Observing the local flora and fauna is one of the most exciting part of any camping trip — or any trip at all, really. From discovering what’s in your own backyard to watching the subtle shifts as you reach a new destination, it’s fascinating to learn about the animals and plants of a region.
In this post, we’re going to break down the different U.S. native plants by region, so you can learn about regional plants you might see on your next RV trip to that area. From the northeast to the southwest and even as far out as Alaska, here are some of the coolest bushes, flowers, trees, and shrubs to keep an eye out for!
Popular Plants that Grow in the Midwest
Deep in the heart of it all, some of the most beautiful blooms are waiting.
Native to eastern and central North America, the black-eyed susan is one of the most popular wildflowers not only to spot along the trail, but also to include in bouquets and arrangements. The stark juxtaposition between its dark center and cheerful yellow leaves draws the eye, and in gardens, the blooms can attract birds and butterflies.
American Indians once used the root of the black-eyed susan to make a tea that was used to remedy worms and colds, and even used its extract to treat ear aches. A wash made of the plant could also be used externally on sores, swellings, and snake bites.
White Dogwood Tree
A drive through the countryside might leave you wondering when the midwest got all those cherry or pear blossoms… but what you’re actually seeing is more likely the white dogwood tree. Also known as Cornus florida, the white dogwood is native to eastern North America and lives as far south as northern Mexico, and was once one of the most widespread types of plants in the country, spanning from the central coast of Maine south to northern Florida and west to the Mississippi River.
Although perhaps best-known for its showy white spring blossoms, the tree also turns a beautiful red-purple color in fall, which is just as stunning. It also offers red fruits during this time that draw winter songbirds, making them a lovely addition to any front yard.
American Water Lotus
A native plant also known by its Latin name, Nelumbo lutea, the American water lotus blooms with pale but fragrant yellow flowers in wetlands all along the Mississippi River as far north as Ontario. They’re particularly common in Ohio, where they’re sprinkled across the shallow inlets of ponds and lakes.
Some fun facts about the American water lotus: its blooms can reach up to 10 inches in diameter, and unlike other types of aqueous flora, its roots dig into the ground beneath the water and spread by rhizomes. (Other types of water-dwelling plants simply float on the water itself.) Beavers and muskrats use those rhizomes as a food source, making these plants an important part of the larger midwestern ecosystem.
Popular Plants that Grow in the Northeast
Quaint towns, tons of history, and some of the best native plants in the country — here’s what to keep an eye out for when you head northeast.
With flattened, leaf-like stems growing up to 18 inches in height, the deep-blue, star-shaped blooms on this native North American plant make it so much more exciting than its name implies. Yellow centers make for an even more lovely flower, which bears a lot of resemblance to the larger iris family.
Interestingly, there’s generally only one flower in bloom at a time, though the plant grows in dense clumps which means you’ll likely see a spangle of many blue blooms at once. These plants can be seen in a wide variety of U.S. states across the northeast and beyond, and are viable as far north as Canada.
Otherwise known by its scientific name, Osmunda cinnamomea, cinnamon ferns undergo a series of changes throughout their lifespan, starting as furry fiddleheads before sprouting stiff and erect pinnae, whose spikes of fruit dots change from green to the chocolate brown color that gets the plant its name. Like other ferns, the sterile green fronds eventually bend outwards, creating a vase-shaped circle around the cinnamon fronds themselves.
The sterile fronds of these native ferns can grow up to five feet long, and blooms are best observed in May and June. Look in boggy areas, shaded ledges, and bluffs for the best chance of catching a glimpse of them.
Northern Red Oak
These stunning trees are part of what gives the northeast its reputation for being a great place to go leaf-peeping in fall. Growing up to 75 inches in height, they’re relatively squat… but their bright red leaves make them stand out regardless of their stature.
These trees grow at a remarkable clip, with healthy plants increase in height at a rate of 24 inches of more per year. They prefer full sun, so look for them in bright, open fields and along sunny hiking trails, where their crowns — which can reach up to 45 inches in spread — provide wonderful shade.
Popular Plants that Grow in the Pacific Northwest
The last living American rainforest, the Pacific Northwest is home to some of the best native plants in the book. Here are a few of our favorites.
That’s right, the tree that’s gained so much Christmas time fame is a native of the Pacific northwest — and is also pictured on the Oregon state license plate. These towering evergreen conifers can reach up to 330 feet in height, though the average is closer to 70-100 feet. (The really big ones grow near the coast!)
Along with being a stunning sight to make your trip to the Pacific northwest official, Douglas fir is also useful in a wide variety of lumber applications, from flooring to furniture and beyond. It’s known for its combination of strength and versatility.
Hikers who frequent the west will likely be familiar with this tasty treat, which makes for a great trail snack while it’s in bloom. (It can also be found at farmer’s markets and roadside stands, though you’ll definitely be paying for the privilege of eating them without having to go out into the woods to source them.)
Tribes in British Columbia and western Washington state have long used these berries, which were eaten fresh, with oil, or even sun- or smoke-dried. They could also be mashed and pressed into a cake or wrapped in leaves… though today, we recommend simply plucking them from the vine and eating them (so long as you know for sure how to identify them — we recommend asking a local to show you!).
Visible in front yards and along trails throughout the Pacific northwest, these evergreen shrubs are outfitted with beautiful fuschia blooms that grace the plants from April through July. Requiring a lot of water and partial shade, it’s no wonder these rhododendrons do so well in this region, which is also their native home. However, be sure to note that the plants are highly toxic, and no part of the flower, stem, or leaves should be ingested or even made into honey!
A perennial plant that has been long hailed for its healing properties, goldenrod most often occurs in an “inflorescence,” which is to say a vast field of plants altogether. Although characteristics vary, goldenrod leaves are generally small, measuring less than five inches long and only about half an inch in width, with dozens of tiny, golden flowers.
Goldenrod is a member of the Asteraceae family, which is widespread across the globe and present on every continent with the exception of Antarctica. There are multiple species that can be difficult to differentiate from one another, but chances are you’ll see some during your Pacific northwest adventure.
The common name for Rose spirea doesn’t do much to communicate its delicate beauty. Also known a Douglas’ spirea, these ephemeral pink blossoms provide groundcover in the same areas populated by those towering trees mentioned above.
Hardhack is particularly common alongside rivers, where it forms dense thickets clustered with the blooms. The flowers themselves emerge in early summer and are bright pink at their peak before slowly turning a darker color as the fall draws nearer.
Popular Plants that Grow in the Rocky Mountains
Seeking a Colorado Rocky Mountain high? Don’t forget to keep an eye on the ground to identify these plants while you’re at it.
Although it’s quite different from the thorny kind you may be most familiar with from Valentine’s Day bouquets, the Rocky Mountain region does offer some small wild roses, which are pink in color and do have fragrant blossoms that can reach up to four inches in breadth. To spot them, look about ten feet up from the trail, where they dot the understory of aspen forest. Fun fact: these showy blooms usually last only a single day!
Otherwise known as common bearberry, these plants are a staple in the diet of — you guessed it — the local bears. The word “kinnikinnick” comes from Algonquin, where it refers to a wide variety of tobacco substitutes. The natives used bearberry for several different medicinal purposes, including as a laxative and ostensibly for the control of sexually transmitted diseases. (We don’t recommend relying on it for that use today!)
Before the red berries themselves, the plant offers lovely, bell-shaped flowers in pink or white which are visible from many Rocky Mountain-area hiking trails. The berries themselves are long-lived, often consisting into the winter months.
Chances are you recognize this name… but did you know it refers to a flower, as well? These delicate blue and white blooms are easy to grow and are thus often found growing wild in many areas of the country, including the Rockies. Along with its showy spring blooms, the green foliage of the plant turns maroon in fall.
Popular Plants that Grow in the Southeast
Hot and humid, the southeast is home to a host of beautiful flowers and other plant life. Here are some of our favorites.
These famous, carnivorous plants are actually native to North and South Carolina… and are also the subject of a multi-level crime ring. (Yes, seriously; you can hear all about it on the podcast Criminal.) Currently endangered, there’s a large market for these unique plants in nurseries and novelty stores alike — but we think they’re best observed in their native habitat. (And don’t pick any!)
Ranging from six to 12 feet in height, bottlebrush buckeye grows in dense thickets of mound-shaped shrubs, with its lowest branches resting horizontally along the ground. Its ascending branches have been described as “candelabra-like,” forming picturesque scenery in the southeast that often persists well into fall.
These plants like partially shady environments and their native distribution ranges from Georgia to Alabama and South Carolina, though generally not as far south as Florida. They attract hummingbirds and butterflies, so be sure to look for some flying friends when you spot some!
Also known as French mulberry, beautyberry is actually a native American plant, with a broad distribution in the southeast ranging from Virginia to Arkansas to Texas to south Florida. It grows in the understory of the dense southern oak forests, tolerating a wide range of soils from moist to sandy to loamy.
Although beautyberries may be, as their name implies, beautiful, they are not suitable for human consumption. However, they are an important food source for many species of birds, and Native Americans used the root and leaf teas made from the plant in sweat baths to treat rheumatism, fevers, and malaria.
Popular Plants that Grow in the Southwest
You may think of the southwest as a desert — but it’s also an oasis for a variety of plant life. Here are some you might spot on your next trip through the Grand Circle.
Vast fields of tiny yellow flowers punctuate the desert landscape from New Mexico down to west Texas and all the way into Mexico, mainly growing at elevations of 2,000 to 7,000 feet. They thrive best in areas that receive full sunlight, transforming the countryside into a golden oasis from spring all the way through to fall.
Santa Rita Prickly Pear
We couldn’t have a list of native southwestern plants without featuring a cactus, and this one may just be our favorite. Originally from southeastern Arizona, southern New Mexico, and southwestern Texas, this prickly pear cactus can also be found in the Sonoran desert region of Mexico. Its purple coloring grows darker when the weather is dry or cold and brightens in heat and moisture. They also bear beautiful, yellow flowers come springtime.
Both the pads and the fruits of this plant are edible, which is evident to those watching the local birdlife. You may find the pads offered at local restaurants, but if you prepare them yourself, be sure to remove the spines.
You likely know agave plants are one of the most common in the southwest… but a multiplicity of different types exist, which is less common knowledge. Parry’s agave is a popular one thanks to its bright coloration and medium size, which makes it great for landscaping and decorating front yards. Fun fact: agave is the source material for tequila!
Popular Plants that Grow in Alaska
America’s last frontier is home to some of the best regional plants in the U.S. Here are a few you might spot.
The far north’s answer to huckleberries, salmonberry grows from west-central Alaska all the way into California and Idaho, and is actually a member of the rose family. The edible berries ripen from early May into late July, or even later in colder climates, so you may find some as late as August if you’re in Alaska.
The berries themselves are similar to a raspberry in structure, though the flavor is more delicate and light.
Tamarack is a tree with many names: it’s also known as hackmatack, eastern larch, black larch, red larch, American larch, and its scientific name, Larix laricina. It’s native to Canada throughout the Yukon and all the way east to Newfoundland, and can also be seen in Alaska proper.
These coniferous and deciduous trees can reach up to 66 feet in height and have a trunk of up to two feet in diameter. They’re well known for their beautiful yellow color in the fall and can tolerate temperatures down to -85 degrees Fahrenheit.
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