feet tall and have many twisted offshoots.
The flowers of the maple tree can be found in clusters called catkins in spring or autumn. Red maple catkins are 2” to 3” long but look like short umbrellas. Many cultures have used the Native American Red Maple for medicine, as a source of food, and as a source of sacred fire.
The Red Maple’s leaves are distinctive with their simple palmate structure and two to four lobes. The leaves are light green on the underside, turning burgundy red in autumn. The Red Maple also has unique bark. The bark of the Red Maple is a bright reddish-brown color. It is prone to splintering, so it is often shaved off to reveal the wood underneath. The wood of the Red Maple is used for making bats and other types of baseball bats.
The red maple plant produces flowers in spring or early autumn. Both male and female flowers appear on catkins that can be as long as three feet but are usually shorter.
Known for their aesthetic appeal, Mountain Ash leaves can be up to 6 inches long and have three lobes on both sides of the stem. The flowers are small and white with a nice fragrance. They are known for culinary uses and grow in clumps.
Cherry trees have a natural ability to form a shallow root system, making them more drought-tolerant than most other trees. They can reach heights of 40–60 feet tall. The Black Cherry has opposite, simple leaves rounded at the base and heart-shaped at the end. They bloom in the summer in Illinois with small white flowers. These trees attract insects as well as birds which leads to their pollination.
American beech trees have a natural ability to form a shallow root system, making them more drought-tolerant than most other trees. They grow to be 50–70 feet tall. The leaves have an interesting shape which is why many people enjoy these trees for their looks alone. But unfortunately, it is only native to North America.
These evergreen coniferous trees grow rapidly in the right conditions and can reach heights of 70–120 feet. They have needle-like, lightweight green leaves that are flat and long growing on the branches. They retain their needles for up to 2 years before they break off. Unfortunately, they aren’t very tolerant of drought and full sun exposure. The needles are in whorls of three and are found on top of the branches and the tips. The needles are brown or dark green and have horizontal, ridged margins. It is only native to North America.
These deciduous trees can reach heights of 25–30 feet. They have opposite, simple leaves that are ovate and notched at the tip. They bloom in the summer in Illinois with small white flowers. The Ohio Buckeye produces a compound fruit with 15-20 nuts inside, which is why it is also called the “horse chestnut tree” and “common buckeye.” It thrives in deep, fertile soil. The white flowers have five petals and are pollinated by bees. It has a native range of Ohio and parts of western Pennsylvania and Indiana in the United States.
These deciduous trees can reach heights of 50–60 feet. The leaves are long and narrow, green on the bottom, white and furry on the top, and very large. They bloom in the summer in Illinois with small white flowers. Some species of box elders have grown as weed trees for much longer than native box elders. These trees are just as important as other trees in nesting areas for birds to lay their eggs because they provide a large amount of shade. The pinnate leaves have 5-9 leaflets, and small yellow flowers bloom in the spring. Box elders can naturally form a shallow root system, making them more drought-tolerant than most other trees.
These trees can reach heights of 12–25 feet. This tree is a host for other trees, including the sugar maple and red oak, which it supports. It is a good source of shade and food for wildlife and a powerful soil builder. Native Americans used the white bark of the paper birch to make birches, also known as birch poles, used in wigwams.
The leaves are wide and narrow at the tip with pointed bases. The robust landscaping makes for very tall trees that can be pollinated by birds attracted to the tree’s flowers. The Paper Birch also has a natural ability to form a shallow root system, making them more drought-tolerant than most other trees.
These slow-growers can reach heights of 30–50 feet. They have short, stout branches and are often squat and round in appearance. Their leaves are alternate, simple, and pinnately lobed with sharp teeth or lobes on the edge. The flowers bloom in clusters of catkins at the end of the stems. This tree provides food for wildlife such as squirrels that eat its nuts. They have oblong crowns and straight trunks and branches.
These deciduous trees can reach heights of 50–100 feet. The leaves are oblong to obovate and about 5 inches long with a basal stem. There are greenish-yellow, cup-shaped flowers that bloom in the spring in Illinois. The bark is gray and corky on the trunk and branches and has a distinctive white stripe down its middle. It’s a good tree for shade because of its dense canopy. It is native to the Rocky Mountains of Alberta, British Columbia, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Washington, and Wyoming in North America.
White Eastern Redbud
Famous for its spring flowers, the White Eastern Redbud is a small tree that can reach heights of about 20 feet. The leaves are simple and heart-shaped, with edges that are toothed. They bloom in the spring in Illinois with white flowers. The bark is reddish brown to black and shiny on the trunk, and gray, scaly, and disintegrating into thin plates on branches. It is native to the United States from Alabama east to New York and south to Florida. The leaves are alternately arranged and simple, petiolate and ovate, with bristle-tipped and obtusely-pointed margins. The bark is thin and smooth to the touch. When cut during the right season, it exudes a purple sap. It has a natural ability to form a shallow root system, making them more drought-tolerant than most other trees.