Wetland Wildflowers

With the recent rainfall, I have been reminded that native plants are a wonderful and underused means to create a natural setting around a water feature or low area in your landscape. Most prairie wildflowers and grasses don’t do well in soggy soil and excessive moisture results in rot and other deadly diseases. However, there are a handful of plants that grow in wet areas within a prairie or along pond margins. These wetland wildflowers appreciate wet feet and some even thrive in standing water. Rather than radically altering the drainage of a soggy, poorly drained site within your garden, try some of these plants that grow well in such conditions. 

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

As the name implies, swamp milkweed prefers wet locations in full sun to partial shade. Here at the Arboretum we have it growing next to the pond and stream. In the wild, it is found in prairie seeps and potholes, at the edges of marshes, and in wet ditches. Swamp milkweed grows 3 to 4 feet tall and blooms from July, August and early September. The vanilla-scented flowers are typically pale pink to rose-purple and are a favorite for migrating monarchs. 

Swamp Milkweed in bloom

Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum)

This tall, native perennial is found in moist meadows and marshes. The attractive leaves and purple spotted stems fill out this 6 foot tall wildflower. The rosy-pink bloorms in mid to late summer are a favorite of many pollinators. Joe Pye weed performs best in moist to wet soils in full sun. Smaller forms like ‘Baby Joe’ and ‘Little Joe’ are nice alternatives if you don’t have much space. 

Eutrochium maculatum ‘Gateway’

Blazing Star- (Liatris sp.)

You don’t typically think of blazing star as a wetland wildflower, since most species prefer dry sites. However, there are several species of Liatris that can handle wetter conditions. Kansas gayfeather (Liatris pycnostachya) and dense blazing star (Liatris spicata) are typically found in moist prairies and meadows. These blazing stars grow 3 to 4 feet tall with narrow, lance-like leaves and blooms in mid- to late summer.  The pinkish purple flowers grow on 12- to 18-inch-long, upright spikes.  Flowering begins at the top of the spike and moves down the stem.   

Liatris pycnostachya and gray headed coneflower on the pond edge

Other wetland wildflowers

  • Acorus calamus – Sweet Flag
  • Actinomeris alternifolia – Wingstem
  • Aster novae-angliae – New England Aster
  • Eupatorium perfoliatum – Common Boneset
  • Filipendula species – Meadow Sweet
  • Galium odoratum – Sweet Woodruff
  • Helenium autumnale-Helen’s Flower
  • Helianthus angustifolius – Swamp Sunflower
  • Hibiscus species – Rose Mallow
  • Iris virginica – Southern Blue Flag
  • Lobelia cardinalis – Cardinal Flower
  • Lobelia siphilitica – Blue Cardinal Flower
  • Mertensia virginica – Virginia Bluebell
  • Monarda species – Bee Balm
  • Physostegia virginiana – Obedient Plant
  • Pycnanthemum tenuifolium – Narrow Leaved Mountain Mint
  • Ratibida pinnata – Gray headed Coneflower
  • Senna hebecarpa – Wild Senna
  • Thalictrum dasycarpum – Purple Meadow Rue
  • Tradescantia sp. – Spiderwort
  • Verbena hastata – Blue Vervain
  • Veronicastrum virginicum – Culvers Root
  • Vernonia noveboracensis – Ironweed

Native grasses are quite adaptable, but several grasses and sedges can grow well in moist to wet soils. Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), switch grass (Panicum virgatum), prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata) can be found in roadside ditches, prairie bogs, and along pond edges. There are many native sedges such as gray’s sedge (Carex grayi) that perform well in moist soils in partial to full sun as well. 

If there’s a drainage problem in your yard, you may be inclined to install a dry creek bed or a French drain. But don’t be too quick to go to all that work. An alternative route is to simply use plants that prefer to live in wet areas. Match plants that are native and naturalize in wet conditions. Wetland wildflowers have adaptations to grow in wet soil, so they are effective landscaping solutions for areas with drainage issues.

Colorado Cousins of our Kansas Native Plants

Hikers passing through high elevation mountain meadows often catch glimpses of a number of familiar flowers. In fact, many of the mountain meadow natives are closely related to our Kansas native plants.

With nearly daily rain showers, the subalpine grassland meadows of the southern Rocky Mountains are bursting with wildflowers this summer. Rocky Mountain subalpine wildflowers are adapted to high elevations with cooler, shorter summers, longer, colder winters, and intense sunlight. Small, silvery, sun-reflecting, hairy leaves, ground-hugging growth habits, and clumps of showy pollinator-attracting flowers help these Colorado species survive. With a short growing season, flowers are produced and set seed in what seems like record time.

Kansas natives often share similar adaptive features—silvery, fine, hairy, leaves, and similar pollinator-attracting showy flowers –enabling them to survive Kansas’ long, hot summers and cold, dry winters. Although time and physical barriers have separated most Colorado and Kansas native plants into unique species, a few remain as a single species. Let’s take a look at a few of these Colorado cousins.

Raspberries blooming on Raspberry Mountain in early July in the shadow of Pike’s Peak. Photo by Janelle Flory Schrock.

Columbine (Aquilegia spp)

Kansas’ wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) blooms during the cooler, moister spring months of the year, and seed is immediately dispersed. Blue columbine (Aquilegia coerulea) – Colorado’s state flower – blooms in July, taking advantage of the sunshine and warmer days of summer in the high mountains.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) doesn’t change species between Kansas and Colorado, but the blooming time does! While yarrow blooms in late spring in our Kansas prairies, in subalpine mountain meadows, it blooms in July, taking advantage of the sunshine and pollinators of mid-summer. There is little chance that, should they be grown together, cross-pollination could occur between these quite different ecotypes.

Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum)

Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum) is another wildflower species that remains the same from Kansas to Colorado. Again, the time of flowering differs. Kansas individuals bloom in spring, and Colorado individuals bloom during similar temperature conditions that occur at the height of the high altitude summer.

Alpine Parsley (Pseudocymopterus spp.)

Members of the carrot and parsley family are commonly found in both Kansas and Colorado. Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) grace our gardens in spring, while high mountain meadows are filled with the yellow umbels of mountain parsleys in July.

Primrose (Oenothera spp)

The white, night-blooming showy evening primroses (Oenothera speciosa) typically appear in May and June in Kansas. Come July, their diminutive Colorado cousins, (Oenothera spp) make their appearance in rocky niches and along trails.

Locoweed (Oxytropis spp.)

Locoweed (Oxytropis spp.) fills Colorado mountain meadows with patches of bright pinks, blues and lavenders. Like the wild indigoes (Baptisia spp) that brighten Kansas prairies and pastures, locoweed is a nitrogen-fixing legume. Both are also toxic to cattle, sheep and horses.

Ragwort (Packera spp.)

Ragworts (Packera spp.) are delightful yellow flowers of shade and sun. Colorado’s ragworts are commonly found along a trail’s edge in July. Kansas’ golden ragwort (Packera plattensis) is one of the first wildflowers to brighten winter-weary landscapes in April.

Penstemon (Penstemon spp)

Penstemons (Penstemon spp) are abundant in the Rocky Mountain subalpine meadows in July. Generally short in height and with smaller flowers, they nonetheless add deep, rich lavenders, blues and purples to rocky niches and trailsides. Their taller Kansas cousins precede them, blooming in late spring.

Jacob’s Ladder (Polemonium spp.)

Hike through a subalpine, shaded, moist forest, and suddenly you may encounter a faint scent of skunk, indicating that you have stepped on Jacob’s ladder, a lovely blue-flowered species that hugs the ground with ladder-like leaves. In Kansas, Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans) is a woodland spring ephemera with striking blue, bell-shaped flowers, and yes, the scent of skunk!

Shrubby cinquefoil (Dasiphora (Potentilla) fruticosa)

Shrubby cinquefoil (Dasiphora (Potentilla) fruticosa) is commonly found in high mountain meadows in July. It is just one of a number of cinquefoils that commonly grow at high elevations. Bright yellow flowers attract numerous pollinators. In Kansas, prairie cinquefoil (Dasiphora (Potentilla) arguta), also a shrub, blooms in scattered clumps throughout the summer.

Goldenrod (Solidago spp.)

Our Kansas goldenrods tend to be taller, filling the late summer prairies and pastures with swaths of yellow. They are the harbingers of autumn, blooming in late August and September. Subalpine goldenrods can’t wait that long. The diminutive Rocky Mountain goldenrod begins to flower in mid-July in the high montane meadows, adding their golden color to the seasonal procession of color.

These are just a few of the many familial relationships that exist between Kansas and Rocky Mountain native plants. Next time you travel west, take a moment to find a familiar “face” in the wildflowers at your feet!

Wildflowers for Low Maintenance Areas

When you mention wildflowers, people tend to visualize broad swaths of colorful flowers growing in meadows. This effect is often very difficult to achieve because of problems with soil preparation, plant establishment, weed control, and long term maintenance. Finding a solution to these problems usually requires more time and effort than most people want to invest.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

Many wildflowers can be naturalized in low maintenance and unmown areas where they can reseed themselves or spread via roots. Black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta) is a good candidate for naturalizing. Common in Kansas, the bright yellow ray florets with the characteristic brown, domed centers are a familiar site in June and July. Black-eyed susan is a vigorous biennial to short lived perennial that self-seeds readily. It will thrive in low a maintenance area with little care. 

Black-eyed Susan

Clasping coneflower (Dracopis amplexicauslis)

This annual grows 18-24 inches tall and produces masses of large yellow flowers from late May well into July.  The flowers are similar in appearance to black-eyed susans, but the ray flowers tend to droop downward. Also, they often have a dark red-brown band near the base of each individual ray floret. Clasping coneflower, a copious seed producer, thrives in clay soils and will often form dense colonies in moist soils. In late May and June, it is very showy in low fields and ditches in the Flint Hills of southeast Kansas.

Showy evening primrose (Oenothera speciosa)

This somewhat sprawling to upright perennial is common along roadsides in central Kansas. While white is the most common color, pink flowered forms can be found in this area as well. It generally blooms heavily from mid-April into June and then produces sporadic blossoms throughout the summer and fall. It seeds readily but usually takes two years to produce blooms. Here at the Arboretum, we have both the pink and white forms that produce a solid mass of flowers for over six weeks in the spring.

Showy Evening Primrose Photo by Emily Weaver

Mexican hat (Ratibida columnifera ‘Red’) and yellow columnar coneflower (Ratibida columnifera)

Typically, these upright clump forming perennials have abundant red tinged or bright yellow daisies with drooping ray petals around a prominent central cone – resembling a sombrero. The flowers are pollinator magnets, providing weeks of color and insect food. These wildflowers perform best in full sun and medium to dry moisture.  The attractive seed heads add late season interest and birds seek out the seeds in the fall and winter. 

Columnar coneflower photo by Emily Weaver

Other wildflowers

  • Bee balm, Monarda fistulosa
  • Leavenworth eryngo, Eryngium leavenworthii
  • Willowleaf Sunflower, Helianthus salicifolius
  • Maximillian Sunflower, Helianthus maximilianii
  • Common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca
  • Showy goldenrod, Solidago speciosa
  • Canadian goldenrod, Solidago canadensis
  • Grayhead coneflower, Ratibida pinnata
  • New England Aster, Aster novae-angliae
  • Hoary vervain, Verbena stricta
  • Blue vervain, Verbena hastata

All of these species are true wildflowers. They are aggressive, thrive with neglect and will continue to reseed and spread for many years. We recommend planting them from seed in late fall or early winter. Other desirable wildflowers can be added to these natural areas but do not try to plant these in your perennial border among your garden variety perennials and annuals. They will soon take over. They are best left to brighten the wilder areas of your yard and garden. Enjoy them from a distance.

The Edible Landscape

I am a big fan of a landscape that is functional as well as beautiful. Functionality might mean wildlife and pollinator attraction, water absorbing (rain garden) or water conserving (xeriscaping). But it can also mean incorporating human food plants into your perennial garden. This not only provides a healthy snack, but it encourages more interaction and participation. What is the point of a beautiful landscape if you aren’t out enjoying it?

Here is a small preview of some of the plants I will discuss in the upcoming Native Plant School class all about landscaping with edible plants. If this topic fires you up, stop by our gift shop to grab a copy of Kelly Kindscher’s Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie, a wonderful plant guide and exploration of ethnobotany on the Great Plains.

Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)

A personal favorite of mine, Elderberry is as beautiful as it is nutritious. This plant will love a low spot in the yard where water tends to collect after rains, or an area with poor drainage. It can reach 8ft tall, putting on an impressive show in late spring when covered with massive white flower clusters. Berries ripen in July, a perfect time to spend the hot afternoons in the kitchen making jams and syrups. I make a cold remedy from them that has never let me down!

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)

Persimmon (left) and PawPaw (right) both produce delicious fruit.

Everything about pawpaw seems tropical. Surely this fruit cannot be native to hot, dry Kansas…yet it is! It is an easy growing plant that can grow in full sun or partial shade and tolerates alkaline soil. To get a good fruit set you should plant more than one; though they have both male and female flowers on a single tree they are not self-fertile. The fruit is worth it! A custard-like texture with the flavor of bananas and mangos, it is perfect for pies and homemade ice cream.

Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa)

Monarda fistulosa flower, photographed by Brad Guhr

If you are short on garden space and can’t add a shrub or tree, never fear. Monarda fistulosa is a wonderful edible perennial much smaller in stature than the previous options. About 3ft by 3ft when happy and mature, the leaves of this plant make excellent tea, with a flavor reminiscent of the bergamot oil used in Earl Grey. It has a long history of medicinal use by indigenous North Americans, for everything from upper respiratory problems to sore feet. The flowers are also edible and add a citrusy, spicy punch to salads.

From persimmon to chokeberry, we have so many native plants to choose from to diversify our diets and add beauty to our home landscapes. Thanks to thousands of years of culinary experimentation by the tribes and nations of North America we have a rich ethnobotanical tradition to learn from, an example of how to learn about, appreciate and interact with food and flora.

Our upcoming class will cover some easy-to-grow native plants that have edible leaves or fruits, along with some landscaping ideas for how to incorporate them into a garden setting. Stay tuned to our website for the registration link!