By Cindy Gilberg
French explorers called the once expansive grassland of the Midwest “prairie” (French for “meadow”). Specifically, a prairie is defined as having very few, if any, trees and consisting mostly of grasses. This lackluster definition doesn’t even begin to describe the abundance and diversity of plant and animal life that exists in a prairie. Some of our most stunning and familiar garden perennials are prairie plants. Other equally lovely prairie forbs are not as familiar, yet are equally deserving of a place in our home gardens.
Hot, sunny locations are no problem for these hardy natives. Average soil will suffice and does not require major amending. Likewise, once established, frequent watering is not necessary as these plants are typically deep rooted and able to withstand longer dry spells. Pesticide use should be greatly reduced or eliminated altogether. Remember that many of those caterpillars you see today are tomorrow’s butterflies. Beneficial insects such as lacewings and praying mantis will also thrive and help create a healthy balance in your garden.
In May, golden Coreopsis lanceolata brightens the foreground of a prairie garden. Soon the rich, cerulean blue spires of prairie larkspur (Delphinium carolinianum) appear to punctuate the scene. Coneflowers (Echinacea sp.) add to the total effect with soft pink petals that surround the subtly orange-tinted cones.
Beginning in late May through June, spiderwort (Tradescantia ohioensis) is in full bloom. Graceful, grass-like foliage is topped with clusters of rich blue flowers. This is a delight to behold and do so in the morning for these flowers close by noon. Strong color contrast is attained by combining spiderwort with the orange-red flower clusters of butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa). Butterflies abound to enhance the color and excitement of the scene.
Just across from the US Botanic Garden Conservatory in Washington DC is a native plant garden that serves as an inspiration for using more of these incredible plants. In mid to late summer the blazing stars (Liatris sp.) begin to bloom. There are numerous species to choose from, each with a different bloom time. The fine texture offered by the blazing star is contrasted with the incredibly large leaves of the prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum). Strong stems bearing yellow daisy flowers stand tall (up to twelve feet) and can be used as a focal point.
Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) is unique not only in name but in form as well. Long blue-gray leaves reach up like swords providing a strong accent against the foliage of the yellow coneflowers (Rudbeckia sp.). Unusual clusters of ghost-white, rounded flowers appear in midsummer.
Grasses are the backbone of the prairie and so are most appropriate to use with these plant combinations. The addition of their fine-textured foliage is a welcome contrast for the flowering plants. As fall approaches, many of the grasses put on a show of red-orange against which the fall blooming asters and many seedheads are seen. Prairie dropseed (Sporobolis heterolepsis), sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula) and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) are excellent medium size grasses (1-3 feet tall). Taller grasses (5-6 feet tall) include switch grass (Panicum virgatum) and big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii).
Cindy Gilberg, horticulturist and Missouri native, founded and ran the garden center at Gilberg Perennial Farms with her husband Doug for 28 years, also teaching classes and workshops on gardening and garden design. She now focuses on garden design, consulting and teaching, and also works part-time in the Whitmire Wildflower Garden at Shaw Nature Reserve, emphasizing the use of native plants in home landscaping.