Native flowers perform double duty in the garden

I’m not all about natives. You know that. I grow named cultivars of roses, phlox, daylilies, crapemyrtles and pretty much anything else which will grow and bloom in Oklahoma.

Monarch caterpillar on butterfly weed
Monarch caterpillar on butterfly weed.

I do weeds really well too. After neglecting my garden while I hoofed it off to Buffalo and St. Louis, the weeds were trying for world domination again.

While grappling and pulling some this afternoon, I noticed many of the native flowers in my garden perform a kind of double duty. Whether you believe in God, evolution, or a mixture of the two, a lot of native plants seem to be created to help out multiple creatures. Take butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa, a/k/a pleurisy root. It is part of the Milkweed (Asclepiadaceae) family, and Monarch caterpillars can’t seem to get enough of it. Further, when it is blooming, nearly every butterfly is attracted to its bright orange umbels. In the past, this plant was also ground into a powder and used as an asthma remedy to reduce inflammation in bronchial tissues (although there is no strong evidence it worked well). It is still being used as an expectorant. In high doses, like all milkweeds, it is poisonous. Butterfly weed is easily grown from seed.

Passiflora caerulea, hardy blue passion flower. Native flowers perform double duty.
Passiflora caerulea, hardy blue passion flower.

Another double duty beauty is passion flower vine, Passiflora spp., which has such an otherworldly bloom it is used by THX Sound as part of its advertisement in theaters before the movies start. Some of these vines are native to the southern United States and are beautiful and important nectar sources. The hardy blue passion flower, Passiflora caerulea, can be grown as a perennial to USDA Zone 7. I grow it for the flowers, but also has a larval food source for the different species of orange fritillary butterflies. Most often I see the Gulf Fritillary in my country garden. Passiflora incarnata is also native to Oklahoma and can be found in untilled fields. Some of the passion flowers produce edible fruit which is pressed into juice for humans. Once again, a plant can have many uses.

Echinacea purpurea with honeybee in a Buffalo garden.
Echinacea purpurea with honeybee in a Buffalo garden.

What about the humble native purple coneflower, Echinacea purpurea, before hybridizers turned it into a coat of many different colors? We know it’s used as a cold remedy, and although science can’t prove its worth, almost everyone I know takes it at the first sign of sniffles. Do you ever wonder which part of the plant is in your tincture or cold capsules? It’s the root which is considered most effective. Beloved by honeybees, it is also a larval food source for the Silvery Checkerspot and some moths. From the damage on my Echinacea and Rudbeckia spp., there must be a lot of Silvery Checkerspots in the world, and they like the buffet here. Sometimes, the caterpillars are so plentiful, they nearly eat the plants to the ground so I must take matters into my own hands. I don’t spray. I just squish some of them.

Don’t hate me.

Rudbeckia fulgida 'Goldsturm' with Phlox paniculata 'Bright Eyes' behind.
Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldsturm’ with Phlox paniculata ‘Bright Eyes’ behind.

Speaking of Rudbeckia, the perennial and annual black-eyed Susans are also plants which do more than just bloom beautifully. They too feed the Checkerspots, and have tons of nectar for all types of insects. Rudbeckia hirta, the fuzzy leaved annual is still used medicinally although it is poisonous to cattle. I have several different types of Susans in my garden, and without them the summer border would be very dull indeed. There are many cultivars of Rudbeckia hirta, including ‘Irish Eyes’ which has green cones and ‘Indian Summer’ which is a deeper orange color. I would like to ‘Cherry Brandy’ sometime. All are easily grown from seed. Most of mine are the perennial type, Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldsturm’ which I divide and move all over the beds and borders. The other Susans come back from seed and over time, they’ve gone native with paler yellow rays.

Vernonia fasciculata, smooth ironweed is also a part of my meadow bed and honestly much easier to grow than Liatris Gaertn. ex Schreb., blazing star (which likes a much drier soil).  I’ve come to rely on ironweed for its height and spiky appearance. According to the Prairie Wildflowers of Illinois website, smooth ironweed’s

“flowers attract long-tongued bees, butterflies, and skippers primarily. Other visitors include bee flies and Halictid bees. These insects seek nectar, although bees also collect pollen. Among the long-tongued bees, are such visitors as bumblebees, Epeoline cuckoo bees, Miner bees, and large Leaf-Cutting bees. An oligolectic bee of Ironweeds is Melissodes vernoniae. The caterpillars of several moths feed on Ironweed, including Grammia parthenice (Parthenice Tiger Moth) and Perigea xanthioides (Red Groundling). Caterpillars that bore into the roots or stems of Ironweed include Papaipema cerussata (Ironweed Borer Moth), Carmenta bassiformis (Eupatorium Borer Moth), and some Polygrammodes spp. (Pyralid Moths).”

All good reasons to grow this plant even it wasn’t also beautiful. From Customary Uses of Ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata) by the Yuchi in Eastern Oklahoma, USA, by Jason Baird Jackson, I learned that the Yuchi North American Indians, used the stem, root and blooms as part of its medicinal and ceremonial practices.

Vernonia fasciculata, smooth ironweed grows wild on my property. It eventually made its way into the garden, and I kept it for the butterflies and bees.
Vernonia fasciculata, smooth ironweed grows wild on my property. It eventually made its way into the garden, and I kept it for the butterflies and bees.

These are just a few of the uses for native plants which are still grown in many gardens. I’m sure I could find numerous other examples, and I may do this as a continuing series. Which plants pull double duty in your garden?

Note: I am not suggesting you use any of the above plants in a medicinal capacity, and if you do, please do your own research. I don’t want any of you to poison yourselves. Just sayin’.

If you get a chance please take a gander at my Lowe’s Garden Grow Along post on interesting containers. It can be done.


  1. We have not had many Monarch butterflies this year, and although I have milkweed everywhere, I have not been able to find any of the caterpillar. I did get some pictures of large milkweed bugs, though. I found grasshoppers on the Indian Paintbrush, and find other bugs on the vetch. Vetch has gone wild at my place.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Stephanie, you’ll be sad to know that when I went back outside to see the caterpillar progress the next day all of them were gone. It made me very sad.~~Dee

  2. Hi, Dee, As you can imagine I LOVE this post. It’s so important to get the word out about host plants for butterflies. I love that photo of the monarch butterfly. I would be so happy to find one of those in my garden. Thank you for this. Thanks also for pointing out we don’t have to use poisons to get rid of those we’d rather not have in our gardens. Just step on them. I had a friend once who used to always say, “Go back to God” as she stepped on her snails. 🙂 Can’t hurt. 🙂

  3. Thanks for noting my little paper about Ironweed. Curiously, I have done another one about Coneflower. Since it looks like you have access to JSTOR, you can find it listed (but not yet accessible) there. The title is: “Toothache Medicine: A Customary Use of Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida (Nutt.) Nutt.) among the Yuchi in Eastern Oklahoma, USA” Good luck with your Oklahoma gardening.

  4. You know, bug talk always gets my attention. We spray as seldom as possible but still have to. We use 90% organics to fertilize, etc. It’s all about doing the best we can to support nature as well as our own health.

    There are some gorgeous all-native meadow gardens. Marilyn Stewart of Wild Things Nursery has theirs pictured on her website. It’s a thing of beauty.

    But for me, a mix of heirlooms, hybrids, herbs for the kitchen, salad greens and the rest round out our yard and garden.

  5. Dee, Thanks for a very informative post! I now know I need to grow some butterfly weed. Love your picture of the monarch caterpillar. Pam

  6. I have tall ironweed (V. altissima or gigantea), and I adore it.

  7. Cindy, MCOK says:

    Like you, I don’t limit myself to natives but I do appreciate them for the garden workhorses they can be.

  8. Gail says:

    You know am a lot about natives and you’ve shown some of my favorites! I couldn’t garden without rudbeckias, echinaceas, ironweed and a host of other ‘host plants’. They make sense and are beautiful…I think Lisa can grow the native passiflora vine….It’s happiest in full sun. Dee, I love, love, love this post! gail

  9. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    I try to use natives as much as possible. They are both beautiful and the bugs and bees like em. I am amazed that you can grow passion vine. I might try it. It probably wouldn’t make it here. I am in 6b.I never have seen it for sale around here. That sort of tells me it won’t grow here.

  10. Alan says:

    Hi Dee,

    This was a great post! I love planting natives in my gardens just for the reasons you wrote about – their double duty capabilities and the wildlife they attract. We’ve had a dry summer here in Virginia but most of my native plants have done well – just goes to show you how tough they can be as well. Have a great weekend!

  11. I love the native plants. So easy to care for. All I do is weed mine, and then stand back and let them do their thing.

  12. Benjamin says:

    Fantastic read! I have many of these same plants, and love my ironweed (wish it stood stronger), coneflower, and liatris cultivars. I have Brandy Wine rudbeckia and love it. Also, milkweed was once used as a contraceptive–maybe I could get you to read my article Monarch Butterflies: The Last Migration, which I just published in a regional newspaper? (I have other info on monarch sin it, of course.)

  13. Mary says:

    I love rudbeckia and coneflowers! They are some of my garden staples. Such a dependable perennial! I’ve planted milkweed before, but yellow aphids devoured it.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Mary, I had a lot of trouble with tropical milkweed. The aphids enjoyed it much more than caterpillars did. I haven’t had any trouble with aphids on butterfly weed which is a hardworking native. Also, my friend, Sharon Lovejoy, tells me we should only grow the native milkweeds as they have more of the compound which keeps birds from eating Monarch caterpillars. HTH. ~~Dee

  14. marnie says:

    Hi Dee, when I began changing over to a more xeric garden, I found the best xeric plants are the natives that have evolved in my area over thousands of years to withstand anything the climate can throw at them.

    Your photos are beautiful. We don’t have the Silvery Checkerspot in my area so the damage to my coneflower blooms is always earwigs—ICK.

  15. I didn’t know that coneflowers were larval food for the Silvery Checkerspot. That’s one of the butterflies we have around here (one of the few; at least too few for me). I haven’t seen any worms on my coneflowers but there were some on the new-fangled ones we planted in the park’s butterfly garden. Do they eat the actually cone? That’s where we saw them.

    Other than the herbs and veggies I plant for my husband and I (and friends), all my other plants usually do double-duty. I plant for the birds and butterflies mostly (and my own personal enjoyment of watching them!).

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Jean, I don’t know if they eat the cones or not. Interesting question.~~Dee

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