9 Best Native Plants for Milwaukee

After visiting the art galleries in The Historic Third Ward, you may want to bring some of Milwaukee’s historic charm home with you. While you can’t grab a stage from one of the Third Ward’s theaters, you can set up your yard to reflect the city’s outdoor landscape and the Wisconsin native plants. We’ve found 9 native plants that thrive in Milwaukee’s short, mild summers and cold winters.

In this article, we’ll cover:

11 Native Plants for Your Milwaukee Yard

1. New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)

a close-up photo of New England Aster

Photo Credit: Joshua Mayer / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

New England aster is a Milwaukee favorite because it blooms for at least 6 weeks, starting from late summer to late fall. It’s built to withstand the cooler temperatures of southeastern Wisconsin. 

This flower will stop you in your tracks with its bright pink-reddish daisy-looking petals. As they droop and close at night or when it’s cloudy, they appear to fall asleep. They awaken by reopening to show off their yellow center when the sun returns. 

New England aster can tower to heights of 6 feet, easily signaling to butterflies to come and have some of its nectar. If grown in the right conditions, this plant saves you money by reseeding if not cut back after it flowers.

New England aster thrives well in yards with a lot of sun or just a little shade. It’s usually found growing as a prairie plant. Use this daisy look-alike in butterfly gardens and borders.

Plant type: Flower

Hardiness zones: 4 to 8

Sun: Full sun, partial shade

Soil: Sandy, loamy, clay

Duration: Perennial

Bloom time: Late summer, autumn

Water needs: Medium

Mature height: 3 to 6 feet

Maintenance: Medium. May require staking or other support if it grows tall. Pinch back stems before midsummer to control the plant height and produce more flowers.

2. Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

Bee Sitting on Pink Color Flower

Photo Credit: Wallpaper Flare

Purple coneflower’s trademark is its double-flower. A bushier, smaller array of smaller petals resembling pom-poms sit atop longer petals. 

It’s a contest between which is more striking, the purple coneflower or the New England aster. Both are rich in color. Also called pink double delight because of its pink-purplish double flowers, the purple coneflower is well-adapted to Milwaukee winters. The flower blooms until the first frost.

You’ll see these flowers generously decorating meadows and prairies. They add wonderful excitement to pollinator gardens, wildflower gardens, and borders. If pink is not your favorite color, no worries. The purple coneflower has cultivars that come in many colors and sizes.

Purple coneflower is great for homeowners that don’t want to replant every season. Like the New England Aster, the purple coneflower reseeds if the seed heads are not removed.

Plant type: Flower

USDA Hardiness Zone: 3 to 8

Sun: Full sun, partial shade

Soil: Sandy

Duration: Perennial 

Fragrance: Light, sweet, honey-like

Bloom time: April to September

Water needs: Medium

Mature height: 2 to 5 feet

Potential hazards: None

Maintenance: Low

3. Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

colorful butterfly milkweed flowers

Photo Credit: Eric Hunt / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

If you like bright flowers, the stunning orange petals sprouting from butterfly milkweed’s wide green leaves will be an asset to your garden. On the other hand, if you have children, you may want to stay clear of this plant or use it with caution. This perennial herb, which also goes by the name butterfly weed, is not an herb you want to cook with. It has low poison severity, and all parts are considered poison. It can cause vomiting or spasms if ingested and skin or eye irritation when touched. 

Butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds flock to butterfly milkweed for the nectar. Monarch butterflies depend on milkweed plants for their existence, so you’ll give back to the ecosystem by planting this nonedible herb in your butterfly garden. 

Butterfly milkweed likes to be left alone once planted, so make sure you’re certain when you give it a home. It doesn’t transplant well. Fortunately, it’s pest and disease tolerant and requires little maintenance. It’s a great addition to borders and cottage gardens in yards where small children and pets do not wander into the vegetation.

Plant type: Perennial herb

USDA Hardiness Zone: 3 to 9

Sun: Full sun

Soil: Clay, loam, sand

Duration: Perennial

Fragrance: Vanilla

Bloom time: May to September 

Water needs: Low

Mature height: 1 to 2 feet

Potential hazards: Poisonous to animals and humans if ingested. Possible skin and eye irritant if touched. 

Maintenance: Low

4. Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)

Red Columbine

Photo Credit: Jason Hollinger / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

You can see why red columbine is also called little lanterns. The red and yellow tubular flowers droop. Sometimes the petals can be found flaring out a little, exposing their yellow stamens. This flower may not be ideal if people tend to discard lit cigarettes on your property. Red columbine is moderately flammable.

Red columbine is most at home in soils that remain moist and on properties that get a lot of sun. But it will adapt to partial shade. The flowers come in early spring and only last about a month. But the bright green leaves stay through the summer and make a wonderful groundcover.

Planting these little lanterns allows you to give hummingbirds and other birds a reason to visit. Touching the sap could irritate the skin, so be careful. This plant is easy to grow and a great way to complement a city garden or add some flavor to underplantings for roses and shrubs.

Plant Type: Flower

USDA Hardiness Zone: 3 to 8

Sun: Full sun or partial shade

Soil: Clay, silt, or sandy soil that’s well-drained, moist, dry-ish

Duration: Perennial

Bloom Time: Spring and summer

Water Needs: Weekly or whenever the soil is completely dry

Mature Height: 1 to 3 feet

Potential Hazards: Moderately flammable/risk of fire

Maintenance Needs: Low; deadhead blooms as needed, cut back in late summer

5. Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa)

Photo Credit: Dseiver / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Showy goldenrod’s bright yellow cluster of small petals looks optimistically toward the sky. The flower has medium flammability, so it’s best planted away from areas where the barbeque grill is fired up. It works well with other wildflowers and adds sunshine to wildlife gardens, borders, or flower beds.

It’s well-adapted to most soils, so if you have dry or poor soil, showy goldenrod will not let you down. It even self-seeds. The butterflies and birds coming for a nibble are a nice treat for homeowners, but get ready for the bees and beetles it also attracts.

Plant type: Flower

Hardiness zones: 3 to 8

Sun: Full sun, partial shade

Soil: Rocky, clay

Duration: Perennial

Fragrance: Mild

Bloom Time: July to September

Water needs: Low to medium

Mature height: 1 to 5 feet

Potential hazards: Medium flammability

Maintenance: Low to Medium; May have to divide it every 2 years for size management.

6. Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)

beautiful flowers of wild bergamot plant

Photo Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Make sure no one uses this flower as an ashtray, as it’s moderately flammable. Flammability appears to be a theme with many of these native Milwaukee plants. But don’t let that scare you away. This flower makes up for its fire rating with other desirable qualities, like being tolerable to multiple soil types, including poor soil, which is not uncommon in Milwaukee. 

The wild bergamot’s essential oil is a natural repellent to certain mosquito species, which is another benefit of this native plant. The lavender tubular flowers attract butterflies and hummingbirds. If Bambi and Bugs Bunny like to visit your yard, you’ll appreciate the deer- and rabbit-resistant qualities of wild bergamot. 

Plant Type: Flower

USDA Hardiness Zone: 3 to 9

Sun: Full sun or partial shade

Soil: Shallow, rocky soil or clay that’s moist, well-drained, or dry-ish

Duration: Perennial

Fragrance: Yes; of mint and oregano emitted from foliage

Bloom Time: Summer

Water Needs: Natural rainfall should be sufficient; withstands dry soil for a while

Mature Height: 2 to 4 feet

Potential Hazards: Moderately flammable/risk of fire

Maintenance Needs: Low; drought-tolerant, resistant to deer and rabbits

7. Prairie Blazing Stars (Liatris pycnostachya)

A purple colored Prarie Blazing Star with green background

Photo Credit: wackybadger / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

This flower blooms from the top down. For four weeks or more, these purple, white, or pink fuzzy flowers sit atop tall multi-pronged grass-like leaves. Milwaukee bird lovers love to send these stars blazing in their gardens because they’re easy to grow and maintain, and they feed birds in the winter. 

Blazing stars are cold, heat, and drought tolerant. Use them as perennial borders or in native gardens. If you’re trying to impress someone who appreciates nature, put some in a dried flower arrangement as a gift. They’ll stand out like a captured shooting star.

Plant Type: Flower

USDA Hardiness Zone: 3 to 9

Sun: Full sun or partial shade

Soil: Moist clay, silt, or sandy soil that’s well-drained

Duration: Perennial

Fragrance: None

Bloom Time: Summer

Water Needs: Low, does not need additional watering once established

Mature Height: 1 to 5 feet, depending on species

Potential Hazards: N/A

Maintenance Needs: Low once established; They require deadheading regularly, which is pruning away seed heads and old growth to allow re-flowering and new growth.

8. Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium)

A green colored rattlesnake master plant

Photo Credit: Crazytwoknobs / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

Rattlesnake Master has a q-tip looking, ball-shaped appearance at its tip. The white parts stick out like porcupine needles. This perennial forb tends to clump together in clusters when growing.

It’s forgiving of soil type, as it thrives in many types, but it prefers well-drained soil. Rattlesnake master is drought-tolerant, so it should work well in a xeriscape design. It has no known toxic hazards to humans, but it has sharp, spiky leaves, so you may not want to touch it. 

Plant this evergreen in city gardens, or use it as a border or in your flower garden. This plant gets floppy if grown in too much shade. Unless you want wilted-looking plants, make sure this rattlesnake is placed somewhere with lots of sun.

Plant Type: Evergreen wildflower 

USDA Hardiness Zone: 3 to 9 

Sun: Full sun 

Soil: Prefers loamy, dry sand and well-drained soil; Adapts well to most soil, including clay and shallow rocky soils 

Duration: Perennial 

Fragrance: Honey 

Bloom Time: Mid-summer 

Water Needs: Low once established 

Mature Height: 3 to 5 feet 

Potential Hazards: None known 

Maintenance Needs: Low 

9. Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)

dark colored berries hanging from a branch

Photo Credit: Rison Thumboor / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

You may already be familiar with the health benefits many attribute to elderberry. Elderberry is an eye-opener with its bright green leaves. It also encourages you to take a deep breath to inhale its lemon-scented white flowers that bloom in the summer. 

Birds flock to the dark berries. If the birds aren’t stingy, they leave a little of the fruit to be made into jellies and jams. The best part is the elderberry wine that is made from this deciduous shrub. But you must be careful to prepare the plant properly. If ingested uncooked, it can make you sick. This plant is great for hedges and, of course, edible gardens.

Plant Type: Deciduous Shrub 

USDA Hardiness Zone: 3 to 8

Sun: Full sun or partial shade 

Soil: Prefers moist, well-drained soils rich in organic matter. Tolerates a wide range of soil types, including sandy and clay soils. 

Duration: Perennial 

Fragrance: Lemon

Bloom Time: Summer, typically between June and July 

Water Needs: Prefers moist soils but once established, tolerates periods of drought 

Mature Height: 12 feet tall, 10 feet wide/

Potential Hazards: Uncooked berries and other plant parts contain a chemical that can cause nausea and vomiting 

Maintenance Needs: Low. Prune in late winter or early spring to maintain its shape. 

How to Choose Native Plants for Your Milwaukee Yard 

While native plants are adapted to the local environment, each plant has its own unique characteristics and needs. Choose plants that thrive best on your property’s conditions and your maintenance schedule. For example, if a plant needs a lot of water and you have no irrigation system and don’t plan on watering it regularly, it’s not the best choice.

Be familiar with your property’s soil type. You don’t want to buy plants that thrive best in well-drained soil if your soil tends to retain water. You also want to be mindful of plants that may be harmful to pets or children, if you have any.

The bottom line is that it’s best to choose plants that are well-suited for your yard’s conditions, your availability for upkeep and maintenance, and your family’s composition and lifestyle.

FAQ About Native Milwaukee Plants

When should I plant native flowers and shrubs in Milwaukee?

The best time to plant is about six weeks before the hard frost, which is when the temperature is consistently below 28 degrees Fahrenheit. This is usually in September and October.

What are the benefits of growing native plants?

Native plants help maintain the Milwaukee ecosystem and create a natural habitat and food source for local butterflies, pollinators, insects, birds, and wildlife. Native species are adapted to the city’s climate, so they take less work to maintain and require less water and fertilizer. 

What is Milwaukee’s USDA hardiness zone?

Knowing your area’s hardiness zone helps you pick plants that thrive best in that climate. Milwaukee is in southeastern Wisconsin, zone 5. Zones 3 and 4 also make up Wisconsin.

Where to Find Native Plants in Milwaukee

If you’ve been to Lake Park, you’ve seen native plants. Look around you as you’re driving or walking, and you’ll notice the beautiful native greenery and the birds, butterflies, and other wildlife they attract. 

Check out these local native plant nurseries in the Milwaukee area recommended by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Plant native greenery and watch your yard come alive with color, butterflies, and birds. You don’t have to stop there. Bring even more excitement to your property with other low-maintenance landscaping designs. 

Another secret to a low-maintenance yard? Leaving it to the pros. Connect with a local lawn care pro who can mow, trim, edge, and tend to the yard.

Main Image Credit: Purple coneflowers / James St. John / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

About Wikilawn

Wikilawn’s mission is to provide the best resources and information to help you enjoy your outdoor spaces the way you want. Whether you are a DIY, lawn-loving, gardening guru, or someone who wants help in picking a local lawn care professional, we can smooth your path to a beautiful backyard!

About Wikilawn

Wikilawn’s mission is to provide the best resources and information to help you enjoy your outdoor spaces the way you want. Whether you are a DIY, lawn-loving, gardening guru, or someone who wants help in picking a local lawn care professional, we can smooth your path to a beautiful backyard!