Friday, June 1, 2012

Prairie Wildflowers

The Beauty of Our Tallgrass Prairie Wildflowers

Nebraska Wildflower Week: June 2nd Through June 11th

A Prairie Inspired Garden
          Not long ago eastern Nebraska belonged in the domain of tallgrass prairie. One can only imagine what this land must have looked like to native peoples and early settlers in late summer or fall with grass reaching as high as horseback and stretching as far as the eye could see. Less than one percent of this majestic ecosystem that once stretched from Canada to Texas remains unplowed.  Our prairie soils have become the most productive farmland in the world and are now the lifeblood of our culture and economy. As such, the tallgrass is not coming back.  One thing we can all do to help preserve our natural heritage, however, is to plant and utilize prairie plants in our own yards and gardens. Indeed, our community landscapes have the potential to become vitally important preserves of prairie species. One does not need to convert their entire yard to prairie to make a difference. Just use a few prairie plants as substitutes for some of the non-native species that have become so common in our gardens. For example dwarf false indigo (Baptisia minor) could be planted instead of Russian sage.
      With literally dozens of desirable prairie plants to choose from, it can be difficult to focus on just a few species to highlight in a quick summary like this. Ask me tomorrow and this list will have changed, but for now, the following are some of my favorite prairie flowers deserving to be planted more in the landscape. They should be planted not only for their physical attributes (beauty) but also for the unique stories they tell, the cultural connections they convey and their ability to help support biodiversity.

Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) is known by its slender, hairy leaves and its dramatic shuttle-cock like lavender flowers held high above the plant on slender stalks up to 3’ tall. The flowers are distinguishable by their droopy, widely-spaced ray petals that flutter whimsically in a good mid-summer breeze. Echinacea was a very important medicinal plant to many Native American tribes and was used as a painkiller, as cough medicine and as a tonic for insect bites and other skin abrasions. There may be no better plant to include in the garden for a spiritual connection to past inhabitants of the region.

Dotted Gayfeather

      Dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata) is named for the numerous tiny dots that speckle its narrow leaves. Sometimes called blazingstar, this wonderful wildflower grows from a stout taproot that can extend up to 15’ deep! This taproot supports unbranched clusters of tight flowering stems resembling lavender bottle brushes and growing from 6” to 30” tall depending on moisture conditions. The flower spikes appear in late summer, just when the garden needs a boost of color. The flowers are a favorite of many pollinators including several butterfly species. Gayfeathers were used medicinally by many native tribes, with the root often used in a tea to treat bladder and abdominal troubles. The root was also a food of last resort for some tribes.
Compass Plant

      Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) is named for its large basal leaves that often (but not always) align north and south, thus presenting less surface area to the hot midday sun. Compass plant is big and needs plenty of room to grow, so it’s better left to the back of the border and combined with grasses or other plants to help soften its robust presence. The leathery basal leaves of compass plant are deeply lobed and can grow up to 15” long. In mid-summer a hairy flower stalk reaches up to 6’ high and produces several golden sunflowers. The seeds ripen late in the season and are favored by many birds. Compass plant was used medicinally by native tribes for both people and horses. The plant also produces a resinous sap that can be chewed as gum when it hardens.
 Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) is known for its yucca-like leaves and very distinctive green-white flower balls held in clusters atop stems reaching 3-5’ tall. The plant was used by Native Americans to treat rattlesnake bites.

Rattlesnake Master

      Ironweed (Vernonia spp.) doesn’t get much love, primarily because it’s not eaten by cattle or horses and thus can become abundant on overgrazed pastures. However it’s a drought-tolerant and easy-to-grow perennial producing beautiful, flat-topped purple flower clusters in late summer on 3-4’ tall plants – just when the garden needs it. The flowers are favored by many important insects and pollinators. Plant it with the yellows of goldenrod or helenium for a spectacular color combination. If it had a better name, such as “ironflower” or “purple delight” ironweed would no doubt be considered a garden delight.


      Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is valuable as a host plant to numerous important insects including monarch butterflies, milkweed beetles, milkweed bugs and the tussock moth. Though not commercially available, the plant can be easily started by collecting a seed pod in late summer and planting a few of the fluffy seeds where you might desire a little wildness. Another option is to just wait patiently as the plant often comes up freely on its own in many cultivated landscapes. The spicy-fragrant flower balls and young seed pods can be fried as food and Native Americans made a soup from young shoots (properly decanted to remove the milky alkaloids first!).

            Aromatic aster (Aster oblongifolium) is named for the balsam-like aroma given off by its crushed foliage. This bushy plant grows only 18-24” high and is covered by a mass of blue-violet to purple daisy-like flowers in late fall that help give the garden one last splash of interest before cold weather sets in. The plant is becoming common in the nursery trade with many cultivars such as ‘October Skies’ selected and marketed in recent years.

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