Like many gardeners before me, I like to mark the seasons by watching when things bloom. If you read through old nature books, those blooms tend to belong to wildflowers. These days, they are likely to be hybrids. I don’t think I’d want to garden with only the species of flowers. I’ve grown to love and appreciate some of the flashier newcomers, like ‘Amethyst Kiss’ spiderwort (Tradescantia) and Coreopsis ‘Mercury Rising’.
I’d like to find a balance, but it is rare to find a native species in the garden center, unless that is their specialty, like Catskill Native Nursery. Plus, there can be a thin line between native and weed. However as Professor Douglas Tallamy of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, points out in his book Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens (Timber Press, 2009) if the native wildlife and insects don’t find the plants they’ve become adapted to eating, they (the wildlife and insects) will start to disappear. Apparently they are not impressed by bigger blooms and more choices of color.
A few years back, I interviewed Miriam Goldbeger of Wildflower Farm, in Ontario, Canada. They started specializing in wildflowers because they needed to grow something attractive, that wasn’t too high maintenance. But Miriam’s definition of wildflower surprised me. She grows perennial wildflowers, many of which would just be considered perennial flowers. For instance, butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Blue False Indigo (Baptisia australis), New York Aster (Symphyotrichum novi-belgii), and Jacob’s Ladder (Polemonium reptans) are probably common features in a lot of our gardens.
Still, there are many wildflowers that are shunned in gardens. My mother’s favorite wildflower was the violet, yet I know a gardener who can not abide them in her yard, let alone her garden. (By the way, rabbits seem to love to munch on violets. If you allow them to grow in your yard, the rabbits will feast on them long before they turn to your more cultivated plants.)
So what is a wildflower? This is one of those terms with no scientific definition, like vegetable. It is generally agreed to be a flower that grows without human assistance in seeding, planting, or care, but some people insist it be an uncultivated variety and others feel wild is wild – any self-seeded plant would qualify.
We can complicate things further and say that a so called wildflower is no longer a wildflower if it is intentionally planted. Those trilliums you so carefully tended do not qualify as wild. Which makes me wonder why there is a whole other term, “forb”, for truly wild growing wildflowers.
Defining a native plant seems easier, until you consider to what area it is native. Is it a North American native? A northeast native? Is it native to the hills, but not the valley? And now there’s a new term, nativar, which is applied to native plants that have been “improved” by cultivation. Tickseed (Coreopsis) may be native to our area, but the cultivar Coreopsis ‘Moonbeam’, though not a local plant, can be considered a nativar.
Plants that are not native to our area, but become naturalized are considered “naturalized aliens”, a very bad thing for a plant to be. These plants will cross with our natives or simply squeeze them out. Plants like Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) and Dame’s Rocket (Hesperis Matronalis) have taken hold along roadsides and someone did not get the memo because you can still buy seed of Dame’s Rocket.
And then there are undeniable weeds. Or are there? The classic, yet highly subjective, definition of a weed is a plant that is growing somewhere we don’t want it too. What could it have been thinking?
The one thing everyone agrees on is that the notion of sprinkling a can of seeds and getting an instant meadow is folly. This is the one sure way to answer the question of weed or wildflower. The wildflowers will not stand a chance of getting established before the weeds fill in and elbow them out.
But if you are still hoping to mark the season with a wildflower sighting, here are some that might look familiar. Keep an eye out for them, they should be blooming any time now. Photos are from the Image Gallery at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, which has a local affiliate, The Native Plant Center at Westchester Community College. It’s a great place to visit.
1. Eastern Bluestar (Amsonia tabernaemontana) Photographer: George H. Bruso
2. New York monkshood (Aconitum noveboracense) Photographer: Jack H. Selby
3. Nodding Onion (Allium cernuum) Photographer: Terry Glase
4. White or Wholly Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) Photographer: Norman G. Flaigg
5. Wood Anemone (Anemone quinquefolia) Photographer: Alan Cressler