ON THE WILD SIDE
At least once a week I meet someone who says, “I want wildflowers
in my garden.” This desire for wildflowers is especially pronounced in the
suburbs, where even the skunks are semi-domesticated. Wildflowers are admirable in home gardens, but before you go
out to the garden center and demand them, make sure you know what they are.
Some people who say they crave wildflowers actually want beds with an
informal look—flowers flopping over walkways, masses of daisy-like blossoms,
and butterflies flitting over the whole scene in a “natural” way. This is not a bad thing, but you can get the look using an array of
hybrids that are many generations removed from anything “wild”. You can add to the wild ambience by neglecting to trim your shrubs, but
your neighbors may be less than pleased with your efforts.
So what is a real, genuine, wildflower? It is a plant that is native to the area where you live, or at least
native to some area in the United States with a climate similar to the one where
you live. Native plant enthusiasts
argue about this all the time. Regular
people and busy home gardeners do not.
The issue is further complicated by the fact that many of the plants that
we regard as wildflowers are actually native to other parts of the world. I used to live across the street from a slightly demented doctor who
spent all of his free time hand-digging common dandelions out of his front lawn. He may have been obsessed, but he was ridding his property of a
The Queen Anne’s Lace that dots the countryside in the summer is also a
foreigner, having originally escaped from colonial gardens. Chicory, which has the most gorgeous blue flowers, is an alien, as are
the tawny day lilies that line the roadsides in June and early July.
So what do you do if you really crave native flowering plants? First of all, get a good guide to wildflowers, such as one of
the Peterson Field Guides. These
books are arranged by flower color and configuration, so that you can look up a
plant even if you don’t have a clue as to its name. Look for shapes and colors that appeal to you, and read the descriptions. If you are committed to planting natives, avoid any species marked with
the evil-sounding word “alien”.
In the spring there are lots of woodland natives that you can plant in
semi-shaded corners. Violets of
various sorts, trilliums, and dog-tooth violets (Erythronium americanum, also
known as “trout lily”) are natives that can be acquired from mainstream as
well as specialty nurseries. Virginia
bluebell (Mertensia virginica) is a special favorite of mine that spreads
readily and requires little care, and goes dormant in the summer so that other
plants can shine in the same space.
Everyone has phlox in the garden, but most people have summer blooming
hybrids. These are wonderful in
their own way, but native phlox is absolutely delightful. Blue phlox (Phlox divaricata), with its five violet-blue petals and
10-20” stems can still be found in clumps blooming in the spring in
undisturbed wooded areas. Don’t
dig them from the wild, but do acquire some from a reputable nursery. If you have a rock garden or a walkway in need of edging, get
some moss phlox (Phlox subulata). It
comes in pink, white or violet, and has small needle-like leaves. Even when it is not in bloom, the leaves remain, like bits of green
Native plant lovers are fortunate that purple coneflower (Echinacea
purpurea) has become so fashionable of late. It is a prairie native that does well just about anywhere, comes back
every year, and self seeds with wild abandon. Start some from seed to bloom next year, or buy three plants at the
garden center. If you must be a
purist, avoid the ‘Magnus’ hybrid Echinacea, though it is a marvelous
cultivar in its own right. By
investing in purple coneflower you will end up with a native plant that survives
drought, attracts butterflies and sports fall seed heads that are attractive to
birds. For contrast in the summer
garden, you can always install black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), another
Everyone knows the fall wildflowers—asters, Joe Pye-weed, and
goldenrod. Europeans have been
using goldenrod (Solidago) for years in fashionable gardens. Rid yourself of the notion that it will make you sneeze (ragweed does
that), and plant some. It looks
lovely with the blue of native asters. Consider
Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale), a terrific plant with a terrible name. Remember too that Coreopsis will keep you in blooms on and off from early
summer through hard frost.
Since wildflowers are disappearing along with the countryside, it
behooves all of us to support initiatives to rein in the developers who want to
pave every square inch of open space. In
our spare time we should also try to install a few native plants in our gardens. It’s the least we can do.