Early July Blooms in the Native Garden


In early to Mid-July some of the more showy flowers come into bloom.  In early spring, the shorter plants, including the violets, Yellow Star Grass, Sand Phlox, and the woodland wildflowers, such as Great White Trillium, and Sharp Lobed Hepatica are blooming.  As the season progresses, it seems the plants that are in bloom are just a bit taller, on average, than the ones blooming just a few weeks before. 

In a walk around my yard, I snapped some photos of the garden worthy native plants showing off a rainbow of colors, and one of the brightest is always Orange Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa).  The intense orange flowers, are a magnet to butterflies, including the endangered Monarch butterfly, which rely on milkweeds to lay their eggs; Monarch caterpillars (larvae) will only eat the leaves of milkweed plants, without milkweed, there can be no Monarch butterflies.


Orange Milkweed reaches a height and spread of approximately 18 inches, and blooms from the end of June until Mid-July.  The bright orange flowers can also appear in shades of yellow or reddish orange – uncommon.  In the photo above, the milkweed in planted in combination with Blue Mist Flower, which will be covered in blue fuzzy blooms come September (you read more about that plant <here>). Behind the milkweed is Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida), which provides nectar to butterflies and seed for Goldfinches and other seed eating birds.


Here, Orange Milkweed is show in combination with Wild Quinine (Parthenium integrifolium)

In the meadow, the Orange Milkweed is also quit showy, but will go dormant, as the asters and goldenrods begin to grow taller, as their later bloom time approaches.


Also in the meadow, is a purple tinged Big Bluestem grass (Andropogon gerardii).  This one has a bit more color than is typical, ‘Red October’ is a cultivar grown in the nursery trade specifically for this purple accent and its red fall color – I planted a specimen of ‘Red October’ in another part of the garden and will compare the two specimens for ornamental qualities. The specimen below is approximately three feet across in width.


A great looking Big Bluestem grass in the backyard meadow

Another milkweed, just about to bloom, is the Red, or Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata):


A closeup of the Red Milkweed blooms, just about to open

It’s another butterfly favorite, and as its common name indicates, can take wet soils, but will grow fine in typical well-drained garden soils, attaining heights of three to four feet on average.  Neither the Red or Orange Milkweeds spread aggressively, but may come up from seed if bare soil is near the parent plant.


The Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), however, while a great attractor of butterflies, will spread by randomly by wandering underground roots, so while the flowers are sweet smelling, it would be best to plant a less aggressive milkweed in a small garden – the milkweed shown below is in the meadow, and is quite happy – as are the Monarch Butterflies that laid their eggs on this plant this spring!


One of the prairie shrubs blooming around the 4th of July is the purple flowered Lead Plant (Amorpha canescens), with accents of bright orange anthers.  This 18 inch, to three foot tall, sprawling shrub is attractive even when not in flower – the grey finely divided leaves are a nice contrast to nearby flowers.



Leadplant shown in combination with Black-Eyed-Susan, Rudbeckia hirta.

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), is another shrub bloom at this time of year, and in this case the flowers look like exploding fireworks – one inch around.  This plant is typically found in wet soils, but seems to do fine in the garden with morning sun – hot sun and dry soil is not what this plant wants.  attaining heights of six to eight feet plus, it can be pruned if necessary, but it would be best to plant it where is can grow to its full size.



Buttonbush growing with the vining Wild Yam (Ipomoea pandurata) – soon to have three white morning glory like blooms.

Native shrubs such as the naturally occurring cultivar ‘Annabelle’ Hydrangea and the multi-stemmed Serviceberry shrub, shown below, mix well with other garden plants such as (from left to right) ‘Biokovo’ Geranium, variegated Pulmonaria, ‘Palace Purple’ Coral Bells, and Pink flowered Japanese Anemone.  At the base of the Serviceberry tree/shrub is growing Jack-in-the-Pulpit – which will have showy red fruit at the end to summer.


The Illinois Rose (Rosa setigera) is a rambler and needs a trellis to grow on if planted in a small garden.  It can be cut back to the ground in spring, as the one below is, to keep it managable.  It’s quite nice when in bloom, has nice red/orange/yellow fall color, and its fruit (hips) are a valuable food source for over wintering birds.


New Jersey Tea (Ceanonthus americanus), is a low shrub, growing to a maximum height of about three feet high and wide.  In July it is covered in fuzzy, two inch long blooms.  Hummingbirds come by to pick off the pollinated insects, rather than for its nectar.  New Jersey Tea does not have great fall color, so its snow white blooms in July are what give this plant its ornamental interest.  This woody plant can also be cut back to the ground during its winter dormancy to keep its growth more compact, as the plant shown is, every March.



New Jersey Tea growing in a meadow setting

On the other hand, Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra) has great fall color – mostly bright red, and its pinnately divided leaves inspired many a Frank Lloyd Wright window panel.  Sprouts coming up from the roots will need to be kept cut back in June, but it is otherwise carefree, attaining heights of eight to twelve feet tall and equally wide.


Smooth Sumac growing with Beebalm (Monarda fistulosa), another great butterfly plant, in the foreground.

Mountain Mint (Pynanthemum) is also in flower, not a true mint (mentha) it does not spread wildly by its roots, it does however have a pleasant wintergreen scent to its leaves – very strong when crushed.  In the herb garden, I cut it back by half at the end of June to keep it shorter (16 inches), it can get two to three feet tall.


The flowers of Mountain Mint attract many pollinators to the garden.



Mountain Mint just coming into bloom

The Wood Sage (Teucrium canadense), also planted in the meadow is looking great.  Growing in somewhat drier ground than it might prefer in the wild, the plants are only about four feet tall – topped by masses of spire shaped lavender flowers.  A good plant for larger gardens that can take its tendency to slowly spread.


Wood Sage, or Germander, is commonly found in moist/wet meadows, but can be grown in average garden soil.

Prairie Coreopsis (C. palmata), is an attractive plant for the garden.  Growing to about three feet in height, it would make a good flower for the rear of a planting, with shorter plants in front.  As with all the coreopsis, the Goldfinches love the seeds that the plants provide.  The shorter Sand Coreopsis (C. lanceolata) bloomed earlier, and the Tall Coreopsis (C. tripteris) will bloom in a few weeks time.


Finally, Purple Prairie Clover (Dalea purpurea, Petalostemum purpureum)) is a real show stopper.  The bright purple/pink blooms flower in rings, starting at the base of the flower structure, opposite that of liatris, which blooms from the top down.  Forming nice bushy eighteen inch to two foot tall plants, Purple Prairie Clover is a great addition to any garden.




While this photo of Purple Prairie Clover was taken in a backyard meadow setting, it looks great in a more formal planting as well.

Finally on my backyard walk, I noticed the aptly named Nodding Onion (Allium cernuum) was just starting to set out its flower buds.   Its 1.25 inch round puffs of pink bloom will be taking center stage soon.  As the buds begin to open, the stems will have straightened out, and the flowers will rise at the top of eighteen inch tall wiry stems.


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The Great Spangled Fritillary


A few years back, I planted some Pale Purple Coneflowers (Echinacea pallida) behind my parent’s house.  I grew the plants from seed, sown in wooden flats in the fall.  The flats overwintered outside, the next spring I had dozens of plants to set out with very little effort, or cost – plus the original seeds came from a threatened prairie remnant nearby – that property/prairie is consistently mowed now.  Too bad for the original prairie remnant for sure, but I’m happy to continue the genotype on in my plantings. 

Last week while walking in the small remnant behind my parent’s house, I came upon a pair of Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele) flying around one of the coneflowers that I had planted – it was a great feeling, knowing that through my efforts, a beautiful insect (the butterfly) found some food.  Maybe these Fritillary will lay their eggs in this small prairie as well – the Fritillary larvae (caterpillars) feed only on violets, and there are many violets, including Arrow Leaved Violet (Viola sagittata), Common Violet (V. sororia), and a few Lobed Blue Violet (V. triloba) in this remnant prairie.


The adult Fritillary butterflies can get their nectar from many species of flowers, but the young larvae only eat violet leaves – and nothing else.  Without violets, there will be no young Great Spangled Fritillaries, or any other Fritillaries for that matter, since they all require violets to lay their eggs on.


Wooden flats (lower left) of Pale Purple Coneflower waiting to be planted.

A closeup of the Pale Purple Coneflower (below) shows the yellow ring of disk flowers actively giving off pollen – next week a the ring above will begin to release its pollen – this methodical release of pollen is the reason these composite flowers stay attractive and showy for four to six weeks in summer.  Once all the disk flowers have released their pollen, the ray flowers (the petals) will begin to fade – no longer needed in the role of attracting pollinators.


The “disk flowers” – the spiky part of the flower – will produce the seeds that finches will feast upon. The petals, or “ray flowers” draw in the pollinators – the bees and butterflies.

Male Fritillaries emerge from their pupae in late May or Early June – a few weeks before the females.  The males are in a constant search for females; they are so persistent, in fact, that the females are sometimes mated even before their first flight. 

The eggs that were laid on violet plants in late summer, hatch in the fall of the year, overwintering as immature larvae, or “instars” near the violets that they will need for food next spring.  Unlike Monarch Butterflies, which migrate from Mexico to Canada, over four generations in one year, only one generation of Fritillary butterflies emerges each year – Fritillaries do not migrate far from their hatching site.


This male Great Spangled Fritillary is a bit lighter in color than the female of the species.

The one dozen species of Fritillary only occur in North America, of those, only three are permanent Illinois residents, they include the Aphrodite, Regal, and Great Spangled Fritillaries.


The small butterfly, nectaring on a wildflower, is a gentle reminder that it is critical that we actively work to maintain the health of our remaining prairie remnants and also that we include native plants around our commercial buildings and homes.  Wildlife, including important pollinators, depend on these plants to reproduce (and we depend on them to pollinate many of our food crops). 

If all we have around us are natural areas overrun with invasive plants,  soybean and corn fields from roadside ditch to roadside ditch planted to European Brome Grass, Bluegrass lawns and Japanese yews surrounding every home and business, with no hope of native plants to be found anywhere, we, ourselves, will be hard pressed to survive in such a destitute environment.

Source: Field Guide to Butterflies of Illinois, John Bouseman & James Sternburg, Illinois Natural History Survey, 2001






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Spring Clean-up in the Garden, Meadow, and Woods


Tools of the trade, pruning shears and a steel garden rake

The Prairie Garden

With rake and shears in hand, along with a pair of leather gloves and a plastic tarp, I was ready to tackle some spring clean-up chores around the yard.  First on the list was the front yard prairie garden.  For most of the winter, it was buried under a few feet of snow:

Feb 2014

The prairie garden to the right of the driveway in February

So by the time April came around the garden was looking more than ready for a trim:


… two months later, in April, it was time to clean things up

The prairie garden is a mixture of colorful, sun loving, Midwest natives, including Blue Baptisia, Orange Milkweed, Paradox Coneflower, Pasque Flower, and Purple Milkweed, along with Little Bluestem, Big Bluestem, and Prairie Dropseed grasses.  The dried remnants generally look interesting throughout the winter, but this winter, the snow came early, and stayed late.  To begin the clean-up I laid out the tarp and started raking the loose debris on to the tarp.  The grasses held tight, so they were  cut back with a pruning shears.


All of this debris was hauled back to the wire bins for conversion to compost:


A pair of 5ft by 5ft compost bins made of 4ft high wire fencing and metal fence posts

After about an hours worth of work, the front garden is ready for spring:


The prairie garden in early April


The garden doesn’t look like much right after its trim, but in another week, or so, the Pasque Flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris, or Anemone pulsatilla, or A. patens) should be in bloom.  I purchased my Pasque Flower at a garden center, so I’m not sure if its parentage is North American or Eastern European, but its a great early bloomer, no problems, and interesting fluffy seed heads in late May and June. The native Midwestern form and the European form look similar to my eyes.

2009 apr 19

2009 Apr 19a

Pasque Flower in April

The prairie garden is quite lush in June, as shown in the photo below:


The prairie garden last June

The Orange Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) and the Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida) really pop, against the blue-green leaves of the Little Bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium, or Andropogon scoparium.)1170

The Meadow


The meadow at the end of a long snowy winter

In the backyard a meadow of Midwestern prairie plants commands the attention of the viewer.  The meadow is always alive with the activities of birds and insects, including butterflies, dragonflies, and others.  The meadow gets mowed once a year, towards the end of March.  This keeps the brush, such as blackberries, Silver Maples, Grey Viburnums, and buckthorn from taking over, that and hand application of herbicide, as needed.  Normally, I have used a heavy duty brush cutter to do the job, but that wasn’t wanting to start this year, so my 15hp Craftsman lawn tractor was called into service.  It did a fine job as well.


A brush cutter was made for this job, shown here in 2012.

The result is a clean slate, not only is the brush kept in check (not killed mind you – that’s where the herbicide comes in later, or before, depending how you look at it) but the smaller plants are not competing with last years growth.  There is nothing that says spring more than a green swath of Pennsylvania Sedge (Carex pensylvanica) with violets blooming among its bright green grass-like leaves.



This year, the 15hp lawn tractor did alright – a clean slate for new growth


The meadow, right after a March mow

The meadow is awash with color during the growing season, always something new throughout the year, and changing, year to year.


The same view in summer



I’m always adding new planting to my gardens, and that includes the meadow.  This year, I decided to spread some seed that I had stored in my refrigerator – collected from unmanaged wild areas, usually along railroad easements or forgotten urban parcels of land with prairie remnants.  The seed was cleaned and placed in paper envelopes, labeled with date of collection, location, and species name.  At the time that these seeds were collected, I was propagating plants to sell.  I no longer do that, so I went through the seed collection, and chose plants that I wanted in the meadow, the others were planted near my parent’s property in the country.


Metal tins and Tupperware helps to keep the seeds viable longer


The packets were sealed with rubber cement so that they could be resealed over and over after opening


I gave the sites names, such as Rincker Prairie, an historic reference to an old farm family.

For the most part, prairie seeds need to go through a cold moist period before they will sprout, or at least more of the seeds will sprout, after going through this “stratification” process.  This is the reason prairies are normally seeded in the fall or very early spring.  Most seeds need 30 to 90 day of cold, moist, stratification.  William Cullina has written an excellent propagation book called Growing and Propagating Wildflowers that explains the treatment that each species needs for propagation.  Hopefully the seeds planted this past March will sprout this spring, and provide added interest in the meadow for years to come.


The selection of seeds that went into the meadow at the end of March

The Oak Woods


Piles of snow are still present as the flames do the clean-up work

Years ago, In my parent’s front yard I planted a small garden with a mix of woodland, savanna, and prairie plants.  Over time, the plants have moved around and spread to form a larger garden.  To help maintain the garden’s integrity and clean out last year’s growth, I usually do a spring burn.  The garden is surrounded on two sides by lawn and by asphalt on the other sides.  It takes all of about 15 minutes to complete the burn.  This year, I was kept company by a Coopers Hawk nesting in a nearby Oak.  I didn’t get a photo of the bird, but the nest can be seen in the center of the photo below:


In the summer the garden is wild mix of many species, coexisting in some form of harmony.  Below, the this west facing garden is seen in early June, with the flowers of Tradescantia showing off their electric blue color.


In the town of Crete, Illinois, where I drop off my recyclables, the Lions Club has a nice display of the same Tradescatia (T. ohiensis) in front of its sign, right along with some red Knock-Out Roses and yellow Sundrops – a bright show of primary colors.



Blue Tradescantia with bright yellow Sundrops (Oenothera sp.) and daylilies

Out back the White and Red Oak woodland was getting invaded by brambles, including multiflora rose, gooseberry, and blackberry.  To knock these back, this area was burned as well, mimicking what naturally occurred over the last several thousand years – burns help keep the woods open and healthy.  Soon, the spring woodland flowers (spring ephemerals) will be up.  Red Trillium, Jacob’s Ladder, Hepatica, Bishop’s Cap, Solomon’s Seal will all be showing growth very soon and the woodland floor will a carpet of green.


The six inch flames burn into the direction of the wind, and towards the lawn in this case.  The Blackberry cames can be seen amongst the flames here.


Leaves are raked back to create a firebreak, marking the end of the burn area


Here, the adjacent lawn acts as a fire break


The completed woodland burn


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