Flowering plants are often scene-stealers in a garden, but foliage plants present an understated elegance through their diverse leaf shapes, colors and patterns. Indigenous North American foliage plants offer a two-fold benefit -- beauty and adaptability. Typically, native plants adapt easily to the soil and climate where they grow naturally, making many of them drought-tolerant winners in a garden. Most foliage plants actually bear small flowers, but they take second billing to the ornamental leaves.
Diversity at Home
Definitions of the term “native plant” include some variations. On a timeline, native plants generally are described as plants that grew in North America before European colonists arrived. Some broader definitions, though, also mention introduced plants that have naturalized readily over a span of more than 200 years. All native plants are not indigenous to all regions in North America. Red maple (Acer rubrum), a perennial in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 through 9, grows from Quebec, Canada, to Florida. Red maple ecotypes, however, describe plants in this same species that are adapted to growing in different regions in that hardiness range.
Ferns are true foliage plants that do not produce flowers. As stellar performers in shady gardens, native ferns are a diverse group. Maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum, USDA zones 4 through 9) is easily recognizable by its horseshoe-shaped fronds. Lady’s fern (Athyrium filix-femina, USDA zones 4 through 8) sports delicate, lacy foliage. Cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea, USDA zones 3 through 9) is named for the color of its basal fibers, which are the source of osmunda fiber used in orchid potting mixes. Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum, USDA zones 3 through 8) is a suitable complement to ferns in the shade garden, where its arching stems arise from rhizomes that multiply to naturalize the area.
Unlike turf grass, ornamental grasses are allowed to grow into their natural shape without mowing or shaping. Their root systems can help prevent soil erosion, and many species provide winter shelter and seed food sources for birds. Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii, USDA zones 4 through 9) is aptly named for its blue-green stems that grow to 6 feet tall. Although it also produces flowering stalks, it is favored for its foliage, which transitions from blue-green in spring to red-tinged green in summer and lavender-tinged bronze in autumn. Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium, USDA zones 3 through 9) has a touch of blue at the base of its stems, which turn to vibrant orange in autumn. Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis, USDA zones 3 through 8) grows in 5-foot-tall clumps that have stem-clasping leaves.
As windbreaks, privacy screens and wildlife habitats, trees and shrubs form the backbone of any garden. River birch (Betula nigra, USDA zones 4 through 9) is a deciduous tree with foliage that turns brilliant yellow in autumn before falling and revealing shaggy, exfoliating bark. American holly (Ilex opaca, USDA zones 5 through 9) is an evergreen tree that may grow 50 feet tall. Its familiar foliage is used traditionally for holiday decorations. American arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis, USDA zones 2 through 7) is a fragrant evergreen conifer that was used medicinally by Native Americans.
- Cornell University: Native vs. Exotic for the Home Landscape
- Missouri Botanical Garden: Acer Rubrum
- North American Native Plant Society: Adiantum Pedatum
- North American Native Plant Society: Athyrium Filix-Femina
- Missouri Botanical Garden: Osmunda Cinnamomea
- Missouri Botanical Garden: Polygonatum Biflorum
- Missouri Botanical Garden: Andropogon Gerardii
- Missouri Botanical Garden: Schizachyrium Scoparium
- Missouri Botanical Garden: Elymus Canadensis
- Missouri Botanical Garden: Betula Nigra
- Photo Credit Eva Kaufman/iStock/Getty Images