Wildflowers and native plants: What’s the difference?

Know what you are buying, because wildflowers and native plants are not the same thing.

Native plants have become a hot topic in the last several years. Smart gardeners have come to realize that native plants have some built-in advantages. The biggest is that these plants have been growing in Michigan for thousands of years and are well-adapted to the climate and soils. Insects and diseases are infrequent. Choosing to include native plants in a home landscape can add variety plus give a glimpse of what that area was at one time.

Jewelweed. Photo credit: Vicki Deloach, Flickr.com

There are some new gardeners who assume that native plants and wildflowers are synonymous. They buy seed packs for wildflowers and think this is the envelope for care-free, native, perennial plants. A wildflower pack might have a few native plant seeds, but the vast majority of seeds are going to be something that blooms and has escaped domestication somewhere. Many of those seeds are going to be for annuals, which means they will be there one season. If the plant does not produce seeds or the seeds are not hardy in Michigan, that’s the end of those plants. The wildflower packet can be a one-season wonder.

If buying a wildflower packet, read the pack for the contents. This is where have having a good knowledge of flowers is important. For example, if the pack contained cosmos and corn poppies, they make a one-time appearance. You may be lucky enough to have a few seeds come up another year. Other wildflowers that could be included are wild carrot or Queen Anne’s lace. It is not native to the United States and is found currently in staggering quantities across the state. Blue lupine is a native perennial, but requires very acidic soil to grow well.

Native plants could be purchased as seeds, but are often purchased as small plants. The disadvantage is it’s more expensive, but the big advantage is the plant will be ready to bloom sooner, thus producing seeds sooner. Look for Michigan native plant nurseries to purchase plants.

Pokeweed. Photo credit: Philip Chapman, Flickr.com

Michigan State University Extension horticulture educators and Master Gardeners answering hotline questions are frequently asked about converting an area in their yard to native plants. Some people want to replace the lawn by sprinkling seeds over the grass. They are assuming the natives will be powerful enough to overtake the lawn and kill it off. If this is done, they will get no plants for their effort. Seeds cannot reach the soil because of the existing grass. It’s like sprinkling seeds in the tree tops. Native plants, either seeds or small plants, cannot handle the competition. Existing grass should be removed and soil loosened. Watering is critical to the plants’ survival for several years until a robust root system develops.

If you desire wildflowers, look to native plants to include in your landscaping. Besides being beautiful, many native insect pollinators will be delighted you planted them – their native habitat is available again.

Starting from the “ground up,” MSU Extension’s horticulture educators are embarking on a new campaign to help folks become “smart gardeners.”  Launching this effort, MSU Extension horticulture educators will be presenting smart gardening in a variety of ways at two public shows in Michigan. The Novi Cottage and Lakefront Living Show on Feb. 21-24, and the West Michigan Home and Garden Show on Feb. 28-March 3 will host a variety of free seminars, informational booths and be the site to “ask the experts” from MSU Extension about your gardening questions.

For more information on a wide variety of smart gardening articles, or to find out about smart gardening classes and events, visit www.migarden.msu.edu.

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