Non-native perennials, such as peonies, daylilies, and bearded irises, are indispensable components of the home landscape. Though suitable for the home landscape, native perennial wildflowers are often unappreciated and not widely planted. Native plants do have distinct advantages. Native wildflowers are adapted to our soil and weather conditions. Many are relatively easy to grow. The following are just a few of the prairie wildflowers that perform well in the home landscape.
The butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is a member of the milkweed family. Plants grow 2 to 3 feet tall and produce flat-topped clusters of bright orange flowers from July through September. Their flowers attract several butterfly species, hence the common name.
Butterfly weed is easy to grow. It performs best in full sun and tolerates drought and infertile soils. Because of its rather long taproot, transplanting the butterfly weed can be difficult. Carefully choose a site and don't disturb it. Also, the butterfly weed emerges slowly in the spring. To prevent possible injury, mark the planting site and don't cultivate in the area until the plant emerges.
While most butterfly weeds produce bright orange flowers, a few plants in the 'Gay Butterflies' mixture bear yellow or red flowers. The cultivar 'Hello Yellow' has yellow flowers.
Purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) grow 2 to 4 feet tall. The plant blooms from June to October. The flower heads are 3 to 4 inches wide. The brown, dome-shaped center of each flower is composed of small disc flowers. The "petals" are actually ray flowers that vary from white to pink to purple in color. The "petals" typically droop. The shape of the flower head is similar to a badminton shuttlecock. The flowers are excellent cut flowers.
Purple coneflowers grow best in well-drained soils in full sun. Plants will tolerate 1/2 day of sun. They are also heat and drought tolerant. Excellent cultivars include 'White Swan' (white flowers), 'Bright Star' (rose-red flowers with maroon centers), and 'Magnus' (rose-pink flowers with broad, horizontal petals). 'Magnus' was selected as the 1998 Perennial Plant of the Year by the Perennial Plant Association.
A tall, spectacular plant of moist prairies is queen-of-the-prairie (Filipendula rubra). It produces large, fluffy flower plumes in June through July. The individual flowers are 1/4 to 1/2 inch in diameter and are peach to pink in color. Plants grow 6 to 8 feet tall.
Queen-of-the-prairie performs best in cool locations with moist soils. An eastern exposure is best. Southern and western exposures are often too hot and dry. Because of its large size, queen-of-the-prairie is not suitable for small gardens. 'Venusta' is a cultivar with deep pink flowers.
A common sight in the tallgrass prairie is the long, pink-purple flower spikes of blazingstars (Liatris species). A few plants produce white flowers. Blazingstars bloom from July to September. Flowering begins at the top of the spike and progresses downward. Plants grow 2 to 3 feet tall.
Several species of Liatris are native to Iowa. Liatris spicata and its cultivars are most commonly planted in home gardens because they are shorter than other species. Excellent cultivars include 'Floristan White' (white flowers) and 'Kobold' (pinkish-purple flowers). Blazingstars grow best in well-drained soils in full sun. Avoid wet, poorly drained sites. The attractive flower spikes make excellent cut or dry flowers.
The flowers of the yellow coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) somewhat resemble black-eyed Susans. The flower head is composed of a center cone and yellow, drooping petals (ray flowers). The 3/4 inch long cone is initially ash gray but eventually turns to brown. The 3 to 5 tall plants bloom in June to September. The flowers attract several different butterfly species.
The yellow coneflower performs best in well-drained soils in full sun. It is drought and heat tolerant.
Several species of goldenrod (Solidago species) are native to Iowa. They produce bright yellow flower heads in August to September. Regrettably, many individuals mistakenly believe that goldenrods are responsible for hay fever. Actually, the inconspicuous flowers of ragweeds are responsible for the allergic reactions.
There are several excellent goldenrod cultivars. These cultivars are shorter than the native species and are better choices for the home landscape. Suggested cultivars include 'Golden Fleece' (15 to 18 inches tall), 'Crown of Rays' (columnar habit, 24 inches tall), and 'Golden Baby' (24 inches tall).
Other prairie wildflowers suitable for the home landscape include the New England aster (Aster novae-angliae), Joe-pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum), ox-eye (Heliopsis helianthoides), prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa), and ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata).
This article originally appeared in the April 24, 1998 issue, pp. 41-43.