Wildflowers are a spring delight

Richard Bogren, Gill, Daniel J.

Blooming butterweed provides waves of color along a ditch bank. (Photo by Dan Gill, LSU AgCenter)

Mexican primrose provides a delicate color in the landscape. (Photo by Dan Gill, LSU AgCenter)

Hairy buttercups produce branched stalks about a foot tall bearing numerous five-petaled flowers. (Photo by Dan Gill, LSU AgCenter)

By Dan Gill
LSU AgCenter Horticulturist

(02/26/16) Mention blooming wildflowers and most people think of country meadows and drives along rural roads. Wildflowers, however, are to be found everywhere – even along the interstates and in major metropolitan areas.

Spring wildflowers delight the eye in the most unexpected places. From cracks in pavement to the banks of drainage ditches, these intrepid plants produce flowers of yellow, pink, white and purple, often softening a harsh landscape.

When considering wildflowers, I think it’s important to get the term “weed” out of the way. We use the word weed to refer to plants that are growing where we don’t want them to. It is a human designation that often has little to do with the plant itself. St. Augustine grass is a weed if it’s growing in your flower bed. Many of the plants we regard as wildflowers may also appear in lawns and flower beds, and in those situations where they are not welcome, they could be considered weeds.

The following wildflowers are native and naturally grow abundantly in Louisiana. Gardeners sometimes want to plant wildflower seeds in areas of a landscape, in a meadow or other places. If you would like to plant wildflower seeds, keep in mind it is best done in the fall in Louisiana. At this point, results would likely be less impressive from seeds planted this later in the year.

Bright yellow is a common color for spring wildflowers in Louisiana. Perhaps the most showy and noticeable is butterweed (Senecio glabellus). This plant likes poorly drained, wet areas and can be seen along drainage ditches and in low spots. The upright plants grow from a basal rosette of irregularly cut leaves and produce clusters of golden yellow, daisy-like flowers in early to midspring. An annual that grows about 2 feet tall, individual plants are quite noticeable. But when an entire field of butterweed comes into bloom, the sheet of intense gold they produce is remarkably beautiful. I actually think they are attractive enough to be used in the flower garden.

Another of my favorite yellow wildflowers is the hairy buttercup (Ranunculus sardous). You will notice that yellow wildflowers often have the word butter in their name. Also tolerant of damp locations and even shallow standing water, hairy buttercups produce branched stalks about a foot tall bearing numerous five-petaled flowers. The flowers are brilliant, true yellow without a trace of orange. They show up beautifully against the ground-level, bright green, shiny leaves that are round with ragged edges.

Blooming from midspring to early summer is the lovely and delicate pink Mexican primrose (Oenothera speciosa). The color may be delicate, but the plant is as tough as nails. You frequently see this perennial plant blooming merrily along the edges of streets and highways in harsh, dry locations. Low-growing, Mexican primrose plants form a carpet about a foot tall where they grow, and the flowers may be dark pink to white. The four petals of the 3-inch blooms overlap to form a round cup shape. When they are in full bloom from late March to May, the foliage is completely covered by the flowers

This is one native wildflower that has made the transition to the ornamental garden. Seeds and plants are available in many gardening catalogs (often at surprisingly high prices for a plant we tend to take for granted). It is easily grown from seeds and will bloom in spring from a fall sowing.

You would think a plant that produced small, green flowers would not be very noticeable, but curly dock (Rumex crispus) is one of the most prominent of our spring wildflowers. This perennial plant produces large, strap-shaped, wavy leaves and flowering spires up to 3 feet tall packed with small green flowers. Related to the sorrel we put in salads, curly dock should not be eaten, but the flower and seed stalks look great in flower arrangements. The fresh green spikes add interest and filler to arrangements. When the seeds are mature, the spike turns reddish brown and dries well for use in dried arrangements.

Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) are a common Louisiana wildflower whose foliage is edible and nutritious, although it tends to be bitter. The low rosette of coarsely toothed leaves produces individual flower stems that bear showy, golden yellow flowers. The seeds are produced in fluffy, round heads which are irresistible to children – and the occasional adult – who pick them, make a wish and blow until all the seeds fly into the air. The common name is derived from the original French name for this plant, dent de lion, or lion’s tooth, referring to the jagged teeth along the leaf edges.

Finally, look for the white to pale pink flowers of the annual daisy fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus). The plants grow about 2 feet tall and produce fuzzy leaves about 5 inches long close to the ground. At the top of the plant, daisy flowers about one-half-inch wide with bright yellow centers are produced in clusters. Rarely a garden weed, this delightful plant blooms until May.

The term “daisy” is used to name many flowers that have a ring of petals surrounding a central, usually yellow, disk. It is derived from the old English term for the sun – day’s eye – because the flower’s shape reminded people of the sun.

Look around as you travel, and you will see these as well as many other native wildflowers. Some people just see weeds, but with a little shift in viewpoint, you can appreciate that these delightful plants make a lovely addition to spring in Louisiana.

Rick Bogren

1/30/2016 3:23:21 AM
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