A purple iris flower growing by the water
(Image credit: Wirestock)

Well-draining soil is an important component for most plants in the garden and landscape. When the soil is poorly drained, the roots of most garden plants and trees are prone to rotting. However, there are perennials, grasses, and trees that actually enjoy soggy or always-moist sites. If you’re looking for moisture-loving plants that enjoy having “wet feet,” read on.

Gardening in Wet Sites

We wish we could report that there are hundreds of common plants that love growing in wet soil, but that’s not the case. Plants require oxygen to function, and when the soil is filled with water, air is locked out. In fact, only a few specific plants will thrive in soil that is constantly saturated. To that extent, “water-loving plants” is a misnomer.

Most “wet” sites in the home garden are only wet during particular periods or seasons rather than year round. By “wet” here, we mean sites where there is occasional standing water for periods of 24 hours or less. Generally, the best plants for wet areas are actually more accurately described as moisture-loving plants.

Perennial Plants for Wet Areas

Perennials are often the backbone of the garden. They live for more than one growing season in the right climate, and some actually like wet areas and thrive in moist soil:

  • Hardy hibiscus (Hibiscus spp.) offers large, beautiful blossoms that appear in late spring/early summer and last through fall. These shrubs grow to 4 feet (1 m) tall and 5 feet (1.5 m) wide in moist soil.
  • Queen-of-the-prairie (Filipendula rubra) offers oodles of showy, pink or white blossoms in June and July. Said to be excellent for rain gardens, this perennial can grow to quite a clump, 5 feet (1.5 m) tall and 4 feet (1 m) wide.
  • For even wetter areas, consider Siberian Iris (Iris siberica) with its grassy foliage and lavender flowers in early summer. These shrubs grow to 3 feet (0.9 m) in each direction and are very tolerant of wet soil.

Other water tolerant perennials and bulbs include:

  • Lily of the valley
  • Bugbane
  • Crinum
  • Sweet woodruff
  • Daylily
  • Rose mallow
  • Blue vervain
  • Monkey flower
  • Iris

Grasses for Wet Soil

Ornamental grasses for your wet yard area can be a good choice. Grasses, especially native grasses, are versatile, hardy and easy to maintain, but offer a dramatic beauty. Here are a few to consider for moist or wet sites:

  • Muhly grass enjoys damp soil and pond edges. Also, most types of sedge do well in wet, sandy soil. Sedge is available in a variety of sizes, forms, and colors.
  • Panicum Heavy Metal may sound like the name of a fancy cultivar, but it is, in fact, a native ornamental grass, perfect for beginning gardeners. This grass has metallic blue leaves that grow upright and turn yellow in the fall. It thrives in the wild beside bodies of water and generally loves moist conditions.
  • Sorghastrum Indian steel - aka blue prairie grass - is another native grass that grows near water in natural conditions and is happy in wet soil. It offers dense foliage and summer flowers. Plant it in full sun.

Other water tolerant grasses include:

  • Northern sea oats
  • Indian grass
  • Little bluestem
  • Cordgrass

Moisture-tolerant Ground Covers

If you’re looking for a vine or a groundcover for a damp area, keep in mind that most vines and groundcovers require some drainage and don’t perform well in areas that are flooded or consistently wet. However, these may be worth a try:

  • Ajuga
  • Trumpet creeper
  • Carolina jessamine
  • Liriope

Moisture-loving Ferns

Don’t assume that all ferns like wet feet, but some tolerate wet areas and will thrive at the edge of ponds, including:

  • Cinnamon fern
  • Royal fern
  • Painted fern
  • Marsh fern
  • Holly fern
  • Sensitive fern

Shrubs that Like Wet Soil

Some shrubs and trees will tolerate moist or occasionally standing water. Consider any of the following species:

  • Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) is an extremely tolerant plant, thriving right through droughts but also accepting standing water and wetland conditions. That makes it perfect for sites that are sometimes dry and sometimes flooded. Buttonbush can get to 10 feet (3 m) tall with lovely white flowers that attract butterflies.
  • It won’t surprise you that swamp dogwood (Cornus amomum) likes wet soils, given the common name. It has several ornamental features including late spring blossoms and late summer berries.
  • Another wetland plant to consider for standing water areas is winterberry (Ilex verticulata). This tall shrub produces shiny red berries in fall that last through winter on the branches.

Trees for Wet Soil

When it comes to trees, consider any of the following for wet areas:

  • Box elder
  • Red maple
  • Silver maple
  • Common alder
  • River birch
  • American hornbeam
  • Fringetree
  • Persimmon
  • Deciduous hollies
  • Dawn redwood
  • London planetree
  • Cherrybark oak
  • Weeping willow
  • Bald cypress

Plants That Like to Be in Water

There are a number of plants that can withstand long periods with wet feet. These make good additions to garden ponds, bogs, rain gardens, or just those difficult areas of the landscape that stay too wet for planting anything else.

Perennial plants that tolerate standing water and flooded areas include:

  • Pickerelweed
  • Cattail
  • Iris
  • Canna
  • Elephant’s ear
  • Swamp sunflower
  • Scarlet swamp hibiscus

Keep in mind that soil moisture is only one thing to consider when choosing plants for wet areas. Other important factors include light/shade, soil type, and temperature hardiness. A local greenhouse or nursery can provide information about specific water tolerant plants for your area, or your local extension service can help with the best plants for your particular region.

Mary H. Dyer

A Credentialed Garden Writer, Mary H. Dyer was with Gardening Know How in the very beginning, publishing articles as early as 2007.

With contributions from