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Growing Wild: Eight Outstanding Wildflowers for Fluctuating Climates
by Gladys J. Richter - posted 10/20/14

Genetic parents of giant, present-day sunflowers, Helianthus are very hardy, care-free garden choices that are a desirable food source for a variety of wildlife.

Weather in the Midwest can take its toll on plants, especially those less suited for its fluctuating conditions. Having an appealing four-season landscape often requires gardening with plants that adapt.

When considering plants for your garden, look to nature. Native perennial plants withstand local soils and climates. For both beauty and brawn consider the following wildflowers to keep your landscape in bloom from spring to fall.


For old-fashioned cottage charm, phlox are an outstanding choice. Two species native to the Midwest that do well in a garden setting are wild sweet William (Phlox divaricata) and perennial phlox (Phlox paniculata). Wild sweet William blooms April through June. Growing 10-18 inches tall, it is a good candidate for the front of borders. Phlox paniculata flowers later between July and October. It is much taller, growing to 24-48 inches tall. Both come in shades of blue, lavender, rose and white. Phlox add color to shady, damp areas, and are butterfly magnets.

Growing tips for success: Keep your soil moist, but not soggy. Replenish soil with a side dressing of organic humus each year. Perennial phlox reproduces via seeds and rootstock and can form dense colonies that may be divided.


Commonly referred to as spiderwort or blue jacket, Tradescantia provides a burst of blue to the home garden. Spiderwort adapts well to a variety of growing conditions, including full sun, partial shade, dry soil and moderate moisture. Its tall, sturdy stems grow up to 36 inches tall. This is a “morning” plant, with its flowers closing by early afternoon. Each tri-petalled flower blooms for only one day before folding into a watery deep blue droplet. The blue-green foliage and vivid blue flowers of spiderwort complement plants that sport bright yellow blossoms.

Growing tips for success: Tradescantia vigorously multiplies in rich soil. Divide mature plants in the fall so they may become established for the spring bloom.

Delicate spiderwort blossoms provide a pop of blue in the garden. Their grass-like foliage adds an additional layer of texture.


Including wild bergamot (Monarda spp.) in your design will help your garden become a hummingbird, butterfly and moth haven. For the Midwest, Monarda bradburiana and Monarda fistulosa are well-adapted and easy to grow. Wild bergamot, often referred to as bee balm, produces pink, rose, white and lavender blossoms. Growing height is between 22-36 inches tall, which makes them good candidates for most home gardens.

Growing tips for success: Wild bergamot tolerates a wide range of growing conditions, but blooms best when planted in well-drained, loamy soils in full sun. Monarda can become prolific. Divide plants every few years to prevent overcrowding. A combination planting of both Monarda bradburiana and Monarda fistulosa will provide a continuous bloom period from April through August.


The Midwest abounds with different Echinacea species and their hybrid crosses. Most are pastel pink to magenta, but one species, Echinacea paradoxa (native to the Ozarks region) is bright yellow. Easy to grow in a variety of soils, coneflowers not only brighten the landscape with color, but also attract bees and butterflies. In autumn, their stems stand tall, topped with rich dark brown seed heads favored by goldfinches and other songbirds.

Growing tips for success: Most coneflowers are very hardy and can tolerate a wide range of soils and moisture conditions. For a deep magenta color, try purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), which sports large, showy flower heads. Echinacea purpurea grows up to 36 inches tall and thrives in moist, rich soil where it can quickly multiply and produce an appealing wildlife oasis.


Just as its common name of butterfly weed suggests, Asclepias tuberosa, is a favorite of butterflies, from the rare regal fritillary to the common yellow sulphur. Butterfly weed pairs well with other wildflowers in an open, sunny garden. It can adapt to nearly any soil type, except extremely rich ones. In nature it can be found in fields, along country roads, and in dry, disturbed soil areas. Asclepias tuberosa blooms at a height of 24-36 inches tall in varying shades of orange from July to September. Rich red and bright yellow varieties are sometimes available.

Growing tips for success: Butterfly weed has a very long taproot, which makes it difficult to transplant. Seeding it directly into the garden or transplanting it while very young increases viability.

Many butterflies, including the regal fritillary, are attracted to Asclepias tuberosa.

Butterfly weed is very hardy and adaptable to a spectrum of growing conditions. It seems to thrive even in rocky soils.


Rain gardens are appealing solutions for wet landscape areas. Lobelia plants, which grow naturally near streams and lakes, require wet soil conditions to thrive and do well in a rain garden setting. Lobelia siphilitica, known as blue lobelia or great lobelia, is a nice autumn- blooming choice for the home gardener. Its five-lipped flowers come in shades of blue, lavender and dark violet. The plants grow between 24-36 inches tall with stems that may be branched or unbranched. If you prefer bright red instead of blue, cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) is the perfect choice.

Growing tips for success: Plant lobelia in a soggy area of your yard, or plan to water regularly. Both Lobelia siphilitica and Lobelia cardinalis self-sow and pair well with other wildflowers that tolerate saturated soils.


For sunny soils such as those found on dry upland prairies and glade areas, blazing star is a hardy beauty. Stems stand straight and tall to meet the sky with their lavender- to rose-purple blossom wands. Liatris pycnostachya is often one of several Liatris species available to home gardeners. Reaching a height up to 5 feet tall, this plant can create dense stands for large-scale sites. It is a good accent plant for smaller gardens where it attracts butterflies and other pollinators.

Growing tips for success: Liatris can thrive on poor soils and are drought-tolerant. Soils that are too rich produce lanky, unsupported plants. Liatris does best when planted in association with other prairie wildflowers and native grasses. When planting in small groups, plan to stake the tall stems to prevent them from toppling during storms.

During their migration, monarch butterflies enjoy sips of late summer nectar from blossoms of blazing star.

Liatris pycnostachya is extremely drought-tolerate and provides both outstanding color and interesting architecture to a native garden setting.


To add height to your garden, try Helianthus spp., the native sunflowers. Bright, ray flowers with large central disks adorn tall branching stems that can reach heights over 12 feet tall. Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) and ashy sunflower (Helianthus mollis) are often available at native plant nurseries in the Midwest.

If Helianthus species are difficult to find for your garden design, Rudbeckia hirta pairs very well with nearly all other wildflowers.

Growing tips for success: Wild sunflowers do best when planted in groups in full sun. Leave the seed heads to mature for wildlife to feed upon.

Rudbeckia, commonly referred to as black-eyed Susan, is a welcome addition to the wildflower garden. This is a good companion plant to many other native wildflowers.


Most wildflowers do best when directly seeded into the garden. There are nurseries that also specialize in native stock in the form of started plants. Below are a few sources located in the Midwest.

Missouri Wildflower Nursery, Jefferson City, Missouri

Naturally Native Nursery, Toledo, Ohio

Pizzo Native Plant Nursery, Leland, Illinois

Cardno JFNew Native Plant Nursery, Walkerton, Indiana

Meadowood Native Plant Nursery, Hummelstown, Pennsylvania

Photos courtesy of Gladys J. Richter


Gladys J. Richter is a freelance author from Richland, Missouri. A former professional naturalist, her writing focuses on nature interpretation, native landscaping, resource conservation and outdoor recreation.