Introduction to Prairie Herbs

By Joyce Driemeyer

Prairie Phlox - Phlox pilosaIf the vagaries of this past year’s weather, with its killing late spring freeze and then a long period of drought, have discouraged you from gardening, let me suggest the virtues of native plants.

Herb specialists call them forbs, but for years I have called them prairie herbs. Forbs are simply flowering plants, versus grasses and sedges, that are native to our prairies. These are all plants with historic uses. Besides being beautiful, many of these plants provided sources for our Native Americans for food, fiber, dye and medicine. Because of their extensive fibrous, or in some cases tap-rooted, systems stretching many feet into the soil, these plants were able to withstand drought and hold soil in place to prevent soil erosion and moisture runoff in times of uneven moisture. With many prairie plants, ⅔ of the plant’s growth system is underground.

By introducing these prairie herbs into a perennial border or for a naturalized site on your property, the chore and expense of watering can be avoided or greatly reduced. The plants I am suggesting all require sun and space and are not dainty little plants to be introduced into a culinary herb garden.

Although most plants will be showy in midsummer, a few will show late spring to early summer bloom. Phlox pilosa, only 1-2 ft. tall, has rosy to white flower that had a medicinal purpose. Geum trifolium, “Prairie Smoke” only 8-14″ tall, blooms May to June.

The lovely baptisias offer several valuable plants, including B. australis, with its blue bloom and roots that were used for medicinal purpose. Some baptisias, like B. tinctoria, were dye sources. For yellow bloom, include golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), a member of the parsley family that blooms mid-spring to early summer and has a medicinal history. The hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens) grows to a diminutive 15″, with golden yellow flowers mid-spring to early summer. The roots were used for medicine and as a source for red dye.

Prairie Dropseed Grass - Sporobolis heterolepis

Prairie Dropseed Grass - Sporobolis heterolepis

The only grass I shall include is Prairie dropseed (Sporobolis heterolepsis). It is extremely attractive, only gets 1-2 ft. tall, and is showy in summer, fall and even through winter. The fragrant seeds were a source of flour for Native Americans. It makes a lovely front of the border plant.

Two small shrub-like plants worth inclusion are New Jersey tea (Ceonothus americanus), with white blooms and used for tea and medicinal purposes, and lead plant (Amorpha canescens) which produces showy deep purple spike-like flowers. The leaves were used for tea and other parts for medicine.

Butterfly Milkweed - Asclepias Tuberosa

Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

In summer, color comes forth with coneflowers (Echinacea spp.) whose seed heads are loved by goldfinches. E. pallida (pale purple coneflower) and E. purpurea (purple coneflower) are especially rewarding to grow, and currently are in favor here and abroad for medicinal properties. The orange butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), sometimes called pleurisy root, gaillardia (G. pulchella), and coreopsis are all important and rewarding additions. Include Rudbeckia hirta, a tea and yellow dye plant, and the evening primroses (Oenethera speciosa and O. biennis.

For beautiful color, the striking blazing stars (Liatris aspera and L. punctata) with purple bloom. The liatris corms were used for food and medicine. White spike-like flowers appear on Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), another medicinal plant. And, of course, there are the monardas, like M. fistulosa, with purple bloom and a favorite of insects, and M. citriodora – both are tea and medicinal plants.

For fall, the asters and sunflowers come into their own. Helianthus tuberosa, popularly known as Jerusalem artichoke, or sun chokes, is a yellow sunflower whose tubers are highly edible, delicious, peeled and cut up raw in a salad or cooked and pureed and flavored with French tarragon. Among the asters, try Aster sericeus with rosy-blue flowers and take a hot bath with the stems and flowers to relieve aches and pains from your gardening chores.

Cultivars are available for a number of these plants to be included in a perennial garden. It is rewarding to know you are using plants with an historical benefit to man. I have barely scratched the surface of suggestions for wonderful native flora and prairie herbs.

Joyce Driemeyer says she’s semi-retired after more than 25 years as a professional landscape designer. She is a Master Gardener, and volunteers, lectures and conducts classes at Missouri Botanical Garden, and has actively served in both the St Louis Herb Society and The Herb Society of America.


About Mike Perry

Husband, Father, DIYer, Gardener, Runner, Tea-Drinker, Traditional Wet Shaver...
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