What Makes a Flower a Wildflower?

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A wildflower meadow dominated by black-eyed Susans. Photo: asergeev.com

  • A wildflower will grow on its own, without cultivation. 
  • It will live within an interactive plant community. 
  • Generally, wildflowers are used in an informal garden, rather than a high-maintenance formal garden. 
  • Wildflowers are the sources of all cultivated plant varieties. 
  • Some are native to a region; others are “naturalized,” that is, they have escaped domestication and now reproduce freely in the natural landscape. 

Use wildflowers in a perennial border, or create a pollinator haven by edging your property with them. Many are even suitable for container growing. 

How to Choose Wildflowers for Your Garden 

  1. Think regionally. Visit a nearby nature preserve in spring, again in summer, and in fall. This will give you no end of ideas. 
  2. Buy seeds from a company you trust to ensure that you are not introducing an invasive problem into your garden. 
  3. If you have doubts about whether a plant is safe to introduce into your garden, check the USDA PLANTS Database for information. 

Starting perennial wildflowers from seed is not difficult. Before you begin, consider the origin of the plant you are growing. If it originated in a cold winter region, its seeds probably have a built-in dormancy mechanism that will prevent germination until spring. 

There’s good reason for this: if the seeds were to sprout during a fall warm-up, the seedlings would undoubtedly be killed by freezing weather. Winter weather softens seed coats through the action of freezing and thawing, allowing them to break dormancy. The term for this is cold stratification.

Two Ways to Duplicate Nature’s Freeze-Thaw Action: 

Seeds stored in a bag of damp vermiculite
Seeds stored in damp vermiculite to be cold stratified in a refrigerator. Photo: wildflower.org
  • Mix the seed with equal amounts of damp sand or vermiculite and place the mixture in a sealed, labeled plastic bag or airtight container. Store the bag in the refrigerator for about two months. Plant the seeds just after the last spring frost. 
  • Or, sow the seeds directly in your garden in fall, being sure to mark the spot with the species and date sown. You could also sow seeds in pots, tucking them into a protected spot for the winter. 

Ten Easy-From-Seed Wildflowers 

Red columbine flower
Red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis). Photo: everwilde.com

Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), native to the woodland and rocky slopes in eastern North America, grows to 3 feet in height and attracts bees, hummingbirds and butterflies in spring. Seeds will germinate easily in spring when they are sown in late fall. Cover seeds minimally with soil. Hardiness zones 3 to 8.

Virginia Bluebells in flower
Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica). Photo: americanmeadows.com

Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica), a spring ephemeral native to the moist woodlands of eastern North America, offers beautiful lavender-blue flowers on 1 to 2 foot (30 to 60 cm) stems. Plants disappear completely by summer. Directly sow the seed in late fall, or mix it with damp sand or vermiculite and store in the refrigerator for 60 days before sowing, just after the last spring frost. Hardiness zones 3 to 8.

Echinacea purpurea in flower
Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). Photo: theseedcompany.ca

Coneflowers (Echinacea spp.) require a period of cold to germinate. Native to moist to dry prairies, meadows and open woods of eastern and central North America, they reach about 3 feet in height. The native species are mostly purplish pink, but cultivars now exist in yellow, orange, white, and other colors. Hardiness zones 3 to 8.

Phlox paniculata in flower
Fall Phlox (Phlox paniculata). Photo: seedvilleusa.com

Fall Phlox (Phlox paniculata) is a 3 to 4 foot (90 to 120 cm) tall garden favorite, with a bloom period that extends from mid-summer into fall. Butterflies flock to these late summer billowy blooms. Seeds require 2 months cold stratification. Hardiness zones 3 to 8.

Penstemon strictus in flower
Rocky Mountain penstemon (Penstemon strictus). Photo: durangoplants.com

Penstemons (Penstemon spp.) are found throughout the United States in a range of habitats, from deserts to open forests. Rocky Mountain penstemon (Penstemon strictus) is easy to grow from seed and is a favorite of hummingbirds. Its 3 foot (60 cm) purple spikes thrive in the southern Rockies. Seeds require 2 months of cold, moist temperatures. Hardiness zones 3 to 8.

California poppy in flower
California poppy (Eschscholzia californica). Photo: tradewindsfruit.com

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) is perhaps the easiest wildflower to grow from seed. Native from California to southern Washington, it can be grown just about everywhere. Colorful and compact, it’s a favorite of gardeners and pollinators. Subjecting seed to a period of cold, moist treatment may help germination, though sowing right out of the packet generally yields good results. Annual.

Lacy phacelia in flower
Lacy phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia). Photo: plantsam.com.

Lacy phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia) is native to the southwestern states and grows well in hot, dry conditions. A 1 to 3 foot (30 to 90 cm) annual plant, it blooms from June to September and is of special benefit to native bees. It germinates easily without any sort of cold treatment. Annual.

Swamp milkweed in flower
Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). Photo: milkweed4monarchs.org

Asclepias species are famed monarch butterfly plants. Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), a 1 to 2 foot (30 to 60 cm) plant, is widespread in dry, open habitats in eastern and southern United States and will grow easily throughout the country. 4 foot (120 cm) tall swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is adapted to wet areas. Both require 30 or more days of cold, moist temps. Hardiness zones 3 or 4 to 8.

Three-lobed coneflower in flower
Three-lobed coneflower (Rudbeckia triloba). Photo: usperennials.com

Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia spp.) are easy growers. Arguably, the easiest of all is Rudbeckia triloba, or three-lobed coneflower. Native to eastern and midwestern states, this 3 to 4 foot (90 to 120 cm) bloomer tends to be short-lived but establishes quickly though self-sowing. Sow in fall, or subject seed to a month of cold stratification. Hardiness zones 3 to 8.

Coreopsis in flower
Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata). Photo: seedcorner.com

Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata) grows easily from seed. Colorful, heat and drought tolerant, and attractive to pollinators, it’s a good choice for the perennial border or wildflower meadow. For continuous bloom, deadhead frequently, and if plants sprawl, cut them back for a new flush of growth. Sow seed in fall, or in spring after a month of cold stratification. Hardiness zones 4 to 9.

The above article is derived from a press release by the Home Garden Seed Association which promotes gardening from seed—the easy, economical, and rewarding way to garden. Visit their website for gardening articles and information about their members and their activities. Members’ retail websites can be accessed through the Shop Our Members Online page.

3 thoughts on “What Makes a Flower a Wildflower?

  1. Joe

    As a gardener who has been messing with natives for a decade, let me add that it takes about 3, even 4, years for perennial natives to establish and begin to bloom. The adage is they need “A year to sleep, a year to creep, a year to leap.” it’s wise to use annuals to give it some color, like Coreopsis tinctoria (Plains coreopsis), among many options. The new patch looks weedy for just that long a time so if you have town/city ordinances, get a variance or be prepared to get hassled, or post a notice that it’s a “prairie in progress.” In recent years, though, there’s been a seismic shift and cities and towns are changing their attitude. Go for it! Just be prepared for the wait but it’s so worth it to see the animals, insects, butterflies and birds return!

  2. Although California poppy is easy to grow, it does not compete well with other wildflowers. That is why is is increasingly scarce in the wild. Fancy varieties of unnatural color and form do not naturalize so easily until after they revert.

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