What is a wildflower? One definition I found is “plants that have the capacity to make it on their own without human assistance.” Some people think of wildflowers as native to an area.  All of them probably at one time or another were wildflowers, or their ancestors were.  People have found these plants may or may not have any “useful” purpose, except for the pleasure of seeing them grow to bloom. As you can see there are many definitions of wildflowers.

Is there such a thing as a “tame” flower? If one can buy seeds or plants from a catalog or nursery does this make it lose its title as wildflower? Any flower is a native somewhere. Who sorts the wildflowers from the flowering weeds? Or is it as simple as, “If I like it, it is a wildflower, and if I don’t, it is a weed”?

          Butterfly milkweed (Asclepsis tuberosa) is a good example of this.  Farmers try to keep it out of their fields but it has a very deep root that can find and use water their crops cannot.  There are a number of milkweeds, including the SWAMP MILKWEED that loves wet areas.  Its blooms are pink and can grow five feet height.  The entire family produces seed pods that are fun for kids to play with as baby cribs (and baby) before they are mature and then as parachutes to blow away.  The plants have been called WILD COTTON. The early settlers used the fluff in pillows and mattresses.  During World War II it was used in life preservers. 

          It is also known as pleurisy root as the Indians used it to treat pleurisy and rheumatism.  Its juice is very bitter and toxic and was used to induce vomiting and used in wounds to stop bleeding. The Monarch Butterfly larvae, which eat its leaves, are avoided by birds. They will never eat a second one as they have been seen to vomit for several hours after the first one. A number of butterflies beside Monarchs love the flowers for the nectar which does not contain cardiac glycosides.

          Many people find them hard to grow.  They resent transplanting so start with a very small plant or plant seeds. I find it easier to plant in the fall by dropping the seeds and stepping on them so they won’t be covered deeply, and then mark the spot.  They are not the first plants to come up so be sure and mark the spot. Freezing and thawing seems to help them germinate.  As with many new plants they need moisture to get started but then survive well in a hot and dry area.  The plants get about 2 feet tall and wide and nothing can beat that bright orange color.  If nothing else plant them for the butterflies.

          GOATSBEARD (Aruncus dioicus) is a perennial that does best in some shade, likes moisture, whose blooms do look like a beard.  It can get to 4 feet when in bloom. Some plants are male and some female, both of which have white soft beards with each seed flume (beard) up to 18 inches long. If you have only one plant you will not be bothered by seeds.  There is a dwarf form but I like the tall one. It blooms at the same time as the giant, purple alliums in my favorite corner for about 2 weeks.  The root can be divided in the spring.  This is recommended to keep the plants in good condition.  The leaves are dense, deep green and compound, making a neat background for shorter plants.

          There are a number of anemones named as wildflowers but the one I have is the WOOD or WIND ANEMONE (Anemone quinquefolia). The Greek word for wind is anemos and quinquefolia means five leaves.  The leaves are deeply cut, each without its own stem, coming directly from the main stalk.  The flowers are single and white but the plant soon spreads into a colony in partial shade in early spring.  They can crowd out less hearty plants in a few years making a white patch between 6 and 12 inches high.
They continue to bloom for several weeks, especially when the soil is kept damp, opening during the day and closing at night. They have rhizomatous roots that can travel a good distance.  They prefer good drainage and I find them growing best in my gravel paths.  I pull them up but they are back up almost immediately.  They do get so crowded that they can not bloom well so about every three years in the fall I spade the entire bed making sure I turn it upside down.  It will take them 2 to 3 years to become too crowded again.  Ants also carry seeds around as they contain sweet material at the tip.  Seeds are abandoned after the ants eat the eliaosomes. 

          WILD GINGER has a similar plan for spreading its plants.  Ancient people used the plant for “headaches, gout, leprosy, sore eyes, and ulcers”. However I don’t plan on making any “medicine” as they are also listed as somewhat poisonous. The patch I planted is under the cottonwood under the outer shade of the lowest branches.  The ant’s garden can be found several places each spring but they are easy to hoe.  A superior ground cover for shady places!!!.

          SHOOTING STAR (Dodecatheon media) is a neat little shady plant. I have had only 2 or 3 for a number of years without expanding numbers. This way I have to keep an area around them bare as they are only about 12 inches high and as wide.  They droop badly if they get dry and go dormant early in a hot spring.  Mine are white but there are lavender ones.  They do have a sharp pointed tip with petals streaming behind as though in flight at all times.  They go dormant after blooming and this will vary on the type of spring we are having.  They don’t like hot or dry. In “TIMES WILDFLOWER GARDENING Book they describe the flowers: “The flower petals sweep backward, exposing beaklike anthers which look as though they are plummeting earthward.” They have also been called the mad violet, mosquito bill, bird bill, and prairie pointer.  If you hunt you can sometimes find started plants in the spring but mark their spot.  Seeds are not reliable as the germination rate maybe below 10%.

          Next week I will have more on wildflowers in Part #2. In the meantime keep warm, take care of those houseplants, and if we have a warm spell make sure your garden is cleaned up so you don’t overwinter bugs and diseases on old plant material.

Copyright DECEMBER 16, 2006