For natural beauty this spring, try wildflowers

By Tom Seymour | Apr 12, 2019
Photo by: Tom Seymour Starflower is a small woodland plant.

Our native wildflowers range from ephemeral treats such as bloodroot to more long-lasting beauties such as starflower and bunchberry. All these plants require is loose soil --  preferably forest loam -- and a degree of shade.

The idea of planting wildflowers as part of a garden scheme is not new. People have transplanted wild plants for years, but that has consequences, and unless wildflowers are in imminent danger from development or construction, they should not be removed from their native environment, because over-harvesting could spell their doom. Fortunately, many retail outlets now propagate wildflowers for retail sale, thus allowing home gardeners to incorporate wildflowers into their landscapes without harm to plants in the wild.

Many of our wildflowers get overlooked, because they are either very small or else have a brief blooming time. But for many, that is precisely what makes them so special. With that in mind, let’s look at the first wildflower on my list. It’s called bloodroot, because when broken, the stem exudes a highly caustic red juice.

Bloodroot

Quite surprisingly, bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis, a native wildflower, belongs in the poppy family. Bloodroot stands up to 12 inches high and the simple flower has eight to 10 snowy-white petals. The lobed leaves, vaguely reminiscent of grape leaves, wrap around, or embrace, the stem, only opening during sunny days.

The petals last for about a week or so before falling off, one by one. The petals remain on the ground by the plant long after the bloom cycle has ended. A stand of bloodroot in bloom makes a sight almost unequaled in its dazzling brilliance. I view bloodroot as a valuable spring wildflower, ephemeral, the wild equivalent of crocus and other short-lived garden favorites.

Bloodroot’s natural habitat, the riparian land along slow-moving streams and other damp places, usually has a high sand content, so gardeners planting bloodroot should make sure to add sand to the mix. Once established, bloodroot should last for many, many springs, a welcome and looked-for sight for those who love and appreciate it. Bloodroot can tolerate full morning sun, but enjoys some afternoon shade.

Starflower

Starflower, Trientalis borealis, blooms in late spring and into the summer. Its striking whorl of five to nine shiny leaves, wider in the middle and tapered on both ends, help in identification. But the flowers, two to each plant, held on thin, spindly stalks, really steal the show. Aptly named, the flowers have six or seven sharply pointed petals, with the overall look suggesting the traditional icon for a star.

Starflower grows in huge colonies in semi-open woodlands. Like so many wildflowers, starflower likes a mix of sun and shade, heavy on the shade. In its native environment, starflower grows in concert with several other wildflowers, and these include bunchberry, twinflower and lady’s slipper.

Another thing about starflower is that while some other wildflowers grow in scattered groups, here-and-there, starflower is ubiquitous in almost all woodland settings. This means that starflower, when purchased from a reliable source, has every chance of prospering when set out in a semi-shady woodland setting. However, you needn’t have a true woodland for starflower. A clump of trees with some loose loam should suffice as a site for this plant.

Bunchberry

If bunchberry, Cornus canadensis, had a bumper sticker, it might read, “I support twinflower and lady’s slipper.” Bunchberry grows in the same plant communities as these other two wildflowers.

Interestingly, bunchberry belongs in the dogwood family. While flowering dogwoods don’t occur naturally in Midcoast Maine, our state does have other members of the family, bunchberry being one. But instead of being a shrub or tree, bunchberry is a low-growing perennial. All the same, the connection with flowering dogwood becomes obvious when viewing the blossom. A center disc of tiny greenish flowers is surrounded by four white bracts (not true petals, but petal lookalikes). The six leaves, roundly pointed, with prominent venation and wider in the middle, appear in a whorl, or “pinwheel” shape.

Bunchberry has a fairly long bloom season, followed in late summer by bunches of scarlet red, edible berries. When ordering, go for four to six plants in order to stimulate communal growth.

Bunchberry is cold-tolerant and can easily handles the coldest temperatures nature can throw at us. When planted in conjunction with starflower, the effect can be impressive. If you feel you want to begin your wildflower plantings with only one wildflower, choose bunchberry.

Seed catalogues now carry many native wildflowers, including bunchberry, and even some retail outlets offer them.

So try our native wildflowers this spring. You won’t be disappointed.

Bloodroot is short-lived and blooms in early spring. (Photo by: Tom Seymour)
Comments (1)
Posted by: Lucinda Lang | Apr 15, 2019 06:40

Hello Tom Seymour,  Thank you for all of your columns. Your suggestions to plant native plants is terrific. Home gardeners and landscapers can really make a very important impact. Natives are not only crucial but in crises due to many factors. Taking away or losing one integral member of the delicate food chain can be or is devastating. In this case caterpillars can only live on native plants. No natives = no caterpillars = no birds = no pollinators = no food. Due to this corporations are making GMO food. If you have not read BRINGING NATURE HOME by Doug Tallamy www.bringingnaturehome.net I highly recommend reading it. There will be many native plants for sale : http://www.knox-lincoln.org/online-plant-catalog/ Here in Maine we are very lucky to have Heather McCargo and organization WILD SEED PROJECT. www.wildseedproject.net.     Thank you, again.



If you wish to comment, please login.