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!

I’ll leave you  with a photo of one more bonus species that is a favorite shade-tolerant, early spring bloomer…woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata).

Photo Credits

Favorite Penstemons for the Landscape

Penstemons are beautiful spring blooming wildflowers that provide incredible color and attractive forms.

I have been convinced through trial and error that some plants are more garden worthy than others.  If matched with the proper sunlight and soil, penstemons fit that category.  Whether planted in the spring or fall, all of the penstemons will bloom the next year.  Right now our penstemons are putting on a show.  They have spectacular tubular flowers of white, pink, red or lavender, depending on the species and varieties.  Here are some of my favorites for three different garden types.

 

For a more formal prairie garden…

Shell-leaf Penstemon (Penstemon grandiflorus) – Found in prairies throughout the Great Plains, it has thick burgundy stems, waxy blue-green leaves and large lavender flowers. Plant in full sun in any soil that stays medium to dry throughout the year. Grows up to 3’ tall.

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‘War Axe’ is an exceptional strain of Shell-leaf Penstemon.  Seeds collected from plants with maroon, red, purple, and pink blooms are mixed together and planted.  The resulting plants will have one of these colors and each plant is different.  What a surprise in the spring!  Same form and cultural requirements as the species.

Smooth Penstemon (Penstemon digitalis) – I love this penstemon as a perennial border.  The white flowers in spring have just a blush of pink 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 attractive reddish-purple foliage and soft pink tubular blooms.

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Photo courtesy Walters Gardens

Tube Penstemon (Penstemon tubaeflorus) -The snow-white flowers shine in the spring garden.  The morning dew covers the tubular blooms in the morning.  Each stem reaches for the sky, ultimately growing three feet tall.  Pollinators flock to the flowers, especially large bees that dangle from flowers as they try to crawl inside to reach the nectar at the back.  It is amazing to watch the different pollinators work these flowers.

Native companion plants for the formal prairie garden: Spiderwort (Tradescantia sp.), Evening Primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa), and Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Penstemon tubaeflorus. Photo courtesy Craig Freeman

Penstemon tubaeflorus. Photo courtesy Craig Freeman

 

For a pond or stream edge…

Smooth Penstemon is an excellent choice.  It is very adaptable to wetter environments.  It has thrived next to our pond edge for years with no ill effects from flooding or too much moisture.

‘Husker Red’ is a selection of Smooth Penstemon with wonderful deep red foliage.  The white flowers are similar to the species with a blush of pink.  It thrives wherever you plant it.

Native companion plants for the pond edge: Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Kansas Gayfeather (Liatris pycnostachya), Meadow Blazing Star (Liatris ligulistylis), or Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccafolium)

 

For a rock garden…

Cobaea Penstemon (Penstemon cobaea) – Found regularly within the Flint Hills region on road cuts and exposed bluffs and hills, it has large white flowers with lavender lines inside the throat.  Plant in full sun in a medium to dry soil.  Grows to 24” tall.

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Rocky Mountain Penstemon (Penstemon strictus) – This penstemon is not native to our region, but is quite adaptable.  The foliage is clean and evergreen with the rosy-lavender blooms held on one side of the upright stems.  It grows to 24” in full sun and a lean, medium to dry soil.

Native Companion plants for rock gardens: Evening Primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa), Shortstem spiderwort (Tradescantia tharpii), Purple Poppy Mallow (Callirhoe involucrata), Narrow-leaf Coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia)

Establish these penstemons like any other perennial with daily watering for the first few weeks after planting and check them periodically through the year.  You will be rewarded by these resilient wildflowers.  They have spectacular flowers that you must experience.  Wow is all I can say.