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 ubiquitous alien.
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 carpeting.
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 old-time stalwart.
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.