Mississippi State University Extension Service

Wildflowers for Mississippi Meadows and Gardens

Those uncultivated flowers found growing naturally along roadsides, in meadows and fields, and in forests throughout an area are called wildflowers. Wildflowers include a wide variety of plant types, including reseeding flowering annuals and hardy perennials, selected vines and small shrubs, ferns, and even showy native grasses. Many are well-suited for use in home gardens and landscapes because they are adapted to the general climate and soils of an area. With a little planning, you can easily plant and enjoy them for years.

Some wildflowers are perfectly useful in formal plantings and gardens where neatness is important; however, most are better suited for use in informal, meadow-like masses, or interplanted as companions to other landscape plants. Others make fine accents or are better adapted to difficult growing conditions such as hot, dry hills or low, wet areas. Remember that what may be a beautiful wildflower meadow to one gardener may be seen as a weed patch to a neighbor. The inclusion of landscape materials such as fences, benches, or marked paths may make a difference in neighborhood relations.

Many enthusiasts consider only native plants to be true wildflowers. However, a great many "naturalized" flowering plants have been introduced either deliberately or accidentally from other areas or countries or have escaped from garden cultivation.

Regardless of the origin of a plant, wildflowers offer many advantages in the garden. Their wide range of seasonal color often attracts butterflies and seed-eating birds. Most require little water, fertilizer, or pest control measures. They return, year after year, either as reseeding annuals or as true perennials from bulbs, corms, roots, stems, or rhizomes.

There are no "maintenance free" gardens. Because wildflowers have a natural ability to spread vigorously, many may become rampant invaders requiring some control. Many weedy, less-desirable plants also appear in wildflower gardens and require removal, making even wildflowers at best "low-maintenance." Winter mowing of wildflower meadows, regular pruning of faded foliage and dead seed stalks, careful use of selected herbicides, and other general gardening techniques are necessary to ensure success and enjoyment from the use of wildflowers in the landscape.


Site Selection

Success with wildflowers depends mostly on the conditions of the site. Many wildflowers have become staples in cultivated gardens, but some do not tolerate conditions normally considered ideal. In fact, many are actually better adapted to harsh conditions, such as hot, dry slopes or wet, boggy areas. It is best to select wildflower types that grow naturally in local and similar conditions, rather than try to change the site to suit the plants. Check the proposed planting area for soil type, moisture conditions, and exposure to sun or shade before choosing wildflower species.


Planting Times

Sow seeds of most wildflowers, especially spring and early summer bloomers, in the fall from September through November. They are naturally adapted to and benefit from fall rains and cold winter soils. They often grow stronger and bloom better than those sown in the late winter or early spring. Wildflower seeds sown in the early spring are susceptible to loss from heavy rains as well as from prolonged dry spells and require closer attention to mulching and water needs. Research shows that spring-sown perennial wildflowers generally do not bloom until the following season.

Plant transplants and hardy perennials in the fall or very early spring when possible. However, you may set them out any time you can work the soil if water is available. Divide existing plants when they are not actively growing or in bloom.


Soil Preparation and Planting

Many roadside and meadow wildflowers grow well even with low fertility and moisture, and thrive in poor soils. They are best planted from seed with a minimum of soil preparation. Deep tilling brings many weed seeds to the surface and is not recommended. Instead, lightly cultivate or break the soil. If an area is seriously infested with weeds, you can apply certain herbicides before soil preparation (see "Weed Control"). Erosion-prone areas may be best left with some sod intact.

Fertilizers are generally not necessary for wildflower establishment. Many Mississippi soils are acidic, and only a soil test can show whether soils need lime. Soil tests, performed through your county Extension office, may also identify serious deficiencies of phosphorous and potash, which are easily added either during soil preparation or after plants are established. Avoid high-nitrogen fertilizers, as they may cause rank growth, weak roots, and poor flower displays. After an area is successfully established, annually broadcast a light application of an all-purpose garden fertilizer in the winter when most wildflowers begin to grow actively.

Mix seeds with sand before broadcasting to help spread them easily and uniformly; then lightly rake, tamp, or roll the area to ensure good seed contact with the soil. Never plant wildflower seeds deep.

Before watering or leaving seeds for rainfall to germinate, mulch lightly with pine needles, straw, or weed-free hay to prevent the soil from crusting. Irrigation may be necessary to help get seedlings started. Be prepared to water during prolonged dry spells to prevent tender young plants from drying out and to help plants reach flowering and seeding maturity.

Perennial wildflower species naturally found growing in woods and rich soils benefit greatly from the same soil preparation given to cultivated garden flowers. Heavy clay and sandy soils may be improved by adding organic matter such as peat, finely-ground bark, leaf mold, or a combination. A 1- or 2-inch layer, tilled about 6 inches deep, helps seedlings and transplants develop strong, deep roots.

When setting out wildflower transplants, use surface mulches an inch or two deep of straw or leaves. This helps conserve moisture, slows weed seed germination, and also keeps soils loose and cool for fast root growth.

Digging flowering plants or collecting seed from the wild is often unsuccessful. There is a growing awareness that natural stands of wildflowers must be preserved for the survival of endangered plants and for future enjoyment. Many showy wildflowers have disappeared from the natural landscape because of habitat destruction and over-collection by gardeners. Some are now protected by law. Commercial production of many endangered and rare plants is on the increase. Many nurseries and mail-order firms now carry a large assortment of perennial wildflower plants. Seed companies are producing field-grown wildflower seed and packaging them both as individual species or in mixes custom-blended for various regions of the country.


Seed Mixes and Planting Rates

Several seed mixes are available for home gardeners, often containing a dozen or more species. It is important to understand that such seed mixtures are not designed to be perfectly suited to all sites. They usually contain enough variety for at least a few species to survive in nearly any habitat. Most contain some seed best planted in the fall, mixed with other seed best sown in the spring. Research shows that such mixes rarely give optimum results. For example, recent Mississippi trials, replicated across the state, showed that after a complex mix was sown, most species did not survive beyond the first flowering season. Two years after sowing, the plantings were dominated by coreopsis, blackeyed Susan, oxeye daisy, and gaillardia.

For best results, it is generally more satisfactory to sow single species of wildflowers adapted to an area, or mix several recommended ones together for a specific effect. Such a personalized mix should contain several annuals for fast color and several perennials for a longer-lasting effect. Follow recommended seeding rates. Doubling seeding rates of mixes will not generally affect the final flower density.


Weed Control

Permanent wildflower meadows are not natural in Mississippi. They are an early part of natural plant succession, usually occurring when an old field is abandoned by farmers or a forest is cleared or burned. Wildflowers appear early but are soon overtaken by tall grasses, then shrubs, and eventually trees. Some wildflowers even tend to be so aggressive that they hinder other, less competitive species. Invasive plants must be continually thinned, pulled, mowed, or sprayed. Burning may be used under certain situations to control tall grasses, shrubs, and small trees.

Certain nonaggressive grasses and native weeds can be tolerated as long as they do not compete with or dominate the wildflowers. Many, such as dock and dandelion, are actually attractive when left alone in low numbers. However, most Mississippi wildflower gardens need weeding sooner or later, especially during the first couple of years.

It is easy to hand-pull weeds in small gardens. Larger plantings usually benefit from mowing in the early summer after spring wildflowers have had time for seed maturation, or in the late fall or winter when perennial plants are dormant. Mow high to prevent damage to newly-emerged seedlings of winter annuals.

Treat hard-to-kill, undesirable weeds by spot-treating in periods of active growth with glyphosate (Roundup, Kleenup), which does not leave harmful residues in the soil. Seeds may even be sown directly over areas treated with glyphosate. Since glyphosate is nonselective, do not apply to the foliage of desirable plants. Without harm to wildflowers, even during the growing season, control true grasses such as Johnsongrass, Bermudagrass, and crabgrass with grass-specific herbicides, such as sethoxydim (Poast, Grass-Be-Gon). Follow all label directions. For more information, contact your county Extension office.


Summary

From the hundreds of wildflower species available, including both native and naturalized species, there are only a few dozen dependable or showy enough for use in Mississippi wildflower meadows. Some may take more than one attempt to get started successfully; others can quickly take over an area and crowd out competitors.

Whether grown from seeds or transplants, most wildflowers are grown much like other garden flowers. By following the basics of good gardening practices, and by taking the time and effort to do it right the first time, your results will be rewarding and long-lasting. Once given a little help in getting started, kept alive through their first flowering cycle, and kept reasonably weed-free, self-seeding annual and perennial wildflowers usually can survive and proliferate on their own.

Consult your local source of wildflower seed and information on seed packages for more specific instructions. Lists of plants suitable for your site as well as general guidelines for planting and maintenance are available from The National Wildflower Research Center, 2600 FM973 North, Austin,Texas 78725. Several good books on growing wildflowers are available through bookstores, including The Wildflower Meadow Book, by Laura Martin (East Woods Press, 1986), and Growing and Propagating Wildflowers, by Harry Phillips (University of North Carolina Press, 1985).


Seeding Summary


A Selection of Perennial Wildflowers for Sunny Meadows

The following list contains suggestions only and certainly does not contain all the possible wildflowers. Perennials may take a year or two from seed to blooming maturity. Once established, many will self-seed into surrounding areas.

Common NameScientific Name  Common NameScientific Name
Bear grassYucca flaccidaMoth mulleinVerbascum blattaria
Bitter sneezeweedHelenium sp. MulleinVerbascum thapsus
Blackeyed SusanRudbeckia hirta Narrow-leaf sunflowerHelianthus angustifolium
Blazing star, gayfeatherLiatris sp. New England asterAster novae-angliae
Blue-eyed grassSisyrinchium sp. ObediencePhysostegia sp.
BoltoniaBoltonia diffusa OxalisOxalis crassipes
ButtercupsRanunculus sp.Oxeye DaisyChrysanthemum leucanthemum
Butterfly weedAsclepias tuberosa Prairie phloxPhlox pilosa
Coral beanErythrina sp.Prickly pear cactusOpuntia humifusa
CoreopsisCoreopsis lanceolata Purple coneflowerEchinacea purpurea
Dog fennelEupatorium capillifolium Showy evening primroseOenothera speciosa
Four o'clocksMirabilis sp. Soapwort, bouncing betSaponaria officinalis
GoldenrodSolidago sp. SpiderwortTradescantia sp.
Heal-allPrunella vulgarisStoke's asterStokesia laevis
Indian blanket (perennial)Gaillardia grandiflora Summer phloxPhlox paniculata
IronweedVernonia sp. SundropsOenothera fruticosa
JonquilNarcissus jonquillaTawny daylilyHemerocallis fulva
Maypop, passion flowerPassiflora incarnata VerbenaVerbena rigida
Meadow phloxPhlox maculata White indigoBaptisia leucantha
Mexican hatRatibida columnaris Wild ageratum, mist flowerEupatorium coelestinum
Moss verbenaVerbena tenuisecta YarrowAchillea millefolium


A Selection of Reseeding Annuals for Sunny Meadow Gardens

The following list contains suggestions only and certainly does not contain all the possible wildflowers. Though annuals usually bloom quickly from seed, they require the same care in getting established as other garden seedlings. Try a few at a time.

Common NameScientific Name  Common NameScientific Name
Butterweed, groundselSenecio glabellus HenbitLamium sp.
CalliopsisCoreopsis tinctoria Indian Blanket (annual)Gaillardia pulchella
CatchflySilene armeria LarkspurDelphinium sp.
ChickoryCichorium sp.Mallow (annual)Lavatera sp.
ConeflowerRatibida sp.Maltese CrossLychnis chalcedonica
Corn poppyPapaver rhoeas Partridge PeaCassia chamaecrista
Cornflower, bachelor buttonsCentaurea sp. Phlox (annual)Phlox drummondii
CosmosCosmos bipinnatus Queen Anne's laceDaucus sp.
Crimson cloverTrifolium incarnatum RattleboxCrotalaria sp.
Cypress vineIpomoea sp.Scarlet sageSalvia coccinea
Daisy fleabaneErigeron sp. SpiderflowerCleome sp.
FlaxLinum sp.Sunflower Helianthus annuus
Hairy vetchVicia villosa Touch-me-notImpatiens capensis


A Selection of Wildflowers for Sunny Wet Areas and Ditches

Common NameScientific Name  Common NameScientific Name
Blazing star, gayfeatherLiatris sp. MallowsHibiscus militaris, others
BluestarAmsonia sp. PlumegrassErianthus sp.
BroomsedgeAndropogon sp. RushesJuncus sp.
Butterweed, groundselSenecio glabellus St. John's wortHypericum sp.
BullrushScirpus sp.Sedges Cyperus sp.
Cardinal flowerLobelia cardinalis Swamp lilyCrinum americanum
CattailsTyphas sp.Swamp sunflowerHelianthus angustifolius
Horse tailEquisetum sp.Stokes asterStokesia laevis
Indian pinkSpigelia sp.Swamp milkweedAsclepias incarnata
Joe Pye weedEupatorium fistulosum Tickseed sunflowerBidens sp.
IronweedVernonia sp.Turk's cap lilyLilium superbum
LoosestrifeLythrum sp.Water hemlockCicuta maculata
Louisiana irisIris virginicaWhite spider lilyHymenocallis sp.


By Felder Rushing, Area Horticulture Agent, and Dr. Steven E. Newman, former Mississippi State University Associate Professor, Horticulture. Appreciation is expressed to Joanna A. Warden, former graduate student, Mississippi State University, for her invaluable research in the development of this publication.

Mississippi State University does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, disability, or veteran status.

Publication 1709
Extension Service of Mississippi State University, cooperating with U.S. Department of Agriculture. Published in furtherance of Acts of Congress, May 8 and June 30, 1914. Ronald A. Brown, Director


This document is public information and may be reproduced in part or in total. It should not be used to imply endorsement of any specific brand or product. Mississippi residents may get a printed copy of this publication through their county Extension offices.


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