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Attracting Wildlife to Your Mid-Atlantic Rain Garden

 It’s no secret that rain gardens are one of the most effective site scale interventions in the green infrastructure tool box. They can manage stormwater to prevent runoff, filter pollution on-site, and provide habitat.

Photo courtesy Philadelphia Water Department

According to a guide for homeowners developed by the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD), “Scientific studies have demonstrated that the first inch of rainfall is responsible for the bulk of the pollutants in stormwater runoff. A rain garden is designed to temporarily hold this one-inch of rainfall and slowly filter out many of the common pollutants in the water, such as oil, grease, and animal waste, that would otherwise flow into the waterways via the nearest stormdrain or stormwater runoff.”

But when it comes time to plant your rain garden, you might ask yourself, “What plants should I choose?”

Perhaps the first rule of rain garden plant selection is to go native.

That means choose plants native to your region. They require less maintenance than exotic species, and are more resistant to invasives, pests, and diseases. The idea of a rain garden is, after all, to let Mother Nature do the heavy lifting for you.

In addition to providing essential provisional and regulatory ecosystem services such as water purification, nutrient cycling, and flood control, a rain garden is also a great opportunity to create habitat for wildlife.  Since a rain garden takes a bowl-shaped form, some parts will be drier than others. That means plant selection will need to factor in multiple levels of soil moisture.

Image source: Rain Garden Manual of New Jersey


The PWD’s guide for homeowners contains a comprehensive list of plants for rain gardens recommended by the city’s Fairmount Park Commission, but here is brief list of native perennial species suggested by Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve for both wet and dry soils that will attract birds, butterflies, and moths to rain gardens throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.



  • Swamp rose-mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos)
  • Cardinal-flower (Lobelia cardinalis)


  • Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnate)
  • Turtlehead (Chelone spp.)
  • Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale)
  • Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
  • Bee-balm, Bergamot (Monarda spp.)
  • Ironweed (Vernonia spp.)



  • Eastern columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)
  • Tickseed (Coreopsis spp.)
  • Tall larkspur (Delphinium exaltatum)
  • Coneflower (Echinacea spp.)
  • False sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides)
  • Bee-balm, Bergamot (Monarda spp.)
  • Coneflower (Rudbeckia spp.)


  • Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa)
  • Blue false-indigo (Baptisia australis)
  • Tickseed (Coreopsis spp.)
  • Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
  • Joe-pye-weed, Boneset (Eupatorium spp.)
  • False sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides)
  • Blazing-star (Liatris spp.)
  • Bee-balm, Bergamot (Monarda spp.)
  • Coneflower (Rudbeckia spp.)
  • Fire-pink (Silene virginica)

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