Totally Tubular

Tube flowers occupy a special niche in the ecosystem. They cater to pollinators with especially long tongues, saving their nectar for the lucky few who can reach it. There are lots of tubular blooms at the Arboretum right now, so I thought we ought to take a tube tour and examine a few of my favorites up close.

Penstemon

With so many species to choose from, there is a Penstemon that’s right for everyone’s garden. Penstemon grandiflorus is a drought-loving species, shorter and with waxier leaves than its common, white-bloomed cousin Penstemon digitalis. Penstemon cobaea is the diva of the bunch: much showier and larger flowered, with flouncy pink bloom spikes that are more prone to falling over after heavy winds or rain (the floral equivalent of fainting onto a nearby chaise). But for all its drama, it is worth it for those huge, almost foxglove-esque flowers! All of them are a boon to hummingbirds in early summer.

Penstemon grandiflorus, pink tube shapes flowers on a reddish stem, airy and delicate looking.
Penstemon grandiflorus can range from white to light pink or lilac. It likes dry conditions and lean soil.

Honeysuckle

There is good honeysuckle and bad honeysuckle, and you should learn the difference! Invasive honeysuckle can come in two forms: bush or vine. Amur honeysuckle (Lonicera mackii) is the bush that has taken over woodlands and displaced many of our native species. It spreads by birds ingesting the berries then *depositing* them into new areas. Forests full of this stuff have decreased value for wildlife, and become an impenetrable monoculture and a maintenance nightmare. A look-a-like species, Lonicera japonica, is a vine with a similar flower. This too is invasive in our area, and can be found climbing trees and toppling fences. If you have these species on your property, please eradicate them and replace with a native honeysuckle like Lonicera reticulata — all the beauty of clustered, yellow tube blooms, but without the nasty invasive qualities. Or Lonicera sempervirens, a red flowering vine that grows vigorously and attracts hummingbirds. Both are drought hardy too!

Amur honeysuckle (Lonicera mackii) is a threat to our native ecosystems.
Lonicera reticulata blooms in May, and attracts many pollinators!

Amsonia (Common name: Blue star)


These small, star shaped flowers all cluster together to create a showy head of light blue in spring. But behind each star is a tiny tube! I’ve seen hawk moths, also known as hummingbird moths, flitting around these things for weeks now enjoying their nectar. Amsonia is easy to grow and likes full to part sun. Amsonia hubrichtii is thin leafed, almost needle-like in appearance while Amsonia illustris has a broader, glossier leaf. Both are hardy and can stand up to wind and drought, with excellent fall color.

Amsonia hubrichtii in fall color. Photo courtesy Walters Gardens.

Monarda

Monarda fistulosa flower, photographed by Brad Guhr

Also known as bee balm, this plant has a unique, pom-pom style bloom made up of individual flower tubes. In Kansas you will most likely find Monarda fistulosa growing wild, in ditches or near streams and ponds. Monard bradburiana is a shorter, slightly better behaved cousin. Both like full sun and medium soil moisture. Monarda didyma is a common eastern US species, and does well here if given a bit of extra water. I’ve seen lots of bees, butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds on this one so it gets an A+ rating for pollinator attraction.

A red variety of Monarda didyma shown with solidago (left) and a light purple Monarda fistulosa (right)

Tube-shaped blooms can be found everywhere if you start looking. They have a completely different structure than the classic radial flowers (roses, petunias) or composite flowers we are used to seeing (think sunflowers, echinacea, asters). The diversity of pollinators is as great as the diversity of flowers they feed on thanks to coevolution for thousands of years! Consider adding some tubular flowers to your garden, and enjoy their wacky, wonderful shape.

Echinacea Hybrids

I read an interesting article about Echinacea (coneflowers) the other day. It highlighted the highs and lows of the newfangled coneflower cultivars over the last decade or so. You know – the ones in oranges, reds, yellows and every shade in between. It seems that many coneflower breeders are doing some soul searching and they are coming full circle, back to producing hardier varieties of our wonderful native prairie wildflowers. 

Yellow coneflowers with Rudbeckia maxima and prairie dropseed

The Problems   

One of the biggest criticisms of these bright colored coneflower hybrids has always been their (lack of) persistence in the landscape. If you were lucky, you could get one or two years out of them before they disappeared.  Maybe one survived, but often you couldn’t find that variety anymore, because it had been replaced with another new form.  You would have to go back and start over again with another new coneflower. 

These coneflowers had other problems too. Winter kill, color fading and short bloom times soured gardeners toward coneflowers. They were not as reliable or persistent as their parents from the prairie. 

‘Julia’ is a hybrid coneflower sporting vibrant orange flowers on strong stems. Photo courtesy of Walter’s Gardens.

Problem solving

I can still remember offering those first forms such as Orange Meadowbrite and Razzmatazz. These diverged from the adapted forms of Magnus, Ruby Star, White Swan and Kim’s Knee High in dramatic fashion. We no longer only had pink and white coneflowers, but a warm rainbow of colors available on the market. Everyone wanted to try some in their yards. 

The problems quickly became evident and the novelty wore off. The coneflower fad stalled. Breeders began to look at coneflowers from a “whole plant” approach. A “good” coneflower was no longer identified by its unique color, but by the extended bloom times, heavy flower count, longer life span, and vibrant colors that don’t fade. Winter survival and multiple growing points were a focus as well. 

Most of these colorful coneflowers are produced through tissue culture production. However, some seed forms with reliable color, such as Cheyenne Spirit and the Pow Wow series have become a cost effective alternative to tissue culture forms of coneflowers. These seeded forms are consistent, vibrant, and affordable.

Going Forward

The trend for new coneflowers forms and colors shows no sign of slowing.  Innovation drives sales and new styles are always on the horizon.  One of my recommendations is to always start with the true natives first.  Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), narrowleaf coneflower (E. angustifolia), yellow purple coneflower (E. paradoxa) and purple coneflower (E.purpruea) are adapted to our climate.  They are always a good bet in the landscape.  Remember, the pollinators prefer these forms too. 

American lady butterfly on Echinacea angustifolia at Chase State Fishing Lake, near Cottonwood Falls, KS (Photo Credit: Brad Guhr)
Our native Echinacea pallida always has thin, reflexed petals and a pale purple hue.

We have been tinkering with coneflowers for a long time and that will continue. The simple prairie coneflowers that we have moved into our landscapes often don’t look the same. I believe these changes come with a price. Sure you get uncommon colors, but it is obviously not the same prairie plant. Do pollinators recognize them? 

If you want to try some of these new colors, choose wisely after doing some research.  One of the best new coneflowers, according to the Mt. Cuba coneflower trials, is Sensation Pink.

(Photo Credit: Brad Guhr)
Echinacea blooming along pond at Dyck Arboretum (Photo Credit: Brad Guhr)

Plant Profile: False Solomon’s Seal

Originally published in the Winter 2022 issue of the newsletter of the Kansas Native Plant Society.

It started with seed collection. Throughout this past spring, summer and fall, I’ve been collecting seed for propagation of native seeds, seeds to be shared with the Dyck Arboretum, and seeds for our prairie restoration. So when I gazed out the window earlier this fall and noted the scarlet berries of False Solomon’s Seal hanging from spent stems, I collected them. I’ve never propagated this species from seed, so clearly, research needed to be done. In that process, I’ve learned more about False Solomon’s Seal, and I’ve also come to more fully appreciate it!

Maianthemum racemosum, or False Solomon Seal, drawing by Lorna Harder.

False Solomon’s Seal

Maianthemum racemosum (formerly Smilacina racemosa)– is an herbaceous perennial, native to woodlands throughout North America. The common name reflects its similarity to Solomon’s Seal, but False Solomon’s Seal is easily distinguished by the flowers and later berries that are produced at the ends of the stems. Indigenous people have variously used the spring shoots, rhizomes and leaves for medicinal and food purposes; and deer will also browse on it.

In spring, this plant’s stalks emerge from fleshy rhizomes. Stems are slightly zigzag and grow from 18 – 36 inches in length. Leaves are smooth and alternate with parallel venation. In late spring, up to 80 feathery, quarter-inch flowers are produced at the ends of the stems. The flowers are characteristic of the lily family, having six tepals (look-alike petals and sepals), with six stamens surrounding the central pistil. They are fragrant and attract a variety of pollinators including small native bees, flies and beetles. The berries that form contain a few seeds each. Initially they are green with purple spots, ripening to crimson. Birds and mice disperse the seeds after eating the berries and eliminating the the seeds elsewhere.

How to Propagate

False Solomon’s Seal prefers moist, rich, well-drained soils and full to partial shade. The fibrous roots can be divided and transplanted, but it takes several years to fully reestablish in a new location. When grown from seed, False Solomon’s Seal can be sown directly into the soil in autumn for spring germination in a year or two. When propagating indoors, seeds require several rounds of alternating warm (room temperature) and cold (35 – 40 F) moist stratification before planting in pots. Here again, germination may take up to two years. Patience should definitely be included as part of the seed propagation protocol for this species!

The False Solomon’s Seal I planted nearly 20 years ago has flourished along the western side of the house. It receives light shade most of the day, but it also gets blasted by late afternoon summer sun, demonstrating this species’ ability to also tolerate drier, more exposed conditions. Over the years, the False Solomon’s Seal bed has filled in and reliably produces panicles of creamy white flowers each spring, graceful arching foliage in summer and bright red berries in fall; and it continues to serve as an elegant companion plant for Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), prairie phlox (Phlox divaricata), wild ginger (Asarum canadense), and yellow violets (Viola pubescens). Slow starter though it is, False Solomon’s Seal is hearty, pollinator- and wildlife-friendly, easy to care for, long-lived, and attractive throughout the growing season – perfect for your native shade garden!

References

https://hort.extension.wisc.edu/articles/false-solomons-seal-maianthemum-racemosum/
https://www.mountroyalseeds.com/product/maianthemum-racemosum-false-solomons-seal/
https://plants.usda.gov/home/plantProfile
https://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=marar

Preparing to Establish a Landscape with Native Plants

It’s obvious to me that interest in landscaping with native plants continues to expand.  More and more people are reconnecting with the natural world through their native landscapes.  Besides creating habitat for wildlife, including pollinators and insects, these newly developed gardens conserve water, reduce chemical and pesticide use and beautify the landscape.  As you think about preparing to establish a landscape with native plants, here are some things to consider.

Analyze the Location

You know your garden better than anyone. You know the soil type. Does it stay wet or is it extremely dry or something in between? You know how much sun your area receives during the day and throughout the year. You know where the water flows. Are there areas that you can utilize as a background or backdrop?  Is there something you are trying to screen? Is there an area you are trying to develop? These are important questions that ultimately determine the types of plants you will choose.

Prepare the Site

Site preparation doesn’t have much to do with plant selection, but it is an important step to consider any time you are preparing to establish a landscape. You need to get perennial weeds such as bindweed and Bermuda grass eradicated before you plant your garden. If these weeds are not eliminated, they will overrun and out compete anything you plant. Trust me on this. I am still fighting these weeds in certain areas in my yard because I didn’t complete this step.

It is also good to define the area with some kind of border. Start by laying out a garden hose and moving it around until you settle on size and shape that seems appropriate for the space. I recommend starting small. Develop an area you can manage and fits your lifestyle. You can always expand, but a bed that is too large can quickly become overwhelming. Once you have defined the border, I use metal edging, brick, limestone or landscape stone as a buffer for a mower or weed eater. Edging makes your native garden look intentional.

Choose the Plants

Once you have gathered all this information about your site and all the initial work has been done, you are ready to decide which plants will grow well together. The most important step in the selection process is matching plants to the site. There are a group of plants or a plant palette that will grow in your site with little or no water once fully established. You need to become familiar with every aspect of the plants through investigation, research and experience. I often start with one or two plants I know will grow in this location. Once I have established them as the foundation, the other plant combinations come easier.

I design each landscape with the finished picture in mind. I consider heights, bloom time, habit, forms and textures. We often only think about these plants when they are in bloom. But don’t forget their other qualities, such as seed heads that provide visual interest in the winter months. It provides you an opportunity to highlight these qualities with another perennials or native grasses (e.g. coneflower seed heads against little bluestem). 

I group plants together for visual affect and stagger blooms throughout the season. Conceptually, I lay out plants in such a way that plants with different bloom times are next to one another. For instance, I would not plant two spring bloomers next to one another, but rather a spring bloomer next to a fall bloomer next to a summer bloomer. I even like to mix some grasses with certain perennials so you have the structure of the grasses propping up the perennial. Also, you want something coming into bloom and going out of bloom from spring through fall. Grasses add wonderful texture and movement to the garden during the winter months.

Maintenance

One of the misconceptions about native plants is that you just plant it and forget it. That is generally not the case. Establishing native plants in your garden or landscape usually requires putting extra work in those first few years. It takes time for those root systems to fully develop. Over time, you will begin to reap the benefits of native plants, especially if you have done your homework before you put the first plant in the ground.

Those tiny plants are most vulnerable during the first two or three weeks after planting. You must water them daily and sometimes twice a day in warm, dry seasons until you start to see some new growth. There is a fine line between over watering and under watering. Generally, you try to rehydrate the potting soil of those plants each time you water. Many maintenance practices used for traditional cultivated plants also work for native plants.

The first couple of years, I try to keep the tags around the plants so I don’t accidentally pull a small wildflower or grass. Pull all the winter and summer annual weeds when they are small and certainly don’t let them go to seed. February or March is the time to prepare your bed for spring. 

Northwind Switchgrass cut back and ready for spring

Your native landscape connects you to the land. The economical, ecological and beautiful garden you create can be enjoyed for years to come. I predict that your native landscape will be a hub of pollinator and butterfly activity. It will be an important link to other gardens in your neighborhood. It may even inspire you to establish other prairie gardens in your landscape. 

Your success may influence others to follow your example. A native plant garden should be cherished, because you are helping the natural world in so many far-reaching ways. Believe it or not, your garden will have a positive impact. So get started! Let your imagination and creativity inspire your design.

Bearer of the Ammonite by Paul Friesen. Photo Courtesy of Jen LeFevre

Photo Credit

Plant Apologies: Campsis radicans

I have accidentally been spreading some plant slander, and now it is time to apologize. Sometimes even we plant people get it very, very wrong! And so today’s post is all about Campsis radicans, aka the trumpet vine.

Illustration by Mary Vaux Walcott, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

For years I have been railing against this plant.

“Ridiculously aggressive!”

“Impossible to get rid of!”

“It’s sold at these big box stores because they don’t care about the environment!”

While those things might be true in their own way, they leave out an important fact: It is NATIVE. Yes, Campsis radicans is a native vine that is found from Maine to Florida and west to Kansas. I have said many times that is was invasive, imported from far flung lands, and is a plague upon our forests. And boy was I misinformed. Remember, the word ‘invasive’ really should be reserved for non-native plants that have reproduced in and disturbed the local ecosystem. Aggressive is a better, more accurate way to describe a plant’s behavior if it spreads readily, but is native to our area. Invasive, as a horticultural term, means something about its origins and introduction into a new place.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Many Good Traits

This plant blooms July through August, attracting a whole host of long-tongued pollinators. Blooms can be red to orange, and its slightly sweet scent is great for trellises near the patio. It grows quickly, so can create fast shade over a pergola. The foliage is attractive and lush, and serves as a host plant for several species of moth.

The showy flowers attract bees and hummingbirds. Photo by Rob Hille, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Some Not So Good Traits

My information about its origins was bad, but my warnings about its behavior were spot on. It is fast growing to a fault, and can be seen toppling fences and commandeering telephone poles. To keep this thing in control means relentless pruning. Growing right before your eyes, trumpet vine can easily climb 10 feet or more in a summer. It does not play well with others, and will send runner roots out into nearby garden areas. And don’t forget its seeds! A single pod can have 600+ seeds.

So, Campsis, I am sorry. You are a native vine with your own beautiful and ecosystem-sustaining qualities! Though I will still keep it out of my own garden, I can see it has a rightful place in a forest edge or hedgerow, and I will never call it invasive again!

March Gardening Checklist

While March can still be cold in Kansas and we can get some significant snow and ice, there are still opportunities to spend time in your garden. Here is a March gardening checklist that will prepare your garden to thrive in the coming year.

Prune trees and shrubs

This is a perfect time to be pruning trees and shrubs. Maybe there is a branch that is always in the way while you mow, or shrubs that are encroaching on a walkway. Cut them back. Keep in mind to only prune shrubs that flower on new wood. Pruning shrubs like forsythia and lilacs will remove blooms for this spring. Spring blooming shrubs can be pruned after they are done blooming in late April or May so they have time to set new buds for next year. Check out this blog by Katie, Old Wood, New Buds: A Pruning Guide.

Don’t lose your lilac blooms, prune at the perfect time! Photo by AnRo0002 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Cut back flower beds

Now through March is the time to trim back ornamental perennials and grass stalks to clear room for new growth. By cutting these plants back it you allow sunlight to reach the crowns and warm the soil. We have talked about it several times, but it is worth repeating – if you can help it don’t carry stalks away from your garden. Leave them as natural mulch. These stems and stalks harbor native pollinators that you want to keep in your landscape. If thatch is too thick, remove it to an obscure place in your yard or along the alley.

Northwind Switchgrass cut back and ready for spring

Apply compost to soil

If you haven’t already, empty out your compost bin and put it on your garden. Prepare your garden soil if it’s dry enough to work. Dig in compost and other amendments when your soil can be worked. Only do this if your soil is dry enough.

How do you know when it’s safe to work the soil? When a ball of soil crumbles easily after being squeezed together in your hand, it’s dry enough. With our clay soils, avoid compacting your garden soil. Wait until it’s dried out before tilling, planting, or even walking in the garden beds.

Loosen mulch

Mulch has a tendency to fuse together, especially with mulch more than a couple inches thick. This cake layer along the top resists moisture penetration and seals off the soil, restricting good air exchange. It is good each year to rough up the mulch with a fork or rake to break that seal. This will open up the soil to moisture and positive air movement. Tree and shrub mulch rings and shrub borders will benefit the most from this exercise. While you are at it, maybe a fresh layer of mulch is needed. I typically have 2-3 inches of mulch around these woody plants.

Arizona Cypress nicely mulched on a berm.

Continue to gather ideas

There is so much information available to gardeners these days. Choose plants that create habitat and attract wildlife to your yard. Review your garden journal from last year. Read horticulture magazines. Attend the lectures and presentations at your local garden shows such as the Harvey County Garden Show on March 25 and 26 here at the Arboretum.

Regardless of what season the calendar says, there is always something to do in the garden. Spring is coming, so now is the time to get ready. I don’t know about you, but I am ready to see some blooming plants again.

Yellow crocus in the xeric garden brighten a winter day

Purple Prairie Clover – KNPS 2023 Wildflower of the Year

I recently wrote a brief article on purple prairie clover for the newest edition of the Kansas Native Plant Society newsletter and thought it would be relevant to cross-promote on our blog.

Purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea) is the Kansas Native Plant Society 2023 Kansas
Wildflower of the Year
(WOY). Found throughout Kansas, this erect perennial from the bean family (Fabaceae) grows with multiple simple or branched stems in height of one to three feet tall. Its preferred habitat is medium to well-drained, full-sun, dry upland prairie. Extreme drought tolerance is thanks to a deep taproot. The newer genus name (replacing Petalostemon) honors 17-18 th century English botanist, Samuel Dale.

Photo by Michael Haddock

The dense thimble-like clusters of tiny flowers help purple prairie clover stand out with a
splash of color amidst emerging prairie grasses in June and early July. The ¼” purple flower
has five petals and five yellow anthers. Each less than 1/8” pod or seed capsule contains a
single yellowish-green or brown seed. Delicate leaves are alternate branching and pinnately compound with 3-5 narrow, linear leaflets.

Line drawing by Lorna Harder

This non-aggressive, nitrogen-fixing legume is a popular choice for any prairie seed mix or
sunny flowerbed. It is common to see various types of bees and other pollinators gathering
nectar from the flowers of purple prairie clover. The vegetation is larval food for southern
dogface and Reakirt’s blue butterflies.

Photo by Michael Haddock

The drawings are by Lorna Harder and the photographs are by Michael Haddock. To see
more Dalea purpurea photos by Michael Haddock and a detailed species description, visit kswildflower.org.


Past KNPS WOY Selections

2022 Dotted blazing star (Liatris punctata)
2021 Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum)
2020 Blue wild indigo (Baptisia australis var. minor)
2019 Woolly verbena (Verbena stricta)
2018 Cobaea penstemon (Penstemon cobaea)
2017 Plains coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria)
2016 Golden alexanders (Zizia aurea)
2015 Green antelopehorn (Asclepias viridis)
2014 Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium species)
2013  Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)
2012 Lead plant (Amorpha canescens)
2011 Prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera)
2010 Catclaw sensitive briar (Schrankia nuttallii)
2009 Prairie larkspur (Delphinium virescens)
2008 Fringed puccoon (Lithospermum incisum)
2007 Purple poppy mallow (Callirhoe involucrata)
2006 Blue sage (Salvia azurea)
2005 Rose verbena (Glandularia canadensis)
2004 Missouri evening primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa)
2003 Large beardtongue (Penstemon grandiflorus)
2002 Fremont’s clematis (Clematis fremontii)
2001 Thickspike gayfeather (Liatris pycnostachya)
2000 Maximillian sunflower (Helianthus maximilliani)
1999 Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)
1998 Black-sampson echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia)

Garden Spotlight: Backyard Meadow in North Newton

At FloraKansas it’s always a pleasure to hear from members who are renovating an entire landscape in
native and adaptable plants all at once. Dramatic transformations have a wow factor about them, with the instant gratification of an “extreme makeover”. However, so many Dyck Arboretum members have been tending and transforming their gardens over several years or even several decades. This is the case with Ron Flaming’s backyard meadow.

As a Harvey County Master Gardener, Ron’s front garden is immaculate. A well-tended quarter acre of lawn is framed by several foundation beds of carefully-selected shrubs and groundcovers. A small planting of wildflowers surround a weeping understory tree at the curb. But it’s the back garden that really takes you on a native plant journey.

Several river birch trees surround a puddling water feature and a rock garden by the patio. A few hummingbird feeders round out this pollinator sheltering space. Just a step beyond the rock garden, a small bridge flanked by formal native plantings, leads you to an arbor and a winding path through a meadow planting.

At the time I visited in early June, the meadow featured mixed-grass prairie species. I was able to recognize little bluestem, side oats grama and prairie dropseed, as well as a smattering of wildflower blooms mixed in: common milkweed, penstemon, and baptisia. Several complementary non-natives like delphinium gave a
nice pop of color as well. The path curved around the back side of a rustic garden shed. Behind the shed is a rare wooded microclimate, which allows understory shrubs and woodland wildflower species to thrive.

Ron’s many-layered meadow garden gives me hope as I grapple with my own yard. Once shaded by an 80-year-old American Elm, my backyard now bakes in full sun, presenting a new challenge. But I am inspired by Ron and am reminded that it’s amazing what a gardener can accomplish over the years with a lot of persistence, creativity and grace.


The act of curating an inviting outdoor space for oneself, one’s family and for wildlife is something I’d like to draw attention to over a series of “Kansas Garden Success Stories” to share with our followers. If you are a member of the Arboretum who would like to share the story of your garden and your journey with Kansas native plants, please send me a message at arboretum@hesston.edu with the subject line, “Garden Spotlight”.

Words of Encouragement in a Drought

We have all seen wonderful pictures of lush plants and fertile prairies in magazines, on television, on social media or other websites. These plants seem to be growing effortlessly. They have beautiful blooms with scarcely a leaf out of place. That is not the reality we are living in Kansas right now. Honestly, our gardens look a little tattered and worn down from the summer they have endured. The drought has taken its toll. 

The sun sets on another growing season.

Frankly, this time of year we might feel as tired as our garden looks.  We might even question why we do it. But don’t forget that a sustainable and resilient landscape doesn’t just happen on its own. It takes a little effort, but the rewards are worth it. Consider all the benefits of a native garden:

  • Saves water.
  • Doesn’t require fertilizer or pesticides.
  • Adapts to our climate.
  • Provides erosion control.
  • Reduces stormwater runoff.
  • Restores natural habitats.
  • Preserves biodiversity.
  • Attracts pollinators.

Fortunately, the native plants have survived. There are still some blooms on goldenrods, heath asters, blue sage, New England aster and aromatic asters in spite of the ongoing drought. The grasses, though stunted, are seeding out and have attractive autumn colors. True, it can be discouraging this time of year as you compare your garden to those idyllic gardens on paper or the web, but don’t lose heart. Your habitat garden is still functioning as it should.

Pink Muhly Grass in full bloom

Fall is the time to step back and appreciate your habitat landscape for what it is. Certainly, there might be more you could add or do, but this is enough for now. A successful native garden is more than aesthetics. You understand that all of these ecological benefits are important in creating a successful garden too. When you see that your garden is inviting to a diverse group of pollinators and wildlife, you know that you are creating something worthwhile.  

Resilient autumn landscape (Aromatic aster, little bluestem, new england aster, Missouri blackeyed susan seedheads, and false sunflower)

Plant Profile: Goldenrods (Solidago sp.)

Right now in prairies, woodlands, roadside ditches and home gardens, wonderful displays of native grasses along with wildflowers blooming yellow, white, and lavender are putting on quite a show. The yellow wildflowers are most likely either sunflowers or goldenrods. Each is quite beautiful and teeming with pollinators.

Solidago ‘Wichita Mountains’ blooming in the Compassionate Friends Garden

Goldenrods are just as diverse and variable as sunflowers. While many landscape plants have already reached their peak and the flowers have faded by September, goldenrods have become the stars of the show as they brighten up the landscape. Their golden yellow autumn inflorescences are striking.

In spite of their attractiveness, goldenrods have a reputation for causing allergies. In truth, this is unlikely, because goldenrod pollen is large and heavy and is not carried by the wind. Rather, it is giant ragweed (Ambrosia sp.) that is spreading pollen through the air at the same time.

These wildflowers are insect-pollinated by many wasps, moths, beetles, honey bees, monarch butterflies and other beneficial pollinators searching for a sip of nectar. In total, 11 specialist bees and 115 different caterpillars need these plants. There are around 50 species of insects with immature forms that feed on the stems of goldenrod. In addition, seeds and foliage provide food for some birds and mammals. Across the board, goldenrods are of huge value to wildlife and one of the keystone wildflowers for pollinators.

Gray Goldenrod-Solidago nemoralis

Goldenrods are adaptable to a wide range of conditions in nature, making them a great choice as a landscape plant. They grow naturally in soils from wet to dry. Even the drought conditions we have been experiencing have not kept these denizens of the prairie from blooming. There is a goldenrod that will grow in your garden.

For all their positive attributes, there are goldenrod species that don’t belong in a formal garden. Canada goldenrod for example is a highly aggressive species that spreads by underground rhizomes and seed, ultimately pushing out other smaller desirable plants. It will take over a garden in a couple of years. However, in a prairie setting with the deep roots of native grasses and competition from other plants, it can be mostly kept in check. That is why we recommend clump-forming goldenrods as a more reliable choice for the landscape relegating those aggressive species to the prairie or outskirts of the landscape (along a fence or in an alley) where they are free to roam and spread.

I like Solidago rigida, Solidago nemoralis, Solidago ‘Wichita Mountains’, Solidago canadensis ‘Golden Baby’, and Solidago ‘Fireworks’ for sunny areas. For shade, I choose to plant Solidago odora, Solidago ulmifolius or Solidago caesia. It is safe to say that goldenrods are powerhouse plants that deserve a place in your native garden.

Rigid Goldenrod-Solidago rigida (top) and gray goldenrod (bottom)
Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’