Q: I love the beautiful wildflowers I see on my weekend hikes around Orange County. Is it possible to collect seeds and grow these wildflowers in my home garden? - Sandra from Slate Hill
A: In short, yes you can. And surprisingly, growing perennials from seed is easier than you might imagine. Plus, the benefit of choosing native species that are growing wild in our area is that you’re starting with a plant that has naturally adapted to our growing conditions and, once established in your garden, will thrive with little care or attention from you. Also, starting with native seeds means, in most cases, you can start your seeds right in the garden, with no potting soil, grow lights or greenhouse needed.
Many seeds require a cold, wet period where they lie on the ground through winter, so if you collect seeds this summer and plant them now, they will not likely germinate and grow until after they’ve gone through that cold winter period. They will also likely not flower the first year, so you’ll need to be patient.
Native perennials will give food and habitat to wildlife, including butterflies, native bees and other pollinators, and song birds. They will produce an annual crop of open pollinated seeds that you can save and continue to sow throughout your garden or leave to the birds to feed on in fall and winter. A study found that chickadee parents, feeding one brood of baby chickadees, must collect 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars. Most of these insects are gathered from native trees, shrubs, and perennials. You can help feed these birds by growing your own native perennials.
Here are a few native perennials found in Orange County that will provide you with beauty for your garden and help wildlife in the process.
Rose Milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, provides valuable nectar source and habitat for larval monarch butterflies. These plants grow well in full sun to partial shade and are adaptable to many soil types. Plants grown in more shady conditions produce tender leaves, which are more appealing to butterfly caterpillars. Fully mature plants grow 4-5 feet high and 2-3 feet wide, so choose a roomy spot in the back of your garden to sow your seeds into a weed-free area, lightly covering them with soil. The rosy-pink flowers provide a sweet, vanilla-like scent and the milky sap in the stems and leaves is very bitter, which makes the plants deer resistant. Plants live 3-4 years and will self-seed in your garden once established. Seeds require at least 30 days of cold, moist conditions to germinate, so plant seeds in fall or early spring for best results.
Smooth Blue Aster, Symphyotrichum laeve, is another beautiful native to add to your garden, with clouds of star-shaped blue flowers on sturdy arching stems. This plant blooms from late summer through first frost, so if you plan your garden to bloom throughout the growing season, this is a good choice for late-season color. Easily grown from seed, smooth blue aster seed should also be sown in fall or early spring and will germinate when the soil warms. In nature, this plant thrives in open woods, meadows and prairies, and is very adaptable to various garden conditions. Smooth blue aster will grow to 4 feet tall and 2-3 feet wide and do well in full sun to partial shade. Sow these seeds in a weed-free area, with just a light coating of soil, no more than 1/8 inch. Your garden will be graced with their beautiful flowers within the first year and will continue to bloom for years to come. Pruning the top few inches of the plant in midsummer will encourage denser, bushier growth. Unlike milkweed, deer will eat this aster, so if you have a deer problem now, this may not be the plant for you.
Cardinal flower, Lobelia cardinalis, adds brilliant reds to your garden. Naturally adapted to wetlands, this 4-foot-tall beauty is a magnet for hummingbirds, swallowtail butterflies and a variety of native pollinators. Cardinal flower seeds need at least 60 days of cold, moist conditions to germinate, so fall planting is recommended in our area. Simply sprinkle seed on the surface of weed-free garden soil in late fall and cover the bed with burlap to keep the tiny seeds from washing away or drying out during winter. Remove the burlap in spring after the tiny seedlings have sprouted and keep your seedlings watered during their first season. In the second year, the plants will flower, set seed and die, but most plants will form offsets that flower the following year. These offsets can form a foot or more from the parent plant, and first-year plants are tiny, so keep the bed well weeded and watered and cardinal flower will continue to self-seed or produce new offsets in your garden for years to come.
New Jersey tea, Ceanothus americanus, produces clouds of foamy white flowers atop 3-foot-tall plants. These flowers attract a multitude of tiny pollinators, which in turn attract hummingbirds that feed on these small insects, providing a major protein source for hummingbirds and their nestlings. If you like to watch hummingbirds in your garden, the New Jersey tea plant is an ideal choice to support the growth of a hummingbird population. If sown in fall, you do not need to do anything to the seed except scatter them on clean garden soil and lightly cover them. They will slowly emerge in spring, but need warm soil to wake up. Adaptable to many garden conditions, from full sun to light shade, try to avoid boggy-wet areas, as they do not appreciate being constantly wet.
Joe Gregoire is a Master Gardener with Cornell Cooperative Extension Orange County.