How Do You Learn About Native Plants?

This weekend, I did some reflecting on the past 19 years I have spent at the arboretum.  I thought I knew so much when I was hired as the horticulturist. After all, I had just graduated from Kansas State University with a horticulture degree.  There wasn’t anything I didn’t know. But after the first week, I was in over my head.

It was July in Kansas. Need I say more?

One of the first things I quickly realized was that I knew virtually nothing about native plants.  I had learned about a few native trees and shrubs in my college classes, but I couldn’t identify more than five wildflowers.  My learning curve was steep those first few years.  I was going to sink or swim at this new job by how much I knew about native plants.  So I set out to learn all I could about the plants that grow on the prairie.


Bison-Photo by Craig Freeman


Finney County KS-Photo by Craig Freeman

The most formative experiences that I had were the many seed collecting field trips we made throughout the state.  It was so enlightening to see the plants growing in their natural environment.  Those memories guide how I design gardens today.  I became familiar with the plants, but more importantly I learned where they like to grow and who they like to grow with.  Just like us, plants need to be in communities that are vibrant, healthy and sustaining.   Native plants rely on each other.  High quality prairies and even gardens have communities of plants that live harmoniously together.


Logan County, KS-Photo by Craig Freeman


Chalk Formations-Photo by Craig Freeman

Collecting seeds forced me to learn the scientific names of the plants.  Each seed had a specific set of conditions that it must be subjected to in order for germination to occur.  This too was a fascinating process that required me to learn.  It was extremely rewarding to take some seed from the wild and get it to germinate in the greenhouse and ultimately place a new plant for the seed we collected into the arboretum for others to enjoy.


Cimarron National Grassland-Photo by Craig Freeman


Rocktown Natural Area-Russel County-Photo by Craig Freeman

I read catalogs and books about native plants.  I grew, planted and killed several native plants in an attempt to continue that learning process.  I moved plants that were not happy to other areas in the garden where they began to thrive.  These exploratory trips – we called it “55 mph botany” – helped me hone my identification skills as we traveled many of the back roads of Kansas in search of unique native plants.  Each of these experiences influence plant choices, mixtures and sequences in landscape plans.  As native plants have become more mainstream, more information is available.  Naturally, I am still learning.


Flint Hills-Photo by Craig Freeman

I say all this to encourage gardeners, specifically native plant enthusiasts, to learn everything you can about at least 25 plants that will grow well in your landscape.  From those, there is nearly an infinite number of plant combinations.  By matching plants to your sight, the guess-work has been taken out of the equation.  This will increase your successes and diminish your failures.  If the plants are happy, they will take care of themselves. And that will increase your enjoyment while greatly reducing your upkeep and maintenance.

Challenge:  Start with learning about 10 native plants, eight wildflowers and two grasses.  As you learn about these plants and incorporate them into your garden where they like to grow, I believe you will be rewarded in time with a landscape that works for you, not against you.   You will have a community of plants that flourish together.

Let the learning begin!

Kansas is the Sunflower State

Excerpt from Kansas legislation:

Whereas, This flower has to all Kansans a historic symbolism which speaks of frontier days, winding trails, pathless prairies, and is full of the life and glory of the past, the pride of the present, and richly emblematic of the majesty of a golden future, and is a flower which has given Kansas the world-wide name, “the sunflower state”…

Be it enacted … that the helianthus or wild native sunflower is … designated … the state flower and floral emblem of the state of Kansas.

This past weekend, I traveled to Marion to watch my daughter’s volleyball game.  On the way, I could not help but notice sunflowers blooming.   It was amazing to see the many different varieties and forms scattered throughout the prairies and ravines.  I tried my best at 65 miles per hour to identify them.  They were everywhere and in their full glory.  The yellow flowers stood out amongst the changing prairie grasses.  They brighten up the prairie landscape and signal the changing seasons.  If you are out and about in the coming weeks, here are some of the gorgeous sunflowers you will see.


Willow-leaf Sunflower (Helianthus salicifolius) – This is one of the most common sunflowers and is easily identified because it has many long, narrow, drooping leaves swirled around the stem.  The leaves are not more than a quarter inch wide and make a soft umbrella at the top of the stem as they grow.  The bright yellow clusters of blooms are attractive, but the foliage is equally interesting.

Willowleaf Sunflower


Maximillian Sunflower (Helianthus maximilianii) – This is a very showy sunflower with tall stems that rise above surrounding grasses.  The blooms are vibrant and large.  It is a beautiful sunflower, but beware.  It is rhizomatous and spreads vigorously.  I would not plant this sunflower in a formal landscape.  I would plant it in a prairie or area of the yard that allows it to go wild.  It will quickly take over any garden when it is happy.  We have some along the pond where we can manage its spread with a mower.

Maximilian Sunflower


Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) –  You can find these sunflowers along woodlands and in moist prairies.  It has larger leaves that are thick and rough.  Stems are topped with large golden-yellow flower heads. I have never tasted the tuberous roots but those who have considered them a delicacy.  The roots can be eaten raw or boiled like a potato.

Jerusalem Artichocke


Other sunflowers worth noting: Sawtooth Sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus) – Similar to Maximillian Sunflower; Ashy Sunflower (Helianthus mollis) – Shorter with gray foliage; and Common Sunflower (Helianthus annuus) – Tall with flowers at the ends of the branched stems.


Oh sunflower! The queen of all flowers,

No other with you can compare,

The roadside and fields are made golden

Because of your bright presence there.

“An Ode to the Kansas Sunflower,” Ed Blair, 1901