A Short List of Sun-Loving Favorites

This time of year as we greet the true arrival of spring and the FloraKansas Native Plant Festival, I am asked quite a few questions about native plants. Often people ask about how to establish their native plants, but more often they want to know which native plants are my favorites.  It is hard to narrow down my choices, because there are so many great plants to include in your garden.  Wildflowers attract pollinators and grasses add texture, structure and movement in the garden.  The combination of wildflowers and grasses create the layers and habitat that wildlife depend on for survival.

Here is a list of my top five sun-loving favorites:

Threadleaf Bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii)

This is an all-season perennial with fantastic ornamental features that at make it stand out from other wildflowers.   In May and June, clusters of small powder blue, star-like flowers top the strong stems.  The stems are encircled with soft, narrow leaves resembling pine needles, making each plant look like a small shrub with feathery texture and incredible fullness. I have found them to be extremely hardy, drought tolerant and very low maintenance.

Amsonia fall color

The real show develops in September when the foliage turns a butter yellow, fading to a golden brown by October.  One specimen plant is spectacular in each season of the year, but a group of ten or more massed together and strategically located are quite stunning.  Individual plants can reach up to 48 inches tall and 24-36 inches wide.  They prefer full sun to partial shade and an average garden soil.

Other Bluestars worth trying are Shining Bluestar (Amsonia illustris), Amsonia ‘Storm Cloud’, and Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)

Northwind Switchgrass

The airy seed heads and upright habit make this a great landscape grass.  These forms make quite a statement in the fall and winter landscape.  They add structure, texture and movement.  For best results, plant them in a sunny spot in a medium to moist soil.  It is very drought tolerant.  Discover these varieties: ‘Northwind’-consistent upright form to four feet tall and golden yellow fall color, ‘Cheyenne Sky’-red leaves develop early in the summer and grows to three feet, and ‘Dallas Blues’-tall (to 8 feet), with blue foliage and purple seed heads.

Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’ (Penstemon digitalis)

I love this penstemon in the perennial border.  The pink flowers in spring have just a blush of white 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 reddish-purple foliage that is attractive even when blooming is complete.

Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’ in bloom. Photo courtesy of Terra Nova Nurseries.

Letterman’s Iron Plant (Vernonia lettermanii ‘Iron Butterflies’)

One of the plants that has done well over the past few years in the Arboretum is Letterman’s Narrowleaf Ironweed. It is a reliable drought-tolerant wildflower that requires little to no extra irrigation.  In fact, too much water makes it floppy and unhappy. Plants like that are rare and should be utilized more, in my opinion.

In late August, it is covered with exploding deep purple flowers atop the sturdy upright stems. The narrow leaves whorled around the stem remind me of narrowleaf bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii) , except these are even more narrow. These leaves, combined with the attractive frilly flowers, give it a soft, pleasing texture.

Ironweed gets its name for its tough stem. Iron Butterfly Ironweed is the diminutive cousin of the pasture ironweed. Typical prairie ironweed is coarse and tall, but Letterman’s Narrowleaf ironweed is more refined. The parent species Vernonia lettermanii is quite rare and can be found in Arkansas and Oklahoma.

Iron Butterflies in bloom

In late summer, the flowers are just what butterflies and other pollinators need as they migrate or prepare for winter. All sorts of butterflies, skippers, moths, and bees will swarm the blooms. In the Arboretum, we plant them in sunny gardens with medium to dry soil. They can take some shade, but have a tendency to flop.

Aromatic aster (Aster oblongifolius)

Aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ in full bloom

This diverse wildflower grows throughout the state, and is more drought-tolerant than other aster species. Its name alludes to its fragrant purple/pink flowers and foliage that exudes a pungent aroma.  This species typically grows about two feet tall, but shorter varieties exist.  Garden worthy varieties include ‘Dream of Beauty’ (short (one foot tall) with pink blooms), ‘October Skies’ (2’ x 2’ with light blue flowers)  and ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ (3’ x 2’ with light blue flowers).

If you missed FloraKansas this weekend, never fear! We will be keeping the plants on display this week (open weekdays 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.) and I will also be setting up a booth on Sunday, May 6th, at Lakewood Park in Salina for the Discover Salina Naturally event. Come see me there!

 

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.