Truth: my favourite things to grow for cuts are native perennial wild flowers and grasses.
After a windstorm destroyed our property in 2010, I’ve watched a prairie of Big Bluestem, Canada Wild Rye, and soooo many other interesting grasses and flowers spring up from the latent seed bank to replace the once-dense forest that fell down. Each year I’m more drawn to their untamed aesthetic, and a glance through the Instagram florist community shows a young new love affair with “foraged” flowers across the trendiest galleries.
On any one year, about half the seed I sow (or maybe even more) are perennial wild flowers and grasses, and are inserted into their existing plant communities somewhere on my property, which is nearly seven acres and includes dry sandy hills, trembling Aspen woods, sunny southern slopes and wet squishy swales.
There are a surprising number of wild flowers that do well as cut flowers, and I’m still learning them all myself, but I’ve done up a blurb below on my current favourites this moment. With the exception of some of the Monarda I mention below, all of the following are hardy to at least zone three.
A sampler bouquet I made featuring native perennial prairie species, including Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata ‘Ice Ballet’), Canada Milkvetch (Astralagus canadensis), White Prairie Clover (Dalea candida), Leadplant (Amorpha canescens), Philadelphia Fleabane, and Fringed Brome grass.
Ok, so this isn’t going to look nice in a bouquet, but if you’re running a market table or into dried stuff, you should know that this grass has an otherworldly sweet scent that permeates your space as incense when burned. Native American tribes used Sweetgrass for a number of their most personal and spiritual rituals, including hair washing and ceremonial smudging. It establishes dominance via rhizomatous roots, so is one you can battle invasive weeds with in a wet prairie or squishy-soil setting. If you weave baskets this is a wondrous material to use and you’ll see why its aggressive growth is a boon, not a burden.
Prairie Sage, White Sage, etc.(Artemisia ludoviciana)
This is another native plant with spiritual and medicinal uses, being dried in bunches and burned, but is also a gorgeous filler plant for arrangements, lending a leafy silver look that plays off everything from pink to yellow to purple and blue. Planted in one spot in a nice light soil, it will pop up a long way away within the same season. And while it may grow willy-nilly rather quickly, it is not what I consider a bully, and in the end it’s actually a blessing for someone with a habit of snipping things for bouquets.
For the flower girls, I made these bouquets featuring native Prairie Sage.
Bee Balm, Wild Bergamot, etc. (Monarda sp.)
Depending on where you are in North America, you`ll have a slightly different native Monarda that`s apt to thrive in your soil. This mint-family member carries a strong disposition, needs room to expand, and is prone to unsightly mildew outbreaks should it get cramped. Nonetheless, it makes a bright and cheery tea, gives stunning and unusual cut flowers that last ages in a vase, and feeds hummingbirds too.
Its natural habitat is on the edge of woods and clearings, where conditions call for a bit of column A and column B, that is, airy and bright, a bit of dappled shade at high noon, with well draining soil holding a bit of moisture, but never soggy either.
Note that some Monarda are annuals if you’re in a colder zone, but will probably reseed if they’re happy.
Though it’s an annual for me, Monarda species member Spotted Horse-Mint (Monarda punctata) has a lovely neutral pink colour. Check out the whole species for ideas.
Anise Hyssop, Giant Blue Hyssop, etc. (Agastache foeneculum)
This is a friend to Monarda, growing with the square stem all mint family members bear. Anise Hyssop has quite a few cultivars on the market already, including some handy pink and white blooms too, although it`s hard to improve on their natural indigo-violet hue. This perennial functions as a medicinal herb, making the best tea I`ve ever tasted from a plant I found outside. It flowers the first year from seed, and offers fragrant, bottlebrush-looking blooms with rich emerald foliage from July into October, when it`s one of the only things offering pollen for shivering bees. It lasts a super long time cut. Check out cultivars like ‘Aurea’ or ‘Golden Jubilee’, which have chartreuse-coloured foliage as an added novelty.
Native Agastache foeneculum in my garden, it’s a lovely cut fresh or dried flower with theeeeee most delicious tea leaves.
June Grass (Koeleria macrantha)
If you’re a short season gardener, you can appreciate anything blooming in June. This no-fuss beauty yields a shiny bleached-blond seed head that matures into a shimmering pink inflorescence, and you don’t need much to fill out all kinds of arrangements. Another one to grow in very light soil, it is a clump forming (read: well-behaved) grass that grows from seed super easy.
I worked way too hard to get this shot capturing the pink shimmer of June Grass in June.
Heartleaf and Golden Alexander (Zizia aptera and aurea)
Both of these offer early June cuts, with Heartleaf Alexander growing in dry to medium moisture soils and Golden Alexander preferring wetter sites. These yellow umbel-shaped blooms on stiff stems are bright at the start of the season when little else has that shape, and have neat seed heads that give bouquets a very cool texture.
Unripe seedheads of native Heartleaf Alexander act like upturned umbrellas in this backyard-grown bouquet. You can see native Monarda fistulosa here too, with ‘Virgin’ Echinacea, Gaura, Emmer Wheat, native Achillea, silver willow leaves, native White Prairie Clover (Dalea candida) and native Helianthus maximillani at the back.
Obedient Plant (Physotegia virginiana)
Obedient Plant is a well-known cut but not so well-known native that prefers the wet ditch you thought you couldn’t do anything with. It’s also one of those tough wildflowers with rhizomatous root action happening, so back up and give her room. In return you’ll get a lush crop of tubular spike blooms in pink or white with a good vase life.
Helenium (Helenium autumnale)
Here’s another native perennial that’ll flower first year. You’ll get blooms with cute button-nose faces in August. This one likes the damp and flooded corners of the garden too, and has a wide array of specially-bred options on the market ranging from saucy bicolour blends of orange and yellow to more stoic looking shades of burgundy.
On Sourcing Wild Flowers
I encourage and heartily challenge people who like foraging for wild flowers and arranging with them to make the responsible leap from cutting from the roadsides (which is a valuable pollinator corridor) to growing what you want on your own property. It’s not hard to source and grow native wild flower seed, which on the prairies can be easily winter sown in trays and left outside to germinate whenever in spring.
If ordering native perennial seed or plants, remember that growing from the strain raised in the ecosystem closest or most similar to yours will grow the best. So in this vein, my seed and plug orders come from Prairie Originals out of Selkirk, Manitoba, but I also love the selection of species at Wildflower Farm in Ontario, Canada, and Prairie Moon Nursery in the US.
For a few of the native species I named above, there’s a butterfly larvae who likes to live on and eat these flowers. Keep an eye out for the little guys and don’t cry over spilt milk if you lose an entire section of garden to growing beautiful butterflies instead of cuts.