Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

What Are the Best Plants for Your Midwestern Garden?

I put together my top five picks for all-around Best Midwest plants after being contacted by editors at Midwest Living magazine.

Polling a number of experts in the Midwest, the editors asked for recommendations of award-worthy plants and then came up with a list of great plants that gardeners can count on. (I was happy to note some of the winners are proven perennials from the Chicago Botanic Garden’s trials, as well as plants I’ve grown and loved for a long time.)

Here’s my shortlist—including one with crazy beautiful flowers and one that’s so easy to grow that you basically just plant it in the right spot and water it.

See the plants that made it on to the Midwest Living list.

Best for Sun

‘Joanna Reed’ catmint (Nepeta ‘Joanna Reed’) is one of the tidiest catmints I’ve ever grown, an attribute that cinched a top rating in our trial. The strong stems never flopped and new shoots grow quickly to conceal the declining flowers stems, thus eliminating the need for deadheading. Compact, wide spreading plants (24 inches tall and 48 inches wide) are covered with a continuous display of violet-blue flowers from spring into fall; if you’re thinking that means loads of pollinators, you’d be right! The aromatic, dusty green leaves are not only attractive but also unpalatable to deer—a bragging point shared by many catmints.

Lamb's ears (Stachys byzantia) and catmint (Nepeta) in the Garden.
Fuzzy lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina) pair well with catmint (Nepeta—in the background).

To me, lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina) is an essential perennial for sunny gardens and ‘Big Ears’ is my favorite. Its large, pale silvery-green leaves are velvety soft and the perfect color and textural foil for other perennials—it looks good with both hot- and cool-colored flowers. ‘Big Ears’ is a shy flowerer; in fact, it is touted as non-flowering. Occasionally, a fuzzy flower stem or two pops up with tiny purple flowers hidden in woolly clusters. Low growing and spreading (14 inches tall and 30 inches wide), ‘Big Ears’ is a great groundcover or massing plant. Both of these sun-loving perennials like well-drained soils and are tolerant of hot, dry conditions.

Best Native Plant

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) makes my list of best native plants because its flowers are crazy beautiful, and it might just be one of the most important plants of the day. Honestly, the eye-catching bright orange flowers are reason enough to love this plant, but the fact that they attract a myriad of butterflies, including the beloved monarch, makes them invaluable. The survival and success of the monarch butterfly is tied directly to butterfly weed—the caterpillar feeds on the leaves and the adult butterfly on the nectar. Butterfly weed is a great garden perennial in formal and naturalistic plantings, and because it is commonly seed-grown, flower color varies from orange to yellow to nearly red. The Perennial Plant Association named Asclepias tuberosa the 2017 Perennial Plant of the Year.

Best Annual

Black and Blue sage (Salvia guaranitica 'Black and Blue')
Black and Blue sage (Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’)

I haven’t evaluated annuals in more than 20 years, and I don’t personally grow many annuals. However, I’m a huge fan of tender sages—so much so that we started a trial of 105 different nonhardy sages last year. Salvia ‘Black and Blue’ has been around for a while and has proven to be a phenomenal plant for seasonal displays in containers and garden borders. The combination of cobalt blue flowers and near-black calyces and stems is stunning. It blooms from midsummer to frost and attracts hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees aplenty. ‘Black and Blue’ is a rapid grower, reaching 2 to 4 feet tall and 1 to 3 feet wide in a summer, and is best suited to sunny locations.

Best Plant-It-and-Forget-It

Hosta sieboldiana 'Elegans'
Hosta sieboldiana ‘Elegans’

Hostas are quintessential plant-it-and-forget-it perennials. Long-lived and easy-care, hostas come in a wide variety of colors, forms, and sizes. Success is as simple as providing them with adequate water and planting them in partial to dappled shade. Hosta sieboldiana ‘Elegans’ features thick, corrugated blue-green leaves and near-white funnel-shaped flowers in early summer. ‘Elegans’ is robust at 30 inches tall and 48 inches wide, with heart-shaped leaves more than a foot long. Hostas rarely, if ever, need division—I have a big planting of ‘Elegans’ in my home garden that has been in place for more than 20 years with no care beyond removing the old leaves in the spring.

©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Published by

Richard Hawke

As Plant Evaluation Manager at the Chicago Botanic Garden, Richard Hawke's main research is the comparative evaluation of ornamental plants—predominantly herbaceous perennials—to determine the best garden plants for the Upper Midwest and areas with similar climatic conditions.

17 thoughts on “What Are the Best Plants for Your Midwestern Garden?”

  1. Yikes, I’d better get my annual order in fast for the wonderful black & blue salvia, which I discovered a number of years ago! So grateful to read of your fave five! Thanks for sharing.
    Looking forward to the rest of the article!

  2. I love adding native IL plants on our Chicago bungalow lot. I feel like it adds a lot of interest given that most of the flowers are a bit unexpected compared to your average tulips or daffodils. Additionally, I noticed/ researched that using native plants in the garden helps attract pollinators to your land which always helps with veggie gardens!

    Can’t wait to add a few more natives this spring/ summer!

  3. I would love to grow butterfly weed in my garden. I love to try a different variety of flowers and vegetables in my garden. Your blog is worthy and notable. I have picked up some wonderful information.

  4. My small yard is messy and overgrown, does anyone know of someone who can make it pretty? I’m in Park Ridge IL….Jerry

  5. We’ve just started our own garden. My wife and I love to trying a different variety of flowers in our my garden. I have picked up some wonderful information and suggestions from your blog. Keep up your good work.~Zach

  6. As a gardener I’m always up for experimenting with new plants. I have tried butterfly weed before and love the color! It also seems easy to grow and maintain which is a plus for me.

    1. Hi Emilia,
      The goal of the plant evaluation program is to determine, through scientific evaluation, which plants are superior for gardens in the Upper Midwest, in particular, we are located in Zone 5. Plants are rated on ornamental qualities, cultural adaptability, winter hardiness, and disease and pest resistance. If you are located in Zone 5 or similar climate, you should see the same winter hardiness we report in our evaluations.

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