Sometimes the simplest solution for a problem area in your landscape is to work with the existing conditions rather than trying to change the environment. This is especially true for areas in your garden where the soil stays saturated or is periodically flooded. There are a number of native plants that not only tolerate but thrive in damp soils.
If you are seeking a large tree, baldcypress, Taxodium distichum, (Zone 4 to 9) is an excellent choice. Although its foliage is soft and delicate looking, this needled conifer is a tough guy that is found growing naturally in swamps, where it develops “knees.” In the landscape it will grow in wet or dry soils, and it tolerates urban conditions too. One of my fondest memories is canoeing through a swamp in October when the baldcypress needles were turning russet, just before they drop to reveal a stately form with orange-red bark.
Sweetbay magnolia, Magnolia virginiana, a large shrub or small tree, (Zone 5 to 9) is a lovely sight when the leaves shimmer in the breeze, showing off their silver undersides. The small flowers are lemon-scented and the bark is silver gray. Depending on where you live, this magnolia may be deciduous or evergreen.
Virginia sweetspire, Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’ (Zone 5 to 9) is easy to grow and offers beautiful white flowers in spring, bright green leaves in summer and garnet foliage in autumn. An adaptable shrub, it will grow in damp shade or full sun. Use it to help stabilize banks, too.
Native shrubs for wet soils include those that also provide winter color like deciduous hollies, Ilex verticillata. Commonly known as winterberry, in winter the leafless branches display masses of red or orange fruits. When you purchase this holly, make sure you have a male plant for pollination. The selection ‘Red Sprite’ grows 3 to 5’ high and wide, perfect for small gardens or containers.
Buttonbush, Cephalanthus occidentalis (Zone 5 to 11), a butterfly magnet, is ideal for naturalized areas. Its flowers in summer are bound to attract attention. When it comes to curious flowers, groundsel-bush, Baccharis halimifolia is quiet until the showy seed heads, which look like cotton, appear in late summer and fall.
For perennial companions that tolerate moist soils, Lobelia cardinalis, cardinal flower is hard to miss when its tall spikes of bright red blossoms appear in late summer. Perfect along the edge of a pond or stream, this beauty brightens the woodland. Hummingbirds love it too. Other perennials to consider include Louisiana iris, and a number of rushes, which belong to the genus Juncus.
Certain bulbs like the Atamasco lily, Zephyranthes atamasco, (Zone 7 to 10) are happiest in damp soils. Native to the Southeastern US, their fragrant white flowers occur in meadows in spring over a period of 4 to 6 weeks. The grassy foliage is also attractive.
Before you spend time and money trying to change the environment in your garden, consider trying some of these adaptable and rewarding natives.