Gardening with Native Plants: May Favorites

A spiderwort flower turning to liquid

Spiderwort flowers bloom for only a few hours and then the petals turn to liquid. (Photo: Susan Carpenter)

May brings dramatic growth, light greens deepening to dark greens, early flowers, and gardening tasks to fill the longer days. We are planting, weeding, and finishing trimming in some garden areas. We welcome many volunteers and summer student employees to begin another season of gardening.

A gardener recently asked me to recommend three easy-care favorite native plants that anyone could grow in a home garden. It simply isn’t possible to limit the list to three—there are too many species and so many good reasons to include diverse native plants in home landscapes. Here are a few specific questions and answers about favorite plants, highlighting recommendations for May gardening.

Q: Which favorite member of the lily family blooms in May, deepens in leaf color, has pendulous yellow flowers followed by three-angled capsules, and persists in the woodland garden through summer?

A: Bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora) does best in medium shade with consistent soil moisture. You can find it growing in the Native Plant Garden and Wingra Woods.

Q: Which favorite forest species, with separate plants each bearing male or female flowers, grows in wet to mesic woods? The abundant divided leaves have delicately lobed leaflets. You may need a hand lens to see the tiny flower details.

A: Early meadow-rue (Thalictrum dioicum) grows in the shade garden and Gallistel and Wingra Woods.

Q: Which versatile plant for shade and sun blooms over many weeks, producing flowers that are each open for only a few hours before turning to liquid? It also has large seeds with rough, sculptured coats and blade-like leaves.

A: Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) forms large clumps of stems, and seedlings establish readily on bare soil. Its flowers are usually blue, but white-flowered plants also occur naturally. Spiderwort grows in the Native Plant Garden, prairies, and oak savannas.

Q: Which two favorite prairie plants have flowers that are pendulous when blooming in May, but whose fruits are held upright when maturing?

A:  Suited to full sun and well drained soils, prairie-smoke (Geum triflorum) has nodding pink flowers that straighten to an upright cluster of small dry fruits, each attached to a feathery grey structure (the “smoke”) that is wind dispersed. Growing in sun or shade, shooting-star’s (Dodecatheon meadia) white to pale purple flowers nod until they are pollinated. The fruit capsule is then held upright throughout the season. When mature, the capsule opens with a star-shaped gap to release the seeds near the plant. Prairie-smoke and shooting-star can be found in the Native Plant Garden, as well as Curtis and Greene prairies.

Q: Which favorite tall native grasses could be included as a focal point, even in a small garden?

A: In light shade, bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix) or Canada rye (Elymus canadensis) are suitable cool-season grasses reaching about 36″ in height when blooming and setting seed. These grasses have spiky and arching seed heads, respectively. The seeds germinate immediately with no cold treatment (stratification). In sunny spots, clumps of warm season big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) provide not only height (4–6 feet) but also great fall color. Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) clumps grow in diameter quickly and the leaves twist into long curls when dry in the winter. These grasses will reach full size during their first season if planted during May at a suitable site. They will also seed into other garden areas, especially edges.

The Friends of the Arboretum Native Plant Sale on May 11 will offer these species and many more. You are sure to find old and new favorites for your native plant garden. See you there!

—Susan Carpenter, native plant gardener