Prairie-dwellers

Sunday, 31 January 2016

In my quest for easy-to-grow plants for the Sydney climate, I have found that a number of beautiful flowers from the North American prairies are among those which thrive in my garden, bringing welcome colour in late summer. Some of these plants gained prominence in the 1990s as components of the naturalistic 'grassy' borders of designers such as Piet Oudolf, and whilst they are indeed stunning combined with ornamental grasses such as Miscanthus and Pennisetum, they are also fabulous companions for my semi-tropical style plants, such as Dahlia, Canna and Salvia.

Generally, they are herbaceous perennial plants, dying back to a basal clump of leaves in winter then building to a substantial size in the warmer months. They have tough roots and seem to cope well with the humidity of Sydney summers, unlike many European herbaceous plants. They like to have decent soil and some water during their growing season but they survive periods of drought quite well. Most benefit from being divided up every few years.

Many come from the Asteraceae family of plants, with their daisy-like form. Bold-flowered examples include the lovely purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea); a number of forms of Rudbeckia (also known as coneflowers) with their wonderful golden blooms; Gaillardia hybrids (blanket flower); and perennial sunflowers (Helianthus).

Daintier daisy types are found on the many sorts of perennial Aster species and the less-common Boltonia asteroides. Joe Pye weed - (Eupatorium purpureum) - is also from the Asteraceae family, though it looks nothing like its relatives, having clouds of tiny fluffy mauve blooms on tall stems. (It has a close cousin from Mexico called Eupatorium megalophyllum (ht 1.5m), which has big fluffy heads of lilac purple flowers in early spring, held above wide, velvet leaves.)

Other prairie-dwellers have spires of flowers, such as the obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana) with its purple or white blooms which can be moved around on the stems; Veronicastrum virginicum with pretty white or pale pink tapered flower spikes; and perennial Lobelia: Lobelia siphilitica has blue or white blooms, whilst Lobelia cardinalis has dark red flowers atop chocolate-coloured foliage. Tough groundcovers such as Evolvulus pilosus with its pretty blue flowers, and pink or white evening primrose (Oenothera speciosa - not to be planted where you mind if it takes over) are other examples of prairie plants which do well in Sydney gardens.

Reader Comments

  • By margaret 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 23 February 2009

    enjoyed your latest article on prairie-dwellers. Must admit to not having many of those you mentioned, but am encouraged to try more. Physostegia, the mauve one, grows like a weed, but have had no success with the white. Perennial asters also do well.

  • By Alida 2085 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 23 February 2009

    Thanks again for another interesting article. You make it sound so easy! Of all the flowers you mentioned I have the most success with eupatorium. Mine is planted next to a large clump of cliveas and I love the contrast of the mauve with the orange.

  • By Anne 2518 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Sunday, 31 January 2016

    you are early this week! like that Joe Pye weed - had a trip to Sydney"s Bot Gdns last week and noticed that Eupatorium has a new name. When I moved here the white evening primrose was already here - it puts on a good show but is invasive. Am confining it to median strip of driveway. Love the rudbeckia and have had luck with it but echinacea rather temperamental in my hands. Love the grasses - so little work and a grand statement. Love the Physostegia - obedient plant. Thanks, Anne. Yes some Eupatorium species have changed their name such as E. megalophyllum but I think the Joe Pye weed is still classed as one. The Rudbeckia all look good at the moment. Deirdre

  • By Anne 2518 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Sunday, 31 January 2016

    had to add enjoyed your feature on Tulbaghia. They are amazing plants- so little care and so rewarding and these days so many different varieties on offer.

  • By margaret 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 01 February 2016

    Still love the prairie dwellers, and have obtained more now. I am not a fan of grasses, but do like the Asteraceae family, enjoying many plants from this group. However, success with Echinacea eludes me. Physostegia, the purple type, grows like a weed, but is very pretty, and easy to remove, if unwanted. The white variety does not seem to grow as easily - I currently have one, which is not nearly as robust as its cousin. Thanks again, Margaret! I love Asteraceae plants. My echinacea wasn"t so good this year -- swamped by other plants. I"ve never found the white Physostegia robust either. It seems shorter and much less vigorous than the mauve form. Deirdre

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