Restored Missouri prairie with grey-head prairie coneflower. photo by Scott Woodbury

Mark Twain is said to have remarked that there is no place on earth more beautiful than Missouri in October. I would like to add that there is no place more lush than a mature prairie late during a wet Missouri summer.

    These prairies provide inspiration for the wonderful richness of native plants available for our home gardens. I love the name and architecture of rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), compass weed (Silphium laciniatum), switch grass (Panicum vergatum) and the millions of yellow asters that carpet the roadsides.

    Scott Woodbury, curator of the Whitmire Wildflower Garden at Shaw Nature Reserve, has shared a list of his favorite prairie plants for urban sites. He recommends these because they are compact, clump-forming, long-lived and have multiple seasons. Some of them are not sold regularly at nurseries, so plan to visit the plant sale at Shaw Nature Reserve in September.

Polite Prairie Plants

• shining bluestar (Amsonia illustris)

• butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberose)

• aromatic aster (Aster oblongifolius)

• yellow wild indigo (Baptisia sphaerocarpa)

• purple poppy mallow (Callirhoe involucrate)

• oak sedge (Carex albicans)

• yellow-fruited sedge (Carex annectans)

• palm sedge (Carex muskingumensis)

• prairie alumroot (Heuchera richardsonii )

• copper iris (Iris fulva)

• slender mountain mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolia)

• orange coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida)

• prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis)

Coming Up Daisies

    Two of the best composites (aster family members) for home gardens are black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia) and purple coneflower (Echinacea). Both daisy-like plants adapt well to the border garden and provide great color for the yard or for the vase from now until frost. I’ve grown these two natives in my gardens in five states, often carrying clumps wrapped in wet newspaper from old garden to new with each move.

    Julie has been testing many of the newest cultivars of several native plant species. She has found that some of these novel varieties are not as hardy as their forefathers, but demand for unusual colors or shapes is driving the plant breeding explosion. In Julie’s experience, it seems that the farther away from the original species, the weaker the plant. However, some are performing well with our St. Louis weather and may stand the test of time.

A Cornucopia of Cone Flowers

    Echinacea is one of the genera that breeders are having a field day with. The original ‘purple coneflower’ will no longer suffice. Petals in yellow, orange, white, green, red and many subtle shades are hitting the market at a fast and furious pace. Flower shape varies, too. There are some with gigantic heads and others with petals that hang down, forming a skirt around the center. There is even one that looks like a marigold in drag.

    Julie and I have tried many and, we’ve had success with some. The names are great. ‘Tiki Torch’ is a deep, glowing orange. It lights up the border and overwinters very well. Julie planted ‘Tangerine Dream’ this year and will see how it does after a winter in the ground. For the cocktail hour, we love ‘Merlot,’ a juicy, rich, medium-dark purple. It has strong, straight, almost black stems and blends well with pink flowers for cutting. ‘Magnus’ is a purple coneflower with a rich winey hue. It does very well here.

    Moving on to the dinner menu, let’s try ‘Tomato Soup.’ The name describes the color so well, you’ll want to reach for a spoon. Good stems for cutting, this warm flower works well with yellows and greens. It first buds out brick red and slides through several shades to mature a silvery red. Julie couldn’t resist ordering ‘Mac & Cheese,’ her favorite comfort food. While this variety was a little weak the first summer in the ground, it came through well last winter. The flower color is just the lovely shade of butter and cheese yellow you’d expect in a bowl of Mom’s home cooking!

    It is one of the most floriferous coneflowers. The flower is more like that of a chrysanthemum, with a uniform, round ball of petals. There is a planting of it at the Kemper Center for Home Gardening that is worth stopping in to see. ‘White Swan’ is an older form of Echinacea, a reliable type and quite pretty but oh-so-yesterday. The newest whites include ‘Purity,’ which does well here, and ‘Fragrant Angel,’ with a soft, sweet scent.

    Another  Echinacea species that Julie loves in our garden is E. paradoxa, our native Ozark yellow coneflower. With strappy leaves and reflexed petals, it is a great early bloomer. It is also the absolute favorite of goldfinches.

    There is a host of new varieties to check out. Look up ‘Hot Papaya’ (think melon-colored poodle), ‘Coral Reef’ (a pink powder-puff in a tutu) or ‘Flame Thrower’ (more pyrotechnic than ‘Tiki Torch’). The word from Jen Kleeschulte, horticulturist in the Victorian District at the Garden, is to be on the lookout for E. ‘PowWow Wild Berry.’

Bodacious Black-eyed Susans

    For Rudbeckias, the R. fulgida cultivar ‘Goldsturm’ took the industry by storm when it came out eons ago. A liberal flower producer with compact habit, it is still a sure bet. My all-time favorite is R. subtomentosa ‘Henry Eilers.’ Julie planted one—only one—three years ago. In the first year, it grew nearly 4 feet tall and was covered with great branches filled with yellow quilled flowers. Try it only if you have space for a rambunctious bloomer. Found in the wild, this quill-petaled clone was discovered by Henry Eilers along a stream bed in Illinois. Good find, Henry! 

Dr. Patricia Raven has a doctorate in ornamental horticulture.

Julie Hess is senior horticulturist and manager at the Missouri Botanical Garden.