Top Perennial Plants For Wildflower Meadows
After seeding and tending wildflower meadows for over 20 years, we’ve learned a lot. Most of our work has been done in Vermont, which means we had to deal with Zone 4 weather, but by working with wildgardeners from all over North America, we also learned which plants do best in various areas. So below are my recommendations based on actual growing almost anywhere. You can try almost any perennial in your meadow, of course. But these are ten I promise you will be major colormakers, and return for you year after year. They’re all either unhybridized wildflowers or close hybrids, and that’s what you want for a natural wildflower garden. (Of course, check the zone hardiness before you buy your plants.)
Adding plants to your meadows. How it works. It’s simple. After you seed in a base of flowers using a wildflower seed mixture, you can really move things along by also adding a few plants. Many wildflower gardeners do this at the same time they seed. That way, there’s almost no work, since your soil is already “open”, and digging in the plants is a snap. But there’s no deadline. We added plants almost every year, even after many of our meadows were over 10 years old.
Preparing the spots. Putting a plant into a meadow is a little different than putting it into a carefully watered and tended perennial garden. Out in the meadow, the plant is going to get less individual attention. Watering may be less regular. That’s one reason plants that need pampering to do well are not on this list.
If you’re putting in mature plants with well-developed roots, all you need do is be sure the soil around the new plant is good, loosened and well-watered when you plant. If you’re putting in small, young perennial plants, or bare roots, you need to do more preparation. Be sure the soil where you’re planting is as good as it can be. Don’t just stick young tender plants into rough rocky soil….common sense tells you that won’t work. If your meadow’s soil needs to be improved in the area you’re planting the plants, it’s not a big job. Maybe a sack of top soil is needed. If you’re dealing with clay, maybe some sand to loosen the immediate area. Most important, dig up and loosen the soil in the immediate area, and make it as good as you can to receive the young plants.
1. Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
The beautiful orange-flowered milkweed, native to almost the entire eastern half of the country, is always a big favorite. Completely unlike common milkweed in growth, this beauty stays low, and creates a beautiful clump of electric orange flowers in midsummer. People like it as much as butterflies.
This one is on this list since it’s really quite difficult to grow well from seed. Though it’s a common, yet beautiful “weed”, even growing along roadsides and cracks in sidewalks, it’s not always easy to get started. Most important is the soil. Butterfly weed absolutely demands sandy, sharp-draining soil…no soggy spots, please! And it absolutely must have full sun. Hot, baking mid-summer sun is what’s needed. Butterfly Weed, sometimes called Orange Glory Flower, is one of our wildflowers that’s been taken into the perennial trade without hybridization. It’s that beautiful.
2. The Perennial Gaillardias
Unlike Butterfly Weed, perennial gaillardia (Gaillardia spp.) is very easy to grow from seed. But if you just can’t wait, buy a few plants. Almost any hybrid available will be good, but look at the “height”. Unlike in a neat border, in your meadow, you want the tallest ones you can find. Short, neat clumps may be lovely in a garden, but they may be lost in a taller-growing meadow environment. I’ve found the well-known hybrids, such as “Goblin”, grow and last as well in a rough meadow environment as they do in fancy gardens.
3. Queen of the Prairie (Filipendula rubra venusta)
Never heard of it? That’s because it’s one of the most under-appreciated native wildflowers in North America. We’re had it for years, and it makes a fantastic show every summer. Lots of people say it looks like a pink Queen Anne’s Lace, but I think it’s even more beautiful. With large maple-shaped leaves, and tall stems topped with pink plumes, this one is a spectacle…and so tough and dependable! Most of the hybrids are so close to the original, you won’t know the difference.
4. The Black Eyed Susan Perennial Group (Rudbeckia spp.)
Everybody loves Black-eyed Susans, but as common as they are, they are widely misunderstood. The common native, along roadsides in most of the country, is Rudbeckia hirta, a biennial. That means it will not be permanent in your meadow. But the one that’s as common in perennial gardens as R. hirta is along the roadside, is called Rudbeckia fulgida “Goldsturm”. “Goldsturm” is not a misspelling. It’s the German spelling for “Gold Storm”, and that’s what this plant provides. In landscaping at gas stations, median strips, and other hard-to-plant spots all over the country, you see it every late spring and summer. The stems are a little taller than the wild ones, but the flowers are the same, or bigger. Clumps of this award-winner are great anywhere in any wildflower meadow. They’ll spread for you, and be there every year. This is the most common hybrid perennial, and the one that’s always available.
There are other perennial Rudbeckias, too, and if you see them for sale, grab them for your meadow. My favorite is regular native R. fulgida. This is the native perennial “Goldstrum” was made from—practically identical. Then there’s Rudbeckia pinnata, sometimes called Grey-headed Coneflower. (It isn’t grey.) This one is tall (up to 5 ft.) and has very large lemon-yellow flowers with droopy petals. It’s tough as an oak, and great for meadows. It’s so tall, it grows much like a herbaceous shrub, and makes quite a show.
5. Bloody Cranesbill or Hardy Geranium. (G. sanguineum)
This wonderful group of plants is now a large one. (And don’t confuse these with the big red-flowered window box “geraniums”…they’re totally different.) The hardy geraniums are always available in shades from magenta to white to true blue, and they’re mostly low-growing plants with finely-cut foliage. For meadows, there’s really only one that makes sense. It’s the basic “Bloody Cranesbill” or Geranium sanguineum. This plant is absolutely perfect for wildflower plantings. You must pick a place where the growth is somewhat low (not where you have lots of tall flowers or grasses), and you can enjoy the show. Bloody Cranesbill has electric magenta flowers and unlike most perennials, seems to bloom constantly. In fact, I think it has the longest blooming season of any wildflower in our meadows. It blooms longer than the annuals! Best of all, it seems to tolerate any conditions, year after year. Ours is in the worst clay soil, gets no attention, and has been slowly spreading adding more and more color for over a decade.
6. Orange Tiger Lilies (Lilium lancifolium, or Lilium tigrinum
OK, this is a bulb, not a perennial “plant”, but who cares?. We’ve found that these hardy old fashioned lilies are great accents in wildflower meadows. Be sure to buy the original orange version. Its botanical name has changed in recent years. Forever, it was called Lilium tigrinum which was easy since you can see the “Tiger” in there. But in recent years, the experts have decided it should be L. lancifolium. Hybridizers have also been at work on this worldwide favorite, and now there are red, yellow, pink and white Tiger Lilies. I prefer the original orange, since after all, this is a wildflower meadow—so I think the original “wildlfower” fits in the best.
In any case, a few clumps of orange tigers will make a fantastic display in your wild meadow. Imagine it’s midsummer, and all your wildflowers are blooming well. Suddenly, out where you planted them, the lilies rise quickly and open a host of big, brilliant orange flowers on tall stems that tower over the other flowers. They last for weeks. And they make great focal points for meadow landscapes, and never fail to appear.
The Echinaceas (E. purpurea and others)
The beauty queen of our own prairies, now so famous as a medicinal, is one of the best meadow plants anywhere. With strong, stiff stems and large purple/pink daisy-like flowers, it’s hard to beat. Commonly called Purple Coneflower, the basic purple/pink Echinacea was a treasured wildflower long before it was ground into medicine to ward off the common cold. They’re quite easy to grow from seed, but are very slow to mature. It takes about 3 to 5 years for a seeded Echinacea to become mature, and that means a big deep green clump with up to 20 flowers in mid-summer. If you want plants, and can’t find the natives, buy “Magnus”, one of the oldest hybrids that’s almost identical. The white version, usually going by the name of “White Swan”, is just as useful in a meadow, but not as beautiful. Today, since the plants are so popular in the perennial trade, the hybridizers are working hard on new colors, and they’re all probably tough and strong as the originals. But it it’s salmon or light yellow, it may be an Echinacea, but it’s not a wildflower. So I recommend sticking to the two originals—the purple/pink and the white. They’re hardy as oaks, and give you more and more flowers every summer.
Everybody loves lupines, and there are native species all over North America. The Texas Bluebonnet is a lupine. There are whole hillsides of wild yellow and blue lupines in California. The basic species from which the famous multi-colored lupines were hybridized is L. polyphyllus, a native wildflower in our Pacific Northwest.
So almost any perennial lupine that will grow in your meadow is fine. They are tough plants that form deep tap roots. This tells you they take some time from seed (especially if you have clay soil), but once you have them, you’ll enjoy them every spring.
The most widespread native species is Lupinus perennis, a wildflower that will grow anywhere on the continent and is native to practically all the regions east of the Mississippi. The seed of this species is always one of our best-sellers.
As for perennial plants, don’t hesitate to use the Russell Hybrid Lupines if that’s all you can find. They may begin red, white, pink, blue and with a rainbow of bi-colors, but you’ll notice that as the years go by, the native blue will begin to dominate over the other colors. In a decade or so, your entire lupine stand will probably be the very beautiful native blue.
All lupines have to develop a taprooot before they can bloom well, so if you have sandy soil, or a sandy spot, thay’ll love that. If you have clay, they can do fine, but it will take longer.
9. The Orange Daylily (Hemerocallis fulva)
The “wild” orange daylily, can be a great color-maker in almost any wild meadow garden. They’re happy in shady spots or right out in full sun. And their spreading habit is usually welcome in a wild meadow, while it may become a problem in perennial borders. In any case, this old favorite plant, with its fascinating history, is a surefire bloomer for you, and will reward you with more and more color each early summer as years go by. We’ve enjoyed great bloom from the old daylilies in wet spots, dry spots—almost anywhere. That’s why it’s established along many country roadsides. It’s also a snap to divide…one big old clump can easily become ten.
The history? Well, it’s not a North American native wildflower at all, but is “naturalized” almost everywhere. H. fulva is native to the Far East—China, Japan and Korea, but has traveled worldwide. The buds are a staple of the Chinese diet, even today, and in fact, you can fry a few yourself (use butter or oil) to see how you like them. Like most daylilies, these plants’ toughness comes from their thickened watery roots, which store moisture that can last for weeks. We’ve had root clumps lying around out of the ground for up to two weeks, and when planted, they were just fine. One of the legends on how this well-traveled plant “went west” with North American settlement tells of how many pioneer families took a bunch of orange daylily roots with them in their covered wagons, and those roots were perfectly happy once planted in their new western homes.
10. The Daisies.
Of course, no wildflower meadow is complete without the wonderful fresh faces of the daisies. The common roadside “weed” is the Oxeye Daisy (Chrysanthemum leucanthemum), and although it’s firmly established all over the country, it is considered a noxious weed in several states. So the best one to add to your meadow is what’s usually called the Shasta daisy. Like the Oxeye, this one is a European wildflower, not a native North American. However, it establishes well in meadows, and gives you great bloom each summer.
Any native coreopsis, and there are many, is great for your meadow. North America has several very famous native wildflowers in this group, both annuals and perennials. One of the most popular wild annuals for meadows is Plains Coreopsis (C. tinctoria) which is native over the eastern part of the continent, all the way south into Florida. But when it comes to perennials, the Lanceleaf Coreopsus (C. lanceolata) is king. It’s a great butter-yellow wildflower that blooms in meadows and along roadsides over a huge area in mid-summer.
Perennial plants are usually sold as Coreopsis grandiflora, but any tough perennial coreopsis will make a great candidate for your meadow. They’re famous for being very hardy, and tend to spread giving you more and more color as the years go by.
12. Asters and Perennial Sunflowers for fall.
Once fall weather arrives, you’ll be very glad if your meadow includes asters and sunflowers, since they offer you the final color of the year. They laugh at early frosts, and flower right on into the chilly weather. Along with the native goldenrods, the asters can make fall a meadow’s most beautiful season.
The asters to use depend on your region, and every area has its favorites. Many meadow gardeners simply move aster plants into their meadows from other places on their property. Because asters are included in the many “weeds” we all pull up in various spots in the yard. Check out those tallish plants that always come up by your garbage can. Or those leafy weeds you see out by a distant hedge. Many of these are probably asters, and if you keep pulling them, you’ll never see them bloom, since they all bloom late, many very very late in the season. Most of the native asters are the familiar blue or white, and many are really wonderful for your meadow. The only way to figure this out is to look around in the fall along roadsides or in old fields. There, among all the grasses that will be browning down, you’ll see the bright whites and blues of the asters. Walk right into the weeds with your wildflower identification guide, and learn what the plants look like. Then you’ll start seeing them everywhere….in fact, they may come up in your meadow all by themselves.
If not, there are perennial asters you can always buy and plant for a good fall show. The ones hybridized from the New England Aster (Aster nova angliae) or the New York Aster (A. nova belgii) are probably the best for wildflower meadows, since they are tall enough to stand up over your other flowers that will be fading in the fall. Hybrids like Aster Alma Potschke, the famous pink one, will do well almost anywhere in full sun. Simply ask your garden center for any New England or New York Aster hybrids they have….they are available in white, the lovely blue, and pink. If you can’t find these, ask for any “tall perennial asters”. (You need to avoid the dwarfs since they’ll be totally hidden in your meadow in fall.) Hybrids of any taller (over 30”) aster will do fine.
Sunflowers are another huge group of plants for late flowering, when almost everything else in finished. They’re all North American natives, so just choose whatever you can find.
But here are a few facts. The Kansas State Flower, Helianthus annuus, is the granddaddy of them all, and the ancient plant that Native Americans found so useful. They used every part of the plant. And this historic species is not the giant we see in today’s vegetable garden. The “Mammoth” Sunflowers with 10 ft. tall stems and huge flowers are all hybrids. The original one grows like a small bush with flowers that look a lot like large black-eyed susans. We all know the birds love the seeds of sunflowers, but those huge seed-filled centers you see on the garden giants are another result of hybridizers at work. Most sunflowers have normal-sized centers, not gigantic dinnerplate-sized centers of seed.
Of course, there are some qualities that are common to almost all sunflowers—the golden flower, the sand-papery leaves, and a late blooming season.
But the big divide is annual and perennial. The original species and all the garden giants are annuals. Most meadow gardeners prefer perennials so they’ll “come back” year after year. And there are plenty of those, too.
Maximillian’s Sunflower (Helianthus maxmilliani) is one of the best, but be careful. Don’t plant them all over your meadow or you’ll have a forest of plants that hide everything else. Plant them in clumps in the back or side of the meadow. They’ll spread by underground roots, and you’ll have a lovely colony in no time. The flowers are smaller than most sunflowers, and bloom in sprays. You’ll love them.
There are others, and to get a clump going, it’s like the asters. You need to ask your local garden center for a recommendation for perennial sunflowers. Put them in, and you’ll have a really lovely finale of color each fall forever.
Ray Allen 07/08/01