The Benefits of Growing Wildflowers

More than a charming addition to the scenery, growing wildflowers supports dwindling populations of native pollinators and ultimately benefits human populations as well as the environment.

Hairy penstemon

The flowers of the Hairy Beardtongue, or Penstemon hirsutus, are a light pink color.

Photo courtesy St. Lynn's Press

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Growing wildflowers has never been easier, with help from Miriam Goldberger’s Taming Wildflowers (St. Lynn’s Press, 2014). With evident joy in the adaptability and tenacity of native plants, Goldberger presents information on each wildflower's native habitat, what pollinators it relies on, and how it can be used in flower arrangements or cooking. The following excerpt is from Chapter 1, “Wildflowers and Us: a Beautiful, Symbiotic Relationship.”

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Taming Wildflowers.


Flowers changed the face of the planet. Without them, the world we know – even man himself – would never have existed…Today we know that the appearance of the flowers contained also the equally mystifying emergence of man. – Loren Eiseley, “How Flowers Changed the World”

The great modern naturalist, Loren Eiseley, recognized the interlinked complexity of life on earth and placed flowers right at the center of things, along with us humans. I agree with him completely: we belong together.

Once upon a time, every single flower in the world was a wildflower. Wildflowers are as much the heartbeat of our planet as the oceans. All living creatures interact with wildflowers whether they know it or not. For 130 million years, wildflowers have blessed the earth with their amazing skill sets and stunning beauty – absolutely free of charge! But what do we really know about them beyond those Sunday drives into the country where we marvel at their colors and variety and maybe stop to pick a bouquet to take home?

Wildflowers are, without exaggeration, the unsung heroes of the planet; they are a powerful force that truly sustains a complex web of interdependent creatures. Without wildflowers our planet would not only be a sadder place, but life as we know it would not exist. You won’t ever catch wildflowers bragging about their accomplishments. They go about their business quietly, unnoticed and largely unobserved. But what work they do! I think of wildflowers as feminine beings, participating in the most nurturing, life-sustaining aspects of creation.

A First Look

Let me give you a glimpse of what I know about wildflowers. For a sense of their extraordinary reach and service, here are a few of the things they are doing for us and have been doing for eons:

• Attracting and sustaining beneficial wildlife (the pollinators and other creatures essential to keeping the plant and animal kingdom – and us – going)
• Creating extensive recycling, composting, land repurposing and self-regulating water filtration systems
• Mastering extreme weather survival
• Developing a continent-wide erosion control program
• Nurturing the expansion of a wide range of living organisms
• Doing all of this practical work while giving us the great gift of their beauty

A few other things to know about them: they don’t require watering or fertilizing and they filter pollutants and regulate the air quality. Their monetary value is incalculable, both for the food production that they enable and for the services they render to the ecology of the planet.

The State of the Wildflower Today

While humans have been pursuing their human activities, the environment has been in a steady state of decline. For a long time we saw this decline as a necessary tradeoff for the progress of civilization…if we were aware of the decline at all. Now, of course, our culture appears to be locked in a debate over what to blame for the problem – natural climate forces, human activity or some combination of both.

This much I know:

Somewhere around 380 million years ago, plant life covered much of the earth, before the appearance of flower forms. Today, over 90% of the native plants that had flourished here for millions of years are gone, including our wildflowers. This also means that the animal species dependent upon wildflowers for food and shelter have been decimated. Most of us live in cities or suburbs where it’s easy to lose awareness of what’s happening out in nature, especially since its decline has been happening over a long period of time.

But now we are being forced to notice that essential parts of our entire ecosystem are nearly gone. Suddenly, the changes are happening quickly, right before our eyes. We can’t avoid the news that diminishing bee populations may have a dire effect on our food supply; that nearly 1/3 of managed honeybee colonies in the U.S. were lost during the winter of 2012-2013; that monarch butterfly populations, once plentiful in North America, have hit a record low, with reported losses reaching 60% over the 2012-2013 winter; that some of North America’s most beloved birds have suffered declines of up to 95% since monitoring began in 1970 (data for the Northern Great Lakes-St. Lawrence region).

Why is this important for us to know? Bees and other pollinators are vital for three-quarters of the world’s food crops. No small thing. There are many complex causes for the loss of these essential creatures. Alarms have been raised worldwide, but time is fleeting while the scientific, industrial and governmental debates go on. Habitat continues to be destroyed, heavy pesticides, herbicides and fungicides continue to be used – and all the while death tolls keep rising among the pollinators. No creature – bee, butterfly, bird or human – can fight off the challenge of a parasite or virus if it is stressed by a lack of food and habitat and weakened with sub-lethal doses of chemicals.

Human beings are beginning to realize we have nearly destroyed the lives of the countless creatures needed to grow our food and keep the complex mechanics of our planet chugging along smoothly. As a species, we certainly have a lot to learn when it comes to long-term self-preservation.

What Can We Do?

Grow wildflowers! Because we tend to grow the same few kinds of non-native plants throughout our garden landscapes, we are literally starving the dwindling pollinator populations. Pollinators NEED native plants – a wide array of native plants! There is a symbiotic relationship between wildflowers and pollinators and it keeps our planet humming, buzzing, tweeting, and chirping along.

Wildflowers 101

There are several distinctions to be made when we try to determine just what is and what isn’t a wildflower.

Are wildflowers and native plants the same thing? A native plant or an indigenous plant is just another name for a wildflower.

What’s the difference between a weed and a wildflower? A weed is simply a plant growing somewhere that someone doesn’t want it to.

Weeds, aliens and naturalized flowers

Many flowers we think of as wildflowers actually came from somewhere else in the world. They are aliens. Two flowers often thought to be wildflowers are Dandelions and Canada Thistle. Dandelions were originally brought over from Europe in the 1600s, although it is not known whether it was intentional or unintentional. Canada Thistle seeds, so the story goes, were brought to North America by Scottish immigrants in order to continue their homeland’s tradition of including the beautiful purple thistle blossom into the bridal ceremony. Both of these alien species have made themselves very much at home here. When an alien plant grows prolifically in its new home it is said to have “naturalized.” Unfortunately for these two species, they are also, more often than not, considered weeds.

Alien invasions!

Alien plants become “invasive” when they grow aggressively, and spread and displace native vegetation. These plants are generally undesirable because they are difficult and costly to control and can dominate whole habitats, making them environmentally destructive in certain situations. Plants that seem to suddenly “take over” are labeled invasive, meaning that they have characteristics in their abilities to disperse and spread that let them do damage to otherwise intact ecological systems. This is a serious problem, both in conservation terms and in economic terms. Removing and managing these invasive plants costs taxpayers over 30 billion dollars a year. Invasive plants take over forest floors and wetlands, wiping out entire ecosystems.

But not all non-native plants are invasive! Just be sure to avoid dangerously invasive plants in your garden plans and, of course, be sure to include a wide selection of wildflowers and native grasses!

What’s an heirloom plant?

Heirloom plants were brought to North America by people from another part of the world in order to grow familiar food, flowers and other beautiful plants. They are, in effect, non-native. All heirloom plants are open-pollinated plants but not all open-pollinated plants are heirlooms. This is important to understand and will become clearer once you’ve made it through the next definition. Heirloom plants must be open-pollinated in order to produce seeds that are true to the plant, thereby continuing the plant lineage.

What is open pollination?

Open-pollinated plants grow true from seeds. That means that so long as open-pollination plants are kept away from different plants with which they can cross, they will produce seed that will come “true to type.” In other words, the plants in the following generation will resemble the parent plants. No need for human interference in their breeding habits. Hybrid plants, on the other hand, require careful management by expert horticulturalists to maintain their desired characteristics.

Open-pollinated plants reproduce themselves in one of two ways: cross-pollination between two plants (via wind, insects or water) or self-pollination (between male and female flower parts contained within the same flower or separate flowers on the same plant).

What is cross-pollination?

I learned about cross-pollination of wildflowers several years ago when I made the mistake of planting two types of penstemon far too close together in the Wildflower Farm gardens. By accident I created my own penstemon hybridizing program!

Here’s what happened: for many years we had been growing Penstemon digitalis.

Ten years ago I was captivated by the dainty beauty of another kind of native penstemon, Penstemon hirsutus or Hairy Beardtongue – an ugly name for a soft, pink, rather elegant wildflower!

I thought it might make a great addition to Wildflower Farm’s spring- and early-summer-blooming wildflower offerings. I grew about 50 plants from seed and planted most of them about 50 feet from the pure white Penstemon digitalis.

Well, after two years the entire patch of pure white penstemons turned a soft pink; the soft pink Penstemon hirsutus died off in the shade, and the few I had planted farther away in our rockery and scree garden absolutely took off and thrived!  I finally wised up and grew more pure white Penstemon digitalis from seed and planted them far, far away from the pink Penstemon hirsutus. What a great learning experience.

What is a mutant?

All wildflower growers have had the experience of discovering an exceptionally beautiful wildflower created accidentally by nature; a mutant, if you will. For example, an Echinacea purpurea that has darker purple pink petals, or one that grows multiple petals all over the seed head. Some of these mutants have become the inspiration for flower breeders. You’ve no doubt come upon some of these exotic looking mutants in your local garden center – a common place to witness first-hand Echinacea’s saturation in the marketplace.

Wildflowers Are Wise!

Like the truly wild creatures they are, wildflowers are programmed for survival.

Sometimes wildflowers would rather perish than be manipulated or trapped in any way. Wildflowers can be willful. No matter how cleverly you try to fool them with lights and heat in the greenhouse, they will only wake up from their long winter sleep when they are certain the conditions are right. They are programmed by nature to survive and are tough to trick! Good for you, wildflowers!

Many botanists and agricultural scientists are very familiar with the survival tactics native plants display when human beings attempt to control them. Currently, for example, scientists at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, are trying to find new, hardy native perennials that, unlike most greenhouse-raised plants, require low inputs of fertilizer, water and heat. Essentially, they would be cutting production costs for growers and appealing to the growing number of people interested in integrating native species into their spaces. These researchers have found that some native species simply don’t like being started in pots. And, some native plants, I will add, are super easy to grow in pots but then hate remaining in pots for any length of time!

What’s a hybrid plant?

A hybrid or cultivated plant is a cross between two different plant varieties to get the valued attributes of each variety. Hybrids are developed for disease resistance, uniformity of size, flowering, color, taste or any other characteristic that might make the plant special. Most plants and seeds for sale in North America are hybridized. Hybrid, or hybridized, flowers are easier for the grower to produce and therefore more profitable. Because they are a cross between varieties, the seed produced by hybrids will not grow true to seed. Seedlings grown from a hybrid could exhibit traits of one or both parent plants or turn out to be something totally random and surprising.

Recently, hybridized wildflowers or “nativars” have entered the marketplace, presenting important pollination and food source issues.

Cloning

Cloning is a process whereby the offspring of one plant is genetically identical to the parent from which it came. It is an expensive technique used by growers to fill greenhouses with vast amounts of beautiful flowers, all guaranteed to act exactly as their parents did.

Mass producing plants through cloning creates a monoculture and a whole host of complications. Growing a monoculture crop is a lot like playing Russian roulette: you’re toying with the possibility that an entire crop can be decimated by insect or disease.

One of the most popular garden plants in North America, the beloved Impatiens walleriana, has been wiped out by downy mildew in many parts of Eastern, Midwestern and Western U.S., and parts of Ontario, Canada.

More flats of impatiens have been sold than any other annual bedding plant; impatiens ranks fourth in the hanging basket and potted plant category. Plant industry marketers are scrambling to educate garden center sales staff on plant alternatives to offer a whole generation of gardeners hooked on buying millions of dollars’ worth of annual Impatiens walleriana plants.

Paying the cost at your local garden center

You’ve probably noticed that gardening is more expensive these days. Every expense that goes into producing the plants at your local garden center or big box store has gone up. That’s because all the overhead expenses have gone up – heating, soil, trays, fancy printed pots and tags. The hidden expenses have gone up as well. Shipping costs are higher than ever and big plant producers must pay royalties for the privilege of growing and selling specific genetic strains of plants. The royalty fees support the very expensive heavy branding campaigns of these large plant producers.

Lots of the heavily advertised, top-selling plants you see at your local garden center are vegetatively propagated or cloned by growers from cuttings. Growing expenses for cuttings are higher than traditionally grown plants, so in order to make a profit, growers must charge garden centers higher prices. At some point in this process the plants are transplanted into larger pots so their perceived value is higher and you, the final customer, feel better about paying more.

Seduced again and again…

Odds are you’ve been seduced by a plant or two. We all have. Remember that irresistible plant you couldn’t take your eyes off? The one who blindsided you with her beauty? There she was, all tarted up, decked out in full bloom, tantalizing you with her full color plant tags, her sassy foliage. You were a goner. You were so carried away you didn’t even bother to read the plant tag. You had to have that plant!

Back at home, you finally snap out of your plant lust stupor and read the tag. Curses! Duped again. This plant demands everything your yard isn’t. It needs sun and you have shade; it needs rich, loamy soil - not the sandy dirt known as your backyard. What’s a plant luster to do?

You probably know what I’m going to say. If you were growing wildflowers, you would have a lot less to worry about. Once established, native plants don’t need fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, or watering. And many are perennials – year after year they just keep on blooming. Not only is growing wildflowers good for the environment, it saves time and money. And native plants naturally attract diverse varieties of birds, butterflies and good bugs to your property.

If you are looking for a cost effective and aesthetically pleasing way to landscape, incorporating native plants into your outdoor space will reap big benefits. I’m not crusading for total wildflower purity, but I do know that once you start with natives you’re going to want more and more of them in your garden. With so many great benefits, what’s not to love?


Reprinted with permission from Taming Wildflowers by Miriam Goldberger and published by St. Lynn’s Press, 2014. Buy this book from our store: Taming Wildflowers.