Wildflowers in autumn are often overlooked in the riot of chrysanthemums and tall sedums; when every shrub and tree is festooned with white autumn clematis and lofty spikes of goldenrod bow and sway, competing with the sunglow of golden bidens to grab the applause. Often unassuming and shy or blending in with their surroundings, many fall wildflowers escape notice in the shadows of their taller, more outgoing neighbors. I’m intrigued by prairie plants and severely lacking in identification education, so out to Joplin’s Wildcat Park we went to visit the native rain and pollinator garden in front of the newly reopened Shoal Creek Conservation Education Center.
At first glance, the garden looks weedy and unkempt, but it is not intended to be a manicured “people pleasing” landscape; rather it is a meadow and natural pond for wildlife and valuable educational showplace to explore, learn how native plants work together and which of them might be good fits to introduce into an urban native plant garden. Paths are kept mowed for easy walking and inspection of small hidden treasures peeking out between the skirts of larger plants.
Mixed with inevitable goldenrod in several varieties (including a short, eye-catching species with a star shaped cluster of flowers — maybe solidago altissima — I’m making a list) and plumy seed heads of native grasses waving in the breeze, were annual blue sage, huge wavy basal leaves of prairie dock topped with lofty — at least 8 feet — stalks of golden yellow daisies, bushes of pale pink gaura, and plenty of native sunflowers, all showing off across the parking lot in the native prairie garden, beckoning an invitation for a closer look. Guided by the expert knowledge of Missouri Conservation Department’s Kim Banner, we got friendly with an array of autumn bloomers swarming with bees, butterflies and all sorts of interesting insects.
Legumes, members of the pea and bean family which bring up and fix nitrogen in the soil, are well represented in fall bloomers. Golden partridge pea, one of the “sensitive” plants, so called because its narrow, compound leaflets fold up when touched and at night (called nyctinasty — there’s an interesting word — thought to be an adaptation to control water loss or avoid grazing by herbivores — deer, rabbits, etc.) shows off cheerful yellow blooms with petals curving around reddish-brown stamens. The blooms produce seed pods that split and curl, flinging seeds far and wide. Host to yellow sulphur butterfly caterpillars, partridge pea is also visited for nectar, seeds and forage by a wide array of butterflies, bees, birds and mammals. Tick trefoil, or beggar’s lice, shows off racemes of pink, pea-shaped (think redbud) flowers. Its hairy pods break up into one-seeded segments that cling to anything that passes by. Another legume, slender lespedeza is covered with small pink pea-flowers clustered along stems.
Some familiar old friends to our garden at home waved at me in the breeze: cone flowers (echinacea); black and brown-eyed Susans; cobalt blue lobelia, a late-blooming hummingbird favorite; pale blue pitcher sage (Salvia azurea), frothy white wild ageratum (Conoclinium colestineum—it once was eupatorium, now it’s just unpronounceable) aka boneset — I love this pollinator magnet, it self-seeds in our own wildflower garden along with it’s shorter cousin, blue mistflower. Beautiful rose verbena, a common roadside native, graces a more well-groomed spot close to the door, and yes, it is the one we buy at garden centers. Its close cousin, spiky lavender blue vervain, is also worthy of a spot in anybody’s bed.
I was a bit bemused to see artemisia Silver King; I had no idea it was native. But there it was, and it is. Red clover, a bee favorite, is still in bloom; the flowers can be brewed into a tasty, healthy tea. Dainty white polygonum (smartweed) is a filler between everything, like baby’s breath in a florist’s arrangement. Pretty pink glade allium (Allium stellatum) edged a path; I think I need more of those too. The grey foliage of ashy sunflowers and bright yellow blooms stand out among a background of green grasses.
I probably won’t need the ragweed I spied under the goldenrod (the true allergen; don’t blame pretty goldenrod — its pollen is heavy and doesn’t float in the air and up our noses), pigweed, or any of the euphorbia spurges; they show up unbidden anyway, and I’m learning I should always leave some weeds for our tiniest bees and bugs.
One I love to visit but don’t think I care to get started at home is hedge bindweed (Calystegia sepium), a wild, perennial white morning glory with beautiful trumpet-shaped blossoms, resembling moonflower vine. Capable of covering everything in its neighborhood, it could be as much of a pest as autumn clematis, pipevine and perennial peas, and I have too many nuisances in our garden to add another.
I didn’t explore the grasses very carefully, but there were delicate deschampia, foxtails, little and big bluestem, sea oats, prairie dropseed, Indian grass, and several others, lending motion and drama to the meadow with each tiny breeze.
Everywhere were interesting seeds. Among them were pods of butterfly plants splitting and releasing silky, seed-carrying parachutes to the wind; cone-shaped clusters of rattlesnake master seedheads; brown, curly Illinois bundleflower balls (this one goes on my list too); star-shaped, golden brown bristles of sedges; black baptisia rattles; and brown spikes of dock supplying valuable winter wildlife food and garden interest.
My list is getting longer and just in time for the fall native plant sale and monarch festival 9 a.m. to noon Saturday, September 21, at Wildcat Park. Three vendors will be participating: Missouri Wildflower Nursery, Ozark Soul Native Plants and Smiling Sun Gardens. I intend to get there early. And there might be just enough time to pre-order from their online catalogs for delivery on plant sale day. For more information call the Shoal Creek Conservation and Education Center: 417-629-3434.
Our own small wildflower meadow is about to get a lot more interesting.
Sandy and Jim Parrill garden at Chaos, their acre of the Ozarks in Joplin. Sandy is a lifelong gardener, a Missouri master gardener and winner of The Missouri Writers Guild 2018 first place award for Best Newspaper Column. Jim is a former garden center owner and landscaper; both are past members of the Missouri Landscape and Nursery Association. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow their Facebook page, A Parrillel Universe of Wonderful Things.