Short and Sweet: Short Plants for the Prairie Garden

Prairie gardens can sometimes be seen as messy. I have heard it many times while discussing garden plans with Arboretum members. They don’t want it to look too wild. This is a very natural tendency; humans like order, we like patterns, we don’t like chaos. But it is evident by the decline of bird, amphibian, and pollinator species that our desire for the tamed, picture-perfect lawn is ecologically unreasonable.

“What is good in terms of ecological function is often disorderly, and what is neat and tidy is often not sustainable.”

Planting in a Post Wild World, 2015

Joan Nassauer of the University of Michigan does some excellent writing, thinking and teaching on the idea that humans will respond better to ecologically friendly landscapes if they look intentional, framed, and well managed. I think the first and easiest way to achieve this for beginner prairie gardeners is to carefully manage plant height. Choosing short plants preserves sight lines, scales down the planting, and helps the viewers of your landscape more feel comfortable, less hemmed in by foliage. Here are some of our favorites!

Petite Garden Performers

Hymenoxys scaposa (prairie sunshine)

Perky Sue (Hymenoxys scaposa) has semi-succulent foliage and cheerful flowers that bloom all season long.

Hymenoxys has become a new favorite landscape plant for me. Perfect near sidewalks and in tight spots. It is a tiny little powerhouse of bloom if you keep it in full sun. Beware of planting it in a wet spot; soggy soil shortens its lifespan.

Scuttelaria resinosa (skullcap)

Scutellaria resinosa (skull cap) a wonderfully petite mint-family plant native to North Central Kansas. Photo By C. Freeman

This plant makes a short, rounded clump of purple-blue flowers. It thrives in dry, poor soil and isn’t as aggressive as other mint family plants. As a bonus, it also has some interesting medicinal benefits.

Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’

Most Amsonia spp. can get quite large, but the ‘Blue Ice’ variety delivers nice foliage and blue spring bloom in a tighter package.

Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’ offers all the great qualities of Amsonia – colorful fall foliage, blue spring blooms – but stays under 18 inches. Wonderful as a filler plant for any gaps in the garden.

Oenothera macrocarpa (Missouri evening primrose)

Oenothera macrocarpa (Missouri evening primrose) – photo by Michael John Haddock

Missouri evening primrose is an underused landscape plant. Less than a foot tall, this spring stunner is great around sidewalks or trailing ever-so-slightly off rock edging. The blooms are large and eye catching early in the season.

Sporobolus heterolepis (prairie dropseed)

Pugster Blue butterfly bush and prairie dropseed mix well in the landscape and both stay under three feet tall. Photo courtesy of Walters Gardens, Inc.

Last but not least, prairie dropseed is a short prairie grass that can be used to blend different colors and species together. Because grass acts as a unifying element it helps to lead the eye from one area to another.

All these plants will be available at our spring FloraKansas Native Plant Festival. Staff members will be there to help you choose the best plants for your space. We can make recommendations for a beautiful, ecologically friendly landscape.

Plant Profile: Possumhaw Holly, Deciduous Holly

If you have been walking through the Arboretum over the past few weeks, you probably noticed the deciduous holly.  Ilex decidua gets so much attention because of its incredibly lustrous fruit of red, orange, and yellow.  As the leaves fall away each year in November and December, the fruit magically appears and remains on the tree for most of the winter. 

‘Sundance’ Deciduous Holly

Fruit

These colorful berries are not a preferred food of birds, but become more appetizing when snow covers the ground.  Often trees are completely stripped of berries in a couple days after a heavy snow, because other food sources are not readily available.  Many birds, including cedar waxwings, flock to these trees to feed on the fruit later in winter.

Deciduous holly requires male and female plants to produce fruit.  Tiny white flowers appear before the leaves in March and April.  We have several male selections planted in close proximity to the female plants to assure the development of the attractive fruit each year.  It is best to keep the fruit producing female plants in the foreground and tuck the male forms out of sight.  We have used the branches with fruit cluster as holiday decorations.

Evergreen wreath
Holly berries as part of an evergreen wreath

Habit and Site Preferences

Deciduous holly, or Possumhaw as it is often called, is a small tree or large shrub that grows 15-20 feet tall. The smooth gray bark of the trunk and branches hold the fruit on the upper half of the plant.  Here in the Arboretum, we have both tree forms and suckering shrubs. Either is attractive and the suckering shrubs making a nice screen. As their name indicates, they are deciduous, dropping the leaves in autumn to fully reveal the berries.      

These deciduous trees grow best in full sun or partial shade.  Trees are more vigorous and produce more berries in full sun.  We have several along our creek channel and some around our parking lot.  They are quite adaptable to wet or drier conditions.

A few selections at the Arboretum:

‘Council Fire’ – An upright, rounded form growing 15′ tall and 10′ wide, this plant is superior for its ample fruit production and retention in clusters along the stems.

‘Council Fire’

Red Escort’ – This is a male selection (pollinator) with glossy leaves and a habit to 20′ tall.

‘Warren’s Red’ – This cultivar grows on the eastern border of the Arboretum parking lot.  It is very hardy and consistently produces fruit.  It is more shrub-like and upright, ultimately reaching 15’ tall. 

‘Warren’s Red’

‘Sundance’ – Nice tree form to 10’ tall and 8’ wide.  It has the longest lasting fruit, which is orange-red.

‘Sundance’

We are planning to have several deciduous holly varieties at our spring FloraKansas Native Plant Festival. Check out our Native Plant Guide for these cultivars along with Ilex verticillata varieties. Each will give you great winter color and habitat for the landscape. We love their hardiness and toughness as well as the beautiful fruit. Why not give them a try?