Article by Cherry Dodd
Banner photoraph by Sarah Coulber
Other images by Bruce Bashforth, Sarah Coulber, & Maria MacRae.
This Spring Grow Some Prairie Wildflowers — It’s Easier Than You Think!
Wildflowers are so special to me that I always thought they would be finicky and hard to grow. When I finally started growing them in my garden I found that on the whole they are tough, adaptable plants that are easy to grow from seed.
We always think of the prairies as a Western ecosystem, but in reality there are areas of prairie in most provinces. The species featured in this article all have a wide distribution across Canada. Each one of them can be found growing in several provinces, and in much of the United States as well. Typical prairie plants are drought-tolerant, but they do like a sunny, open location. All of these species are tough, hardy plants that need no extra water or fertilizer.
When growing wildflowers from seed, you will get the best results if you understand the difference between wildflower seeds and regular flower seeds. Wildflower seeds have several mechanisms that help the plants adapt and survive during tough times. Unfortunately, these same mechanisms mean that you will often get a low germination rate when growing these wildflowers in your garden.
For example, wildflower seeds are programmed to germinate over a period of years. In this way, the population is not lost if there is a severe drought or a fire because there will be plenty of seeds in the soil ready to germinate the following year. This means that for many species the yearly germination rate is quite low, but it is easy to compensate for this by sowing more seeds than you need.
When wildflower seeds first sprout, the plants are tiny and hard to identify. Sometimes they are up in a couple of weeks, but more often it takes a month or two for them to emerge. This is because wildflowers are perennials that concentrate on growing a strong root system before they put any energy into top growth.
So, to prevent your seedlings from getting lost, put aside a small part of your garden as a nursery area dedicated to starting seeds. Try to choose an area close to a path or the back door so that it is easier to check on their progress.
It’s best to plant each species in its own patch. For example, put only Bergamot seeds in one patch. If you do this, the seedlings will be much easier to recognize when they sprout, as they will all look alike. The weeds will be easier to spot too! When the seedlings are big enough to identify they can be moved to their permanent location.
I make my patches 15 to 30 centimetres in diameter, depending on the species and the number of seeds, and then I mark the circle with several labels. It’s amazing how easily those labels go missing! You can never have too many labels. I find that old plastic blinds cut at an angle make great, cheap labels. You can write on them with a “permanent” ink marker. The ink will last three to six months before you have to renew it. Don’t feel that you have to plant in a circular pattern. You can use any shape you like.
As the summer progresses, you will notice that your seedlings will hardly grow at all. Don’t get discouraged: there is plenty of growing going on, but it is all underground where the plant is growing the healthy root system that it needs.
The next year your plants will amaze you by growing ten times bigger than their first year size.
Now that you have the basics, you are ready to get growing, but which species should you start with?
It’s best to start with a species that is already growing in the wild in your area. These plants will be adapted to the unique conditions of your local climate and will be a lot hardier than a wildflower from another province or state.
It is also important to obtain local seeds, as many species have a wide distribution and seeds from another province will not be adapted to your local ecosystem.
To find a good source of seeds, contact your local Wildflower Society. They have a list of reputable nurseries and very often sell seeds themselves, or hold seed exchanges as a fund-raiser. (Editor’s Note: You can also check out our Native Plant Supplier list. http://www.wildaboutgardening.org/en/gab/section3/index.htm)
Let’s start the plant list with two prairie wildflowers and one prairie grass. All three species are great for beginners because they germinate well and grow quickly.
Sow the seeds in spring and cover lightly. Some people like to add a very thin layer of coarse sand or fine gravel. This layer holds the seeds in place and acts as a mulch, holding moisture in the soil.
The plants will be ready to move to their permanent location by mid to late summer, and they will bloom the following year.
The first species on the plant list is WILD BERGAMOT (Monarda fistulosa), also known as Monarda or Bee Balm. It is a medium-sized plant 30 to 60 centimetres in height, and it will grow into a nice clump. The gorgeous, showy lavender blossoms attract hummingbirds, butterflies and bees. Bergamot is a member of the mint family and prefers a sunny location. It will grow in most soils and will thrive with regular garden moisture, although it is also a useful plant for wetter areas. In Alberta it blooms in July and August.
Bergamot is so named because it smells like the bergamot orange (Citrus aurantium) that is used to flavour Earl Grey tea. The leaves, flowers, and seed-heads all have this subtle fragrance.
Bergamot can be found growing in the wild in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Ontario, and Quebec.
The second prairie wildflower I recommend is GIANT HYSSOP (Agastache foeniculum), also a member of the mint family. Its dark-green, shiny leaves have a pleasant fragrance and they can be picked and used as an herbal tea. The slender, bluish-purple flower spikes bloom in mid-summer and are a magnet for butterflies and bees. This plant is one of the easiest to grow from seed. It likes any soil and a sunny spot, though it will tolerate some shade.
Giant hyssop is a medium-sized plant. It will grow 60 to 90 centimetres high by the second year. It might eventually spread into a big clump, but it is easy to divide the clump with a sharp spade when it outgrows its location. Giant hyssop self-seeds, so you will have plenty of babies to give away to friends and neighbours. You can see Giant hyssop growing in the wild in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario.
CANADA WILD RYE (Elymus canadensis) is one of my favorite grasses. What a spectacular grass this is! It has graceful, arching leaves, and its large, bristly seed-heads look great in dried flower arrangements. If you leave the seed-heads on the plant over winter, they look wonderful against the snow and also provide food for the birds.
This remarkable bunch grass will often grow up to 150 centimetres tall. You can plant it in any soil, even pure sand or heavy clay. It prefers poor soil but will grow just as well in regular garden soil.
Canada wild rye seeds have a high germination rate and the seedlings grow quickly. This grass is a great one for beginner gardeners. Plant the seeds in spring and in summer move the young plants to their permanent location before they get too big. Each plant will need an area of at least 30 to 40 cm in diameter. Canada wild rye is common in Edmonton and can be found growing on the clay and sand banks of the North Saskatchewan River. I have even seen it by the riverside in the centre of the city. Canada Wild Rye can be found in the wild in the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.
The remaining species on the list are a little more challenging, but if you have patience you will find that they are just as easy to grow.
GAILLARDIA(Gaillardia aristata), also known as blanket flower or brown-eyed Susan, is another species that can be planted in the spring. These plants have a very low germination rate, so start with plenty of seeds. They are also slow to emerge and slow to grow the first year, but if you are patient you will find that the wait was worth it.
The tiny plants can be moved to their permanent location in the fall. Your gaillardias will be late coming up the next spring compared with other plants, but when they do emerge they quickly make up for lost time by growing into a good-sized plant, 30 to 60 centimetres tall. They will start blooming in midsummer and should still be flowering right into fall.
In Edmonton, gaillardias are one of our sunniest and most colourful wildflowers.
The large, daisy-like flowers are yellow with red centres. Sometimes the yellow petals are tinged with orange or red.
They are not common here, but can be seen lining the country roads farther south, around Red Deer and Calgary. Gaillardias need sun, and will happily grow in most soils. You can find them in the wild in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan.
The other plants on my list all have to be sown in the fall, as the seeds need a cold, damp period in the soil before they will germinate. This process is called stratification. Fortunately, for people who want to start growing this spring, there are ways to artificially stratify your seeds.
The easiest way to stratify seeds is to sow them in a pot as though you were planting them in the garden. Then put the pot in the fridge for 2 to 12 weeks. (Look on the seed package for the correct number of weeks — it varies from species to species).
Keep the pot watered by standing it in a shallow plastic saucer such as an old margarine container and adding a little water to the saucer every so often. Every time you water, check the pot to make sure your seeds are not germinating. If the seeds start to sprout, take the pot out of the fridge and give the emerging seedlings some light. A sunny windowsill or a grow light will work fine. If the weather is warm enough, gradually harden off your seedlings outside before planting them out in the nursery bed.
If you don’t have much space in your fridge, you can achieve the same result by mixing the seeds in a small amount of damp peat moss or potting soil and putting them in a plastic bag in the fridge. The peat moss should be damp but not wet.
Here are the species that need the stratification process.
HEART-LEAVED ALEXANDERS (Zizia aptera), also known as meadow parsnip, is not edible even though it is a member of the carrot family. It blooms in late spring and early summer and the bright-yellow, flat-topped flowers provide a landing pad for bees and butterflies. The glossy, heart-shaped leaves that give this plant its name are only found at the base of the plant. The stem leaves are divided into three oval leaflets.
Heart-leaved Alexanders are very easy to grow. Plant the seeds in late fall and the distinctive seedlings will appear in the spring. Germination is low, so put in extra seeds. These plants would be suitable for a wetter location in your garden, but they also do fine with regular garden moisture. They look lovely in a sunny wildflower meadow. Heart-leaved Alexanders can be seen in the wild in southwest Yukon, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario. Here in Edmonton, their natural habitat includes prairies, slough margins, open woods, and woodland edges.
HAREBELLS(Campanula rotundifolia) are also commonly known as bluebells. This species is circumpolar; in other words, it is found in temperate zones right around the planet! In fact, these flowers are the famous “bluebells of Scotland.”
This airy plant has such fine leaves that it is almost invisible until it flowers.
In July it looks wonderful with its many delicate, bell-shaped flowers nodding in the breeze. It continues blooming right through summer and into the fall. Even the first frosts don’t slow it down.
Harebells are tough plants and nothing seems to bother them. Put them in a spot where these graceful plants can be fully appreciated. A single specimen would look great in a rock garden. Harebells will grow in any type of well-drained soil, including poor soil. They prefer a sunny place but will tolerate a small amount of shade or filtered sunlight. You can see harebells in the wild in Yukon, the Northwest Territories, northwest British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Newfoundland, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. They like gravelly, stony places and in Alberta they grow in great numbers along the roadsides in the Rocky Mountains.
SLENDER BLUE BEARDTONGUE, (Penstemon procerus) is a member of the very large penstemon genus. Every province has at least one species of penstemon growing in the wild. This particular penstemon is my favorite because of the bright, often two-tone, purple-blue colour of its flowers. The flowers can come in a wide range of shades from sky blue to lilac to purple, but purple-blue is the most common.
Slender blue beardtongue is a fairly short plant, 15 to 45 centimetres in height. It blooms in late spring and then surprises everyone by blooming again from fall to freeze-up. Like the Energizer™ bunny, it just keeps going and going. The leaves stay green and alive under the snow all winter and sometimes a flower bud will also over-winter and bloom in the spring as soon as the snow melts!
To grow this wonderful plant, sow the seeds on top of the soil in late fall. Just press them into the dirt but don’t cover them. The seeds are so tiny that if you mix them with a small amount of fine sand, you will get a better distribution on the soil. Germination will be low and the plants will be tiny. However they are very tough and can be moved to a permanent location in the fall or next spring. The second year they will grow fast and bloom on schedule.
This penstemon is a fairly short-lived perennial, but it self-seeds so you will always have plenty of plants to fill in any bare spots. Slender blue beardtongue should have a spot in the front of the border since it is so short. It likes any soil and a sunny location.
Slender blue beardtongue can be found in the wild in southern Yukon, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and southwest Manitoba, but as far as we know there are no longer any in Edmonton. The last population was destroyed several years ago to make way for more houses.
It was this event, the destruction of the last tiny remnant of prairie within the city limits, that made us realize that if we couldn’t save prairie habitat, we’d better start saving the plants instead. This is when the members of the Edmonton Naturalization Group first started growing native plants. When we had trouble finding the information that we needed to grow these plants, we decided to write a book based on our growing experiences.
The book is called Go Wild! With Easy to Grow Prairie Wildflowers and Grasses, and it was published last year. It contains instructions for growing the plants featured in this article, as well as 25 other prairie species.
If you would like a copy of the book, e-mail Diana Baragar at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copies are $12.00 each plus $3.00 for shipping and handling; there is no GST.
For more information about the Edmonton Naturalization group and our various projects, visit our Web site at http://eng.fanweb.ca. This year we are hoping to have the book up on the Web site, so that we can begin to add more species as we gain experience with them.
If you live in the Edmonton area we invite you to contact us and come out on a field trip with us to one of the remnant prairies. You will have the opportunity to see all of the species in this article growing wild in their natural habitat.
Cherry Dodd, an avid gardener since her childhood, is the author of "Go Wild! With Easy to Grow Prairie Wildflowers and Grasses" and one of the founders of the Edmonton Naturalization Group.
Note: With two exceptions, you can click on the images in this article to see a larger version.