Native Plants of the
Upper Midwest

"Better than any argument is to rise at dawn and pick dew-wet red berries in a cup." - Wendell Berry

Admittedly an arbitrary term, by "Upper Midwest," we mean Northern Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin And Michigan. From parts of these regions, over the years, we have collected a selection of some common, and some rare, trees and shrubs that interest us. We continue to be surprised that some of them are hardy for us.

One example is a population of the northern race of Cornus florida, the White Flowering Dogwood growing in Allegan County, Michigan. These trees do not flower for us if caught in an unusual late frost, but when they do flower, they are spectacular, and the fall foliage colors are wonderful every year.

In the same area in Michigan are hardy Sassafras albidum, the Sassafras Tree, that we are able to grow. It has an aromatic leaf with four different lobe patterns, interesting corky ridged bark, and outrageous flaming red fall color. Have you tasted Sassafras tea?

Up the river a few miles from our Nursery, we came across an isolated stand of Asimina triloba, the PawPaw Tree We have come to value this tree as an interesting ornamental. Typically found in the understory, it grows well in full sun and good soil. Under these conditions, it is dense and compact with drooping thick green leaves that get to a foot long and have very tropical appearance to us. Our oldest tree has reached full size of about 20', has lurid purple flowers in May followed by plum-sized fruit that changes from green to yellow when ripe and are quite sweet with a taste between a banana and a pineapple to us. The fruit is not messy; they are eagerly sought by squirrels, birds and raccoons and disappear overnight if they drop from the tree. It is said two trees are needed for pollination; our single tree from the stand miles away on the river, produced fruit for a number of years while all alone. Most years the fall color is a nice yellow.

Another "Native" that we think is interesting is Ptelea trifoliata, the Hoptree, also known as the Wafer Ash or the Stinking Ash. Actually it is a member of the Citrus family, and has nothing to do with Ashes. Bruised stems and bruised leaves may give off a pungent smell, hence the name. The curious wafer-like seeds have been used as a substitute for hops. The lustrous deep green leaves are handsome, as are the wafer seeds and somewhat warty striped bark. It is a versatile small tree to 15-20', easy to grow, and happy in full sun or shade.

Please look over our list of what we call "native plants" and let us know what you think.

Our Native Plants

Acer spicatum Mountain Maple: Northern Iowa and Wisconsin. Small tree 10-20' Prefers cool shade, acid conditions; yellow, red fall color.

Acer x freemanii: Minnesota, Wisconsin etc. Natural cross of the Red Maple (Acer rubrum) and the Silver Maple (Acer Saccharinum) Large tree, rapid grower, good shade tree, yellow-red fall color.

Aronia melanocarpa: Black Chokeberry Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota various forms from 2' to 10' high, lustrous green leaf, Large black berries and good red fall color.

Asimina triloba: Pawpaw Tree 15-20' Lurid purple flowers, large leaf with a tropical appearance, tasty 2-5" fruit.

Amelanchier x grandiflora: Servicetree, Juneberry. Upper Midwest 15-25' Many cultivars (listed) April white flowers, blue berries, excellent red fall foliage; birds love the berries.

Betula nigra: River Birch. Many cultivars; we like Fox Valley, the dwarf form; 10-12' dense and compact, showy exfoliating white bark.

Carpinus caroliniana: American Hornbeam 20-30' Handsome small tree; good red fall color on selections from WI; performs well in sun or shade; and in lime soils; withstands wet soils and periodic flooding.

Cornus florida: White Flowering Dogwood (Allegan County, Michigan) 20’ Among the finest small native flowering trees; wonderful fall color and wonderful spring white flowers.

Cornus alternifolia: Pagoda Dogwood 15-25' May white flowers; red to black berries; purple red fall leaf color; strong horizontal branching; prefers acid cool, well drained root zone; does well in shade.

Cornus racemosa: Gray Dogwood 10-15' White flowers in May; showy blue-white berries with bright red pedicels; good fall color; sun or heavy shade; tends to sucker.

Corylus cornuta: Beaked Filbert 4-8' Interesting beaked fruit. Smaller, more refined shrub than other hazelnuts.

Cercis canadensis: Eastern Redbud Tree 20-30' March-April showy pink flowers; heart-shaped leaf; seed source must be from upper Midwest native stands to assure a cold-hardy tree.

Comptonia peregrina: Sweetfern. 2-4' Aromatic interesting fern-like foliage (not a true fern). Requires acid soil. Grows in sandy or poor soils; handsome small shrub.

Dirca palustris: Leatherwood 3-6' Handsome glossy leaved, rather dense, shade-loving shrub. Yellow early spring flowers; clear yellow fall foliage.

Elaeagnus communtata: Silverberry (Minnesota) 6-12' shrub, showy silver gray foliage, fragrant yellow flowers in May.

Fagus grandiflora: American Beech. 50-70' Silvery green spring leaf; golden bronze in fall; shining silver gray trunks; for us the finest large native shade tree.

Gymnocladus dioicus: Kentucky Coffee Tree 60-70' Blue-green compound leaf; white fragrant flower panicles; unique stark winter outline, handsome bark (rough scaly ridges), leathery seed pods lined with a sticky sweet pulp, not a good substitute for coffee.

Hypericum kalmianum: Kalm St. Johnswort 2-3' Pretty blue-green leaf; bright yellow flowers in mid-summer; brown exfoliating bark; variable fall red foliage color.

Nyssa sylvatica: Black Gum (Michigan, Illinois) 30-50' One of our most beautiful native trees; lustrous green leaf turning orange to scarlet in the fall. A tree with consistent, gorgeous fall color.

Physocarpus opulifolius: Eastern Ninebark Shrub. 5-10' pink-white flowers; yellow fall color; Various forms; dense compact dwarf (nana); Golden Nugget Ninebark with yellow foliage; Diablo Ninebark with purple foliage.

Ptelea trifoliata: Wafer Ash 15-20' lustrous green trifoliate leaf; good yellow fall color; odd, conspicuous wafer-like seeds; will do well in full sun or full shade; very adaptable.

Quercus imbricaria: Shingle Oak 50-60' Also called Laurel Oak because of the handsome lustrous dark green leaf; russet-red fall color.

Quercus muehlenbergia: Chinkapin Oak 40-50' Lustrous green leaf; yellow to orange-brown fall color. Does well in dry alkaline soil; acorns lack tannic acid and are esteemed by squirrels, turkeys etc.

Sassafras albidum: Sassafras 30-50' Simple leaf in 4 shapes, left mitten, right mitten, 3 lobe mitten, entire (no mitten) wonderful orange to scarlet fall color; dark blue seed with showy scarlet pedicel; needs acid soil.

Staphlea trifolia: American Bladdernut 10-15' Understory tree in forest shade. Perfect green-white bell-shaped flower clusters in April; attractive striped bark; 3 lobed papery fruit capsules, tends to sucker.

Viburnum cassinoides: Withrod Viburnum 5-6' All our native Viburnums have spring white flowers, late summer berries, and showy fall leaf color from yellow to varying shades of red They are truly three season plants, easy to grow and undemanding.

Viburnum dentatum: Arrowwood Viburnum 6-8-15' in various forms Bright blue berries.

Viburnum deamii: Arrowwood Viburnum 5-8' Blue-black berries.

Viburnum lentago: Nannyberry Viburnum 15-20' rose-pink berries turning black.

Viburnum prunifolium: Blackhaw Viburnum 15-20' pink to blue berries

Viburnum rafinesquianum: Affini viburnum 5-8' blue berries.

Viburnum trilobum: American Cranberrybush Viburnum 8-12' Various dwarf forms available Bright red berries.