In modern usage, "wildflower" refers to a plant native to the region that has not undergone any major change or improvement by humans. Many wildflowers are not true natives, but plants that have naturalized after being introduced (accidentally or on purpose) from other parts of the country or world. Cultivars of native wildflowers have also been developed and have found their way into gardens.
Some people believe wildflowers are hardy and thus easy to grow. For some plants this is true, but others need very specific growing conditions or they will decline and die. Some wildflowers are quite invasive and should be avoided except in meadow gardens. Success depends on matching the needs of each type of wildflower to specific site conditions. Try to select a location that closely resembles the growing conditions in nature; examine sunlight, moisture, and drainage conditions.
Wildflowers can be used in combination with other perennials and annuals in flower beds and borders. Plants that prefer wet conditions can be used in a bog garden or on the edge of ponds or streams. A woodland or informal shade garden is probably the best option for a wooded site. If a site is sunny and dry, a meadow garden may be the best choice. The placement of plants in a design can be very formal, or plants can be grown in a naturalistic setting. Clusters or drifts of wildflowers are quite effective.
Wildflowers can be started from seed, stem cutting, division, root cutting, or purchased from a nursery as bare-root or container-grown plants. Collecting plants from the wild may seem like an inexpensive method of obtaining plants, but the result is often less than satisfactory. Most people attempt to transplant when wildflowers are in bloom only to have the plants die. Most natives should not be disturbed when they are in flower. Mark the site and plan to transplant or collect seeds at the appropriate time. For spring-flowering wildflowers, fall is the best time for transplanting and for fall-flowering types, spring is the best time. For seed collection the best time is often about a month after flowering.
Some wildflowers can be grown from seeds. Late summer and fall are the best times to start most perennial wildflowers. Check the seed packet or reference books to determine if any special seed treatment is needed.
Some nurseries and mail-order companies sell wildflower plants. For the sake of conservation, purchase plants that have been propagated from seeds, cuttings, or division instead of those collected from the wild. Order from mail-order companies early to receive the best quality plants. When the plants arrive, check them for moisturethe roots should not be allowed to dry out. Container-grown wildflowers are planted in essentially the same way as other flowers. Water the plants before removing them from the container, loosen the roots on the outside edge of the root ball, and plant at the same depth the plants grew in the container.
and Shade Gardens
Shade-loving summer and fall-blooming wildflowers occur along forest edges in filtered or dappled shade; they will not grow in dense shade. To increase the amount of available sunlight for a shade garden, some undergrowth and undesirable trees may need to be removed. It is easier to grow wildflowers under some trees than others. Oaks, maples, beeches, and sweet gums have shallow roots and produce heavy shade; only the early spring flowers will do well near these trees. Wildflowers growing under pine trees are often quite different from those growing under deciduous trees. While the shade from pine is year round, it is a filtered or dappled shade.
Shade-loving wildflowers have several basic needs: light shade, adequate moisture, soils high in organic matter, and a leaf mulch that persists throughout the year. Most woodland wildflowers prefer an acidic soil that is rich in humus. In general, the soil should have adequate moisture but be well-drained. However, wildflowers differ in their moisture needs and tolerance of adverse moisture conditions. Some wildflowers actually need bog-like conditions (cardinal flower, jewelweed, and forget-me-not); others, such as May apple and foam flower, prefer uniform moisture.
Woodland wildflowers naturally
grow in areas where leaves and other plant debris accumulates and becomes
part of the soil environment. Organic matter and mulch is critical for
their growth; it helps hold moisture, keeps the soil cool, and helps the
soil stay loose and well aerated. Incorporate liberal amounts (3- to 5-inch
layer) of organic matter leaf compost is ideal. It is usually not
necessary to apply lime to raise the soil pH since most wildflowers are
tolerant of acidic soils. In woodland settings, it is usually best to
plant container-grown plants. Dig individual holes instead of preparing
an entire bed; this will minimize damage to established trees. Fertilizing
wildflowers is usually not necessary and can be harmful. Mulching and
adding compost is usually adequate.
A field or meadow garden is very different from a woodland garden. Meadow wildflowers need full sun for at least 6 to 8 hours a day, adequate moisture early in the year, and a well-drained soil. Soils are generally less fertile and lower in organic matter than woodland gardens.
Soil preparation should include cultivation, incorporation of a 2- to 4-inch layer of organic matter (such as pine bark or composted yard waste) and possibly lime. Fertilizer should not be incorporated unless the soil is low in nutrients. Excessive nitrogen will stimulate weeds more than it will wildflowers. If the soil is low in fertility, use 5-10-10 fertilizer. Tilling the soil will bring more weed seeds to the soil surface. After a few weeks, lightly till (1 to 2 inches deep) the soil again or use a nonselective herbicide. This process may need to be repeated several times to reduce the weed population. The use of a preemergence herbicide has limited value since it will also kill many wildflowers.
Since some seeds require chilling conditions before they will germinate, October and November are the best months for seeding a wildflower meadow in North Carolina. Lightly rake the soil surface after seeding to cover the seeds. A light layer of weed-free straw is a good mulch to reduce erosion, improve soil moisture retention, and shade the soil from hot, drying sunlight. Germination of some species will occur within a few weeks after seeding, so water to keep the soil surface moist.
Meadow wildflowers are of two basic types, perennials and annuals that reseed themselves. Those that reseed must be allowed to finish flowering and the seeds need to become fully mature before the foliage is mowed. Without management, a "natural" planting of wildflowers will eventually revert to a succession of weeds, vines, and volunteer trees. Weed control should consist of hand weeding, fall mowing, and possibly spot treating of weeds with a nonselective, nonresidual herbicide.
Prepared by: Erv Evans, Consumer Horticulturist, NC State University
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