One of my favorite mental images is a meadow filled with wildflowers swaying gently among the native grasses. If I concentrate, I can here the buzz and hum of bees and insects darting from flower to flower. Overhead, birds and butterflies flit and flutter in the wind.
Wildflowers are plants that grow “in the wild” without cultivation. Would you have a garden of wildflowers? Does that sound too wild? Not really, if one considers that except for hybrid flowers and cultivars, all garden flowers are wildflowers somewhere.
When we view wildflowers in their natural setting, we see them growing along with other plants in diverse communities, or to use the current buzzword, social networks. Wildflowers grow, some say compete, with many other plants. In the biome called the Shortgrass Prairie, nutrients and rainfall can be scarce commodities that need to be shared by all. Plants even compete for the sunlight when grown in dense communities. Plants also compete for our view of them. The arrangement of plants in natural settings appears as a jumble, crowded together one upon the other making it hard for viewers to isolate and appreciate individual plants. We, the viewers, have adapted to viewing plants individually or in small landscape compostions which makes it easy to see and understand.
As is frequently the case in semi-arid and arid regions, the wildflower social networks are less diverse than humid Eastern, Southeastern and Pacific Northwestern areas. Grasses dominate with forbes briefly coming and going out of bloom with only brief periods of mass blooming to attract our attention. The further west of the Mississippi one travels, wildflowers appear to the casual observer as spindly, short, stunted, with one or few flowers – undesirable and unsuitable for home gardens.
Not only do wildflowers and grasses compete with each other, they are subject to predation by insects and animals. Have your ever lost a plant to a vole, rabbit or a deer? Got hail? Or late spring blizzard perhaps? Gardeners are out the door in a flash shoeing away herbivores. The day after a storm is clean-up day in the garden, trimming damaged limbs, stems and foliage before pathogens and insects can enter and cause damage. We fertilize and water when nature doesn’t. In fact, it’s a big part of what gardeners do.
We think of using wildflowers in our gardens, especially American native wildflowers, as sub-standard. If we’re honest, we don’t give much respect to our own native plants. I admit, whizzing by in our automobiles, glancing at the “native” landscape doesn’t inspire confidence that any wildflower out there would be garden worthy. But I beg to differ.
Considering the fact that most garden worthy flowers are wildflowers somewhere, wouldn’t American wildflowers likewise merit consideration? Yes, even wildflowers native to the Shortgrass Prairie and desert regions make splendid garden specimens. There are hundreds of wildflowers, that when planted in gardens, quite immediately and naturally become “garden quality”. The absence of herbivores, care after weather damage, and supplemental irrigation and nutrients when needed allows even our local native flowers to flourish.
I’ve selected seven wildflowers whose native range is west of the Mississippi River to feature, one for each day of National Wildflower Week, May 1-7. These easy-care wildflowers are, in my opinion, underused. Hopefully, once you know their virtues, you may be tempted to try them and create a little bit of that meadow feeling. We, our gardens and our ecology will be enriched. Get wild!
Seven Garden-Worthy Wildflowers
These versatile wildflowers are all plants I’ve grown in xeric conditions, whether sun or shade, for over a decade. Missouri evening primrose, blue flax, prairie zinnia, sulfur-flowered buckwheat and prairie verbena are full sun plants and coral bells and columbine are part- sun to shade. One inch a month supplemental watering during the growing season is sufficient for a great blooming season in soil with good drainage. Typical garden types include native plant gardens, xeriscape beds, Western cottage gardens, pollinator gardens, wildlife and habitat gardens, rock and cactus gardens and woodland shade gardens for the shade loving wildflowers. Coral bells, columbines and blue flax grow well in containers either together or with other plant choices.
All these wildflowers can be found at Canyon’s Edge Plants, one block off the square in Canyon, Texas, grown by our local grower, Neal Hinders without neonicotinoids or growth hormones. High Country Gardens, catalog and internet supplier, as well as Plants of the Southwest in Santa Fe, or Prairie Nursery in Westerfield, Wisconsin, offer seeds or plants as well as companion plants.
A few companion plants for the full sun wildflowers are gaillardias, Blackfoot daisy, chocolate flower, Calylophus (sundrops), Santa Fe phlox, pink Texas skullcap, California poppies, Salvia greggii ‘Furmans Red’, and Mexican blue sage. Together these will make a colorful, long-blooming, low maintenance and low water-use bed or border.
Pair the shade permitting coral bells and columbines with native perennial geraniums such as Geranium maculatum, corydalis, Prairie smoke geum, yerba mansa, white wood aster (Aster divaricatus, spreads by rhizomes), Turk’s cap, Gold Sword and Color Guard varieties of Yucca filamentosa, and creeping Oregon grape holly, Mahonia repans,
For more information about these wildflowers, click on the common name of the plant which is linked to my plant profile.
Missouri Evening Primrose, Oenothera macrocarpa, and O. missouriensis have been used interchangeably.
Native over a wide range including the plains from Texas to Kansas and wooded areas from Arkansas to Illinois and east to Tennessee, this wildflower carries the common name, Missouri evening primrose, bigfruit sundrops and Ozark Sundrops.
Yellow goblet-shaped flowers on short reddish stems that become interesting elongated purple speckled seed capsules from mid spring to early summer. Blooming slows during the heat of mid summer, but will pick up again as temperatures cool with late summer moisture. Evening primrose actually begins to bloom an hour or two after dark and remains open until around 11 o’clock the next day, longer during cooler and cloudy summer days. The leaves are shiny gray green, narrow lanceolate or oblanceolate, with white veins.
Long blooming Missouri evening primrose is triply attractive: large yellow goblet shaped flowers turn to reddish-orange as they fade. Quickly the purple speckled sepals form the lance shaped seed pod. O. macrocarpa welcomes afternoon shade, but it’s not necessary, and will do equally well in a medium water-use zone. O. macrocarpa can be seen flowering in the red clay soils of Palo Duro Canyon, and other natural areas; attracts butterflies and moths, and hummingbirds.
Maintenance: Most of the plant’s growth takes place in the fall. Trim back if it sprawls too much. It's easy to save their seeds and pass them to friends. Plant seeds in the fall for spring flowers.
Blue Flax, Linum lewisii var lewisii
Linum lewisii, the western native perennial wildflower was named after Meriwether Lewis, who was first to describe it during the Lewis and Clark Expedition. On July 18th, 1805, near the Great Falls of the Missouri Lewis recorded: "I have observed for several days a species of the flax growing in the river bottoms the leaf stem and pericarp of which resembles the common flax cultivated in the U'States. The stem rises to the hight of about 2 1/2 or 3 feet high; as many as 8 or ten of which proceeds from the same root. The root appears to be perennial." Lewis collected seeds a month later. However the original cache of seeds was destroyed by floods; he doubtless collected more, as Bernard McMahon (who was given seeds to grow from the expedition) reported to Thomas Jefferson that he had success in growing the new perennial flax. This blue flax was given the botanic name Linum lewisii a few years after Lewis' death.
Hundreds of delicate sky blue flowers, not more than an inch in diameter, will adorn one plant during the season, each lasting only a day. Self-seeding will occur, but not enough to be a nuisance. Any unwanted plants are easily pulled or transplanted when young. Its main bloom period is during the summer, but with adequate moisture, limited blooms will continue. Its blue flowers will be morning bloomers, similar to other native prairie wildflowers like the Oenotheras, unless the day is cloudy.
Other native flax are the L. rigidum, yellow flax and our native blue flax, L. pratense (an annual). L. grandiflorum ‘Rubrum’, a red flax is available as well.
Maintenance: In early spring, thin out seedlings, or transplant them. Trim out dry spent stems in mid to late summer.
Coral Bells, Alum Root, Heuchera sanguinea
Heuchera species are native throughout the North American continent and make wonderful foliage and flower plants for your woodland border. One wouldn't think that such an indispensable garden plant would be native to the hot and dry areas of Arizona, New Mexico and northern Mexico, usually in rocky montane environments, but it is. The genus was named in honor of Johann Heinrich von Heucher, a German professor of medicine and botany and a friend of Linnaeus. There are roughly 50 species of heucheras, and they readily cross pollinate in the wild.
Indispensable, as it is one of my leading plants for dry shade areas, adding not just year-round interesting evergreen foliage, but delightful tiny coral bell-shaped flowers, as well, actually inflorescences on a stalk. Heuchera sanguinea's coral-red bell shaped flowers has given the genus its common name, coral bells. Heucheras are also called alum root, for its astringent root that can be used like alum in pickling processes, and has been used medicinally to shrink tissues in nose bleeds, sore throats, ulcers and piles by Native Peoples.
For the Texas Panhandle, Heuchera sanguinea exceed hostas for shady locations, as I have never noticed a bit of leaf damage by slugs or snails, or any insect (deer resistant too), yet provide a pleasing mounding rosette of foliage and a prettier flower. Plus, its an evergreen and a dry shade plant. Flowers of this native species, though tiny, contain abundant nectar for hummingbirds.
For the High Plains region, in choosing a heuchera among the more than 200 cultivars, search out cultivars that have at least one parent to a southwestern native heuchera, such as H. sanguinea. Examples are 'Firefly', 'Grandiflora', 'Splendens', 'Maxima', 'Ruby Bells', 'Bressingham Blaze', and 'Alba'.
Maintenance: Topdress 1 inch of with compost spring and fall. Deadhead to prolong blooming. Some references note that the clump needs to be divided every 3-4 years in fall or late winter, as the rootstock gets quite woody. Dividing promotes longevity and better looks. Having said that, I've grown coral bells for 8-10 years without dividing and they still look great.
Golden Columbine, Aquilegia chrysantha
Delicate and fragile in appearance, columbines are some of the most durable, versatile plants in the West. Aquilegia chrysantha is the Texas native columbine, happy in both sun or shade, moist areas or dry. Aquilegia chrysantha is native to the Chihuahuan and Sonoran Desert canyons from west Texas, southern New Mexico, southern Utah, and Arizona south into Sonora, Coahuila, and Nuevo Leon along with a disconnected population in southern Colorado.
Beautiful blue green lacy foliage that emerges in early spring. Tall stems arise in April, followed by yellow flowers. Columbines fill the bloom gap between the end of spring bulbs and heat loving flowers. A stand of columbines, which is what you should have in a few years, gives the appearance of a fairy-like woodland glen. Dainty flowers with spurs; an earlier common name was granny’s bonnet, attract butterflies, hawk moths, bees and bumblebees.
Columbine reseeds quite a lot; however, I would never keep it out of the landscape. Volunteers can be easily transplanted to other areas of the garden and containers. Deadhead to discourage excess seed production. Does wonderfully well in containers paired with blue flax.
The foliage dies back in the heat of summer, making this plant ideal in mixed borders loaded with summer and fall blooming plants. Foliage around the base returns in the fall, and freezes back in winter, only to come back again in early spring.
Other U. S. native columbines are the Rocky Mountain columbine, A. caerulea; A. canadensis, wild columbine; and A. chrysantha var. hinckleyana, Hinckley's columbine native to Presidio County, TX.
Use in the Garden: There are many uses for the versatile golden columbines in many garden situations and combinations. Makes a stunning companion to ornamental alliums, especially allium 'Purple Sensation', iris, blue flax, Missouri evening primrose and early blooming poppies. Early spring foliage creates a backdrop for daffodils and tulips, enhancing their appearance. Lacey, divided leaves and thin stems sporting delicate nodding flowers lights up like a Monet landscape.
Columbines can be transplanted in containers and combined with any number of spring blooming plants. Often containers left near a stand of columbines with start them without any effort on your part.
Maintenance: Transplant or pull out any unwanted seedlings. Trim foliage and stems as they die back in summer. It's really pretty easy care.
Prairie Zinnia, Zinnia grandiflora
Not our old fashioned garden zinnia. Zinnia grandiflora is the native zinnia for most of the Midwest, West and Southwestern parts of the United States Prairie zinnia grows over a wide range and elevations, even in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Its northern range is Kansas. So widespread a wildflower, each region has named it theirs: plains zinnia, prairie zinnia, desert zinnia and Rocky Mountain zinnia. A terrific low growing and spreading groundcover for poor soils needing no supplement irrigation. Rugged! A survivor without being a pest!
Prairie zinnia is a groundcover wildflower, spreading by rhizomes. But it's not a nuisance. It's a well mannered groundcover that slowly spreads over time to around 12-18 inches in the garden, and is easily kept in check when necessary.
Propagate by root division in fall or springtime. I like to start root cuttings in the fall by digging up some roots, separating them, and planting in small containers. I then sink these containers in the ground so the top of the container is level with the soil, and will water them periodically over winter. By spring, the plants have a healthy root ball suitable for transplanting.
Water monthly for continuous blooming during drought periods. But prairie zinnia will survive just fine without it. Prairie zinnia is pollinated by bees, butterflies and moths, and is a nectar source for them as well.
Maintenance: Lightly trim off old leaves from previous year in late winter.
Golden Sulphur-flower Buckwheat, Eriogonum umbellatum var. aureum
Golden sulfur buckwheat is one of those plants you'll come across while hiking in the West and wonder why it isn't in your garden, its so adorable!
The leaves are gray-green, spatula shaped and woolly underneath, to about 2-3 inches. They form a rosette at the base. In early spring, tall, stout stems extend upward up to 2-3 feet. The bright golden flowers are nearly luminescent, appearing first as ball-like umbels (clusters), then each ball opening up to a circle of golden flowers. As the flowers age, they turn orange.
The appearance of golden buckwheat is variable in nature as to its size, and intensity of yellow color. Golden buckwheat is long-flowering into the summer months when well established.
Golden or sulphur buckwheat provides an important source of seed for birds and nectar for moths and butterflies. Various species of Eriogonum play host to the caterpillars of several butterflies including the Mormon Metalmark butterfly, the Rocky Mountain dotted-blue, and the Lupine Blue butterfly.
Their dried flowers can be used in dried arrangements. In winter, the gray-green leaves turn a pleasing red-russet until spring, giving this wildflower four seasons of interest.
Maintenance: None. Supplemental irrigation is not necessary unless in a prolonged drought. Plants will flower longer and grow larger with once a month irrigation.
Prairie Verbena, Glandularia bipinnatifida, syn. Verbena bipinnatifida
Prairie verbena is one of my favorite plants, it is one of the first to bloom in the spring and one of the last to be affected by freezes in the fall. Small in stature, but it has my respect for giving so much with so little given (from me) in return. It's short lived, maybe just one year or three. Light green, finely cut hairy leaves, with several branched stems that put on clusters of tiny lavender, purple, violet or pink flowers. Blooms from spring to fall. Readily reseeds, not invasively so. Its volunteer seedlings are easy to dig up and transplant.
Known mostly as a prairie plant, it actually covers a wide range of diverse terrain. Prairie verbena can be found growing throughout most of Texas, north into Oklahoma through to South Dakota, south to Alabama and west into New Mexico, Arizona and into Northern Mexico, in open grasslands in most soil types. Will tolerate part shade. Glandularia bipinnatifida is often referred to as Verbena bipinnatifida or V. gooddingii and is a member of the verbena family.
Maintenance: Virtually no maintenance, but I think it appreciates good thoughts as you admire it every day. If you're the pruning type, snip it back in mid summer for a tidier look and increased blooms in the fall.
A good plant in the far corner of the garden a hose doesn't reach.
Angie Hanna, May 6, 2017