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Plants for Wet Areas

Fighting Drainage Problems by Landscaping With Native Plants

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winterberry holly bushes in december

Psychedelic art? No! A closeup of winterberry holly, leafless in December.

David Beaulieu

Solutions to drainage problems sometimes take the form of installing dry creek beds or drainage systems, such as French drains, but another possible route is simply to use suitable specimens (i.e., plants for wet areas). Many naturalized and native plants have evolved to grow in wet soils, so they're natural landscaping solutions to poor drainage problems.

"Native" plants is, of course, a relative term. After all, except for hybrids and cultivars developed by humans, every specimen is a native plant somewhere. A major criterion for inclusion in my picks for top plants for wet areas is cold hardiness: entries on this list are generally hardy at least to zone 3.

Since the objective is to find hardy plants for wet areas, it should come as no surprise that many of these specimens are wetland plants in the wild. Some of these specimens you won't find at just any nursery. But if you conduct a web search for "wildflower society" followed by the name of the region in which you live, you may find someone who specializes in the sale of native plants for your locale.

For those who prefer images to words, I have also drawn a sample landscape plan for wet areas. Though based loosely on the discussion here treating native plants, I do include one exotic plant in my drawing as well: the popular tropical specimen, elephant ear plant.

Examples of Native Plants for Wet Areas

Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) is a white-flowering bush of approximately 4'x4' dimensions. But its mid-spring flowers take a backseat in importance to its fall attributes. The leaves of these Eastern North American natives become purplish or reddish in autumn. The fall foliage is complemented by the namesake berries. Although bitter-tasting to some human palates, the berries, which remain on the shrub into early winter, serve as an emergency food source for birds. Arrowwood viburnum shrubs provide another example of a white-flowered specimen with excellent fall foliage and pretty berries that is suitable for wet areas. Aronia melanocarpa is relatively tolerant of wet soils, making it a "living solution" to drainage problems.

Winterberry hollies (Ilex verticillata) are native plants in Eastern North America. Their natural habitat is wetlands -- an attribute you can exploit if you're looking for something to grow in those problematic swampy spots in the yard. Winterberry holly likes ground on the acidic side, as you would expect from a swamp plant.

Winterberry bushes can be grown in partial shade or full sun, but you will probably get superior berry production in full sun. Winterberry holly is dioecious, which is another fact to keep in mind for berry production. Height and width will vary greatly, depending on growing conditions, but a rough average is about 9' x 9'. The berries of this shrub attract songbirds such as the bluebird and game birds such as quail. Unlike the holly mentioned next, winterberry is a deciduous shrub.

Inkberry (Ilex glabra), a native plant in Eastern North America, is a more typical holly: it is evergreen. Reaching as much as 8 feet tall at maturity, it bears a black berry that gives this shrub its name. Clump-forming with shiny leaves, inkberry holly prefers full sun to partial shade, with an acidic soil.

On Page 2 we continue our look at native plants of Eastern North America that will tolerate wet areas on your landscape....

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