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North American Prairie Species of New England

by Neil Diboll

A number of flowers and grasses commonly associated with Midwestern prairies also occur in the meadows of New England. Some species are widely distributed throughout the region, while others are only occasional or rare. Most are more common in the prairie region, but some are abundant in the Northeast. Many make good garden plants, or as members of eastern meadows.

It is hypothesized that many plant species more commonly found in the central prairies expanded their ranges eastward during the mid-Holocene Warm Period (Xerothermic Period) approximately 8000 – 9000 years ago. Remnants of what were likely more extensive prairie-like meadows are typically found today on dry, rocky sites that are resistant to invasion by trees and other woody plants that would otherwise shade out the prairie flowers and grasses.  Regularly mowed or hayed fields may also retain species more typical of western climes.

Eupatorium perfoliatum, Boneset with Monarch Butterfly. Photo by Allan Amioka

Some of the showiest flowers and grasses for gardens and meadows are listed below:


Scientific NameCommon NameNotes
Asclepias incarnataMarsh MilkweedFavorite host plant for Monarch caterpillars; adapts to many soil types
Asclepias tuberosaButterflyweedRequires well-drained soil with lots of sun
Aster laevisSmooth Blue AsterHighly adaptable; Late season pollinator nectar
Aster novae-angliaeNew England AsterShowy, adaptable, and great for pollinators
Ceanothus americanusNew Jersey TeaPollinated by small insects – Hummingbird food!
Chelone glabraWhite TurtleheadHost plant for Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly; requires rich, moist soil, in sun or part shade
Eryngium yuccifoliumRattlesnake MasterPollinated by parasitic and predacious wasps
Eutrochium maculatumJoe Pye WeedOutstanding butterfly nectar plant for wet soils
Eupatorium perfoliatumBonesetAttracts a wide range of pollinators; moist soils
Gentiana andrewsiiBottle GentianPollinated exclusively by bumblebees; moist soils
Hibiscus moscheutosRose MallowLarge pink & white flower; Needs rich, moist soil
Lilium michiganenseMichigan LilyStunning orange flowers – hummingbird favorite. Requires rich, moist soil w/lots of organic matter
Lobelia cardinalisCardinal FlowerBright red flowers light up pond edge & wet areas
Lupinus perennisWild LupineLight blue flowers in spring; Needs dry sandy soil
Monarda fistulosaBergamotAttracts numerous butterflies; Use leaves for tea
Pycnanthemum tenuifoliumNarrowleaf Mtn. MintAttracts a wide variety of pollinators
Pycnanthemum virginianumVA. Mtn. MintPollinator magnet; Prefer moist soils
Rosa blandaMeadow RoseHighly adaptable; Upright form
Rosa carolinaPasture RoseRequires well-drained soil; spreads laterally
Rudbeckia laciniataGreenhead ConeflowerTall & showy wetland plant, sun or semi-shade
Senna hebecarpaWild SennaFantastic bee plant. Requires good soil
Sisyrinchium angustifoliumNarrowleaf Blue Eyed GrassVery adaptable; Robin’s egg blue
Solidago speciosaShowy GoldenrodClassy conical flower; Pollinator magnet
Tephrosia virginianaGoatsrueStriking pink & yellow blooms. Needs dry sand
Tradescantia ohiensisOhio SpiderwortGreat spring bloomer; Goes dormant in summer
Veronicastrum virginicumCulver’s RootElegant foliage and pure white flowers. Good soil
Viola pedataBirdsfoot VioletStriking flowers on a small plant; Require dry soil

Monarch Butterfly on rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) Photo by Nick Novick


Scientific NameCommon NameNotes
Andropogon gerardiiBig BluestemDominant prairie grass; Mix with tall flowers
Carex bicknelliiBicknell’s SedgeGreat for mixing with low-growing flowers
Carex breviorPlains Oval SedgeAlso good with shorter flowers
Carex vulpinoideaFox SedgeWidely adaptable; Excellent rain garden plant
Elymus canadensisCanada Wild RyeShort-lived – Best in upland meadow seedings
Elymus virginicusVirginia Wild RyeShort-lived – Good for wetland meadow seedings
Eragrostis spectabilisPurple LovegrassPink seedheads in late summer; Requires dry soil
Panicum virgatumSwitchgrassArchitectural grass stands up all winter long
Schizachyrium scopariumLittle BluestemShowy crimson foliage in fall into winter
Sorghastrum nutansIndiangrassGolden fall color mixes well with Little Bluestem
Sporobolus heterolepisPrairie DropseedHighly ornamental; Rare: SW CT & Central MA
Tridens flavusPurpletopEastern meadow stalwart; Mix with taller flowers

Please refer to this table listing all the species found in Midwestern Prairies and New England meadows for detailed information on each species listed above. Click here for more information.

The lower-growing sedges and shorter grasses such as Purple Lovegrass (1-2 ft.) Little Bluestem (2-3 ft.), and Prairie Dropseed (2-3 ft.) make good garden companions for most prairie flowers since they do not over-shadow them.  The taller grasses, including Big Bluestem (5-8 ft.), Switchgrass (3-6 ft.), Indiangrass (5-7 ft.) and Purpletop (3-6 ft.) grow tall in mid to late summer, obscuring the fall-blooming flowers.  Big Bluestem and Switchgrass also form a dense sod that can often squeeze out many of the flowers.  

Beebalm (Monarda fistulosa) with a hungry bumble bee. Photo by Georgia Harris

Long-lived, deep-rooted flowers are best able to compete with the prairie grasses over the long-term.  These include the following:

Butterflyweed – Prefers well-drained sandy soil, mixed with Lovegrass or Little Bluestem

New England Aster – Can compete with taller grasses

New Jersey Tea Slow-growing but long-lived.  Compatible with all grasses 

Rattlesnake Master – Works well with short and tall grasses

Rose MallowGive this plant lots of room to spread out!

LupinePlant with Purple Lovegrass on dry sandy soil

BergamotGrows in almost any soil, with short and tall grasses

Meadow RoseLooks best with short grasses but can compete with the big boys

Pasture RoseLower-growing does best with short grasses

Greenhead Coneflower – Wet soil only,  Mix with Fox Sedge

Wild Senna – Needs a good, rich soil and can compete with tall grasses

GoatsruePlant with Purple Lovegrass and/or Little Bluestem in dry sand

Spiderwort Long-lived and spreads by seed, in both short and tall grasses

Culver’s Root – Competes with tall grasses but looks best with sedges & short grasses

Flowers that do not possess deep root systems can be mixed with lower-growing sedges and short prairie grasses. Fox Sedge is an excellent companion for other moisture-loving flowers such as those listed below:

  • Marsh Milkweed 
  • Bottle Gentian
  • Great St. Johnswort     
  • Michigan Lily
  • White Turtlehead
  • Cardinal Flower
  • Joe Pye Weed 
  • Virginia Mountain Mint
  • Boneset
  • Golden Alexanders

Hummingbird hovering over Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis). Photo by Jerry Harris

For dry sandy soils, the following wildflowers combination well with the drought tolerant grasses Purple Lovegrass, Little Bluestem, and Prairie Dropseed:

  • Butterflyweed
  • Narrow-leaved Mountain Mint
  • Smooth Blue Aster
  • Meadow Rose                                                          
  • New Jersey Tea
  • Pasture Rose
  • Wild Lupine

All of the prairie grasses and sedges listed above grow well on medium (mesic) soils such as well-drained loam, sandy loam, and silt loam, with the exception of Fox Sedge (moist soil) and Purple Lovegrass (dry sandy soil).  The two best short grasses for mixing with flowers on these soils are Little Bluestem and Prairie Dropseed.  For maximum effect, especially with regard to fall color, these two grasses look best when planted in monocultures, mixed with flowers.  The following prairie flowers make good companions when planted on mesic soils:

  • Butterflyweed                                                                   
  • Smooth Blue Aster                                                          
  • New England Aster                                                         
  • New Jersey Tea                                                                
  • Rattlesnake Master                                                         
  • Narrowleaf Mountain Mint                                           
  • Culver’s Root   
  • Meadow Rose
  • Wild Senna
  •  Narrow Leaved Blue Eyed Grass
  •  Showy Goldenrod
  •  Ohio Spiderwort
  •  Bergamot                                                             

Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) in a meadow setting. Photo by Nick Novick.

These prairie flowers and grasses of the Midwestern Prairies can be combined with other New England natives to create attractive ecological gardens that support a wide variety of birds, butterflies, pollinators, and other creatures with whom we share our world.  

Monarch Butterfly on goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) Photo by Becky Laboy

Happy Native Gardening!

About the Author

Neil Diboll is a Prairie ecologist with a degree in Environmental Sciences from the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay who also attended the University of Michigan Biological Station in Pellston, MI (Boot Camp for Biologists). Neil has worked for the U.S. Park Service in Virginia, the U.S. Forest Service in Colorado, and for the University of Wisconsin.

The essence of Neil’s philosophy is that we, as stewards of the planet, must work to preserve and increase the diversity of native plants and animals, with which we share our world. The protection of our natural heritage and our soil and water resources is essential to maintaining a high quality of life for today, and for the children of future generations to come.