As a native Midwesterner, prairie plants have always been part of my garden lexicon. The sight of swaying grasses, wildflowers swarmed by bees and butterflies and fall's golden-orange hues very much root me to home. But prairie plants can get BIG and some of them like to spread, so finding just the right prairie denizens for an urban garden can be a challenge.
Here are six prairie plants that look at home in almost any size garden. Most of these like full sun and need little or no extra fertilizer. They are easy-care garden superstars.
Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum)
Native Joe Pye weed grows 5 to 8 feet tall from a narrow base, bursting into fluffy pink bloom in late summer. The stems are nearly red in color, adding to the drama of the plant, which is best placed in the back of a large border. It attracts many butterflies, bees and moths.
If the species Joe Pye weed is too large for your garden, a new cultivar called ‘Little Joe’ may be just what you need. It grows 3 to 4 feet tall with deep pink blooms and a neat upright habit. It’s a wonderful addition to the cutting garden, too, as its stiff stems stand up well in a vase.
False blue indigo (Baptisia australis)
In a small garden, false blue indigo could replace a shrub. It grows about 4 feet tall and 3 to 4 feet wide with interesting gray-green foliage. In early summer, it sends up tall spikes covered with purple pea-like flowers that bees adore. (If you prefer white flowers, try Baptisia alba.) After bloom, it sets seedpods, which are almost black. The pods cling to the plant all winter and the seeds inside the pods will sometimes rattle in the wind.
Baptisia tolerates drought well. While the species baptisias are lovely, plant breeders have introduced many new false indigos, with blooms in yellow or two-toned purple and white. Some are smaller, too, for those who have tiny gardens. My favorites are from the Decadence® series by Proven Winners, especially ‘Lemon Meringue.’
Rose milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
If you want monarch butterflies in your garden, plant milkweed. It’s the plant monarch caterpillars feed on when they are young. Of the many species of Asclepias, this one is truly garden-worthy.
It does not spread as rampantly as some milkweeds and the plant has a neat appearance and beautiful, long-lasting rosy pink blooms. It stands about 3 feet tall in a vase shape. You may notice some caterpillar damage on the leaves, but that’s a good thing! As a native, Rose milkweed grows in marshes as well as prairies. It tolerates wet soils well but may struggle in dry areas.
Blazing star (Liatris spp)
This prairie plant is a magnet for all types of pollinators and works beautifully in a garden border. A member of the aster family, blazing star sports purple blooms from July through August in the Upper Midwest.
Common blazing star (Liatris spicata) has bottle-brush flowers, while prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya) is taller with narrower blooms and meadow blazing star (Liatris ligulistylis) has clumps of bloom on its stalk. The cultivar ‘Kobold’ is a more compact blazing star that looks great in smaller gardens and is widely available.
Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)
Nothing evokes the prairie like ornamental grasses. While some prairie grasses grow 8 feet tall, little bluestem stays a reasonable size and adds some drama to the garden. This is a warm season grass, so it doesn’t emerge until after temperatures warm up in late spring.
Initially, the plant’s leaves have a bluish cast and form a short clump. As the season progresses, the plant sends up rosy gold seed stalks. It tops out at 3 to 4 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet wide. Several new cultivars have been introduced in the past few years that offer deeper color or more compact size. Little bluestem doesn’t like overly fertile soil, so put this one where nothing else grows!
Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepsis)
This petite grass is ideal for urban gardens. Its soft foliage emerges in spring with a drooping habit, covering an area about 2-feet squared. A row of prairie dropseed makes a perfect edging plant for perennial beds and borders. In late summer, it sends up flower stalks with tan-pink blooms.
Brush your hands against the flowers and they release a fragrance, which reminds some people of cilantro. Once established, prairie dropseed requires almost no care. Cut it back each spring, and leave it alone. Like the other prairie plants, prairie dropseed is wildlife friendly. Birds will eat the seeds and native bees may overwinter in the grass.
Why not consider adding some natives of the prairie to your garden for maximum style with minimal effort?
Photos: © Mary Schier