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.

A New Must-Have Plant Identification Book for Kansas

Oenothera macrocarpa (MO evening primrose) - photo by Michael John Haddock

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

For 35 years, Janét E. Bare’s popular book Wildflowers and Weeds of Kansas has been one of the standards for plant identification in Kansas. When I moved back to Kansas in 1998 with a fresh botany/ecology degree, a new job in environmental consulting that required plant identification, and a desire to know the name of every plant I could find, I knew that Bare’s hardback book with mostly black and white photos had to be in my library. The going rate for this 509-page out-of-print book was around $100 at the time and I felt lucky to find a nice copy at a used book store in Kansas City for $50.

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For Kansas, I have collected to date what I consider to be fourteen helpful plant identification resources (see list below). In addition to Bare’s multiple decades standard, they include a number of good paperback books with color photos, some with line drawings and county maps, and the behemoth 1402-page hardback resource Flora of the Great Plains as the most comprehensive, but very technical resource without photographs. For years, I carried a bulky collection of these books in a backpack and always had the rest close at hand back at the car or office.

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Allium stellatum (pink wild onion) – photo by Michael John Haddock

Thanks to a new publication by University of Kansas Press, however, wildflower identification in Kansas just became much easier. Janét Bare teamed up with two of the most talented botanists in the state, Craig C. Freeman and Michael John Haddock (both with publications of their own – see below) to produce the updated Kansas Wildflowers and Weeds, a must-have resource for plant enthusiasts.

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Zizia aurea (golden alexanders) – photo by Michael John Haddock

As the dust jacket states, “For purposes of identification, conservation, study, or the simple pleasure of thumbing through, it is a resource without parallel.” It has 742 color photographs, up-to-date nomenclature, taxonomic descriptions and a dichotomous identification key, and interesting information with regard to habitat, commonness, moisture preference, phenology, ecology, herbal/medicinal traits, DNA and more. My one critique of the book is that it does not include helpful county presence maps (only has region presence codes), but I’m sure the authors considered this and figured that including these maps would add even more pages and size to an already large 518-page resource.

Haddock KWW 3c

This book has descriptions for 1,163 species of wildflowers and a handful of woody plants (an increase from 831 species in Bare’s earlier book) and covers roughly 56 percent of the state’s native and naturalized flora. It could be labeled both a coffee table book and a comprehensive field guide. (To get a copy signed by Haddock, come to our Summer Soirée on June 28.)

Glandularia canadensis (rose verbena) - photo by Michael John Haddock

Glandularia canadensis (rose verbena) – photo by Michael John Haddock

Put this new book in your backpack along with Iralee Barnard’s new grasses resource and H.A. Stephen’s woody plants book (see list below), and you should be able to identify most common plants found on an outing in Kansas.

SideBySideBooks

 Happy botanizing! ~Brad


 Helpful Plant Identification Books

(in addition to the new Kansas Wildflowers and Weeds by Haddock, Freeman, and Bare)

Atlas of the Flora of the Great Plains
Great Plains Flora Association
Iowa State University Press, 1977

Field Guide to the Common Grasses of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska
Iralee Barnard
University Press of Kansas, 2014

Field Guide to the Common Weeds of Kansas
Prepared by T. M. Barkley
Kansas Agricultural Experiment Station and Division of Biology, Kansas State University
Kansas Agricultural Experiment Station contribution number 82-547-B
University Press of Kansas, 1983

Flora of the Great Plains
Great Plains Flora Association
T.M. Barkley, Editor
University Press of Kansas, 1986

Kansas Grasses
Clenton E. Owensby
Kansas Publishing Inc., 2004

Kansas Prairie Wildflowers
Clenton E. Owensby
Iowa State University Press, 1980

Roadside Wildflowers of the Southern Great Plains
Craig Carl Freeman and Eileen K. Schofield
University Press of Kansas, 1991

Sedges: Carex
Roberts H. Mohlenbrock
Southern Illinois University Press, 1999

Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines in Kansas
H.A. Stephens
University Press of Kansas, 1969

Weeds of Nebraska and the Great Plains
James Stubbendieck, Geir Y. Friisoe, and Margaret R. Bolick
Nebraska Department of Agriculture, 1994

Wildflowers and Grasses of Kansas: A Field Guide
Michael John Haddock
University Press of Kansas, 2005

Wildflowers and Other Plants of Iowa Wetlands
Sylvan T. Runkel and Dean M. Roosa
Iowa State University Press, 1999

Wildflowers and Weeds of Kansas
Janet E. Bare
Regents Press of Kansas, 1979

Wildflowers of the Tallgrass Prairie: The Upper Midwest
Sylvan T. Runkel and Dean M. Roosa
Iowa State University Press, 1989