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Gardening with Wildflowers

Articles: Gardening with Wildflowers

Several actions can be taken to save the native plants. The most important in the opinion of naturalists is to preserve habitats by setting aside wild lands where typical, rare, or endangered species occur in some concentration. Living collections of representative species in horticultural institutions provide further insurance that no species will become totally extinct. More important is to use attractive and suitable native plants [in gardens].

Marjorie G. Schmidt, Growing Native Plants

A wildflower garden of sorts may be made with a handful of seeds tossed onto a patch of untilled soil. On the other hand, such a garden may be the outcome of careful planning, with special arrangements for the needs of a diversity of plants. In neither case will subsequent maintenance be easy. No matter how idyllic the conception, how seemingly natural the outcome, effort is needed to protect the plants from invasion by weeds.

But the effort of protection need not be unpleasant. Here Kevin Connelly finds deep satisfaction in ridding a sunny hillside of weeds for the protection of wildflowers. And there are other pleasures in wildflower gardening: Ellen Wilde savors success with native plants in New Mexico, Glenn Keator suggests occupants for an all-season meadow, and Andy Rice is inspired by favorites seen in the fields and streamsides of Oregon. Emily Moore in Washington and Gerald Straley in British Columbia are helping with more purposeful plantings of wildflowers: the former a display for public instruction of a representative selection of the state’s native plants; the latter an attempt to display all the native plants of that vast region. All have had successes and disappointments, and all find great pleasure in gardening with wildflowers.

Gerald B. Straley, Vancouver, B.C.

There are unique problems when attempting to grow native plants from a region with a land mass larger than California, Oregon, and Washington combined, with a great variety of hardiness zones (from USDA 2 to 8), elevations from sea level to just over 15,000 feet, and rainfall ranging from ten inches to 110 inches a year. An original goal of the native garden of the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden in Vancouver was to display plants native to such a place — British Columbia. The extreme southwestern part of the province, where Vancouver and Victoria are located, is probably the only part of this vast region where cultivation of all its native plants may reasonably be attempted.

In recent years we have been more realistic, recognizing that alpines from the far north, or from the highest of the Rocky Mountains, and plants from the cold deserts of the interior are difficult to keep growing in the mild, wet coastal climate. We now try to use larger drifts of those plants that do grow well on the coast, and we have given up on some of the more difficult things. And yet, some plants long considered to be difficult have been quite successful in the garden.

The ten-acre native garden is made up of a number of different components, carved out of a second-growth forest of Douglas fir, western hemlock, and western red cedar. These areas include meadows, rock outcrops, and raised beds, a lake and adjacent bog, slow-moving streams, and some little disturbed forest to provide a variety of habitats. The sunniest raised beds and rock outcrops are essential for success with plants from the dry interior or alpine areas. If we are unsuccessful with these plants, it is usually due to soggy soil in winter when we receive most of our rain.

One of the successful areas has been an artificial bog, which now looks quite realistic and is slowly encroaching on the adjacent lake, as bogs do in nature. On undulating carpets of sphagnum moss are bog rosemary (Andromeda polifolia), bog laurel (Kalmia microphylla), cranberries (Vaccinium oxycoccos), skunk cabbage (Lysichitum americanum), bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), and, in wetter areas, bogbean (Menyanthes trifoliata), all making themselves at home and happily spreading. A drier raised peat bed is home to a successful clump of creeping club moss (Lycopodium clavatum) and white rhododendron (Rhododendron albiflorum), both known to be difficult to establish in cultivation, as well as less demanding copperbush (Cladothamnus pyroliflorus), deer cabbage (Nephrophyllidium crista-galli) and Labrador tea (Ledum groenlandicum), the latter looking much better than it usually does in the wild.

Indian paintbrush (Castilleja miniata)
Indian paintbrush (Castilleja miniata). Watercolors by Kristin Jacob courtesy of the California Native Plant Society poster project

Other success stories are masses of Indian paintbrush (Castilleja miniata), brought in with their host plants many years ago by the first curator of the garden, Al Rose. These semi-parasites are thought of as being notoriously difficult to transplant and maintain in cultivation, but they are reseeding all around the garden. Red and yellow columbines (Aquilegia formosa and A. flavescens) have hybridized here and are reseeding themselves. They have also crossed with the common purple European Aquilegia vulgaris in a nearby garden, resulting in a number of intermediate forms.

Drifts of annuals, including sea blush (Plectritis congesta), blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia parviflora), and two collomias, Collomia grandiflora and C. heterophylla, all put on good shows for a few years, but have to be resown after a while. The most successful perennials have been yellow woolly sunflower (Eriophyllum lanatum) and the lovely deep blue Geranium erianthum from the north, which have reseeded, forming large drifts.

A recent grant to the botanical garden from the provincial and federal departments of agri­culture and the British Columbia nursery industry has allowed the collection of particularly good native plants from throughout the province. The goal is to introduce the best of these to the nursery trade through the garden’s already successful plant introduction program. The grant also has allowed scientists at the garden to get into new areas of the province, to learn more about the flora and the distributions of some of the rare plants. The province does not have a rich flora — a reflection of its northern location rather than its size. There are fewer than 2,500 species of vascular plants and only about a dozen endemics. However, there are certainly many new plants to be found.

The native garden recently named a new curator, Tom Wheeler, under whose leadership we hope to see the garden enter a new era of development, utilization for research and teaching by the university community, and enjoyment by the public.

Emily Moore, Seattle

The Northwest Native Garden in Tacoma’s Point Defiance Park was conceived in 1963 by forward-thinking members of the Tacoma Garden Club who “wanted to do something for the community, wanted to assist educators endeavoring to acquaint students with the flora of the Pacific Northwest, and wanted to provide a pleasant place for people to visit.” With the cooperation of the Metropolitan Park District, the original committee examined potential sites within the 698 acres of the park and, having selected the two and a half acres they deemed suitable, proceeded to turn a dream into reality.

With professional advice a master plan was developed to realize the educational theme, that is, to show native flora in distinct climatic zones representative of the western Washington region. To do so required the replication, to the extent possible, of microclimates that support a wide variety of plants in the wild. Originally five zones were established: coastal forest, subalpine, high alpine and scree, the San Juan region, and bog.

A coastal forest consists of moist woodlands and undulating lowland, a region remarkable for its mild climate, abundant rainfall, and luxuriant forests. More than one hundred species of flowers are found in the woodlands and open meadows of the coastal forest.

White heather (Cassiope mertensiana)
White heather (Cassiope mertensiana)

Subalpine regions of extremely cold winters with deep snow, short summers, and swirling mists are at timberline, with mountain hemlock, alpine fir, Alaska cedar, and white pine. In summer the meadows are aglow with red and white heather, white rhododendron, yellow monkey flower, false azalea, and other bright flowers.

High alpine and scree includes moraines formed at the terminus of a glacier and rockfalls of humus and rubble at the foot of a cliff. Small plants, including lewisias, penstemons, and rock ferns, grow in crevices.

The region on the northeastern slopes of the Olympic Mountains, or in their shadow, is called San Juan. Hairy manzanita, prickly pear cactus, Garry oak, madrone, and pine grow here.

Retreating glaciers leave lakes, ponds, and swamps in undrained depressions. The resulting wet and boggy areas contain rushes, sedges, water lilies, spiraea, and bog cranberry.

To the original five zones a sixth was added, representing the eastern slope of the Cascade Mountains, the north-south range that divides the state of Washington. The eastern Cascade region is arid, ranging from yellow pine forests through bunch grass areas down to the Columbia River basin. Pine, fir, spruce, birch, and cottonwood are prevalent, with flowering plants such as camas, peonies, daisies, lilies, and ceanothus.

The site of the native garden allowed the prescribed zones to be developed on wooded slopes rising from the bog area in the center of the lowest level, with the subalpine and coastal forest on one side, the San Juan region on more open ground on the other side, the high alpine and scree above, and the eastern cascade at the highest level, again on open ground.

The bog surrounds a man-made pond, fed by the runoff from a water cascade, also manmade, flowing from the upper level of the coastal forest and providing the moisture and humid atmosphere enjoyed by ferns and other plants along its course. A rustic shelter, added to the garden in 1973, along with a carved wood map and garden guide, overlooks the pond and invites visitors to rest and enjoy the tranquil setting.

Depending on the season, wildflowers bloom in all zones, to the delight and surprise of visitors. Around the pond moisture-loving plants abound, including Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium and M. repens), Labrador tea (Ledum groenlandicum) and Ledum glandulosum var. columbianum, alumroot (Heuchera glabra), bog rosemary (Andromeda polifolia), marsh marigold (Caltha biflora), and bog laurel (Kalmia occidentalis).

In the coastal forest area adjoining the bog, conifers, vine maples, and native dogwood are a quiet background for woodland treasures such as flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum), bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), false Solomon’s seal (Smilacina racemosa), wood sorrel (Oxalis oregana), inside-out flower (Vancouveria hexandra), and beach strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis), better known for its handsome flower than for its small and tasteless fruit. Stealing the show in its season is the western azalea (Rhododendron occidentale) with peach pink fragrant flowers. Less obvious among them but worth seeking are the flowers of the coast trillium (Trillium ovatum), which add striking notes of white to the springtime medley.

In the subalpine area the woodland is more open and other kinds of flowering plants are at home. Outstanding here is bear grass (Xerophyllum tenax), also known as fire lily, elk grass, Indian basket, and by other names. Partridge foot (Luetkea pectinata) spreads over a large rock, and star flower (Trientalis latifolia) pops up its dainty white flowers everywhere. Mountain valerian ( Valeriana sitchensis), also white, but taller and showier than star flower, and mountain heather are also seen here.

Lewisia tweedyi. Drawings by Kristin Jacob
Lewisia tweedyi. Drawings by Kristin Jacob

Higher, in a simulation of conditions above the treeline, the scree offers some of the garden’s most treasured plants. In a rock-strewn setting with only gravel for their roots, amazingly beautiful plants flower in what appears to be the harshest of environments. Long roots allow these plants to survive by drawing water from great depths. Difficult to establish in gardens, they reward patient gardeners with a multitude of brilliant flowers. Here are Lewisia columbiana and L. cotyledon, bitter root (L. rediviva), and the rare L. tweedyi, perhaps the loveliest of this charming clan. Penstemons also thrive in this gravelly bed, including Penstemon barrettiae, P. davidsonii, P. fruticosus, and P. rupicola, along with mahala mat (Ceanothus prostratus), avalanche lily (Erythronium grandiflorum), fleabane (Erigeron compositus), shooting star (Dodecatheon hendersonii), mountain avens (Dryas octopetala), and Phlox diffusa.

Spreading phlox (Phlox diffusa)
Spreading phlox (Phlox diffusa)

Completely different from all others is the San Juan zone, which supports plants tolerant of dry, open, and windswept locations. Typical of these are the sedums and yarrows, here in variety, red mountain heather (Phyllodoce empetriformis), evening primrose (Oenothera biennis), ocean spray (Holodiscus discolor), wood rose (Rosa gymnocarpa), in addition to the currants, penstemons, and vacciniums found in some other zones.

Hooker’s evening primrose (Oenothera hookeri subsp. angustifolia)
Hooker’s evening primrose (Oenothera hookeri subsp. angustifolia)

This unusual display is an ongoing project of the Tacoma Garden Club, whose members regularly maintain and improve the garden, and whose financial support provides plants, seeds, and the wherewithal for major undertakings. It is hoped that visitors becoming acquainted with the beauty and variety of plants native to their region will be inspired to help save them from destruction, and perhaps to cultivate them in their gardens — a mode of conservation of increasing significance where every scrap of land is coveted by developers or trodden underfoot by lovers of the wilderness.

Andy Rice, Portland

Woodland and field alike offer endless surprises in the Oregon spring, but much is missed by the hurried passerby. A marsh of camas or a meadow of blue-eyed Mary may catch the eye of the passing motorist, but a fritillary begs one to take foot and focus on the detail of the field.

The rice root lily (Fritillaria lanceolata) has nodding, campanulate, yellow-mottled, dark purplish flowers. The yellow anthers are especially enhanced by this dark background. This fritillary thrives in well drained soils. l find that with a single mowing of my meadow in June following setting of seed, abundant seedlings appear the following spring. This suggests that in similar garden conditions and with a little care to reduce competition, it will readily increase. Heavy foot traffic in summer seems of little consequence to the rice-like bulblets below the surface. Its yellow-flowered cousin from east of the Cascades, F. pudica, flowers on the heels of receding snows beginning in March, usually with only a single flower. It too requires well drained soils.

Brodiaeas, eriophyllum, larkspur, and collinsias frequently share space with Fritillaria lanceolata but flower later, as it is setting seed. However, where these other plants prosper, the rice root lily seems to occur in smaller numbers. Unlike the lily, they require full sun to thrive, and their late May and June flowering will delay mowing if they are to be preserved.

Brodiaea congesta bears dense clusters of lavender-blue flowers on stalks up to twenty-four inches tall. The flowers appear after the strap-shaped basal leaves have withered. B. hyacinthina is a frequent companion of B. congesta and of similar scale. However, its flowers, in clusters of a dozen or more, are white with a greenish stripe on both sides of the petals and sepals. Some gardeners mistake it for an allium.

Because these brodiaeas all but disappear by midsummer and their foliage is not distinctive, they can best be displayed in and around low ornamental grasses such as Briza maxima or one of the festucas or in a low, dry perennial border. The corms require good drainage.

Woolly sunflower (Eriophyllum lanatum). Watercolors by Kristin Jacob courtesy of the California Native Plant Society poster project
Woolly sunflower (Eriophyllum lanatum)

Eriophyllum lanatum is a member of the sunflower family. It has woolly, gray, ground-hugging foliage and bears numerous yellow-rayed flowers on stems up to twelve inches tall beginning in May and extending into July. It is often referred to as Oregon sunshine. To some who reside in the Northwest, this name may seem like an oxymoron.

Oregon woodlands offer a continuous display of wildflowers throughout the year if one counts fruit, form, and foliage as part of the attraction. Synthyris reniformis is widespread in the Willamette Valley and Columbia River Gorge. It is found in the shade of coniferous and oak woods alike. The basal leaves persist through the year, and the small, purplish blue flowers may begin as early as Christmas in mild winters and continue into summer if the soil remains moist. Its common name, snow queen, reminds me of once seeing its purplish flowers and attractive leaves through a dusting of January snow.

Heuchera micrantha var. micrantha is a native alumroot found frequently on rocky outcrops, where its tap root anchors it firmly. Its heart-shaped basal leaves persist though the winter with older leaves taking on a reddish hue. Its numerous small white flowers on twelve- to eighteen-inch stems, like those of Boykinia elata and many other members of the saxifrage family, appear as twinkling little stars on a moonlit garden path.

Boykinia elata is similar in character to Heuchera micrantha, but its loose, twelve- to twenty-four-inch panicles of flowers occur over a longer period, blooming well into summer. Although Hitchcock, in Flora of the Pacific Northwest, refers to it as a plant of streambanks and moist woods, I have seen this rhizomatous perennial flowering in full sun along road embankments near Tillamook, Oregon. Some plants have dark red flower stems, which are especially attractive.

Our common, resident bleeding heart, Dicentra formosa, is a favorite of mine. Its gray-green, twelve-inch, feathery foliage begins to appear in early spring and is soon followed by the pink Dutchman’s britches flowers characteristic of the clan. In a commercial landscape I used this beside the entry to a bank, where it is still flowering as I write this in July. An acquaint­ance called this grandma-in-the-bathtub, and I was greatly amused, as the flower was manipulated in such a way as to convey this image. D. formosa politely seeds itself about a moist garden much like Meconopsis cambrica and will spread freely in sandy soils. White flowered plants are reported, but I have not seen them.

Erigeron glaucus. Photograph by Andy Rice
Erigeron glaucus. Photograph by Andy Rice

Over 200 species of Erigeron are known, most of which occur in the northwest part of our continent. Many resemble asters, but most flower earlier and seem more conspicuous, perhaps because of the greater number of rays in the flower head. E. glaucus is a perennial of our seacoast, but a specimen planted at Clackamas Community College seems to be thriving in heat and clayey soil. This low plant is covered with lavender-rayed, yellow-centered flower heads for several months and holds itself well against competing plants.

Glenn Keator, San Francisco

Many natives lend themselves especially well to a natural meadow, which can incorporate bunchgrasses, sedges, and rushes as its framework. If the meadow is irrigated, bulbs needing a dormant period will need to be lifted and stored during summer, but sedges and rushes needing moisture all year will flourish. Starting in early spring, I like the cheerful ease of buttercups (Ranunculus californicus), short-lived perennials with a long succession of flowers like varnished yellow saucers borne on open branches. Propagation is easy from seed.

With these are the early forms of blue dicks (Dichelostemma pulchellum), with its close clusters of pale blue or purple cups at the end of flexuous stalks, which multiply readily from cormlets. Blue dicks are also easy from seed, but require around three years to reach blooming size.

Iris douglasiana seed pods
Iris douglasiana seed pods

Especially beautiful are the shooting stars (Dodecatheon hendersonii and D. clevelandii), whose neat rosettes of leaves and short flower scapes carry open umbels of nodding, swept back, cyclamen-like flowers of fine rose-purple or lavender. These two plants need summer rest; they can be lifted, if grown in pots, and stored in a cool, shaded spot though the dry season. Henderson’s shooting stars have scapes to one foot, while robust forms of Cleveland’s shooting stars may reach two feet or more, with slightly larger flowers. Root division or seeds work well for these.

Mid-spring entries highlight the irises and their relatives, along with more bulbs. Douglas iris (Iris douglasiana) happily adapts and multiplies its rhizomatous mats, with a long season of showy, delicate, orchid-like blooms carried above handsome, dark green, sword-shaped leaves. Hybridization has created a wide range of wonderful colors, from the usual blues and purples of wild forms to yellows, mauves, roses, pure white, and bronze.

Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum)
Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum)

Scaled-down iris leaves are typical of the blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum) and yellow-eyed grass (S. californicum), both with many small, open, starry flowers in April to early May. All iris relatives are easily started from divisions, but the sisyrinchiums are also easy (often volunteering) from seed.

Mid-spring bulbs that are especially attractive include Ithuriel’s spear (Triteleia laxa), with open umbels of pale to deep blue-purple, agapanthus-like flowers; white brodiaea (T. hyacinthina), robust forms bearing rounded balls of pure white flowers; and the diminutive purple pussy ears (Calochortus tolmiei), with its single, long, shiny leaf and short stalk of one to several open, saucer-shaped flowers densely bearded inside with purple hairs. All of these bulbs need summer rest and can be propagated by bulblets or, with patience, from seed.

In late spring the floral pageant continues with more of California’s exquisite bulbs, most beautiful among them the mariposa tulips (Calochortus). They are not easy for beginners and often disappear after a time, so those who relish the challenge offered by these jewels must find seed and summon patience.

Still later in the year, after spring has come and gone, natives continue to give color to an otherwise dormant landscape. Here belong the monkeyflowers, which, with a bit of moisture, create a profusion of bloom through summer. The golden monkeyflower (Mimulus guttatus) starts in late spring, with spikes of handsome snapdragon-like, golden yellow blossoms, the lower lip sprinkled with brown spots. Dead-heading will keep new stalks coming for some time. A bit later, often in mid-summer, the scarlet monkeyflower (M. cardinalis) begins its watch. Stems on this one are more robust, often to over two feet, with handsome but oddly shaped cardinal red-orange blossoms loved by hummingbirds. Staking may be helpful when stems grow burdensome with height and weight. Monkeyflowers tend to be short lived in the garden, but they are easy to reseed, often doing the job voluntarily. Large dumps also may be divided.

California fuchsia (Zauschneria californica subsp. latifolia)
California fuchsia (Zauschneria californica subsp. latifolia)

Late summer and autumn see the last of the floral pageant, and with the right planning, go out in a blaze of color. Foremost here are the zauschnerias, or hummingbird fuchsias, small forms of wild buckwheats, and California goldenrod (Solidago californica). Zauschnerias are widely spreading perennials, running by their roots to fill open spaces. They start to flower as early as July and continue until killing frosts. Although Zauschneria californica is most often seen, with rather lank stalks of pale green leaves and open spikes of trumpet-shaped scarlet flowers, Z. cana is a better choice because its stalks are neatly trim and compact and the gray-white leaves make a fine foil for the showy red flowers. Zauschnerias are easy from seed or root divisions.

The wild buckwheats deserve much wider recognition for their thrifty ways with water, their variety of forms, and fine summer-fall blooms. The largest are shrubs appropriate for foundation plantings and borders, but several cushiony plants may be included in the meadow, especially the fine Eriogonum grande var. rubescens, with close branches carrying tight clumps of spoon-shaped, silvery leaves and foot-tall open clusters of deep rose flowers arranged in dense balls. Another good buckwheat is E. compositum, with three- to four-foot stalks of closely held, flat-topped clusters of creamy to pale yellow flowers. Buckwheats are easy from seed or cuttings.

Finally, one of the best members of the daisy clan is California goldenrod, whose two-foot wands of bright yellow flowers last into fall with a minimum of water. Allow goldenrods plenty of room for their wandering roots, and remove old flowering stalks to encourage new ones. They’re also easy from root divisions.

Elegant clarkia (Clarkia unguiculata). Photograph by Dede Gilman
Elegant clarkia (Clarkia unguiculata). Photograph by Dede Gilman

Kevin Connelly, Pasadena

Three gardens I maintain illustrate different methods and motivations for using native wildflowers in the landscape. In a cottage garden of mostly exotic plants I keep for my mother, naturalized wildflowers add to the spring color scheme. Along the sidewalk orange California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) bloom among the gaillardias, whose red and yellow flowers carry on after the poppies have finished. Blue globe gilias (Gilia capitata ssp. abrotanifolia) provide contrast among pink, red, and apricot-colored roses. Clarkia unguiculata (C. elegans), with magenta to pink flowers, makes a great show with deep purplish blue rocket larkspur (Consolida ambigua), a European native. All of these seed themselves around the garden, especially the poppies, which have explosive seed capsules, so volunteer seedlings must be removed from areas where their colors are not wanted.

Fivespot (Nemophila maculata). Photograph by Dede Gilman
Fivespot (Nemophila maculata). Photograph by Dede Gilman

At Earthside Nature Center, a two-acre native plant garden in Pasadena, the possibilities of making color effects with spring wildflowers are explored more fully. A planting of Pacific Coast hybrid irises in shades of lavender and blue is accompanied by white and deep purple-blue fivespots (Nemophila maculata) early in the season and rose-purple Clarkia concinna, commonly called red ribbons, later on. Pink western bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa) has baby blue-eyes (Nemophila menziesii) for company in February and March, followed by lilac Chinese houses (Collinsia heterophylla) in April.

But at Earthside color considerations are secondary to my desire to see plants with their natural companions, for both educational and aesthetic reasons. The bright blue flowers of desert bluebells (Phacelia campanularia) would be a blessing to almost any wildflower planting, but at Earthside they grow only in the desert garden. Along with yellow desert dandelions (Malacothrix glabrata) and pinkish Lupinus arizonicus, they evoke the sandy washes of the Colorado Desert as well as making a beautiful display of color. In Earthside’s coastal section deep blue-violet Phacelia parryi and red-violet stinging lupine (Lupinus hirsutissimus) fill the open spaces on a slope planted with Salvia leucophylla as they would on a Santa Monica Mountains hillside following a brushfire. The power of a medley of native flowers to remind us of a familiar natural landscape is a dimension rarely captured in traditional garden landscapes.

Desert bells (Phacelia campanularia). Photograph by Dede Gilman
Desert bells (Phacelia campanularia). Photograph by Dede Gilman

Flowerhill, a large planting of wildflowers overlooking the Theodore Payne Foundation’s nursery in Sun Valley, exemplifies yet another way of using wildflowers. More than fifty species of annual and perennial flowers of cismontane southern California bloom and seed themselves about in this unirrigated planting. In shades of blue and violet there are salvias, lupines, phacelias, penstemons, eriastrums, chorizanthes, sisyrinchiums, and dichelostemmas. There are red delphiniums and penstemons; pink clarkias and orthocarpuses; yellow and orange eschscholzias, mentzelias, linanthuses, emmenanthes, mimuluses, and camissonias, as well as a horde of composites in the genera Lasthenia, Layia, Monolopia, Malocothrix, Hemizonia, Chaenactis, and Coreopsis; and white to cream platystemons, antirrhinums, cryptanthas, chaenactises, and linanthuses.

My work is to control weeds, thereby providing wildflowers a decent habitat. Each growing season a helper and I undertake a month of stoop labor on this hill, much of it steep and rocky, for the pleasure of finally reclining among wildflowers with not a single white mustard, red bromegrass, or wild oat in sight. I have no control over color combinations or partners, although the flowers often manage to arrange themselves very nicely without my help.

Thistle sage (Salvia carduacea). Photograph by Dede Gilman
Thistle sage (Salvia carduacea). Photograph by Dede Gilman

The greatest pleasure for the gardener here is observing plants develop under natural conditions. On Flowerhill the regal Penstemon spectabilis grows lean and upright as it should be, not floppy as it becomes in the too kind conditions of even moderately irrigated gardens. To watch an annual plant such as thistle sage (Salvia carduacea) develop into a perfect specimen with eight stout flowering stems on a ration of ten inches of badly spaced rain is both a delight and an education for any California gardener.

Ellen Wilde, Santa Fe

Wildflowers dance with the breeze in street medians, on islands in mall parking lots, around office buildings and grocery stores, in front of banks and lawyers’ offices, and at private residences all around Santa Fe. Their delicate, colorful, and charming aspect is especially welcome in spring and early summer, when few other flowers can make a good display, but we use and enjoy them all during the growing season.

The trend among gardeners to wildflowers began about twelve years ago when two young nurseries, Plants of the Southwest and Agua Fria, began to feature the native plants of the area. They experimented with growing them and helped local landscapers learn how to use them. Some plants proved to be easy almost anywhere, while others required some improvement of the soil in most sites, but they won many converts because they withstand the fierce, drying winds and hailstorms of spring without damage and are beautiful long before annuals can become established. Many are quite drought tolerant and require less watering and feeding than traditional flowers, making them practical for commercial plantings and especially desirable in our area, where rainfall is normally less than thirteen inches a year and the cost of water is high.

Probably the two most popular early wildflowers are ox-eye daisy (Chrysanthemum Ieucanthum) from Europe and blue flax (Linum lewisii). They are often seen together and are joined a little later by tall yellow Coreopsis lanceolata and small scarlet Penstemon pinifolius. The purple spires of Penstemon strictus may appear with them or combined with an early hybrid of scarlet bugler (Penstemon barbatus). All of these plants can be counted on to thrive for years, often multiplying generously.

The winner for summer color is gaillardia. It combines well with the silvery artemisias, shrubby potentilla, coneflowers (Ratibida columnifera), annual sunflowers, black-eyed Susan, and gray-leaved mounds of rabbit brush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus). As summer comes to an end, rabbit brush suddenly is covered with heads of tiny golden flowers, and, as if by magic, purple asters appear; they are prolific as weeds and self-sow year after year, to bloom in every garden, roadside, and vacant lot, but always welcome. When the golden heads of rabbit brush turn silvery, inconspicuous clumps of green seem to grow a foot a week, and towering stems of Maximilian’s sunflower peer over walls and fences until November.

These are the reliables that grace our public gardens; in our home gardens many other wildflowers are grown. It seems as if every gardener is attracted to the enormous selection of penstemons that our nurseries provide and cannot resist trying all of them. My greatest success is with those that are native to New Mexico: Penstemon strictus, P. crandallii, P. barbatus, P. linarioides, P. pinifolius, and others. We have many columbines: tall ones, such as Aquilegia coerulea and A. chrysantha, and small ones such as A. elegantula and A. saximontana. Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) I use in shady corners, with pussytoes (Antennaria rosea) and kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) for groundcovers. Indian paintbrush (Castilleja integra) provides brilliant color for two months in spring and again in fall if cut back in June. A charming yellow daisy (Hymenoxys argentea) that is found as an inconspicuous little thing on dry roadcuts and in fields becomes a long-blooming mound of butter yellow in our gardens. Chocolate flower (Berlandiera lyrata) is desired by almost everyone because of its delightful fragrance, which is reminiscent of Hershey bars and never fails to astonish garden visitors. Blackfoot daisy (Melampodium leucanthum) is a difficult plant, but so delightful with its small, crisp white daisies covering a low mound of dull green leaves that I replace it whenever it leaves me. Two others that are difficult to start are bright pink Santa Fe phlox (Phlox nana) and orange-flowered Zinnia grandiflora, but they increase rapidly once established and are quite hardy.

Most of these plants like rather poor soil and don’t need much fertilizer or water, but I have found that some improvement of the soil with organic matter does help all the wildflowers, especially those that come from higher-elevation forests, such as the columbines, and annuals that have adopted Santa Fe, such as the magenta, pink, and white cosmos that grow in profusion. Soils vary greatly all over the area, from sand to clay. Larger amounts of humus are needed with the sandy soils, but clay needs the most help. Plenty of coarse sand or pumice improves aeration and drainage in clay soil. While most of the wildflowers can survive without regular watering, some supplementary water and light feeding produces larger and sturdier plants that bloom over a longer period. Good drainage is essential for their health, but they do not need coddling to survive.


These suppliers accept mail orders. It is not a complete list, and others may be found in our advertising section, and in publications such as Hortus Northwest (PO Box 955, Canby OR 97013, 503-266-7968), and Gardening by Mail (Houghton Mifflin, 1991; from bookstores). Sales at local botanic gardens and arboretums, and those arranged by native plant societies (see Calendar section for dates) are also good sources of native plants.

Plants of the Southwest
930 Baca Street
Santa Fe, NM 87501

C.H. Baccus
(western native bulbs)
900 Boynton Ave.
San Jose, CA 95117

Nature’s Garden
(native shrubs and bulbs)
40611 Highway 226
Scio, OR 97374

Robinett Bulb Farm
(western native bulbs and seeds)
PO Box 1306
Sebastopol, CA 95473

Siskiyou Rare Plant Nursery
(Northwest natives)
2825 Cummings Rd.
Medford, OR 97501

Mt. Tahoma Nursery
(Washington state natives)
28111 112th Ave. E
Graham, WA 98338

Mostly Natives Nursery
(coastal natives and drought tolerant plants)
Box 258
Tomales, CA 94971

Theodore Payne Foundation
(native plants and seed)
10459 Tuxford St.
Sun Valley, CA 91352

Lerner Seeds
(California natives)
PO Box 11143
Palo Alto, CA 94306

Abundant Life Seed Foundation
(Northwest natives)
PO Box 772
Port Townsend, WA 98368
206-385-5660 or 7192




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