Native Ohio Plants for Landscaping [with Pictures]
Ohio’s native plants are a diverse group that has evolved to meet the numerous challenges of Ohio’s diverse and changing habitats. Plant life is abundant in Ohio, with over 60% of the state being forested and more than three-quarters of the remaining land described as “agricultural land” by The National Atlas (2007). When you include aquatic vegetation, well over 85% of Ohio is covered in plants. Yet describing what plants grow in Ohio is difficult because we lack a good working definition for “native”. The Ohio Division of Forestry has published a book titled “Ohio’s Trees,” which defines native as “a plant found in the state before 1800”.
Trees commonly found in Ohio’s forests include hardwoods, conifers, and non-native species such as birches and maples. “Shrub” is a general term for all plants from the herbaceous family. Native grasses are classified and include the specific types associated with different habitats such as prairie, savanna, and woodland. Although Ohio has about 261 species of native grasses and forbs for a total of 1,539 taxa (species), only about 600 or so are shared here. Both the prairie germinates in areas that have experienced fire disturbance over time; however, it is often quite open to allow lots of sunlight to reach it. It includes several types of wildrye, blazing-star, and an extensive range of grasses and forbs. Ohio’s savanna is located in the southern part of the state, along the Scioto River from Columbus south to Portsmouth. It consists mainly of broadleaf deciduous trees and some evergreen species such as eastern red cedar. The prairie type is more open than the shrub type to allow sunlight to penetrate but not so open that it can be considered a drought. Wildflowers in these areas include bloodroot, yellow lady’s slipper, and bunchberry, with pine barrens having an abundance of wild orchids. Ohio’s softwood forest is mainly in the southern half of the state, comprised chiefly of oak, hickory, and maple trees. The coniferous types are found along the borders of Pennsylvania and the Appalachian Mountains. Pine forests are distributed mainly on Ohio’s north, east and west sides. We can group Ohio’s forests into four major regions: Northeastern Ohio (excluding Lake Erie), Southern (including Lake Erie), Western (including Lake Erie), and Central Ohio.
Native Plants of Ohio
Eastern hemlock – Hemlock is a dominant tree in northern forests; hardwoods such as birch are subordinate. The yellow-green needles turn brown in autumn.
Smilax rotundifolia – Manybark, roundleaf greenbrier, western Greenbriar. It is an herbaceous vine with large, heart-shaped leaves that grow from the ground or aerial roots. The flowers are greenish-white with five petals. Its habitat is all along the eastern and southern borders of Ohio from Pennsylvania southward to Alabama.
Hieracium umbellatum – Common ragwort, catkin-flowered hawkweed, wood betony – is a herbaceous perennial with alternate leaves and pink or purple flowers. It is common in moist woods surrounding streams, marshes, and roads throughout the northern half of Ohio.
Thalictrum humile – Blue meadowrue, water crowfoot – is a perennial that grows from underground rhizomes and has opposite leaves. The leaves are dissected into three leaflets, and the flowers are small with blue or white petals. It is pretty standard throughout Ohio’s swamps and wet prairies.
Anemone virginiana – Anemone, wood anemone – is a spring flowering perennial with leafy stems that can reach three feet tall. The leaves are opposite and palmately lobed, while the flowers are white to pink in color with five petals. Its habitat extends throughout Ohio’s glaciated area, more frequently in the north-central counties.
Pteridium aquilinum – Bracken fern, Bracken – is a large evergreen fern with fronds that can reach up to four feet long. The stems are round, and the leaflets are pinnate with rhombic segments. Its habitat extends throughout Ohio’s glaciated area, more frequent in the southwestern counties.
Polygonatum biflorum – Solomon’s seal – is an herbaceous perennial that can reach two feet tall. The leaves are palmate and deeply divided into three to five lobes, while the white flowers have ten stamens. It is found on moist hillsides, low-lying meadows, and along stream banks throughout Ohio’s glaciated area, more common in the western counties and along lake shores.
Potamogeton pusillus – Duckweed – is an aquatic perennial with a single leaf in the center of the plant. The dark green leaves are almost round and adapted to submerge in Water. The roots penetrate the substrate to collect moisture. The flowers are white and small. It is found in lakes, ponds, slow-moving rivers, and stream banks throughout Ohio’s glaciated area, more common along lake shores.
Smilax rotundifolia – Manybark, round leaf Greenbriar, western greenbrier. It is an herbaceous vine with large heart-shaped leaves that grow from the ground or aerial roots. The flowers are greenish-white with five petals and are preferred by the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird. Its habitat extends throughout Ohio’s glaciated area, more frequent in the southwestern counties.
Thalictrum rotundifolium – Round-leaved meadow rue, tall meadow rue, or herb robert. It is a perennial that grows from underground rhizomes and has opposite leaves. The leaves are dissected into three leaflets, and the flowers are small with blue or white petals. It is found in mesic (moist) habitats along stream banks, bogs, and ditches throughout Ohio’s glaciated area, more frequent in the northwestern counties of Ohio.
Panax quinquefolius: Ginseng; is a perennial herb with a thick, above-ground rhizome. The leaves are pinnately compound, and the flowers are inconspicuous. It is found in mesic (moist) habitats such as wooded ravines, stream banks, and shady hillsides. Its habitat extends throughout Ohio’s glaciated area.
Polygonum pensylvanicum: Smartweed; is an annual or biennial herb that grows from an enlarged root system. The leaves are opposite, heart-shaped, and usually hairless; the tiny flowers have five petals and many stamens. Its habitat extends throughout Ohio’s glaciated area.
Polygonum perfoliatum: Perfoliate-leaved buckwheat; a herbaceous perennial with opposite, toothed leaves around a central stem. The flowers are brown-purple, and the fruit is ovoid with smooth seeds. It is found in mesic (moist) habitats such as wooded ravines, stream banks, and shady hillsides. Its habitat extends throughout Ohio’s glaciated area.
Potentilla simplex: Beach rose or common cinquefoil; it is a perennial herb that grows from an enlarged tap root. The leaves are pinnate and have five leaflets without stipules. It has small flowers with five petals, and the fruit is a nutlet enclosed in a five-lobed calyx. Its habitat extends throughout Ohio’s glaciated area.
Rubus flagellaris: Dewberryy; it is a low-growing, often spreading wild bramble with slender, arching stems. The stems have red, prickly thorns and the leaves are pinnately compound. The flowers are white to pink or red to purple, and the fruit is red when ripe. It is found in mesic (moist) habitats such as freshly disturbed soils, floodplains, and along stream banks throughout Ohio’s glaciated area.
Ramalina coreopsis: Coreopsis; is a genus of herbaceous plants with a loosely spreading rootstock. The leaves are small and lance-shaped with five main lobes, while the flowers have five white petals. They are found in moist areas such as open woods, on moist hillsides, or ditches along streams throughout Ohio’s glaciated area, more frequent in the northwestern counties.
Sagina nodosa: Snowberry; is an herbaceous perennial that grows from a long, thick rhizome. The leaves are five-lobed, deeply lobed, and toothed, and the long, thin, wiry stems have tiny black flowers. The habitat extends throughout Ohio’s glaciated area, more frequent in the northwestern counties.
Senecio paniculatus – Ragwort; it is a herbaceous perennial with opposite, serrate to lance-shaped leaves. The flowers are yellow, and the fruits are brown pods. It is found in mesic (moist) habitats along stream banks and on wet, swampy hillsides throughout Ohio’s glaciated area. It is more frequent in the Tippecanoe River region and along streams of western Lake Erie.
Native Shrubs of Ohio
Junipers; ( Juniperus ) is a genus of coniferous trees or shrubs with needle-like or scale-like leaves, of which there are about 30 species. They are mainly native to the north temperate regions, but one species occurs in southeastern North America and one to two in southern South America. The bark of several species is used as a spice. In the APG III classification system, all but three of the junipers were moved from the Cupressaceae family to the new Juncaceae family.
Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) is a deciduous shrub or small tree with fragrant, olive-green foliage; it grew in abundance throughout Ohio’s glaciated area; it was found more often in the northwest, especially along streams and in wet ravines. In other areas, it grows on limestone outcrops. It is closely related to the western red cedar (Juniperus occidentalis). The leaves were used as an astringent by Native Americans. Depending on the species, the flowers are blue, pale purple, or white and grow in sprays at the ends of branches.
Geranium spp. – Cranesbill; is a genus of about 300 species of herbaceous flowering plants. The genus is distributed throughout the temperate and subtropical regions of the world and includes annuals, biennials, and perennials.
Calla palustris: Wild calla; it is a perennial herb with arrow-shaped, tuberous rhizomes. The leaves are alternate, petiolate with long petiole sheaths and palmately lobed blades. The flowers are white to yellowish or greenish-white to purple with an open spathe (a hood-like structure protecting the flower). The fruit is achene. Its habitat extends throughout Ohio’s glaciated area.
Trapa natans Water chestnut; is a free-floating perennial aquatic herb with slender, flat, triangular stems. The leaves are round and have long petiole sheaths at the base of each leaf blade that encircles the stem. The fruits are spiny nutlets in a four-valved capsule. It is found in slow-moving streams and rivers with water depths of less than 3 feet throughout Ohio’s glaciated area, more frequent in the northwest, especially along the Great Lakes shores.
Trapa natans ssp. argyroneura – Water chestnut (Argyroneura); it is a subspecies of Trapa natans that occurs in the southern United States and northern Mexico. Due to its strong air roots, it has a rhizome with a fibrous root system and is pronounced floating. The leaves are triangular and green on both sides, and the flowers are white or pink and can be hidden by the furled petiole. The fruits are spiny nutlets in a four-valved capsule. It is found in slow-moving streams and rivers with water depths of less than 3 feet throughout Ohio’s glaciated area, more frequent in the northwest, especially along the Great Lakes shores.
Arum maculatum: Cuckoo-pint; it is a perennial herb with tuberous rhizomes. The leaves are alternate and pinnately lobed to deeply cut into three lobes with petiolate sheaths at their base. The flowers are greenish-yellow with a dark red spadix (a spikey stem supporting the male flower above the female). The fruit is a black, spiny, globose (spherical) achene with a whitish pappus. It is found on the edges of sandy plains and in savannas along streams throughout Ohio’s glaciated area, more frequent in the northwest, especially along the Great Lakes shores.
Dicentra cucullaria: Dutchman’s breeches; it is a perennial herb with rhizomes that can grow up to two feet long. The leaves are divided into three leaflets with petioles (leafstalks) to four inches long. The flowers are yellow with orange-brown spots and scars on the upper petal and have a spur at the base; the lower petal is without spots. The flowers bloom from May to June. It is found in open woods and along the edges of meadows and clearings, ravines, and stream banks throughout Ohio’s glaciated area, more frequent in the Tippecanoe River region.
Asclepias syriaca: Common milkweed, an herbaceous perennial with a fibrous root system. The leaves are large and usually palmately lobed or pinnatifid (divided into numerous narrow segments) at the base; above, they are smooth, bright green with a rounded to oblong shape. The flowers are showy, pinkish-purple with a dull red interior, open day and night, and grow in clusters at branch tips. The fruits are flat, winged nuts with a waxy covering. It is found in open woods and along the edges of meadows and clearings, ravines, and stream banks throughout Ohio’s glaciated area, more frequent in the Tippecanoe River region.
Epilobium angustifolium: Common fireweed; it is an herbaceous perennial with a creeping rhizome. The leaves are alternate, linear to lance-shaped, with entire margins and hairy on both sides. The flowers are small and greenish-white and appear in clusters at the ends of branches or the tips of upper leaf axils (on stems). The achenes (seeds) are thin-shelled, three-lobed with two wings and a short break. It is found in open woods and along the edges of meadows and clearings, ravines, and stream banks throughout Ohio’s glaciated area, more frequent in the Tippecanoe River region.
Equisetum hyemale: Scouring rush; it is a perennial herb with jointed or unbranched stems. The leaves are compound, very narrow, and scale-like; the upper ones are stalked, and the lower ones are bulbous at the base. The spores are produced in small capsules called sporangia that grow at the top of each stem. It is found in wet places associated with surface water throughout Ohio’s glaciated area, more frequent in the northwest, especially along the Great Lakes shores.
Horsetail spp. – Common horsetail; is a perennial herb with a slender, jointed, unbranched stem. The leaves are needle-like and grow along each segment of the stem. The spore capsules develop at the top of the plant and become green with age; ripe spores are white and, when mature, split open to release the wind-borne spores. It is found in wet places associated with surface water throughout Ohio’s glaciated area, more frequent in the northwest, especially along the Great Lakes shores.
Lippia scaberulous: Squaw mint; is an aromatic perennial herb native to North America. The leaves are opposite, with toothed margins, the upper ones are sessile (stemless), and the lower ones are stalked. The flowers have five petals that curve backward. The fruit is a capsule that does not split open. It is found in open woods and along the edges of meadows and clearings, ravines, and stream banks throughout Ohio’s glaciated area, more frequent in the Tippecanoe River region.
Verbena hastata: Blue vervain; is an herbaceous perennial with a fibrous root system. The round stems are without hairs and are hollow and terete (cylindrical in cross-section).
Equisetum variegatum: Elk sedge; it is a perennial herb native to western North America with prostrate rhizomes (bundles of fibrous roots). The leaves are alternate to ovate-lanceolate, finely divided into segments, 0.
The trees, shrubs, and perennials that grew around Ohio’s pre-settlement prairies were several species of oak, hickory, walnuts, pignut, and butternuts; these were the principal trees on which early settlers depended for construction wood and their bounty of nuts. Wood was also available from beech, ash, tulip poplar, and wild cherry trees. A wide variety of native shrubs augmented the forest cover by providing cover for birds, small animals, and fruits that people found palatable. Perennial wildflowers bloomed each spring and added splashes of color to the prairies.
Oak-hickory forests covered most of Ohio’s land area before settlement. The central oak species in these forests were northern red, black, white, and scarlet oaks. In addition to the oaks, there were hickories, including pignut, bitternut, and shagbark. Hickories and oaks often grew together in mixed stands called oak-hickory forests. There were also some walnut trees scattered through these forests; walnuts prefer richer soils than other trees, so they could be found on higher ridges where the soil was better and less moist than in lower areas. Pears and apples were also common in the oak-hickory forests.
When Europeans first came to Ohio, there was little in the way of forests. The prairies provided a thin cover of grasses and sedges that prevented land erosion. The small trees mainly were tall shrubs growing in association with each other; they included huckleberry, serviceberry, and elderberry between oaks and hickories. Other small trees included maple, basswood, beech, and ash trees. At this time, there was considerable variation in species composition depending on location within the state.
Wildflowers were instrumental in bringing people to settle in Ohio. Early settlers heard stories of the abundance of wildflowers and the woodlands, and they came to Ohio seeking what they thought was a land of plenty. They found a largely treeless prairie with occasional woodland and large wildflower beds. Wildflowers still cover many acres throughout the state, providing interest for hikers and naturalists and adding beauty to the landscape. Some of the native wildflowers on Ohio’s prairies include goldenrods, trilliums, and violets. The annual wildflower bloom occurs in early spring over most of the state, starting in late March. The flowers fade away as summer advances, and grasses and sedges take over the landscape until fall.
Advantages of Ohio Native Plants
The availability of non-native plants in Ohio is increasing due to the rapid expansion of large nurseries. In many cases, these plants are chosen because they increase and are resistant to insect and disease problems, require little care, and can be used for various purposes. They have proved themselves well over time but are not native to Ohio’s prairies or woodlands and may have evolved under very different growing conditions. Native plants that have evolved here during the 10,000 years since glaciers covered Ohio developed naturally with the insects, diseases, and other competitors. They are the best plants to grow in Ohio because they have proven themselves suited to our climate, soils, and growing conditions.
When people plant non-native plants in their landscapes, they are hoping the plants will survive these hazards. Often, there is an adjustment period when a new plant must develop some resistance to the insects and diseases that threaten it. During this time, if the plants are not adequately cared for, other pests and diseases may develop that can wipe out the entire population. If this happens, it may take several years for the plant’s population to build up again; meanwhile, weeds may have established themselves on your land. Once the weeds and other non-native species have taken over, it may be a long time before there is any chance of saving your original planting from these competitors. If a weed problem develops, it can be challenging to identify what you are fighting because weeds are incredibly hardy and adaptable; they have only recently been introduced to Ohio.
Many of the native plants being sold as “native” by nurseries are also considered common plants in Ohio that have been selected by plant breeders who have crossed them with other plants. These hybrids provide desirable traits such as large size, showy flowers, and foliage that may appeal to the consumer. But these plants may not be suitable in Ohio due to their poor adaptation to our soils and climate. It is especially the case with perennial wildflowers that have been selected for large sizes and blooms. These make good landscape plants in urban areas but do not survive well in dry environments; they need lots of Water during the growing season when they produce many seeds. Many are also highly susceptible to soil-borne diseases such as rusts and mildews, two bugs that are common problems in Ohio.
Ohio’s rich prairies and woodlands result from thousands of years of evolution. The animals, plants, and natural communities here today have been honed by competing to survive in the face of many challenges. These plants and animals provide us with natural resources that are still available for use today. They may not be as apparent or abundant as they were before our ancestors came to Ohio, but they can still be found in places where our understanding and appreciation are growing. By knowing how to identify these native species, we can gain an appreciation for them and learn how best to protect them from the same fate that has occurred in other states: widespread habitat destruction by non-native species.