Spring Flowers of the North American Prairie
Why Prairie Plants?
Prairie plants are beautiful and most are extremely easy to grow. Hardy and drought-tolerant, they need little watering or extra care once established.
Crocus, bluebells, tulips, daffodils, iris... In much of the United States, these are the flowers most commonly associated with spring. However, with a few exceptions, many of the flowers commonly associated with spring are not native to the United States. Unbeknownst to many gardeners, there are many beautiful, easy to grow native flowers that bloom in spring.
The North American prairie is the origin of many of these wildflowers. Once stretching from Ohio to Colorado, Canada to Mexico, the vast prairie has mostly been destroyed to make way for farms, ranches, and cities, but its hardy native grasses and wildflowers still cling to life along roadsides and other undeveloped areas. In recent years, there has been a great renaissance on interest in these beautiful, sturdy plants.
Here are a few native alternatives to the traditional flowers of spring:
Just as crocuses hail the beginning of spring in gentler lands, the Pasque Flower (Anemone patens) peeks through late snows and morning frosts on the prairies. The pasque flower, also known as the prairie crocus, is about six inches tall and ranges in color from white to deep lavender. When the blooms have passed, it produces an interesting, feathery seedhead that lingers for several weeks more.
Pasque flower prefers well-drained soil, preferably sandy or gravelly, and full sun.
Pasque flower is a medicinal plant, but should only be used by experienced foragers, because it is extremely poisonous in excessive quantities. It was used by American Indians to treat rheumatism and cataracts and bring on labor, among other uses.
I've always had a soft spot for flowers that don't really look like flowers. One of my very favorite shade plants is the bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis), a native of Japan and East Asia. Fortunately, North America's native wildflowers have plenty of interesting-looking flowers, too.
One of the prime examples is the lovely Shootingstar (Dodecatheon meadia), which combines pretty pink or white petals with pointed yellow and red centers to look like a shooting star! The flowers bloom copiously from April to June, depending on where in the United States you live, and the lush green foliage remains attractive for several months longer, until the plant goes dormant in late summer.
Shootingstar likes full sun or partial shade and moist, but well-drained soil. However, it will tolerate a range of conditions.
A couple more unique looking native flowers to check out include Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) and Dutchman's Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria).
One of the most unique prairie wildflowers, Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum) is perfect for hot, dry spots! It blooms from late spring to midsummer with nodding pink blooms that turn into lovely and distinctive seedheads that resemble smoke drifting on the breeze.The seedheads last for much of the summer, and can be dried for flower arrangements.
Prairie Smoke prefers dry, well-drained soils in full sun. As you would expect, it's quite drought-tolerant.
Only about six inches tall, Prairie Smoke makes a great, though slow-spreading, groundcover.
Blue Flag Iris
One of our prettiest native irises, the Blue Flag Iris (Iris versicolor) blooms from late spring to midsummer and likes rich, wet soils. It is a perfect choice for planting in or next to ponds or other water features.
Blue Flag Iris and its relative, Wild Iris (Iris shrevei), attract hummingbirds.
Despite its singularly unattractive name, Ohio Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) is a lovely wildflower and one of my personal favorites. Spiderwort blooms constantly and profusely from late spring through midsummer, even though each bloom lasts only a single morning.
Spiderwort prefers moist, but well-drained soil and full or partial sun, but it's not picky and tolerates a range of conditions. Spiderwort, in fact, is so absurdly easy to grow that it requires stiff competition in flower borders to prevent it from taking over. If you like ornamental grasses, consider choosing some of spiderwort's natural companions: Big Bluestem, Switchgrass, and Indiangrass, the kings of the tallgrass prairie. All are ornamental enough to do well in formal and naturalistic landscapes alike.
Although I've never tried it, spiderwort is an edible plant. Apparently the stems are similar to asparagus and the flowers can be added to salads. Birds like the seeds.
More Spring-Blooming Native Wildflowers
A selection of other wildflowers native to the prairies and woodlands of North America:
- Wild Strawberry
- Virginia Bluebells
- Bishop's Cap
- Wild Blue Phlox
- Prairie Buttercup
- Solomon's Plume
- Prairie Violet
- Golden Alexanders
- Wild Geranium
- Canada Anemone
- Wild Columbine
- Wild Ginger
- Cream Wild Indigo
- Indian Paintbrush