There are many plants that like being in the occasional puddle. In fact, they thrive on it. Wet soil is not a problem — it’s an opportunity! Sweetshrub (pictured above), Joe Pye Weed, Virginia Bluebells, Winterberry Holly, and others evolved to thrive in areas where water gathers.
Check out our list of native plants suited for wet areas Native Plants for Wet Areas posted on our website, and stop in today to make your selection.
In this Part One of Plants for Wet Sites, we’ll highlight a few of the tree/shrub species that tolerate wet. We’ll continue to add to the list as time allows, there are SO MANY plants that evolved to adapt to wet soils!
Platanus occidentalis (American Sycamore)
Young trees transplant easily and grow quickly. They prefer full sun in a moist site, and are deer and pollution tolerant. We love Sycamore so much, we gave it a blog post of its own!
Chamaecyparis thyoides (Atlantic White Cedar)
This slender evergreen can reach up to 50 feet, yet its relatively narrow width makes it useful in some tight spots. (It is narrow by ‘native standards’ not ‘Skyrocket Juniper’ standards.) While White Pine can grow to a width of up to 40′, White Cedar is relatively narrow at 10 to 20 feet. It tolerates wet sites, short-term flooding, and salt, prefers full sun, and is anecdotally avoided by deer, although some sources report browsing.
White Cedar is generally a component of wetlands, and as such supports a rich diversity of bird and animal life. You can expect a White Cedar to provide food and shelter for birds even if it is not in a wetland.
Clethra alnifolia (Summersweet)
This suckering shrub blooms mid-summer and provides a wonderful sweet fragrance to the mid-summer garden. It is a good alternative to the invasive Buddleia (Butterfly Bush). The flowers have a similar shape. It does not, however, bloom all season. Which is a good thing! It’s the long season of bloom and seed set that makes Butterfly Bush prolifically invasive. This is one shrub you can thank for a limited bloom period. Simply augment it with other flowering shrubs and perennials for season-long bloom in your garden.
Clethra loves a wet site, can grow in clay, and is supposedly deer resistant. It will tolerate average garden soil if it does not get hot and dry. Place Clethra where it will get sun to part shade. It will sucker and form a fragrant colony about 8 feet high and 6 feet wide, easily pruned or shaped if need be. It is one of the last shrubs to leaf out in spring, so don’t panic until early June if you don’t see green on your clethra. The flowers attract pollinators of all sorts, including butterflies and hummingbirds.
We have a crop of these that are grown from seed for increased genetic diversity.
Asimina triloba (PawPaw)
YES! It is native to the northeastern U.S. , hardy to zone 5. Its primary habitat is bottomlands, where it often forms thickets. It fruit tastes, some say, like a ripe banana. This tree evolved before many of the more complex insects and is pollinated by beetles and flies. For fruit set, you will need two genetically different plants (not two suckers from the same plant.) Many people choose to hand pollinate their paw-paws, due to low populations of beetles and flies. There is a lot of information available on the internet if you choose to do this.
Our paw paws are seed grown, so by definition are genetically diverse. This tree has unusual flowers and fruits and is worth a place in your landscape if you have a moist to wet site. The large leaves and the fruit itself have a tropical flair to them, so you can delight your visitors with this unusual tree.
PawPaws are the only host plant for the Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly.
Taxodium distichum (Bald Cypress)
This tree is a deciduous conifer. It looks like it should be evergreen, but every fall its needles turn blaze yellow and fall to the ground. It can grow in standing water. In fact, it has adapted to the lack of oxygen in wet soils by sending its roots up as ‘knees’. It was once thought that the ‘knees’ appeared above ground to enable the tree to access oxygen. This has not yet been proved and it remains a botanical mystery why these knees appear. They are so unusual, you can purchase bald cypress knees online for decorations! It can grow to 50 or 70 feet, with a width of 20 to 30 feet. Consider using this in an area where you would like shade or screening in summer, but sunlight to come through in winter.
Acer rubrum (Red Maple)
The red flowers that give Red Maple its name. “Acer rubrum” (CC BY 2.0) by Danny S. 1993
Easy to transplant. Acidic soil. Scarlet Red fall foliage. Red flowers in spring. Plant in sun to part sun. Tree will reach 40 to 60 feet, growing one to two feet a year.
Red maple is a host plant for many moth and insect species. Nuthatch, Purple Finch, Evening Grosbeak, and other songbirds eat the seeds and buds, while the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker drills holes into the bark to feed on sap. The insects supported by Red Maple keep many insect-eating songbirds alive . Screech Owl, Pileated Woodpecker, Wood Duck, Northern Flicker, and Tree Swallow use cavities in older trees for nesting sites.
Baccharis halimifolia (Groundsel Bush)
Close-up of the fun, fluffy ‘flowers’ of Baccharis. “Groundselbush” (CC BY 2.0) by treegrow
This shrub has muted gray leaves and feathery seed heads on female plants that give it a lovely character. The rounded, multistemmed shrub tolerates poor soil and salt. Plant in full or part sun. This shrub provides cover for small birds and insects, and nectar for bees, butterflies, moths, and insects. Birds relish the seed. Our crop is seed grown, for genetic diversity.
Betula allegheniensis (Yellow birch)
This handsome, quick growing tree will eventually reach around 50 feet in height. It is one of the few birches that is shade tolerant. Its dark bark holds a faint scent of wintergreen. The yellow fall color is beautiful against the clear, blue, crisp skies of autumn. In winter the bark is ornamental. It prefers a cool, moist soil and is easy to grow. The shape of Yellow Birch is distinctly pyramidal, particularly if you leave the lower branches on. You can remove the lower limbs and create a niche for shade perennials below its branches.
Caterpillars of several butterfly and moth species feed on yellow birch. Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker drills holes and feeds on its sap. The seeds, catkins, and buds are eaten by Ruffed Grouse, Common Redpoll, Black-Capped Chickadee, Purple Finch, White-Winged Crossbill, Slate-Colored Junco and others. Some bats may use trees for summer roosting sites, maternity colonies, and hibernation.
Calycanthus floridus (Sweetshrub)
The flowers of this shrub never fail to captivate. They appear to be almost wooden in nature. They can have a sweet scent, although this varies considerably from shrub to shrub. The dense, multi-stemmed shrub with dark green leaves makes a great accent, border plant, or screen. Moist soil and clay do not hinder it. Growing in shade or sun, it will be a bit more open in shade, and a bit shorter in full sun. Grows to about 6 to 8 feet in height, 4 to 5 feet wide. It is very adaptable to soil types and can be planted in almost any amount of sunlight. Our crop of Calycanthus are grown from seed for the greatest genetic diversity.
Corylus americana (American Hazelnut)
“2422 Hazelnuts” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by rockerBOO
This suckering shrub, also known as American Filbert, likes sun to part sun. Its dense stems quickly form a rounded-top stand 10 feet high. It is adaptable to varying pH levels in the soil is well suited for naturalized areas. Two are needed for best nut set. These nuts are rich in protein and flavor, and can be used in any recipe calling for filberts or hazelnut.
Many insects feed on the leaves, nuts, and other parts of American Hazelnut. These insects, in turn, support many insect-eating birds. Some studies have documented baby birds to eat over 700 insects a day – all delivered by the parent bird. So having insect supporting plants in the landscape is important for bird populations.
The caterpillars of Juvenal’s Duskywing Skipper sometimes feed on the leaves. The nuts are eaten by such birds as the Wild Turkey, Red-Bellied Woodpecker, and Blue Jay. The dense branches of American Hazelnut create excellent cover for wildlife and ideal nesting habitat for many songbirds.
Ilex verticillata (Winterberry Holly)
This shrub can tolerate occasional standing water, and clay soil. It is a multi-stemmed shrub that can reach 8 to 10 feet and prefers sun to part sun.
Winterberry hollies are a wonderful shrub for the winter garden. These deciduous shrubs lose their leaves and proudly hold their berries on bare branches, an offering to winter songbirds. Depending on the weather and the abundance of other food sources, birds may snap up the berries by December or leave them till February. The selection ‘Winter Red’ reaches about 6′ and ‘Red Sprite’ stays at about 3′. There is some question on whether the berries of ‘Red Sprite’ are able to be eaten by birds. ‘Winter Red’ must be pollinated by ‘Southern Gentleman’ and ‘Red Sprite’ must be pollinated by ‘Jim Dandy’.
We carry the named cultivars of winterberry holly for those who are looking for predictability. We also always have seed grown plants for those looking for genetic diversity.
Liriodendron tulipfera (Tulip Tree)
If you want a fast-growing shade tree, tulip tree is it. It does need a large space, as it can grow very tall. The trunk can reach 4′-6′ in diameter. It’s flowers are showy, and it tolerates deer, clay soil, wet soil, and black walnut. It won’t grow in constantly wet soil, but can tolerate periods of wetness and flooding.
The nectar and pollen of the flowers attract flies, beetles, honeybees, bumblebees, and other long-tongued bees. The Ruby-Throated Hummingbird visits the flowers for nectar. The Promethea Silk Moth also feeds on the tulip tree, as does the Tulip Tree Beauty Moth and the Tiger Swallowtail. Tulip tree seeds are eaten by Cardinal, Goldfinch, Carolina Chickadee, and Purple Finch. Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers seek sap from the bark of this tree. Once the Sapsucker drills the holes in the bark, the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird will sips sap from the same holes! The dripping, sticky sap can collect insects, holding them there for other birds to eat.
Quercus palustris (Pin Oak)
Moist to wet soil, will tolerate occasional shallow standing water and drier soil once established. Strongly pyramidal when young, open and spreading with age. Fast growing up to 100’. Grows 12’-15’ in a 5 to 7 year period. Fall color russet, bronze, or red. One of the most dependable for all color, and a wonderful symmetric look in winter. Lower limbs cascade downward created a graceful shape.
Like all the oaks, many butterfly and moth larvae feed on Pin Oak. It supports many insects which in turn support many birds. The acorns also feed birds and small mammals. The Pin Oak, when it is sited near bodies of water, provides nesting habitat for herons, egrets, and other wetland birds that nest in colonies on trees.
Betula nigra (River Birch)
Of course any list of trees that tolerates wet sites would not be complete without River Birch! It tolerates standing water, clay, and even drought once established. It’s peeling bark adds interest to a winter landscape and its leaves fluttering in summer breezes can make you feel cooler even when its hot. It is a fast growing tree that reaches 50 feet or more in a relatively short time. It’s multiple trunks add to its charm. Plant in full sun to part sun. Don’t worry if it sheds some leaves mid -summer. It is no happier with summer heat than the rest of us.
Many insects use the River Birch for food and lodging. River Birch seeds are larger than many other Birch seeds. Pine Siskin, White-Winged Crossbill, Purple Finch, and Black-Capped Chickadee are some of the birds that depend on these seeds for nourishment.