Natural Beauties: Indiana Native Plants

Once a niche passion, low-fuss native plants are growing on more gardeners. Here, a field guide to Hoosier flora.

At my old house,

I spent many a fine spring day tending to flower beds in the postage-stamp yard. It teemed with unruly native plants—that is, foliage identified by botanists and naturalists as indigenous to this region—collected over many years, and I regarded that small landscape not as a garden but as a miniature nature preserve, with each specimen neatly identified by a metal nameplate. When I moved, I left the markers behind in the hope that the new owner wouldn’t mistake the plants for weeds and rip them from the earth. I still can’t drive by the house, for fear of seeing my precious collection replaced by plain old store-bought marigolds—and then crying a little.
Suffice it to say, native plants can inspire a fervent following. And lately, this niche passion is taking root among a wider audience. Benefits range from the practical to the aesthetic to the ethical. Indigenous plants are hardy; adapted to our mercurial climate, many need little fuss or watering (call it “sustainability” around your Prius-driving pals). It’s okay to let them grow a little wild, like the lush meadow in the opening shot of Little House on the Prairie. And because local fauna has evolved along with the flora, native plants turn a yard into a wildlife habitat for birds and butterflies.
While some Indiana wildflowers can be quite showy—like the sensuous, exotic-looking Passion Flower—many of the blooms are more subtle than the hybrids bred to turn heads at The Home Depot; loving them is like looking past the prom queen and falling for the girl with glasses who reads poetry. Devotees have been known to rescue delicate woodland Prairie Trilliums from the bulldozer of development and transplant them to more tranquil environs.
“Using native plants is part of the green movement,” says Nancy Hill of the Indiana Native Plant & Wildflower Society. “It’s becoming sexy.” Indeed, attendance at the group’s sale and auction, held annually at Park Tudor the Saturday morning of Mother’s Day weekend (details at, has increased by half over the last few years. Enthusiasts line up before the doors open, eager for first dibs. The trees, flowers, and ferns are scooped fresh from gardens or endangered habitats, plopped worms-and-all into repurposed plastic pots, and priced at $2 to $20 each. With our handy field guide, you’ll know the Hairy Beardtongues from the Birdfoot Violets.
Passiflora incarnata
Habitat Wood’s edge
Blooms Midsummer
Notes Perennial climbing vine, up to 25 ft.; attracts butterflies; hard to find for sale (but showy flowers merit the search); needs full or part sun and fertile soil
Viola pedata
Habitat Wood’s edge
Blooms Mid-to-late spring
Notes Perennial, 4–10 in.; attracts butterflies; prefers sun and dry soil
Trillium recurvatum
Habitat Woodland
Blooms Mid-spring
Notes Perennial, 6–12 in.; prefers shade and rich, loamy soil


Sorghastrum nutans
Habitat Prairie grassland
Blooms Late spring; rust-tone seed awns in late summer
Notes Perennial, 3–7 ft.; likes sun and average-to-dry soil

Filipendula rubra
Habitat Water’s edge
Blooms Early-to-midsummer
Notes Perennial, 3–6 ft.; attracts butterflies; thrives in full or part sun and moist soil

Penstemon hirsutus
Habitat  Prairie grassland
Blooms Early summer
Notes Perennial, up to 2 ft.; attracts butterflies and hummingbirds; needs full or part sun and dry soil
Aronia melanocarpa
Habitat Wood’s edge
Blooms Late spring; decorative berries in late summer; colorful fall foliage
Notes Shrub, up to 12 ft.; wants sun or part shade

Osmunda cinnamomea
Habitat Woodland
Blooms None; tall, chocolate-brown fronds in the spring
Notes Perennial, up to 5 ft. (full maturity); needs shade and moist soil

Panicum virgatum
Habitat Prairie grassland
Blooms Midsummer; bushy, reddish-colored seed awns in late summer
Notes Perennial, 3–5 ft.; attracts butterflies; likes sun and average-to-dry soil
Clematis viorna
Habitat Woodland
Blooms Late spring
Notes Perennial vine; hard to find,but desirable due to unique blossoms; likes shade or part shade and moist soil; also called “Leatherflower

Liatris spicata
Habitat Prairie grassland
Blooms Late summer
Notes Perennial, up to 4.5 ft.; attracts butterflies, birds, and hummingbirds; wants sun and average-to-moist soil
Illustrations by Lucy Engelman