Add Native Prairie Plants to Your Landscape

Photo by  Ed Post

Photo by Ed Post

Iowa's first settlers found a dense community of flowering plants and grasses growing in some of the deepest, most fertile soils in the world. Cultivation of those rich soils may have destroyed much of the diverse plant life that created them, but adding prairie plants in your landscape allows you to enjoy their beauty while providing food and habitat for many native birds, bees, butterflies, and other species. 

Native plants evolved to thrive in the varied soils, moisture levels, and sun exposure of our region. They offer a diversity of size, color and form, making it easy to find plants that work in any yard or garden space. 

Most prairie plants attract a variety of insects. They provide nectar to feed butterflies and moths, pollen for bees and other insects, and serve as host plants for caterpillars. Many produce abundant seeds that are a fall and winter food source for birds and other animals.

To establish a prairie planting, larger areas should be seeded in the fall, winter, or early spring. Most seeds require a period of cold, moist weather to break dormancy. The small plants will take a full growing season to establish themselves and the area will need to be mowed several times at a high level the first season or hand weeded. Most of the plant growth in the first year is below ground, building deep root systems that allow them to withstand adverse conditions. They will put on top growth in subsequent years and bloom in the second or third year.

Photo by  HGTV

Photo by HGTV

Potted plants can be purchased and planted in the perennial garden. Group multiples of nectar and pollen producing plants to make it easier for insects to locate them. Protect small plants from excess weeds and provide regular moisture during the first year. Once established, these hardy plants will reward you with years of beauty and the satisfaction of bringing back a bit of our prairie heritage.

Ten Easy-to-Grow Prairie Plants:

  1. Echinacea coneflowers:  Purple, pale purple, and yellow coneflowers are preferred sources of nectar for many bees and butterflies and the flowers are long lasting.
  2. Black-eyed Susan:  Have a yellow flowers with a "black eye" that bloom for most of the summer. They are great sources of pollen and nectar for bees, butterflies and beetles.
  3. Wild Bergamot:  Attracts hummingbirds and butterflies and is one of the best forage plants for bumblebees. It has pink-purple flowers and fragrant, spicy-smelling foliage.
  4. Milkweeds:  Known as caterpillar host plants for Monarch butterflies and nectar sources for many butterflies and bees. Swamp milkweed grows in moist, sunny areas and hasy rosy purple flower clusters. Butterfly milkweed has clusters of bright orange flowers.
  5. Prairie Coreopsis:  Has numerous yellow flowers that offer nectar and pollen to bees, butterflies, moths, and many other insects. It naturalizes readily in sunny, dry soils.
  6. Blue Sage:  Sports whorls of azure blue flowers that bloom in spikes from midsummer to fall. It prefers drier soils and attracts butterflies.
  7. Coneflowers:  Have pale yellow drooping petals and are known for attracting beneficial insects that keep problem insects in balance.
  8. Compass Plant:  A tall (up to 9 feet) plant with showy yellow flowers and large leaves that orient themselves to the sun. A related species, cup plant, has leaves that clasp to the stem, creating a cup or water reservoir that is used by the birds. Both attract butterflies and the seeds are a favorite food of birds. 
  9. Royal Catchfly:  This plant's flowers attract hummingbirds. It needs well-drained soils and some shade.
  10. Blazing Stars:  Have spikes of showy purple or rose-purple flowers. The attract birds, butterflies, and small native bees.

Original Article by Kathy Larson, Iowa County Master Gardener Intern

Kathy Larson