IN THE GARDEN for June 2015 by Justin Evertson, Nebraska Statewide Arboretum
From corner to corner, Nebraska is a great place to explore wildflowers. Eastern Nebraska tallgrass prairie has giants like compass plant that can grow up to 6 feet high and foliage that aligns with the sun. Mixed-grass beauties of the central part of the state include shell-leaf penstemon, four-point primrose, dotted gayfeather and fragrant aster. And let’s not forget our native woodland beauties—bloodroot, May apple and woodland phlox, to name a few.
We would all be smart to incorporate more of them into our home landscapes where we can enjoy them close at hand, rather than having to travel to wild places to see them. Utilizing natives offers three very important benefits. First, they’re just plain beautiful and help connect us to the part of the world we live in. Our Great Plains heritage is well worth celebrating in home and community landscapes. Secondly, native plants are typically very drought-tolerant and require few inputs to survive. They like it here and don’t ask for much, so they’ve earned their place. And finally, native plants help sustain a wide variety of important insects, pollinators, birds and other wildlife. Maintaining biodiversity may be the key to our own long-term survival so let’s include them in our own backyards and wherever else we can.
With dozens of regionally native wildflower species to consider, it can be a bit daunting to figure out what to include in the home landscape. Try them all, I say! But here are a few of my favorites for use in eastern Nebraska:
- Shell-leaf penstemon (Penstemon grandiflorus) is named for its opposite leaves that clasp around the stem like a clam shell. As its scientific name implies, this penstemon has grand flowers growing up to 3” long and coming in bright shades of pink, lavender and purple. This 2-3’ plant may live just a few seasons, but it readily reseeds itself and is great for naturalizing.
- Purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea) is known for its tiny purple flowers clustered in dense, cone-like heads atop wiry stems 1-2’ tall. During early summer the flowers bloom in a unique procession upward along the cone over a 3-4 week period. This plant likes hot, full sun and well-drained soil.
- Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) is a striking tallgrass prairie native that offers large, daisy-like flowers with drooping, pale-purple petals (ray flowers) that flutter gracefully in the breeze. The petals surround a knob-like, coppery center cone. The long-blooming summer flowers occur on rigid stems 2-4’ tall.
- Prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera) is best known for its long, cylindrical flower cone up to 2” long with drooping yellow (sometimes red) ray petals at its base. The flower cones are reminiscent of Mexican hats, thus another common name. This 1-2’ tall native blooms in early to mid-summer and is a good reseeder.
- Arkansas Bluestar (Amsonia hubricthii). Though technically not native, bluestars make great additions to the garden. They generally have light blue blooms atop leafy clumps of foliage 2-3’ tall and wide. The feathery foliage of Arkansas bluestar is especially attractive in the fall when it turns a golden yellow.
- Missouri primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa) is a low, spreading plant native to rocky areas of the central and southern Great Plains. Its large, bright yellow flowers generally open for only one day. The cultivar ‘Comanche Campfire’ blooms repeatedly throughout the summer and late into fall.
- Dotted Gayfeather (Liatris punctata) grows across Nebraska and features purple flower spikes that grow from 10” to 30” tall. This long-lived native can possess a taproot that grows 10 feet deep or deeper, allowing it to survive incredible droughts. It is a great pollinator plant.
- Aromatic Aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium) is a bushy, stiff, compact and relatively low-growing plant with hairy stems growing up to 2’ tall. It is typically loaded with violet blue flowers in the fall. Unlike other asters its fragrant foliage remains clean all summer long.
Find Nebraska wildflower resources and statewide June events at: arboretum.unl.edu/wildflower-week