Growing Wildflowers to Support Pollinators

Thinking about Growing Wildflowers?

Great! Wildflowers are beautiful and easy to grow.

Wildflowers are simply wild plants, ones that grow wild around us. In the United States, that makes most of them native American plants. They were growing in our forests and meadows when Europeans arrived. Many were taken into gardens long ago, for example evening primroses, echinaceas, and columbines. Also growing wild today are plants settlers brought from Eurasia that have escaped from gardens. Increasingly, people try to distinguish the two by saying native wildflowers for the first and naturalized plants for the second. Both can be beautiful garden flowers.

Wildflower usually means an herbaceous plant, one that isn’t woody like a tree or shrub. North American has easily 15,000 different species of those, most unique to North America. Lots of plants to try growing.

Just like any garden plant, some will grow well in your climate and some will not. The contiguous United States has seven distinct climate zones, each with wildflowers special to them. These are the East, the Southeast, the Midwest, the Rocky Mountains, the Southwest, the West, and the Pacific Coast. You’ll recognize that those are very broad regions with lots of variation within them. Only the rare native wildflower—the common wild sunflower, Helianthus annuus, would be an example—is found all across the continent. More usual is the case of columbines, Aquilegia, where there are native species in most of North America, but different ones in different places. Other wildflowers are only naturally wild in one region: California poppies, Eschscholzia californica, in California, and the white gaura (Oenothera lindheimeri formerly Gaura lindheimeri) from Texas to Louisiana.

Native wildflowers evolved in North America, and some have moved from their original home to other areas, but many have not. Two places in North America can have quite similar climates and different native wildflowers. For example, although the climates for gardeners are similar, the native plants of modest elevations in the mountains of New Mexico and Georgia are quite different. The result is the vast diversity of American wildflowers. We not only have columbine, penstemon, milkweed, blanket flower, monarda, agastache, black-eye Susan, Solomon’s seal, trillium, pasque flowers, poppy, tidy tips, coral bells, chiming bells, bellflower, sunflower, coreopsis, and chocolate flower (and hundreds more), but each of these has several to dozens of species. There are 21 species of columbine in North America and 239 of beardtongue (Penstemon). Growing wildflowers can range from planting native species that practically leap out of the ground to figuring out the requirements of a finicky beautiful plant.

Are State Flowers Wildflowers?

Sometimes. State flowers were chosen to represent the state and being wild was not usually important. Some state flowers have never been wild in North America, for example the flowers of peach trees and lilacs, which are the state flowers of Delaware and New Hampshire, respectively. Some state flowers are definitely wildflowers: the California poppy (California), Rocky Mountain columbine (Colorado), wild sunflower (Kansas), goldenrod (Kentucky and Nebraska), the Louisiana iris (Louisiana), the pink and white lady slipper (Minnesota), and numerous others. Increasingly, states are designating State Wildflowers. I found official State Wildflowers for Alabama (oak-leaf hydrangea), Arizona (saguaro cactus blossoms), Florida (coreopsis), Georgia (native azelea), Kentucky (turk’s cap lily), Michigan (dwarf lake iris), Ohio (white trillium), Oklahoma (Indian blanket), Pennsylvania (Jacob’s ladder), Tennessee (Tennessee coneflower), and Texas (Texas bluebonnet). Try growing your state flower and your state wildflower.

Ways to Plant Wildflowers

Wildflowers can be purchased as plants in pots. In that case, transplant the plant into a hole about an inch larger all around than the pot, putting loose soil into the hole to hold the pot surface level with the ground. Be careful with the plant, even if you have to destroy the pot to get the plant out. If the roots are densely tangled, gently spread them wider before putting the plant into the ground. Fill in around the plant with dirt and press it down lightly but firmly. If you are planting wildflowers native to your region, you do not need to amend the soil, because they are adapted to growing wild where you live. That said, some yards were mistreated, for example by developers removing the topsoil or heavy machinery compacting it; in that case, break up the soil and do a soil test to see if nutrients are needed. Too rich a soil, whether from fertilizer or compost, will encourage some wildflowers to grow too tall and flop over. Water newly transplanted wildflowers very thoroughly at first and keep the plant moist during the first summer as its roots get established. Thereafter, native wildflowers will grow well on their own, with supplemental water needed only during a long dry period.

You can plant wildflowers any time of year, but the milder, moister conditions of spring and fall make it easier for them to extend their roots into the soil and start growing.

Plant wildflowers as seeds, too. In this case, take care to read the seed packet. In the wild, wildflowers finish flowering in the summer and the ripe seeds drop to the ground by early fall. They spend the winter in the soil and germinate when the conditions are warm in spring. Many have complex mechanisms that prevent them from starting to grow during a warm period in the fall or winter. In some cases, a few generations in a seed producer’s garden have removed those limits but in other cases the seeds still have internal blocks to immediate germination. The seed package will provide the best available information (some of our wildflowers are still mysterious) on how to germinate the seeds.

Putting seeds outside in the fall lets the climate convince the seeds to germinate, but may be impacted by adverse weather or birds that find and eat the seeds. Planting in spring is a good option, too. Follow germination instructions.

You can give the wildflowers a head start by planting them inside during late winter or earliest spring and transplanting small plants outside. It won’t work if they won’t germinate; read the instructions on the package. Once the seedlings are growing well and the threat of frost has passed, plant them outside. Be sure to harden them—gradually expose them to outdoor heat, light, and humidity—over several days to two weeks, to reduce the shock of moving outdoors. Water generously until they are growing well.

Most wildflowers will delight you by flowering the first year in your garden.

Benefits to Growing Wildflowers

The simplest benefit to growing wildflowers is that they are beautiful and easy to grow. If you plant plants native to your area, they will find the rainfall, temperatures, and soils exactly what they like and respond by growing well. Most need little attention to produce handsome flowers. Our native wildflowers include some gorgeous flowers, from sunflowers to columbines to larkspurs, in any color you fancy.

Growing local native plants has the additional benefit of helping maintain those species. In many areas we have replaced the wild meadows and woods with roads, houses, and commercial areas. Growing the plants that were there before development in our yards and flower beds provides habitat for those plants and their pollinators. In that case, the beautiful butterflies will not be confined to our small natural areas but will cruise through our backyards to their favorite flower.

Finally, growing native wildflowers makes your yard and garden distinctive. Everyone across the United States can grow daffodils (from Europe) and peonies (from Asia) but the forest wildflowers of New York (trillium, spring beauty) or the desert wildflowers of Arizona (barrel cactus, red salvias) are special to particular areas. That raises the specter of looking just like the neighbors, but in fact, we look a lot like the neighbors when we all grow daffodils and peonies. And, any region has so many wildflowers that you and your neighbors might choose different ones for a very different look.

Can You Have a Tidy Wildflower Garden?

Certainly.

Wildflowers can be planted in neat little clumps just like any garden flower. Columbines, for example, are inherently tidy. Other species, like coreopsis, will form compact clumps which you simply cut back as they start to get too big. Some species, such as the common milkweed, Ascelpias syriaca, spread widely on underground rhizomes, coming up in surprising new places. Cut those shoots off, or if that really annoys you, don’t grow that particular wildflower.

Many wildflowers have healthy seeds and will seed in where you didn’t put them. You can weed those seedlings out. As an earlier step of prevention, cut off the old flower heads before the seeds ripen.

One approach for tidiness is to mulch heavily (with wood chips or gravel or rocks) around individual plants or grade from small wildflowers at the near side of the bed to very tall ones against the fence line or clump of trees. Another approach is to create a rock-garden effect, with the plants planted amid big stones. (That works somewhat better for creeping phlox than sunflowers, though you could arrange boulders between the sunflower clumps).

But some of the allure of a wildflower garden is a group of different plants all jumbled together and requiring almost no attention, like a forest meadow or an English cottage garden. There, you let the plants spread and reseed as they will, making an ever-changing display of color and texture. This sounds untidy, but it doesn’t have to be. The key to making any planting look tidy is to have clear borders. Borders signal that the mix of plants is intentional. Borders can take many forms. You can set a wooden fence or a stone wall around the flowerbed. But much simpler edges can be equally effective. A border of paving stones just a few inches high, even just the path that winds around the wildflowers, can make the bed of wildflowers look perfectly neat. Mowing the lawn up to the edge of the wildflower bed will make a riot of wildflowers look tidy and well-kept.

Trim off last year’s dead leaves and stalks for a less messy look.

Wildflowers are diverse and wonderful.

Written by Kathy Keeler

AWanderingBotanist.com