The Seven Natives that Will Show Up for You
By Lee Recca
Photos: Duane Williams
Growing native wildflowers can be exasperating. You see them prospering all over wild areas without any help from humans. But try growing them in your garden, pampering them all the way, and they struggle or don’t even germinate at all. After several years of disappointing results growing natives, I planted several experimental plots. Over time, I’ve discovered that there are quite a few plants you can depend on to germinate, grow, and flower in the very first season if you make sure to provide some basic care. Here’s my A list of sure-fire wildflowers to grow from seed.
Blue Flax (lineum lewisii) I stand in awe of this marvelous plant. Revered for centuries, it has so many uses. Its stalks are used for fiber (linen) and for fuel. The seeds are nutritious and medicinal. It is the basis for linoleum and linseed oil. Blue Flax is very prolific and its seed heads appear throughout the summer as tiny balls on sturdy green stems. Each attractive blue flower only lasts a day or so, but the plant blooms for a long time starting in early summer. Cracking open the seed hulls liberates the black seeds. Easy to collect, easy to sow, easy to germinate.
La Veta Daisy (Erigeron vetensis) Most of the Erigerons are very easy to grow, but I chose this one as my favorite. It is not invasive and happily coexists with other natives, filling in a garden plot nicely. The basal leaves can often be evergreen.
Blanketflower (Gaillardia aristata) The native variety is perennial and doesn’t have red on its petals. Even though it looks like a plant that needs years to establish, it grows quite vigorously and will reward you with flowers the first year. From a base of lance-shaped hairy leaves, several stems are sent up to support large sunflower-like blooms. The central brown or maroonish disks become bristly gray seedheads that are easily collected. It likes a sunny area and will reward you with many blooms over several years.
Mexican Hat (Ratiba columnifera) Also called Prairie Coneflower, this yellow-petaled flower can grow as high as 2 ½ feet and loves gravelly soil on roadsides, slopes, and mesa tops. The seeds are easy to collect, as they form the “crown” of the sombrero. Mexican Hat is easier to grow than other coneflowers and blooms well into the fall.
Golden Banner (Thermopsis divaricarpa) This early bloomer grows fast and forms patches that also spread via roots and tendrils. A member of the pea family, Golden Banner enriches the often poor, gravelly soils it likes to grow in. The large peapods are easy to collect. I store them in brown paper bags from the grocery store, shelling and cleaning the seeds when inclement weather comes.
Colorado Columbine (Aquilegia coerulea) It is a happy coincidence that our state flower is easy to grow. Columbine seems to be just as happy in sun or shade, although when growing in sunny spots, it will need a bit more water, and in shady spots, it might have fewer blooms. Columbine blooms early in the summer and is a herald of blue skies and warm weather. When its trumpet-like seedhead appears, you can just tip it and pour the glossy black seeds into your hand. This flower is so prolific it would be a shame to take all the seeds; leave some to create new plants and for wildlife.
Broom Senecio (Senecio spartioides) This wildflower can grow into a small bush or clump. Springy stems hold the star-like lemon yellow flowers high, bouncing in the wind. A late-bloomer, its flowers can be seen well into fall, preferring disturbed soils on hillsides and meadows. The fluffy seedheads are easy to collect if the wind doesn’t get them first. Although Broom Senecio is listed as a perennial, my experience is that it often doesn’t come back, so be sure to help it along by collecting and sowing the seeds.
How to Plant Native Seeds
Many people have expressed their frustration with me about getting wildflower seeds to grow. It seems like it would be as easy as pie when you see wildflowers growing all over the mountains, seemingly thriving in harsh climates and conditions.
Therein lies a clue to success. Instead of babying the seeds with rich potting soil, heated greenhouses, and sheltered conditions, the opposite treatment works better. My Number One advice is to scatter these seeds in midwinter, just when you see a snow front coming in. Instead of burying them under layers of peat moss or loam, let the snow and rain carry them down beneath the protective layers of leaves and organic debris.
Whatever you do, don’t remove the clayey soils that form the substrate. The flowers need this anchor to form strong roots so they can come back year after year. Simply let leaves and other organic matter accumulate and decay into lovely humus. If you want to hurry the process along, you can sprinkle compost over the planting areas to speed the decaying process. You can also water the leaves with a sprinkler during warm or windy spells.
Another trick I use is to harvest duff—that finely textured debris that accumulates under bushes—and scatter it around. I also scrape off the mounds of ant hills and use this sandy material to mix in. Don’t do either of these things in spring, summer, or fall of course, or insects will eat or rearrange your plantings. Winter is the time when living things are safely underground.
Lee Recca lives and gardens in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, and travels to mountainous places throughout the world researching her writings and books. Her design and installation practice is called Urban Reclamation. She is president of Denver Permaculture Guild.