Top 10 Herbaceous Plants to Attract Wildlife to Your Ecosystem Garden

Native Perrenial sunflower

Native Perrenial sunflower provides nectar and seed for wildlife

“What should I plant” is the most frequently asked question I receive from people who’d like to attract more wildlife to their gardens. We have already discussed the top 10 woody plants to attract wildlife to your Ecosystem Garden. Now we”ll delve into the best herbaceous species.

These plants have been chosen based on a study by Doug Tallamy and Kimberley Shropshire, who painstakenly reviewed a mountain of scientific literature to determine the amount to which Lepidopteran species used various plants. Lepidoptera (Butterflies and Moths) are among the most studied insects, making them an easy choice in determing plant use by insects. Plant use by butterflies and moths is correlated with high usage by other insects and wildlife as well.

To find the most appropriate native species of each of these families of plants, the USDA plants database and the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center plants database are the best resources. Search for each family and then use the range maps and plant descriptions to choose species that are the best match for your area and conditions.

Drumroll please. Here’s the 10 best herbaceous plants for your wildlife garden:

  1. Goldenrod (Solidago), support 115 species. 125 Goldenrod species occur throughout the US. Goldenrod is used by many insects and spiders and birds who feed on the seeds and insects. No autumn garden is complete without several species of goldenrod bending in the breeze.
  2. Aster (Aster), support 112 species. This is a huge family, with species that thrive in prairie, meadow, pasture, roadside, and woodland environments. There are both spring and fall blooming species which means that you should choose a wide variety of species. Try to avoid the cultivars and opt instead for true native species. The asters provide abundant pollen and nectar for bees and butterflies and are a wonderful choice for any wildlife garden.
  3. Sunflower (Helianthus), support 73 species. When thinking of sunflowers, it is common to call the large-headed, many-seeded annual cultivars to mind, but there are many native perrenial species as well. The plants provide lots of nectar and pollen, and the seeds are eaten by many birds and other wildlife. Try a mix of native perrenial species with several annual species as well.
  4. Joe Pye (Eupatorium), support 42 species. Joe Pye is one of the best native alternatives for invasive Butterfly Bush, and includes Boneset, Snakeroot, and many species of Joe Pye. They produce a lot of nectar and pollen, making them an excellent choice for a pollinator garden.
  5. Morning Glory (Ipomoea), support 39 species. You must be very careful with morning glory because there are many introduced varieties which can be extremely invasive. When choosing a Morning Glory for your garden, it MUST be native to your area, or you will regret planting it. Please research your choice very carefully. Check with the native plant society in your state for guidance.
  6. Sedges (Carex), support 36 species. Many native sedges are considered threatened or endangered in the U.S., so your planting of them will help to protect them in addition to providing for wildlife. Sedges work in grassland, prairie, and woodland environments. We often neglect these species when planning our gardens for wildlife, but grasses and sedges are an essential element for wildlife in our gardens.
  7. Honeysuckle (Lonicera), support 36 species. Do not plant Japanese Honeysuckle! Please check carefully to ensure that you are choosing Lonicera species that are native to your area because there are several very invasive alien honeysuckles wreaking havoc in many ecosystems. Native species are wonderful for hummingbirds and butterflies.
  8. Lupine (Lupinus), support 33 species. Several endangered butterflies, such as the Karner Blue, are reliant on species from this family. Check with your state native plant society to determine which species will be most appropriate for your garden.
  9. Violets (Viola), support 29 species. Violets are host plants for one of my favorite groups of butterflies, the Fritillaries, many of which are endangered. Choose several species for early spring color and wildlife habitat
  10. Geraniums (Geranium), support 23 species. This does not mean those hanging baskets you can buy at the grocery store. You want to find native species that are best for your location.

There are many reliable native plant nurseries in the U.S. and by choosing your plants from these sources, you are better guaranteed to be using the most appropriate plants for your Ecosystem Garden. Plus, you are supporting a business that has made native plants a priority. This cannot be said about the garden center at Walmart or Home Depot. Support a local business.

See also Top 10 Native Woody Plants for Ecosystem Gardening

Which of these plants do you have in your garden? We’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

© 2009 – 2014, Carole Sevilla Brown. All rights reserved. This article is the property of If you are reading this at another site, please report that to us

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  1. says

    Some good suggestions here! I totally agree that Carex (Sedges) are underused in our gardens..I think it’s because people mistake them for weed grasses or lawn grasses…but if they are allowed to grow they can be very ornamental.

    Glad that you are suggesting species rather than cultivars. I grow New England Aster ‘Purple Dome’ and it is gorgeous, but it reseeded itself and I’ve noticed many more pollinators visiting the seedling flowers rather than the cultivar. Most plant breeders were NOT thinking of pollinator attractiveness when selecting cultivars!

  2. says

    Thanks for the list Carole, this is going to be one to come back again to.

    For klutzes like me you might link to the best woody plants article at the top, where you mention it – instead of reading down and finding the link at the bottom I went off searching your site!
    .-= Alison Kerr´s last post ..Red Berries You Don’t Want! =-.

  3. says

    I’m fortunate – butterfly bush isn’t invasive here (in fact, they don’t do at all well in my garden). I had a small patch of Joe Pye that was getting bigger over several years, but seemed to die off last winter. I’ll have to see if I saved any seeds.

    I wish someone would bottle the scent of lupines. I have them absolutely everywhere.

  4. Carole says

    Hi Carole
    Know this is an old post, but one I have saved since it has such good information.
    I’ve been asked, as a Master Gardener, to do a presentation on attracting wildlife to the garden and wanted to refer to some of the info in this post, but want to make sure I get it right. When you refer to aster, do you mean flowers with the name aster in their name, or members of the asteracea family, such as coreopsis, fleabane, and coneflower. Sunflowers which are #3 on the list are also members of the asteracea. Know you have the background I lace for these finer points.
    If you have time to reply, you may want to use my email address. Look forward to your articles.

    • Kay Lowery says

      I too have the same question as to the asters – does it include all plants in the asteracea family or just specifically the asters in the family?

  5. Erin says

    Hi, Carole, I was wondering why you don’t suggest planting clover. Dr. Tallamy lists it as the #1 herbaceous plant in supporting wildlife (supports 122 Lep. species). Is it because it’s too aggressive? I’m very interested to know your opinion. Thank you!

  6. Jackie Rosales says

    I have heard that planting Joe Pye weed next to milkweed should be avoided because monarch larvae may mistakenly chomp down on that and the leaves are toxic to them. Comments??

  7. Sean says

    A little late to read this article and post comments but please bear with me!

    This is a great list, all these plants are must-haves in an ecosystem garden. Love the suggestion of using sedges too, they’re adorable when used right in a landscape. Native Lonicera plants are quite stunning, always love to see someone choose a native over L. japonica. And can I just say THANK YOU for putting goldenrod at your number one spot? I adore Solidago, it’s a shame it has a reputation among gardeners for being the trashy-looking yellow scrub on the side of roads and disturbed areas when it can really be a visually stunning specimen in a garden. At my state garden (the NCBG where I’ve been an intern), one of our founders selected and bred a cultivar of Solidago rugosa called fireworks, and it is absolutely breathtaking to see a patch of it in full bloom ( And the pollinators just go nuts for it.

    Some other plants that drives the pollinators CRAZY: Liatris. Both L. Spicata (dense blazing star) and L. Squarrulosa (southern blazing star) are absolutely beautiful and provide many, many flowers for insects to choose from. Ceanothus spp., while a little less showy than Liatris, also tend to attract droves of pollinators. Love seeing the bright flowers of Oenothera (evening primrose), and different species provide different colors to help you blend them into the overall color scheme of your garden – talk about a win-win for human and natural purposes. Coming from NC, I can’t help but bring up the beautiful Gelsemium sempervirens (Carolina jessamine). It’s a personal favorite of mine. This vine explodes with bright yellow little flowers all over it in early spring (Feb.-Apr.) and is often the first plant of the year to be swarmed with happy pollinators. It’s great to see them flock to it knowing it could be their first feast of the season. It smells like a dream too, I’ll catch whiffs of it’s perfume-like odor from tens of feet away and feel at peace. And I can’t talk about pollinators without bringing up Asclepias (milkweed)!

    I was actually quite surprised to see that Asclepias is not on your list. It’s a great plant, especially down south where the climate is a bit more tropical. Asclepias tuburosa (butterfly weed) has a brilliant red color that brings flocks of insects to it, I’ve never seen one without several butterflies or bees on it chowing own. Other milkweeds work well is more poorly-drained areas that still get a lot of sun – especially Asclepias incarnata (swamp milkweed) and Asclepias lanceolata (lanceolate milkweed).

    Some of the native plants can be trickier to find but there’s a good chance your local botanical garden has many of these in the nursery and you could buy them either from a plant store (I’ve helped maintain and run the NC Botanical Garden’s newly-formed plant sale), yearly fundraiser, or even just talking to the nursery/greenhouse manager – asking if you could get some plants for a monetary donation or even for free. It’s a great way to obtain some of those hard-to-get species that tend to get ignored by larger commercial nurseries!

    • Sean says

      And a side-note on the Gelsemium. While beautiful and incredibly good-smelling, this plant is quite toxic. It can be mistaken for honeysuckle leading some to unknowingly poison themselves with the potent alkaloids present in the nectar. Some sources claim the nectar can kill bees, who can be attracted to its bright yellow flowers. It would be wise to plant this with other early blooming yellow flowers to give the bees a more attractive – and less dangerous – pollination option.

  8. says

    Uh… The “native sunflower” in the photo is a rudbeckia… Which seem to be conspicuously absent from your list…

    Gotta tell you that there are absolutely fantastic nectar sources for the deep south that failed to make your list…

    I’m wicked partial to heliotropium amplexicaule and tithonia sp.

    Sennas and most other Fabaceae provide for a host of butterflies…

    Passiflora is excellent.

    Probably the best way for anyone to garden for their local butterfly species…
    Dig out the useless turf… and wait.
    There’s usually abundant native species just waiting their turn in the seed bank underneath the current cover.

    Too bad there are so many covenants requiring that people grow the same thing that the neighbor has…
    stone recently posted..Indian Summer


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