Native plants an ideal choice for wetland sites

Ray Mueller

OSHKOSH – Whether it's the shoreline of a lake, the banks of a river, wetland sites on other landscapes, there are a great variety of native plants from many species that are suitable for protecting water quality while also supporting songbirds and pollinators.

That was the message from Patrick Goggin at the 2017 “Toward Harmony with Nature” conference sponsored by the Fox Valley Area chapter of Wild Ones. He is stationed at Rhinelander as the outreach program manager with the Wisconsin Lakes Partnership and is also affiliated with the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

Patrick Goggin

Among the many references that Goggin cited for basic guidance on wetland plant selections are “Wisconsin's Natural Communities” by Randy Hoffman, “Planting in a a Post-Wild World” by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West and “The Vegetation of Wisconsin” by John Curtis.

Identifying sites

Identifying the type of wetland, determining the year-round differences in availability of moisture, and working with differing micro-climates are the first steps in matching native plants with the setting, Goggin stated. From that point, there are dozens of native flowers, grasses, sedges, rushes, ferns, vines, shrubs and small trees that would be appropriate for a particular site, he said.

Along bodies of water, the concern is two-fold: protecting the shoreline from wave action of the water and protecting the water from contaminants in storm water runoff, Goggin pointed out. With native plants, there isn't a concern about the spread of invasive species such as phragmites and purple loosestrife that have plagued many wetlands in recent decades.

In order to “mimic nature,” the goal is to provide ground cover throughout as much of the year as possible with selected vegetation, Goggin remarked. He noted that nature will fill open spaces with plants which often are not appropriate and which are probably not native species.

Healthy Lakes Initiative

Much of Goggin's professional efforts involve working the owners and managers of properties surrounding lakes. He noted that in Wisconsin alone there are about 900 lake organizations with a total of 26,000 members.

Through the Healthy Lakes Initative (website at, grants are available for projects on sites covering hundreds of square feet, Goggin pointed out . He noted that six planting templates, including those with an emphasis on lakeshore edge and pollinator planting, are available for all categories of soil, wet to dry.

Species lineup

What's ideal is to have a combination of plants because of the many roles they can play, Goggin observed. Those include a staggering of blooms during the growing season for the benefit of wildlife species, holding the soil in place and competing with invasive species already on the site, he pointed out.

Where there is full to part exposure to the sun, Goggin's list of the top 15 plants for wet soils includes the Joe pye weed, turtlehead, irises, marsh milkweed, New England aster, cardinal flower with great blue lobelia and the monkey flower, cup-plant, golden Alexanders, prairie and dense blazing stars, blue vervain, wild bergamot, yellow coneflower, ox-eye daisy, Indian plantains and glade mallow. He touted the golden Alexander for its ability to fill niche spaces and the cup-plant for its value to goldfinches and chickadees.

Among the sedges, rushes, and grasses for wet soils when there is full or partial exposure to sun, Goggin mentioned path rush for its ability to cover lots of space, fringed sedge, dark green bulrush, prairie cord grass (a competitor to phragmites), bristly sedge, palm sedge, Indian grass, brown fox sedge, tussock sedge, blue-joint grass, fowl manna grass, little bluestem, bottlebrush grass and Canada wild rye. He noted that the deep roots of the sedges hold soil in place.

Woody plants

In the woody plants category, Goggin likes the sweet gale and speckled alder for their ability to deter shoreline erosion and the swamp rose for its attraction to bees. Others on that list are meadowsweet, steeple bush, buttonbush, willows, red twig dogwood, nannyberry, American highbush cranberry, elderberry, mountain holly, winterberry, black chokeberry, witch-hazel, ninebark and American hazelnut.

Trees which are suitable on wet soils with full to partial sun exposure are the river birch, mountain ash, and swamp white oak along with some possibilities for tamarack, black spruce, eastern hemlock, white pine and balsam fir, Goggin indicated. His choices of vines are virgin's bower and the riverbank grapes.

When there are small areas, such as 10 by 10 feet, to cover, ferns are a great choice but they are often overlooked, Goggin observed. Among the fern choices he listed are the interrupted, sensitive, wood, ostrich, cinnamon, and royal.

Constructed sites

In addition to what nature has provided, property owners and managers can also create sites for growing species suitable to wetlands. In most cases, that opportunity is provided by the stormwater which comes from buildings or that flows on the natural contour, Goggin pointed out.

Rain gardens, which are a possibility on many residential and commercial sites, should be stocked with native plants benefiting birds and butterflies, Goggin advised. At sites directly under gutters and eaves, sedges and rushes are the preferred native plant choices, he added.

Goggin also mentioned the “kiddie pool” idea, which involves burying one of more of those units a foot deep into the soil and filling it with peat moss as one of the mediums for plant growth. Burying a bathtub is an offshoot of that idea, he noted.

Goggin can be reached by e-mail to