Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Spring Wildflowers

Bob Henrickson
Spring has finally arrived, at least according to the calendar. Spring in Nebraska is anything but predictable. A strong cold front, sometimes with rain or even snow, usually follows a week of warm, sunny weather. Perennial flowers quickly spring to life, fooled into thinking summer is right around the corner. Midwestern gardeners know it takes a hardy plant to survive our climate and still provide spring beauty. Fortunately, we have the old reliable daffodil, iris and peony to remind us what time of year it is. But there is another group of plants that have been the harbinger of spring for centuries here on the windswept prairies, savannahs and hardwood forests of Nebraska and the Great Plains—spring wildflowers. Many are discovering the beauty these native jewels bring to the perennial border and shade garden. They are a tough, reliable group of plants that are sometimes overlooked, but will more than satisfy your demand for spring color.
There are a number of native woodland wildflowers that combine well with your existing shade-lovers like hosta and astilbe. Most of these jewels decorate the woodlands of extreme eastern Nebraska, along the Missouri river bluffs. In early spring little merrybells (Uvularia sessifolia) sends its delicate arching stems up through the forest floor. Dainty 1” yellow bells hang in loose clusters atop 10” stems. The attractive, rich green leaves and arching stems look similar in appearance to Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum spp.), another woodland beauty for the garden. Wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is a fine native woodland wildflower and one of the first, tall-growing columbines to flower. Their beautiful flowers, composed of yellow sepals and red spurs, are old-fashioned favorites in the garden. The large wavy-lobed leaves and waxy white flowers of bloodroot, the distinct umbrella-like leaves of mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) and the bluish-green, fern-like foliage of Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)form a lush green tapestry on the forest floor.  To grow any of these woodland beauties simply provide a rich, organic soil and consistent moisture for best growth.
Prairie smoke (top), merrybells
Spring wildflowers are not just confined to the shady woodland understory, indeed there is an impressive array of sun-loving spring wildflowers. Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens) is a real harbinger of spring with its lavender, cup-shaped flowers blooming in April. Attractive silky seed heads and fuzzy foliage remain attractive all season long on this drought-tolerant perennial. Prairie smoke (Geum triflorum) is a little jewel covering northern shortgrass prairies with pink “smoke” in early summer after blooming in late spring. Prairie smoke has nodding, deep pink flowers in spring that turn into pale pink plumes, giving the plant the appearance of being covered with a blanket of pink smoke. This long-lived, high-quality perennial has silky leaves, mostly in a rosette up to 12” high. The ground plum (Astragalus crassicarpus) blooms with clusters of slender pea-like flowers in early spring, then forms little pods that look like small plums sprawling on the ground. Pussytoes (Antennaria spp.) are charming groundcover plants, forming an attractive silver-white carpet. Clusters of tiny white fuzzy flowers that are reminiscent of a cat’s toes rise above the leaves in spring. The pale green leaves of prairie blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium campestre) make this plant look like a miniature iris. The leaves emerge from the soil in early spring to form grass-like tufts up to 12” tall. Bright blue 1/2” star-shaped flowers emerge in clusters atop flattened, leafless stalks in May.

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