Home & Garden Garden 15 Native Plants That Thrive in Clay Soil If you have clay soil, you can either amend your soil or your plant list. By David M. Kuchta David M. Kuchta Writer Wesleyan University, University of California, Berkeley David Kuchta, Ph.D. has 10 years of experience in gardening and has read widely in environmental history and the energy transition. An environmental activist since the 1970s, he is also a historian, author, gardener, and educator. Learn about our editorial process Published April 15, 2022 Share Twitter Pinterest Email Treehugger / Jordan Provost Home & Garden Planting Guides Indoor Gardening Urban Farms Insects 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) 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 9Sun Exposure: partial or dappled shadeSoil Needs: evenly moist clay or loam soil 2 of 15 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 6Sun Exposure: partial or full shadeSoil Needs: evenly moist clay or loam soil 3 of 15 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 8Sun Exposure: full sunSoil Needs: rich soil of any type 4 of 15 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 9Sun Exposure: full sun to part shadeSoil Needs: prefers clay, but grows in soil of any type 5 of 15 Coreopsis (Coreopsis grandiflora) 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 8Sun Exposure: full sun to partial shadeSoil Needs: soil of any type 6 of 15 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 9Sun Exposure: full sunSoil Needs: soil of any type 7 of 15 Joe-Pye Weed (Eutrochium spp.) 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 9Sun Exposure: full sun to partial shadeSoil Needs: prefers rich, well-draining soil, but tolerates wet clay 8 of 15 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 9Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shadeSoil Needs: any type of soil, but prefers well-drained 9 of 15 Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) 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 9Sun Exposure: light to partial shadeSoil Needs: rich, moist to wet soil 10 of 15 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 8Sun Exposure: part to full shadeSoil Needs: moist, well-draining clay, chalk, loam, or sandy soil 11 of 15 Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) 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 9Sun Exposure: full sun to part shadeSoil Needs: moist, well-draining soil of all types 12 of 15 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 10Sun Exposure: Part to Heavy ShadeSoil Needs: rich, moist to wet soil of any type 13 of 15 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 8Sun Exposure: part shade to full shadeSoil Needs: moist soil of any type 14 of 15 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 9Sun Exposure: full sun to light shadeSoil Needs: average to rich, evenly moist soil 15 of 15 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 9Sun Exposure: full sun or light shadeSoil 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.