Many of us associate wildflowers and prairies with broad fields splashed with color that appear in the spring. Those are indeed wonderful shows that nature puts on each year to announce the return of warm weather. Still, we sometimes forget that many wildflowers and native grasses make wonderful plants for our own gardens.
A prairie, after all, is simply an area inhabited by grasses and flowers, growing together at about the same height and creating a lovely area to live in and look across. It is also made up of plants native to the area that provide sustenance not only to the gardener but also to the other creatures that call the area home. Creeping creatures, flying creatures, slithering creatures and all sorts of living things feel at home in native prairies, and so will you if you decide to transform your landscape from exotic to prairielike.
Many of the common bedding plants offered in the spring hail from far-away places — tropical and subtropical countries where flowers are bright and manageable. Impatiens petunias, begonias, Bermuda grass, St. Augustine grass and others are sold across the country to add variety to the garden. Wildflowers and native grasses, on the other hand, have many advantages over these imports. And November is the perfect time to start transitioning your garden to native plants or create your own private prairie.
Here in Central Texas, we sit astride a variety of great prairie lands. Once grasses and wildflowers grew as far as the eye could see on the Blackland Prairie to the east, the Cross Timber prairie to the west and other great prairies until they ran into forests and mountains. Today those prairies have been overgrazed and overbuilt, and there are only fragments remaining. Commons Ford Ranch Metro Park, part of the Austin Parks Foundation, has restored an area of prairie that is open to visitors to enjoy.
You, too, can re-create those patches of native land that support native wildlife, make the environment healthier and keep your yard beautiful and packed with variety and interest. You can do that pretty easily, too. It might take a while or you might buckle down and do it all at once, but transitioning from exotic plants to natives is definitely doable. By the way, did you know that many of our native wild creatures don’t even recognize exotic plants as plants? They don’t see them as sources of food, pollen or cover or as being of any use at all.
Most natives will require less water, fewer soil amendments and far less attention than tropical bedding plants. They do, after all, grow untended out in the fields and along the roadside. They also provide food and habitat for native wildlife. Most produce nectar for birds and bees, and many attract hummingbirds and butterflies to your garden.
If you decide to change your grass from Bermuda or St. Augustine, you’ll have to get rid of those exotic nuisances before planting native grass, but once that is done you have a wide selection of native grasses from which to choose: tall grasses like big bluestem, Indian grass or sand lovegrass, and/or short native grasses such as buffalo grass, sideoats grama, Texas cupgrass and many more. You should also mix flower seeds in with your native grass seed to create a true prairie.
There is a common misconception that wildflowers are always weedy, unmanageable and unkempt. That is true of some wildflowers that grow in the wild, but there are many kinds of wildflowers that adapt beautifully to any well-kept garden. They are beautiful and interesting blossoms that are easily managed in flower beds and containers.
Take cutleaf daisy (Engelmannia peristen), for example. Cutleaf daisy is perennial, drought-resistant and very attractive to humans and critters alike. Birds love the bright yellow flowers that are happy to grow in any type of soil in full to partial sun. They grow 1 foot to 3 feet tall and will flower from February to November.
Greenthread (Thelesperma filifolium) is a small, tidy plant. Usually less than 1 foot tall, it has golden flowers that show off best after rain. The ripened seeds are a food source for the painted bunting and a good larval source for butterflies. It flowers throughout the growing season and is perennial in mild winter years.
We’ve all heard about the need for more milkweed plants to sustain the monarch and other butterflies, but you may be surprised to learn how many different types of butterfly weeds (milkweeds) are out there. Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is the most recognizable and most readily available of the milkweeds. It has bright orange and yellow flowers, and it is happy to grow in your garden or in big containers. The flowers produce nectar that attracts butterflies throughout the growing season. It generally blooms from early spring to late fall.
The plant dies to the ground in the winter, only to emerge again in the spring ready to share its bright color with critters and people alike. It can be grown from seed or bedding plants. It grows 1 foot to 1½ feet tall. Matching bright orange aphids sometimes move in on this plant in the summer, but they rarely do any damage. In fact, they act to lure ladybugs and other beneficial insects to your garden. Resist the urge to smash the aphids so the ladybugs will come to dine on them and other pests in your garden.
Butterfly weed likes full sun or partial shade and is drought-tolerant and not picky about soil type. It grows from New England to Florida and throughout the west and southwest. Widely distributed, this is a great garden plant with all the desirable characteristics of the native plant. It was used by Native Americans as a medicinal plant. The tough roots were chewed to cure chest disorders, and thus is it sometimes called pleurisy root. But the plant is poisonous and shouldn’t be eaten except by butterflies. It attracts hummingbirds as well. This is a great one to add to your tidy garden.
But that’s not the whole milkweed story. Green milkweed has a beautiful white flower that blooms from April to September when the fluffy seeds emerge from its pods. Showy milkweeds have big pink blooms that have been used to make rope and cloth as well as medicine for centuries among native peoples. Antelope horn milkweed and swamp milkweed round out the options for adding native plants specifically for butterflies.
Another favorite of butterflies and gardeners alike is purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). The bright, flat flowers create a perfect landing spot for all kinds of butterflies. It has been used for centuries as a medicinal plant, and it is lovely both in the garden and as a cut flower. The flowers come in white, pink and purple. It likes full or partial sun, is happy in most kinds of soil and is drought-tolerant. The plant can grow to about 2 feet tall, but it generally grows low to the ground, sending up flower stalks during the summer and fall. Be sure to deadhead to encourage more flowers.
These are just a few of the wonderful native plants that will happily help you turn your bit of prairie into a living, breathing, beautiful source of pride.
Find more information on grasses and flowers from Native American Seed Company at seedsource.com.
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