My first experience with native plants was with my parents’ poorly informed experience with a “wildflower seed mix” that they bought on clearance at the local farm store. We’d just moved to the country. My father shooed the cows out, borrowed a local friend’s tiller (didn’t remove the grass first), and tilled up a 15 foot x 50 foot bed. My mother bought a can of “wildflower seed blend” on sale from the local farm store (most likely branded and sourced from Michigan and/or California) and waited for the magic to happen.
Looking back on that perennial mix, I remember the listing saying that two of the primary species were Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea - which needs a cool period of dormancy before seeds germinate) and California Poppies (Eschscholzia californica - not really adapted to summer sowing in southeast Missouri). This canister full of seeds and dust was just setting my parents up for failure.
Nothing ever bloomed from that canister of seeds. But things bloomed in the woods. When my parents purchased our farm, ⅔ of the 72 acres was virgin forest. Never cut. So many wildflowers! The remaining ⅓ was grazed pasture which still had a fantastic native seed bank - if they’d left that alone and not mown it for a few years, it would have yielded exciting plants, too.
I went back and visited my parents last weekend. Easter weekend 2017. Guess what? There were amazing plants in flower throughout the roughly 48 acres of woodland that we’ve been managing lightly for the past 17 years.
First off, the woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata). I had some grief on social media about this, after posting it under the title of “wild sweet william”. That’s the name you see in the catalogues. Apparently some settlers called it this, comparing it to the the sweet william (Dianthus barbatus) that they knew from European gardens. Nobody must call it that any more. It seems to be a disturbance species, growing best in light shade at the edge of thin woodlands - that’s where you see it on my parents’ property, at least. I transplanted a few clumps into our woodland garden ten years ago or so - now it’s seeded itself around and is blooming phenomenally in the gaps between oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia) and lenten roses (Helleborus x hybridus). This seems to be a boom year for the phlox - it’s exceptionally abundant in the garden and throughout the woods. That color and fragrance bowl me over every time.
Besides woodland phlox, one of the most classic southeast Missouri woodland flowers is the prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum). I’d haul up its old fashioned name (all props to the internet on this one) “bloody butcher”, but I’m sure I’ll get grief for that as well. We had a major storm come through a decade or so ago, thinning out the oldest trees in the wood, opening up the canopy to light - since, I’ve noticed a dramatic reduction in the number of trillium. Apparently they like a more solid shade. In the denser parts of the forest, they’re still standing happy with their strange blood-colored petals and beautiful mottled foliage.
Another species having a boom bloom this year is the wild larkspur (Delphinium tricorne). Texas has their bluebonnets, New England has their lupines - we in Missouri have this glorious violet-blue treasure. It likes shady-cool-damp positions (don’t we all?), especially along temporary streambanks. It’s a transient species, lasting only for a week or two in full bloom, but completely worth integrating into a curated wildflower planting. It's having an especially heavy flowering this year, picking up where the drifts of phlox fade out.
These three woodland treasures weren’t the only wildflowers in bloom in my parents’ wood last week. We also had American dogwoods (Cornus florida), Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum), Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis - it's the feature plant in the photo above), and innumerable smaller and less showy species. I saw emerging buds of Shooting Star (Dodecathon meadia), Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum), and Puttyroot Orchid (Aplectrum hyemale) getting ready to speckle the woodland with astonishing beautiful flower. That doesn’t even cover the shrubs and grasses that are slowly springing to life throughout the Missouri woodland.
It’s easy to get carried away with the shiny photographs that show up on your Facebook feed. Or the lurid photos in mail-order catalogs. Or the glossy photo on the outside of a can of wildflower seed mix. Before you get carried away with trying to add new plants to your garden, have a look around. Take that year (advised by thoughtful garden design professionals) to get to understand what’s actually growing in your plot of earth. No doubt it will turn up treasures that you’d overlook if you get going gung-ho on the garden plot. What a shame it would be to miss out on the treasures that you’d already inherited as your garden legacy - look out!