15 Native Plants That Thrive in Clay Soil

If you have clay soil, you can either amend your soil or your plant list.

Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) purple starburst flowers

Treehugger / Jordan Provost

Clay soil is not always a gardener's best friend. Clay is made of the finest soil particles, which bond easily together, trapping both water and essential nutrients like calcium, magnesium, and potassium. The plants that thrive there need to be tolerant of pooling water and able to grow on a minimum of nutrients. Fortunately, they are also good at breaking up clay soil and adding nutrients to it, so that you can eventually expand your pallet of plants. So don't let clay soil dissuade you from growing a beautiful garden.

Here are 15 favorite North American native flowers that will both attract local pollinators and thrive in clay soil.

Treehugger Tip

To see if you have clay soil, give it the squeeze test. Squeeze a moist handful of garden soil in your fist. If the clump immediately falls apart, your soil is too sandy. If it feels heavy and sticky and forms a ball that holds its shape, your soil has too much clay. Silty soil will feel slimy when wet and become powdery when dry. Good garden soil will hold its shape but crumble if you start poking at it.

1
of 15

Goat’s Beard (Aruncus dioicus)

Goat’s Beard (Aruncus dioicus)

Mikhail Kolomiets / Getty Images

Aruncus are in the rose family, and produce show-stopping clusters of creamy white flowers. Despite their name, Aruncus dioicus are not truly dioecious—that is, they don't have male and female reproductive organs on separate plants. Some of the plants will produce “perfect” flowers with both male and female organs.

Fortunately, the plants also spread via underground rhizomes, which can be divided in spring, but buy multiple plants if you want them to self-sow by seed.

  • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 9
  • Sun Exposure: partial or dappled shade
  • Soil Needs: evenly moist clay or loam soil
2
of 15

Canada Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense)

Canada Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense)

Cynthia Shirk / Getty Images

About 70 species of wild ginger make up the Asarum genus. A. canadense is the most common North American native. Low-growing with heart-shaped leaves, wild ginger looks and smells like but is unrelated to commercial ginger, Zingiber officinalis. Wild ginger is grown more for its leaves than its dark-colored flowers, which are insignificant, blooming under the leaves, close to the soil, barely noticed, and pollinated by ants. Still, the plants make excellent ground covers in shady spots, and can cover bare ground quickly.

  • USDA Growing Zones: 4 to 6
  • Sun Exposure: partial or full shade
  • Soil Needs: evenly moist clay or loam soil
3
of 15

New England Aster (Aster novae-angliae)

New England Aster (Aster novae-angliae)

David Lamb / Getty Images

New England Asters are a butterfly's and gardener's favorite, a late-season bloomer when most other flowers have stopped producing nectar. Their daisy-shaped flowers from purple to white sit atop tall stems that rarely need staking, though they will lose their stiffness as the fall season progresses. They easily spread and need little to no care.

  • USDA Growing Zones: 4 to 8
  • Sun Exposure: full sun
  • Soil Needs: rich soil of any type
4
of 15

Blue False Indigo (Baptisia australis)

Blue False Indigo (Baptisia australis)

bgwalker / Getty Images

Baptisia are members of the pea family and look like overgrown pea plants. Commonly known as false indigo, they have long been used as dye plants. Their rattling dried pods make interesting additions to dried flower arrangements. Blue false indigo opens in early summer.

  • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 9
  • Sun Exposure: full sun to part shade
  • Soil Needs: prefers clay, but grows in soil of any type
5
of 15

Coreopsis (Coreopsis grandiflora)

Coreopsis (Coreopsis spp.) rusty red flowers

Treehugger / Jordan Provost

Coreopsis are drought-tolerant and heat-loving. They are not picky, and will grow in any type of soil, but prefers nutrient-poor soil. Birds will feed on their seeds, while pollinators are attracted to their long-blooming flowers. Coreopsis come in a variety of colors, usually yellow or reddish-orange. Blooms can start as early as late spring. Dead-head the flowers to stimulate a second bloom, but allow some to go to seed so that they self-sow.

  • USDA Growing Zones: 4 to 8
  • Sun Exposure: full sun to partial shade
  • Soil Needs: soil of any type
6
of 15

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

db_beyer / Getty Images

Purple coneflowers are a sight common to prairies and gardens alike. Their daisy-shaped purple (or sometimes white) flowers with distinctive pincushion-shaped centers. Coneflowers are great adapters, able to tolerate rocky, clay, sandy, or loam soil. They are also good at attracting butterflies and bees for their nectar. Let them overwinter to allow birds to forage for seeds they've missed in the summer. What the birds miss will self-sow.

  • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 9
  • Sun Exposure: full sun
  • Soil Needs: soil of any type
7
of 15

Joe-Pye Weed (Eutrochium spp.)

Joe-Pye Weed (Eutrochium spp.) small white flowers

Treehugger / Jordan Provost

While Joe-Pye weed does best in rich, well-draining soil, it's not picky and can tolerate frequently wet, clay soil. Cultivars should be propagated by cuttings or division, but standard species will self-sow. Blooming in early fall after most other bloomers have given up for the year, their showy, fuzzy flowers are like a late-night snack for pollinators before they, too, retire for the year.

  • USDA Growing Zones: 4 to 9
  • Sun Exposure: full sun to partial shade
  • Soil Needs: prefers rich, well-draining soil, but tolerates wet clay
8
of 15

Blazing star (Liatris spicata)

Blazing star (Liatris spicata)

Donata Ivanova / Getty Images

Also known as gayfeather or just Liatris, blazing stars are have adapted themselves to just about any soil across the entirety of North America—from chalky to clay to loam and sand. Their long-blooming flower spikes are composed of multiple florets that bloom from top to bottom, and are popular with butterflies and bees. They work great in mass plantings.

  • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 9
  • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
  • Soil Needs: any type of soil, but prefers well-drained
9
of 15

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)

Two Cardinal flower or Lobelia cardinalis flowering plants

hecos255 / Getty Images

Cardinal flower (L. cardinalis) grows along marshes, streams, or ponds, which tend to have higher clay content and drain poorly. It can even be grown in a few inches of water. Keep its feet wet and it will bloom in mid to late summer.

  • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 9
  • Sun Exposure: light to partial shade
  • Soil Needs: rich, moist to wet soil
10
of 15

Virginia Bluebell (Mertensia virginica)

Virginia Bluebell (Mertensia virginica)

Martin J Calabrese / Getty Images

Virginia bluebells brighten up a shady area with pink buds opening into clusters of bell-shaped flowers. Bluebells self-sow and can be moved in spring, but once established, their deep taproots make them difficult to transplant.

An early native bloomer, bluebells can attract the season's first bees. They can keep blooming into the start of summer. Keep them moist, especially in sunnier areas, as they are more accustomed to thriving in woodlands.

  • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 8
  • Sun Exposure: part to full shade
  • Soil Needs: moist, well-draining clay, chalk, loam, or sandy soil
11
of 15

Bee Balm (Monarda didyma)

Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) purple starburst flowers

Treehugger / Jordan Provost

Bee balm, or bergamot, is a cottage garden favorite, with unique spiky flower heads growing in clusters. In the mint family, it will readily spread by underground rhizomes, so divide the colonies to keep them in check if they are crowding out other species. This long-blooming perennial is popular with hummingbirds, butterflies, as well as, of course, bees.

  • USDA Growing Zones: 4 to 9
  • Sun Exposure: full sun to part shade
  • Soil Needs: moist, well-draining soil of all types
12
of 15

Cinnamon Fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum)

Cinnamon Fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum)

Irwin Barrett / Design Pics / Getty Images

The familiar fiddleheads of a cinnamon fern emerge in early spring, then unfurl into 2-3-foot long, spore-bearing fronds. The plant is so-named for the fact that its fronds turn from green to cinnamon brown once their spores are dispersed, finally turning yellow in autumn. It can be found naturally along bogs and streams, so it prefers shady areas that are constantly moist, where it will easily naturalize.

  • USDA Growing Zones: 4 to 10
  • Sun Exposure: Part to Heavy Shade
  • Soil Needs: rich, moist to wet soil of any type
13
of 15

Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum multiflorum)

Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum multiflorum)

Robert Knapp / Getty Images

Plants in the Polygonatum genus go by various incarnations of “Solomon's Seal,” front “Great” to “Dwarf” and “Fragrant.” Each produce greenish-white tubular flowers hanging from arching stems that bear ovate leaves. The flowers bloom in late spring to early summer, then give way to blackish berries. The plants are slow-growing from seed, but are easily propagated by division and transplanting.

  • USDA Growing Zones: 4 to 8
  • Sun Exposure: part shade to full shade
  • Soil Needs: moist soil of any type
14
of 15

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

JHVEPhoto / Getty Images

A familiar sight in many gardens, black-eyed Susans are but one of 20 or so species in the Rudbeckia genus, of which the best-known is Rudbeckia hirta. Fast-growing and freely self-sowing, black-eyed Susans are one of the easiest perennials to grow, tolerating drought and moisture alike. Leave its “eyes” over winter for birds to forage for seeds once the petals have dropped.

  • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 9
  • Sun Exposure: full sun to light shade
  • Soil Needs: average to rich, evenly moist soil
15
of 15

Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis)

Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis)

anand purohit / Getty Images

Canada goldenrods signal the imminent arrival of fall. They are an easy species to grow in most conditions, from clay to sand. They are great pollinators and spread easily by rhizomes underground. Give them room to spread to give a meadow-like appearance.

  • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 9
  • Sun Exposure: full sun or light shade
  • Soil Needs: average, moist, well-draining soil

It is possible to amend clay soil over time, working in organic matter like compost. But rather than fight the soil that you have, there are dozens of plants that are well-adapted to clay soil. Plants that fit their soil will be longer-lasting and easier to maintain.