Wild For Wildflowers

Establishing these flowers in your garden can help to promote balance in nature.

by Paula Steers Brown, Contributing Columnist

The word “meadow” is derived from the Old English word meaning “to mow.” The first mowers were the animals that cut down the grasses and wildflowers in pasturelands. Wildflowers are flowers that grow freely without cultivation – plants that thrive in the existing conditions of their native habitat. They grow not only in meadows, but also in wetlands, on the forest floor, on mountains and in deserts. Wildflowers have enormous ecological value as part of the food web, but their native habitats have been disappearing with urban development. A new organic approach can promote a balance in nature. The wild garden can provide sustenance for beneficial insects and small animals while creating a soothing aesthetic appeal, but it could not be more different from the customary landscape of modern hybrid ornamentals showcased for individual beauty. Wildflower gardening requires us to tap into a connectedness to the larger landscape much like a Frank Lloyd Wright building does to its environment.

Transition in the landscape

Perennial Sweet Pea (Lathyrus latifolius) is perfect for covering a bank in hot sun. Its luscious mauve/rose pea-like blossoms and curly green tendrils look spectacular cascading from summer baskets.

Meadows can be used to provide open spaces to attract birds and small wildlife. If you are lucky enough to live in a rural area that still affords open vistas beyond your home, a meadow would be a perfect transition from the groomed landscape to the natural areas beyond. At a woodland edge, shade-tolerant meadow plants or drifts of native shrubs create a pleasing visual transition and also provide a practical barrier to keep seedlings from the woods from popping up in the meadow. Native shrubs that would make a handsome buffer include substantive, free-flowing shrubs such as bright-yellow forsythia, showy white bottlebrush buckeye, and graceful purple-berried Callicarpa. At water’s edge, use meadow species that are moisture lovers. Forget-me-nots, common cattail, swamp milkweed, Physostegia, monarda, turtlehead, and Joe Pye “weed” are all attractive choices for moist areas. And by the way, the “weed” attitude must be relaxed. As Emerson says, “A weed is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” Controls must be placed on invasive species that can harm the environment, but many beneficial innocent plants are misunderstood such as butterfly weed, which attracts the Monarch butterfly in droves.

Roadside, city, and suburb

Few sights are prettier than the shining gold of a field of wild mustard (Brassica kaber), but it can present agricultural headaches if it invades fields of corn, cotton or soybeans.

From rural roadsides to urban industrial areas, for example, near railroad tracks, it is not uncommon to see brightly colored wildflowers clamoring over banks of dry, rocky areas that hardly seem as if they could support life. One of the advantages of planting wildflowers is that they can grow under adverse conditions in poor soil and can withstand drought. In fact, in soil that is too fertile, wildflowers may languish by either growing tall, spindly stems or by growing foliage that is too lush with few blooms. Although it might seem unthinkable to the conscientious gardener who has, for years, been adding humus to the soil, a meadow might actually thrive if some of the topsoil is removed (to another cultivated part of the garden) and the remaining topsoil is mixed with a layer of subsoil to reduce fertility.

Queen Anne's lace (Daucus carota) is difficult  to transplant, but grows readily from seeds. They attract the most beneficial of all garden creatures, the pollinators, such as bees.

Drought tolerance is one reason wildflowers began being planted by highway departments. Lady Bird Johnson started such ecological programs in the 1960s during the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign, first in her native Texas now covered with fields of bluebonnets and red Indian Paintbrush. Successful plantings of red, pink, and white cosmos frequently dot median strips in Virginia today. Hardiness also recommends wildflowers to urban conditions. What could be more of an unexpected treat than an oasis of a small meadow in the city? Wild gardens are being experimented with more and more, especially in areas where water is scarce, as a lawn substitute. Native sod-forming grasses are low-maintenance, drought-tolerant substitutes for the traditional lawn. In recent summers where drought conditions prevailed and water was rationed, these cultivars seemed destined for popularity, especially with the converts to EC – environmental correctness. 

Develop your own meadow

Fields of bluebonnets dot the landscape in Texas.

In planning your meadow garden, remember that the naturalized area should only be as large as you can control; you must be able to prevent aggressive plants from taking over and to prevent the invasion of woody species that would become a bramble patch. A field 100 x 200 ft., (2,000 sq. ft.) can be taken care of by one person with approximately one-half hour of weeding per week during the active growing season and a final mowing at the end. Grow native plants in situations that most closely resemble their natural habitat; plant species that naturally occur together in a community and support each other. Know your area’s soil type and pH, level of sunlight, temperature ranges, and amount of moisture, and choose plants accordingly. Rototill the area 6-8 inches. After three weeks, spray with an herbicide such as Roundup. Rake and wait two weeks to plant. Scatter seed, mixed evenly with damp sand or sawdust. Tamp by gently walking on the area. Mulch lightly with weed-free straw or pine tags and water until 

Showy Joe Pye and blackeyed Susans provide a variety of height and color.

established. Sow annuals to ensure bloom the first year, but include biennials and perennials for subsequent displays. In sunny areas, include grasses to fill in gaps. They serve as a foil for colorful flowers, create a feeling of openness, and help to bind the soil. Switch grass, sheep fescue, and broomsedge are good choices for a meadow. Include a meandering path (even if it is just a mowed strip in a pleasing curve). A bench or a fence can also show neighbors that your space has been carefully planned and is not just a case of forgetting to mow. Educate lawmakers about conservation in areas where zoning restrictions might limit the height of a grassy area, and involve children in becoming stewards of the environment.

© Paula Brown is a freelance writer and lecturer on gardening topics. She lives in Richmond, Virginia, where she runs her design business, Imagine That. Questions, comments? E-mail her at

Suggested plants for a Virginia meadow

Grape hyacinth, Coreopsis lanceolata, blue cornflower or bachelor’s button (Centaurea cyanus), oxeye daisy (Chrysanthemum leucanthemum), blackeyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Joe Pye and hardy blue ageratum (both forms of Eupatorium), purple coneflower (Echinacea), Queen Anne’s lace, goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), yarrow (Achillea), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), tansy, cosmos, and Dame’s rocket

Wildflowers for semi-shade

Spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana), ajuga reptans, blue-eyed grass

Wildflowers for woodlands

Mayapples, wild geranium, Virginia bluebells, nodding trillium, blue phlox, Soloman’s seal, Jack-in-the-pulpit, periwinkle, and Jacob’s ladder


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