Winter in the Lake Forest, Barrington, and Naperville, IL areas inevitably means salted roads and walkways. This helps keep our community as ice and snow-free as possible, however, it can have some negative environmental effects. Fortunately, there are some native plants in our area that happily tolerate salt and will continue to stay healthy and beautiful.

The list of native plants below will thrive in the Chicago area and will survive the awful spray of road salt-infused muck during the wintertime. After over 30 years, our company has discovered that these 10 plants not only absorb and clean polluted snowmelt and runoff but are also well-behaved in the landscape.


10 Native Plants That Tolerate Salt Exposure

1) Amorpha canescens or Lead Plant

A bundle of Amorpha canescens in Chicago, IL.

Lead Plant gets its common name from its dusty grey-green foliage that looks as if it has been sprinkled with lead. This short sub-shrub will surprise you with long-lasting purple flower spikes covered in bright orange anthers. Plant it in the front of the border where you can reach out and touch the soft leaves. It does best where there is full sun to partial shade and good drainage.

2) Carex bicknelli or Copper-Shouldered Oval Sedge

Standing at two and a half feet tall at the most, the copper-shouldered oval sedge plant has a triangular stem and pretty brown seedheads. An attractive plant with an upright appearance, it is one of the first sedges to set seed in the season that can also serve as a food source for game and songbirds. It does best in full sun and average to dry soils.

3) Ceanothus americanus or New Jersey Tea

Wasp pollinating New Jersey tea plant in Chicago, IL.

A small shrub of the prairie and savanna, New Jersey tea prefers mesic to dry soils. Pretty delicate clusters of white flowers bloom beginning in May, forming dark seedheads that eject the seeds at maturity. Many species of pollinators visit this plant, as it is the larval host for several moths and skippers. Some upland game birds consume the seeds. Revolutionary War soldiers used the leaves for tea, while Native Americans used the roots and bark for medicine and the flowers for soap. It does best in full sun to partial shade and sharp draining soils.

4) Elymus virginicus or Virginia Wild Rye

Virginia wild rye in an area in Chicago, IL.

Virginia wild rye is an adaptable cool-season clumping grass that reaches about four feet high. Its bristly seed heads resemble rye and are held upright, adding a nice airy texture to the garden. Various insects and moths feed on this wild rye while birds and mice will eat the seeds. It thrives in sun to shade and prefers moist to average soils.

5) Iris virginica var. shrevei or Southern Blue Flag

Southern blue flag bunched in a pond in Chicago, IL.

Our native iris rises to about three feet and features lovely blue-lavender flowers that bloom from May into July. A favorite of bees and butterflies, it also is a larval host for a few species of moths. These irises are ideal for a rain garden or bioswale. They do best in full sun to light shade and must be in moist to inundated soils.

6) Lobelia cardinalis or Cardinal Flower

An area with cardinal flowers in Chicago, IL.

Cardinal flowers light up landscapes with their unusual and brilliantly red blossoms with distinct lobed petals. The tall stems reach about four feet and begin blooming in June. The flowers attract ruby-throated hummingbirds and swallowtail butterflies. This perennial needs to be moist to wet to be successful and does best in full sun to partial shade.

7) Mertensia virginica or Virginia Bluebells

An area of Virginia bluebells in Chicago, IL.

Virginia bluebells is a beloved woodland ephemeral that reaches about two feet and blooms beginning in April. The clumping plants feature distinctive bell-like flowers with pink buds that mature to sky blue blossoms. Interplant this with other shade lovers as it will go dormant and disappear in the heat of July. It does best in partial to full shade in moist to average soils.

8) Penstemon digitalis or Foxglove Beardtongue

Foxglove beardtongue growing in an area in Chicago, IL.

Foxglove Beardtongue is a lovely adaptable perennial that grows large flower stems from basal rosettes. Sturdy white tubular flowers touched with lavender appear beginning in June. A favorite of many pollinators, it is also visited by the occasional hummingbird. It does best in any light and average to drier soils.

9) Rosa palustris or Swamp Rose

Swamp rose in an area near Chicago, IL.

A beautiful wet-tolerant native rose that can reach up to eight feet, the swamp rose plant is particularly fragrant. Flat pink flowers begin blooming in June and are favorites of bees. Reddish orange hips follow in fall and are sought out by wildlife. It prefers full sun to partial shade and moist to wet soils.

10) Ruellia humilis or Wild Petunia

A wild petunia blooming in Chicago, IL.

A short, spreading prairie plant, wild petunia’s lavender flowers are reminiscent of the traditional annual. Blooming beginning in June, it will flower all through the hot, dry summer. Wild petunia is very adaptable and can be aggressive in the right conditions, making it a perfect candidate for salt exposure. It is a larval host for buckeye butterflies and bees frequently visit it. It does best in full sun and average soils.


Need more advice on what species to plant in the Lake Forest area? We can help.

We are a natural land restoration and maintenance company. Since 1988, our crew has trained and gained real-life experience regarding natural habitats in our area. Our goal is to restore and maintain as much natural land as possible in the Lake Forest, Barrington, and Naperville, IL areas. If you are in need of additional advice about native plant species or want to chat about our restoration and maintenance services, give our office a call at (815) 495-2300.