Have you ever tried to grow PUSSY TOES (Antennaria plantaginifolia)? It is a grey, soft little plant that hugs the ground.  In spring they send up flower stems about 4 inches that are white and fluffy over an efficient structure of underground runners. For their size, in a good dry spot the plants form a thick mat that is too low for a mower to harm.  Lawn “purists” are not fond of them.  I have seen entire hills covered as a carpet crowding out the grass.  They are enlarging their territory in my gray garden near the mailbox but they are easy to control with all their parts right at the surface.

          The name comes from the fuzzy white flower head that “looks like kittens on their back waving their toes”.  I generally cut the blossoms off but I do like the soft grey cover they make with their leaves. Each plant is either a male or a female. Some colonies will not have any male plants but the females produce seed anyway.  The seeds have a filament that carries them to new territory.  Painted Lady Butterflies use them as food for their larvae. When I want to move them I take a spade full of plants to where I want it.  The leaves have been used as tobacco and also mixed with it. Sometimes is called “women’s tobacco”.

          Gallardia Aristata, called BLANKET FLOWER or INDIAN BLANKET is hardy in zones 2-8 and has been so hybridized and improved that many no longer consider it a wild flower, but you will find it covering some of the hills in Nebraska. I have several of the new ones growing in the parkway including “Oranges and Lemons” and “Fanfare”. The clumps get a little bigger and a little stronger each year, blooming from June until November, ignoring dry soil, wind and bugs. There are a number of cultivars, all of which favor bright red or yellow or both together.  I have read that it does not do well in damp and humid areas. Some of the instructions I read say it must be divided every several years to keep it healthy as its roots become overcrowded. The flowers last a long time in a vase. 

          ASTERS, of which there are many different size plants from 6 inches to 6 feet, are a hardy bunch and again they are a group that has had much work to create new species.  Many years ago I bought a red and blue New England ASTER plant without checking their history. The plants grew to 6 feet tall and wide so each year now I take a shovel full of each color and put it in a hot dry area.  Both June 1st and July 1st last year I cut it back by about a third. They both still grew to over 3 feet tall and wide, completely covered with blooms until the middle of October.  The seed gets around too as I have several clumps in new places.  Have you seen the purple Asters the Lincoln Parks and Recreation Department has in several places? They get up to 2 feet high and probably are never watered, and that bright purple!!! There are ground hugger Asters available with pale, dainty blooms. Since they bloom late they are very popular with insects looking for nectar. There is a SWAMP ASTER as well as a FROST ASTER that I have never tried to grow. They are very competitive and nothing will grow but Asters in one of the clumps.  There are over 200 species, all fall bloomers, so you should be able to find one that fits your garden.  I usually wait until spring (they start early), dig up the clump, and chop it into as many pieces that I can find room for.  The shorter ones can be left alone for several years. 

          One of the best known wild flowers is probably the BLACK EYED SUSAN (Rudbeckia hirta). It is a western native but has moved east. The government recommended it to control erosion on hillsides.  It survives drought and in some states became survival food for cattle and sheep because of its ability to grow in poor and dry soil.  It is listed as a biennial but after your first crop, if you let it seed, will become a permanent part of your yard.  I have noticed that in dry years it does not get very tall and has fewer blooms.  They last a long time in a vase.  They also dry well for winter bouquets.  There are many species of RUDBECKIAS, some are annuals, some are biennials, and some are perennials.  Nurserymen have done a lot of work to add to the species so there are a great variety of plants. One of my favorites is the GLORIOSA DAISY with its sometimes double flower, sometimes variation in colors of red and brown. Do you remember your grandmothers GOLDEN GLOW DAISY (Rudbeckia laciniata)? They would be 6 to 8 feet tall usually planted against a building. In home territory (it likes wet areas) it could be 12 feet tall and a green center. The petals are strictly to attract pollinators and have nothing to do with seed formation.  The seeds need a cold period in order to germinate so it works well to plant them in the fall or put the seeds in the refrigerator for the winter.  You can transplant a whole plant easily but it’s nearly impossible to divide one because their root system is very expansive and the plant wants all of them! Spider mites and aphids like them but I will probably always have SUSAN in spite of them.  This year I am going to try the Gloriosa Daisy, CHEROKEE SUNSET, with double flowers with brown and red. The seeds are here since I received my first catalog before Halloween.  The germination percentage is low so they sent me 2 packets and they are in the refrigerator.  I will start them in February to get blooms next summer.  I have had them before and they are not good about surviving winters in Nebraska.

Copyright Dec. 2006