A Short List of Sun-Loving Favorites

This time of year as we greet the true arrival of spring and the FloraKansas Native Plant Festival, I am asked quite a few questions about native plants. Often people ask about how to establish their native plants, but more often they want to know which native plants are my favorites.  It is hard to narrow down my choices, because there are so many great plants to include in your garden.  Wildflowers attract pollinators and grasses add texture, structure and movement in the garden.  The combination of wildflowers and grasses create the layers and habitat that wildlife depend on for survival.

Here is a list of my top five sun-loving favorites:

Threadleaf Bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii)

This is an all-season perennial with fantastic ornamental features that at make it stand out from other wildflowers.   In May and June, clusters of small powder blue, star-like flowers top the strong stems.  The stems are encircled with soft, narrow leaves resembling pine needles, making each plant look like a small shrub with feathery texture and incredible fullness. I have found them to be extremely hardy, drought tolerant and very low maintenance.

Amsonia fall color

The real show develops in September when the foliage turns a butter yellow, fading to a golden brown by October.  One specimen plant is spectacular in each season of the year, but a group of ten or more massed together and strategically located are quite stunning.  Individual plants can reach up to 48 inches tall and 24-36 inches wide.  They prefer full sun to partial shade and an average garden soil.

Other Bluestars worth trying are Shining Bluestar (Amsonia illustris), Amsonia ‘Storm Cloud’, and Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)

Northwind Switchgrass

The airy seed heads and upright habit make this a great landscape grass.  These forms make quite a statement in the fall and winter landscape.  They add structure, texture and movement.  For best results, plant them in a sunny spot in a medium to moist soil.  It is very drought tolerant.  Discover these varieties: ‘Northwind’-consistent upright form to four feet tall and golden yellow fall color, ‘Cheyenne Sky’-red leaves develop early in the summer and grows to three feet, and ‘Dallas Blues’-tall (to 8 feet), with blue foliage and purple seed heads.

Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’ (Penstemon digitalis)

I love this penstemon in the perennial border.  The pink flowers in spring have just a blush of white and develop interesting seed heads.   It adds outstanding form and texture to any landscape throughout the year.  Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’ is a beautiful selection of smooth penstemon with reddish-purple foliage that is attractive even when blooming is complete.

Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’ in bloom. Photo courtesy of Terra Nova Nurseries.

Letterman’s Iron Plant (Vernonia lettermanii ‘Iron Butterflies’)

One of the plants that has done well over the past few years in the Arboretum is Letterman’s Narrowleaf Ironweed. It is a reliable drought-tolerant wildflower that requires little to no extra irrigation.  In fact, too much water makes it floppy and unhappy. Plants like that are rare and should be utilized more, in my opinion.

In late August, it is covered with exploding deep purple flowers atop the sturdy upright stems. The narrow leaves whorled around the stem remind me of narrowleaf bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii) , except these are even more narrow. These leaves, combined with the attractive frilly flowers, give it a soft, pleasing texture.

Ironweed gets its name for its tough stem. Iron Butterfly Ironweed is the diminutive cousin of the pasture ironweed. Typical prairie ironweed is coarse and tall, but Letterman’s Narrowleaf ironweed is more refined. The parent species Vernonia lettermanii is quite rare and can be found in Arkansas and Oklahoma.

Iron Butterflies in bloom

In late summer, the flowers are just what butterflies and other pollinators need as they migrate or prepare for winter. All sorts of butterflies, skippers, moths, and bees will swarm the blooms. In the Arboretum, we plant them in sunny gardens with medium to dry soil. They can take some shade, but have a tendency to flop.

Aromatic aster (Aster oblongifolius)

Aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ in full bloom

This diverse wildflower grows throughout the state, and is more drought-tolerant than other aster species. Its name alludes to its fragrant purple/pink flowers and foliage that exudes a pungent aroma.  This species typically grows about two feet tall, but shorter varieties exist.  Garden worthy varieties include ‘Dream of Beauty’ (short (one foot tall) with pink blooms), ‘October Skies’ (2’ x 2’ with light blue flowers)  and ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ (3’ x 2’ with light blue flowers).

If you missed FloraKansas this weekend, never fear! We will be keeping the plants on display this week (open weekdays 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.) and I will also be setting up a booth on Sunday, May 6th, at Lakewood Park in Salina for the Discover Salina Naturally event. Come see me there!

 

Spring-Blooming Prairie and Woodland Plants

Spring-blooming prairie and woodland plants are among the first to take advantage of warmer soils and days with increasing sunshine. Even though it has been a cold and slowly developing spring, the green shoots of spring bloomers are emerging and starting to produce colorful flowers that feed early pollinators and brighten sunny to partially-shaded landscapes.

The following 16 species are some of my favorite spring prairie and open woodland plants that also serve as landscaping gems, flowering in April and May:

a. Baptisia australis var. major blue false indigo full sun
b. Callirhoe involucrata purple poppy mallow full sun
c. Clematis fremontii Fremont’s clematis full sun
d. Geum triflorum prairie smoke full sun
e. Koeleria cristata Junegrass full sun
f. Oenothera macrocarpa Missouri evening primrose full sun
g. Penstemon cobaea penstemon cobaea full sun
h. Penstemon digitalis foxglove beardtongue full sun
i. Pullsatilla patens pasque flower full sun
j. Tradescantia tharpii spiderwort full sun
k. Verbena canadensis rose verbena full sun
l. Amsonia tabernaemontana blue star part shade
m. Aquilegia canadensis columbine part shade
n. Heuchera richardsonii coral bells part shade
o. Senecio plattensis golden ragwort part shade
p. Zizia aurea golden alexander part shade

 

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There are so many benefits to be found in landscaping with native plants. They will greatly enhance the biological diversity and ecology of your yard by providing food for insect larvae and flower nectar for pollinators. Small mammals and birds feast on the abundance of available seeds. Predatory insects, birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles will find food in the abundance of available insects. Even the smallest of native gardens can be a mini wildlife sanctuary.

 

Black swallowtail butterfly (male). Golden alexander is a host plant for the black swallowtail caterpillar.

Native plant gardens connect us to our natural and cultural history and give us a sense of place. Even if you don’t use your home landscape today as your grocery store, home improvement store, and pharmacy, Plains Indians and European settlers certainly did not too long ago. The plants and animals of the prairie were critically important to human survival.

The deep roots and unique traits of native plants make them very adaptable to our Kansas climate and provide sensible and sustainable landscaping. Once established, these plants need little to no supplemental water and require no fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides if properly matched to the site.

Even if you are only interested in colorful garden eye candy, this list of spring flowering native plants will provide a beautiful array of flowers to brighten your spring landscape. You can find these plants at our FloraKansas Plant Festival!

 

Photo Credits

 

What is the Key to Native Plant Happiness?

One of the questions we get every year at the FloraKansas Native Plant Festival, is “why didn’t my ___ come back this year?” It is a great question. Every year at the Arboretum, we ask the same question with some of the plants we establish and want to grow. I wish there was a right answer for every situation and every scenario, but every landscape is unique. Here’s the hard truth that many gardeners don’t often want to hear: the key to native plant happiness lies in identifying this uniqueness and finding the right plants for your plot.

Coneflowers blooming in the lush prairie garden

Match Plants to Your Site

Your landscape is a micro-climate all its own. The soil, sun exposure, orientation to your house, root competition from trees, and many other factors make your garden special. Even your neighbor overwatering their lawn can impact what plants grow best in your scene.  There are hundreds of factors that relate to the happiness of your plants and whether or not they will thrive.

The most critical step when establishing your native plant garden is matching the plants with your site. Sometimes I want to try a certain plant in a certain spot that has no business being planted there. I have done it too many times to mention and the result is always the same. I am left holding the hand of a struggling plant that would be much happier someplace else. In the end, I either move it or lose it.

Summer blooms of Kansas gayfeather and gray-headed coneflower

Do Your Homework

If we are honest, I think we have all planted before preparing. The wilting plant in the flower bed is a constant reminder to me that I didn’t do my homework.  Look at your landscape.  Is it sunny or in the shade?  Is the soil clay or sand?

Become familiar with prairie plants that grow in similar situations and evaluate the elements that will impact their survival. Choose plants that will thrive in the micro-climate of your yard.  Sun-loving native plants need at least 6 hours of direct sunlight to grow happily. If your flower bed receives less than 6 hours of sun, look at more shade-loving natives.

A thriving landscape begins with matching plants to your one-of-a-kind area. For a lower-maintenance garden, choose plants that occur in the same or similar prairie climates.  Anytime you stray too far off, the plants don’t flourish and they require more effort to keep alive.  Planting a swamp milkweed on a dry hill or a Missouri evening primrose in a bog will never work.

Butterfly milkweed on a well-drained slope

Learn From Your Mistakes

Good gardeners have lost their share of plants over the years, but what makes them good gardeners is that they learn from their mistakes. With lots of trial and error under their belts, they/we should make better choices…in theory at least.

Other design elements such as succession of bloom, patterns, year round interest, heights, and visual elements become less important when your plant is unhappy in its current location. You must get the right plants in the right place and the other elements will come much easier. A healthy garden begins with a connection to your landscape personally. As you watch and learn  what your landscape needs and what it can sustain, you will be able to link the appropriate plants to the location. This important step in the design process allows you to spend more time enjoying and less time “working” in your garden.  We all want that from our gardens.

Just one more thing…

Sometimes plants, through no fault of our own, defy all of the above-mentioned rules and simply don’t return. Even in the prairie, plants are ephemeral and rely on self-seeding to continue to grow in an area.  As you become more familiar with native plants (and I’m still learning too), you will be able to identify these species.  It is their nature to be short lived. True native coneflowers have this characteristic.  They are worth planting, but may need to be supplemented with new plants from time to time to keep the area full.

Pale coneflower

Using Natives in Floral Design

Even on cool days, our greenhouse is warm and humid and full of blooming plants! Unfortunately, they are blossoming much too soon to be enjoyed by our FloraKansas shoppers. I have been fastidiously clipping those flowers off in hopes it will boost leaf growth. With all these cut flowers at my disposal, I have been making floral arrangements for all my friends and family. You don’t have to be an artist or a professional florist to make gorgeous, natural looking arrangements with natives. You just have to know what plants to use and a few basic design principles.

Every grandma loves to get some unexpected flowers!

Design Basics

On my first cutting of early greenhouse flowers I found some ‘Violet and White’ columbine, ‘Lynnhaven Carpet’ daisy fleabane and ‘Gold and Bronze’ coreopsis. I combined those flowers into a small, columnar arrangement and gave it to my grandma as a surprise. To create fast, no-fuss arrangements on the fly I follow a few simple design principles.

1. Tall elements go in the middle and back, short elements belong in front and sides
2. Use shades/variations of the same color and colors opposite each other on the color wheel
3. Use foliage or thicker blooms at the base of the arrangement as filler to hold things in place

This leaves lots to learn, but if you start with these rules you are sure to get fast, eye-catching results. Serendipitously, this fist cutting was the perfect combination of colors — dark purple columbine, light lilac columbine and daisy fleabane, along with yellow coreopsis, provided that pop of interest that only complementary colors can do so well.

Using Natives with Style

I have had the opportunity to do floral design for many of my close friends’ weddings. Some of them specifically requested the use of native plants, others wanted a touch of native, but mostly traditional choices. I am always amazed at how many beautiful stems, blooms and greenery I can find locally. I pluck these from my yard and the landscapes of friends and family as well as roadsides and pastures (always being careful not to trespass or over-harvest, depleting the future seed bank). By using what is on hand, I am avoiding the costly fresh-cut flower industry and the huge carbon footprint that goes into it. Here are a few examples, in order from ‘least native’ to ‘most native’ material used in the composition.

A friend of mine requested only green and white in her bridal bouquet, and wanted something very small and unassuming. I choose store-bought hydrangea blooms and baby’s breath, with varying shades/shapes of greens to keep it interesting – grey, stiff eucalyptus leaves, bright green huckleberry and fresh cut white pine tips, the only locally sourced element seen here. The huge round hydrangea was the centerpiece of the bouquet, so I used tall elements to create a fan effect.

This is a bridal bouquet I did for a church wedding. The bride specifically requested something rounded and traditional, but also incorporating her wedding colors (peach and navy blue). I purchased roses, eucalyptus leaves and baby’s breath (which I used floral spray paint to turn blue). In the road side I found dainty yellow blooms of native Coreopsis tinctoria, a perfect complementary splash against blues and greens. I also added some asparagus greenery from an old patch in my parent’s yard – airy and light, it adds nice movement and more green tones without bulking up the bouquet.

In Kansas, summer and fall are great times to get married if you want to incorporate native elements. This particular bride and groom requested wheat heads and lavender as must-haves, along with lots of yellow wildflowers. I bought light pink roses and baby’s breath, but everything else I found in the gardens of their family and friends, making the flowers just that much more meaningful. The Echinacea purpurea, Rudbeckia fulgida and Achillea ‘Sunny Seduction’ were from the grandparents of the groom, as well as the massive white hydrangeas I used at the base for filler.

Beyond the Bouquet

Photo by Rachel Rudeen

I created an alter decoration for that wedding, using fresh Russian sage (Perovskia) from the mother-of-the-bride’s garden and leftover baby’s breath. It smelled amazing and kept its shape even in the drying sun.

Boutineers are a tedious task, but oh so cute! I created an easily reproducible teardrop shape boutineer for the groom, with wheat as a vertical element. To match the bride’s bouquet, I included tiny cuttings of yarrow, lavender and baby’s breath. Knowing that boutineers will need to keep their vigor without water for many hours, flower choice is key – native wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium) is a white, stiff pearl shaped flower that mimicked the look and shape of the bride’s hydrangeas perfectly, which would have quickly wilted if used in a boutineer.

Winter Wonders

Don’t think the flower power has to end when the growing season does – with strong stems and seed-holding blooms, native plants are excellent specimens for dried arrangements.

Grasses such as Pancium provide airy but firm filler to work around, and the black, bulbous seed pods of Baptisia australis add interest. This arrangement is complementing the artwork of Leah Gaddert, available for purchase at the Arboretum Visitor Center.

The round seed heads of Eryngium yuccifolium and Echinacea species contrast well with the upright nature of Liatris pycnostachya. Chasmanthium grass (far left in vase), also known as fish-on-a-string, provides a whimsical note.

The best way to always have gorgeous arrangements is to have a great garden to cut them from. By planting native you can feed wildlife and pollinators, as well as your eye for design. Using natives and adaptables in your floral designs is cost effective, has a low-carbon impact and offers new options in every season. Come to the FloraKansas Native Plant Festival and pick up some native plants to get started on your own floral art!