Green and Growing: A dozen native flowers that are easy to start from seed
Some seeds are easy to grow in the ground, including those of native plants.
I vividly recall, in the summer before kindergarten, watching my first marigolds and zinnias sprout, grow and flower. As more summers came along, I had further easy victories with cosmos, poppies, bachelor’s buttons, nasturtiums, sunflowers and morning glories. The adults in my life wisely gave me “easy” seeds. Success bred confidence and good memories.
But looking back, I can’t ignore the facts: None were native plants. Plants with regional roots were simply not part of the conversation.
Now we’re surrounded with messages about the importance of native plants to birds and pollinators. Is anyone teaching kids — or adults, for that matter — about easy-from-seed natives? For that matter, does anyone know which native plant seeds you can buy for a couple of dollars, scratch into minimally prepared soil, wait for a spell and get results?
I looked around for useful lists, and, finding none, asked expert native plant propagator Dan Jaffe Wilder. He is co-author of the 2018 book, “Native Plants for New England Gardens,” as well as a horticulturist and propagator for Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary in Wales, Mass.
“My top three plants for direct seeding would be black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), spotted bee balm (Monarda punctata), and partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata),” said Jaffe Wilder. “There are several goldenrods that could make the list as well. Two of my favorites are wreath goldenrod (Solidago caesia) and downy goldenrod (Solidago puberula).”
All those plants do well in average sunny to partly sunny settings. Once past the seedling establishment stage, furthermore, they are remarkably drought tolerant. (Note: Goldenrod is not the source of fall allergies. Ragweed takes that honor!)
Jaffe Wilder continued, “If you need some shade species, I’d add white wood aster (Eurybia divaricata) and white snakeroot (Ageratina altissima). For wetter sites in part shade, I suggest cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) or orange forget-me-not (Impatiens capensis).” Aside from the bees and butterflies they attract, both plants are nectar sources for hummingbirds. Also, some people use orange forget-me-not (often called jewelweed) as a mosquito repellent as well as a salve for poison ivy.
Don’t pull these plants
Some high-value natives seed themselves. All we need do is avoid pulling them.
Consider the virtues of the violet (Viola sororia) in and around neighborhood lawns, for instance. They’re so common that some consider them weeds. These natives form dense mats, persist through the growing season, are very deer- and rabbit-resistant and grow in various site conditions. They provide critical early forage for queen bumblebees. What is more, standard lawn violets are larval hosts for great spangled fritillary butterflies.
For more information about the ecological value of native violets, the Penn State Extension’s website at extension.psu.edu has an excellent fact sheet. There are other native violets worth considering, including American dogtooth violet (Viola labradorica).
White yarrow (Achillea millefolium) pops up everywhere along the shoreline. It’s a high-value plant for multiple native bees, according to pollinator ecologists at the Xerces Society. It is also a nectar source for numerous butterflies and moths.
Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) is another frequent roadside and garden volunteer. Its long-lived flowers provide nectar for hummingbirds, bees, moths and butterflies, and, when the flowers die, seeds for birds.
Here’s the irony: Because native plants are still “newcomers” to many parts of the horticulture trade, seeds can be hard to find. One of the very few companies that collects and sells regional-ecotype seeds is Wild Seed Project of Portland, Maine. Regional seeds often have valuable adaptations and are considered a gold standard for ecological restoration.
Native plant seeds are the centerpiece of several catalogs, including Prairie Nursery in Wisconsin and Prairie Moon Nursery in Minnesota. If you need to buy in bulk, try Ernst Conservation Seeds in Pennsylvania, which carries some regional ecotypes.
Don’t forget to search the online catalogs of Connecticut seed companies such as Hart Seed, NE Seed and Select Seeds, which also feature a wide variety of native plant seeds.
Finally, if you want to check the native status of any plant, visit GoBotany.NativePlantTrust.org and enter the common or botanical name.
Are you ready for success with seeds? You’ll love the results from these 12 native flowers, and so will your fellow creatures.
Kathy Connolly is a writer and speaker on horticulture, landscape design, and ecology from Old Saybrook. Her website is SpeakingofLandscapes.com.
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