Gateway Plants

Gateway Plants, or How to get your neighbours addicted to growing native plants 

A couple of native (and one “near native”) gateway plants in my southwestern Ontario garden.

Most people have heard the term “gateway drug”, referring to habit forming drugs like marijuana or alcohol whose use is thought to lead, in some people, to the use of other more addictive drugs. Well, in the native plant gardening world we’re always searching for the “gateway plants”, those plants we can convince our neighbours to grow that, we hope, will lead them to become addicted to growing native species in their gardens. 

At the suggestion of a close friend (and fellow native plant gardening addict), I thought I’d use this month’s article to discuss what I think makes a good gateway plant that you can grow and share so that your neighbours, too, will be hooked on growing natives. 

What Makes a Good Gateway Plant? 

In my opinion there are 3 things a native plant must have to get non-native gardeners hooked on growing them. 

  1. They must be showy, colourful or otherwise attractive (foliage, structure, etc.) and not too tall 
  1. They must be easy to grow and not overly fussy about soil conditions 
  1. They must attract lots of insects and other pollinators so that the new “recruit” receives the reward of seeing the good the plant is doing. 

Creating a Convert 

You probably know someone, a neighbour or family member, that is into gardening but still thinks petunias, bleeding hearts and hostas and other non-natives are the only things to grow in their flower beds. So how do you convince them to try some native species in their garden? For some, it will be an easy sell – show them the beauty, easy maintenance and wildlife value and they will become converts. For the others, it may take a little longer. But the easiest way will be to share some of your best gateway plants and let the plants do the persuading. 

One day, a few years ago, a friend who had beautiful gardens of Crocosmia, Bearded and Siberian Iris, Tulips, Asiatic Lilies, and dozens, if not hundreds, of other non-native species, stood in awe of the swarms of bees, wasps, butterflies, moths and dragonflies that congregated on my Wild Bergamot, Cylindrical Blazing Star and other native plants and, later, on Goldenrods, Pearly Everlasting and Asters. I offered her a couple of my plants, assuring her that they would not take over her garden. The next year I gave her a couple more, and then some more again the year after that. A few years later, and now I am being gifted native plants from her garden – ones I didn’t have.  

A beautiful garden, but with very few – if any – native plants.

My TOP  5 favourite Gateway plants 

There are many native plants (in southern Ontario) that meet my 3 criteria of a good gateway plant – showy, easy to grow, and pollinator magnet – too many to list here. But there are a few outstanding ones, in my opinion, and I will share the reasons for my choices with you. 

1. Scarlet Beebalm 

My absolute favourite gateway plant is Mondarda didyma – Bee Balm (sometimes referred to as Scarlett Beebalm). This plant is not only a bold, brilliant red that brings lots of oohs and aahs from passersby, but it is one of the easiest plants to share. Its shallow roots form a mat right at the surface, and all you have to do is grab a handful, dump them in a plastic bag, and hand them over. They take extremely well to sandier soils, but also do well in clay. They thrive in full sun, but also handle part shade, and even do well in full shade in my garden where they brighten an otherwise dark corner. (The added bonus is that in full shade they bloom later thus extending the blooming period.) They are extremely drought tolerant once established and I have successfully transplanted them in early spring, in the heat of July and August, and even in late fall after they’ve gone to seed. In my opinion, there is no easier plant to share.  They are host plant for the caterpillars of the orange mint moth, the raspberry pyrausta moth and the hermit sphinx moth, among others, and a nectar source for butterflies, bees and even hummingbirds. 

After Monarda didyma, it gets a little tougher for me to pick a second, then third, etc. favourite, so the following are really so close to being equal in my mind that I list them here as much by ease of finding them as anything. 

 2. Swamp Milkweed 

Asclepias incarnata, or Swamp Milkweed, is a very easy to grow, and very well behaved milkweed. Its beautiful pink and white flowers attract lots of pollinators and, despite the “swamp” in its name, it tolerates a wide range of soil types and moisture regimes. It prefers moister soil, and grows very well in my constantly wet bog garden, but it also thrives nearby in dry, sandy soil. And it grows beautifully in a friend’s heavy clay soils as well. Like the Bee Balm, it also prefers full sun, but it does just fine in part shade, too. This is an awesome plant to share with someone who might be thinking about creating a rain garden. It is easily started from seed or by dividing an existing plant. And, of course, they are the host plant for our beloved Monarch butterfly. 

3. Orange Coneflower 

I’ve written about Rudbeckia fulgida (Orange Coneflower) and its lookalikes – R. hirta and R. triloba – in a previous article (see the article “Time for a Black Eye”) and you can learn all about its characteristics and how to grow it there. It is really only native in the very southwest of Ontario in the Windsor/Essex area, but a good substitute in the rest of southern Ontario is R. hirta, the common Black-eyed Susan. What I like most about Orange Coneflower is that it is readily available at nurseries (though often as the cultivar “Goldsturm”), it produces a mass of long lasting, bright yellow flowers, and tolerates a wide range of growing conditions. And it is a perennial (though R. hirta, being an annual/biennial, readily self seeds and maintains itself quite nicely). This plant can be divided in the early spring, though I have also done this successfully in the fall, too. Growing them with Scarlet Beebalm makes a particularly showy display. 

4. Stiff Goldenrod 

Solidago rigida is not your average goldenrod. For starters, it’s not very common in Ontario being native to the Carolinian zone with a known pocket in the Ottawa valley area. But it is quite hardy, has unusual leaves for a goldenrod, and is very well behaved in the garden (unlike some of its goldenrod cousins). It prefers full sun and well drained sandy/gravelly soil but I’ve seen it growing happily in clay-loam and in part shade, though it doesn’t like a lot of tall competition. It’s a great pollinator magnet in the fall, too. It’s rounded, stiff leaves (one of it common names is stiff-leaved goldenrod) and upright form show off the flat-topped cluster of bright yellow flowers in the fall. We hear a lot about the importance of goldenrod for fall pollinators, but folks often think of the very aggressive Canada goldenrod (S. canadensis) when they think of goldenrods. This unusual looking goldenrod is a far cry from that. Plants can be divided in spring or fall for sharing with your neighbours.  

5. Pearly Everlasting 

Last, but definitely not least, on my top 5 list is the drought tolerant Anaphalis margaritacea or Pearly Everlasting. The blue-grey foliage makes this an attractive addition to a flowerbed all season long, but what I really love about it is the constant activity of pollinators while it is in bloom – from June right through till October in my southwestern Ontario garden (I recently posted several photos of pollinators on it on my Native Plant Gardener Facebook page –  – all taken in just one photo session). This plant is host for Painted Lady and American Lady butterflies, too, which lay their eggs in late spring/early summer. The caterpillars then make shelters amongst the leaves till they change into butterflies and fly off. A week or two later, the flowers emerge. This plant likes full sun to part shade and dry to medium, sandy-loam soils. This award winning native plant (it received the Award of Garden Merit by the Royal Horticultural Society) will even do well in nutrient-poor soils. It is deer and rabbit resistant and, as the name suggests, is excellent in dried flower arrangements. 

Honourable Mentions 

Some of the many plants that got inched out of the competition for top 5 gateway plants include:

Cylindrical or Ontario Blazing Star (Liatris cylindracea) – a favourite nectar source for Monarch butterflies in particular;

Rough-stemmed Goldenrod (Solidago rugosa) – long sprays of yellow in the fall make this an excellent specimen plant (a cultivar – “Fireworks” – is especially showy). All of these meet the 3 criteria of showy, easy to grow, and excellent for wildlife;

Sky Blue Aster (Symphyotrichum oolentangiense) – a lacy, delicate, soft blue aster with a profusion of blossoms in the fall;

Dotted Horsemint/Spotted Beebalm (Monarda punctata) – an unusual looking plant with showy pink whorls of leaf-like bracts underlying the dotted, yellowish flowers that are a favourite of the black digger wasp; and

Golden Alexander (Zizea aurea) – this early summer flower is a host plant for Black Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars.

Next Steps 

If you aren’t growing some/most/all of these in your gardens now, I suggest you add them this spring. Then you can share some of these ideal gateway plants with your neighbours, and share the addiction. Because, let’s face it, native plant gardening is definitely addictive. 

Happy gardening, 

The Native Plant Gardener 

PS – if you have a special Gateway Plant that I haven’t listed that you’ve had success converting non-native-plant gardeners to native-plant gardeners with, let me know.