Wild for Wildflowers

Gardeners often spend January and February pouring over seed catalogues dreaming, always dreaming. They turn the pages, suddenly halting in mid-turn upon a heart stopping photo of a meadow of brightly colored flowers. They think to themselves, “Self, I’d like some of that fabulous color in my favorite spot [fill in the blank]. Imagine how beautiful it will be, and it says right here bees and butterflies will LOVE it”.

However, the golden moment passes because they suddenly recall this fantastic blog entry, and their critical thinking skills kick in. Caution is advised here. Why the caution? Well, not all “wildflower” seed mixes are created equal, nor are they advisable, from this hip, non-hipster gardener’s perspective. I hate to be the wet blanket of snow upon these winter dreams, but let us take a closer look. First of all, the term “wildflower” could mean a lot of different things. Do not let the word “wild” in wildflower deceive you. A exotic invasive is a wildflower if it has naturalized, growing wild. That is all the term really means.

So with a clearer understanding of terms, the first thing to examine is the species list of the mix in question. Some research is order. Are any of the flower varieties known invasive species? What is the percentage of annuals to perennials? Many seed mixes rely heavily on annuals for flash/bang color. You might get a year of strong color with successively less intense hues as biodiversity decreases. Are the species selected “native” to the area?

Native species deserve a bit more discussion. There are many reasons to consider natives; that is a discussion in itself. One to address here is the advertised pollinator-friendly seed mixes. The biggest mistake gardeners make when installing a “pollinator” garden is to focus on plants providing primarily a nectar source. Nectar bearing flowers are only helpful to the adult life stage of a butterfly. Host species for egg laying is important to consider as well, and guess what type of plant species you are most likely to find in a pollinator seed mix?

After considering the species list, next consider the source itself. The big concern I have immediately is: how and where are the seeds being harvested? Is the native seed mix collected in an ethical manner? From what locations are the seeds collected? Seeds planted in conditions too dissimilar from what the mother plant has adapted might lead to massive failure. A good rule of thumb is to purchase from seed sources collecting/growing in nearby level iii eco-regions. Eco-regions take into account climate, soil and surrounding flora and fauna associations rather than just USDA hardiness or heat maps.

Some of the larger seed catalog companies act only as clearinghouses for a broad range of materials, making it more difficult to trace the seed. A casual perusal of a couple of websites brought up some alarming options like birdsfoot trefoil, a notorious invasive of prairie stands, or a purple version of wild carrot. Wherever you choose to purchase a “wildflower” mix, do a little digging and plant responsibly. Friends do not let friends plant badly.

Josh Steffen, Horticulture and Facilities Manager


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