The Prairie Pearls

By Andy McIndoe

Many of our garden daisies are descendants of North American prairie native plants. In recent years they have become popular in more naturalistic styles of planting (Piet Oudolf style perennial planting) as well as in the herbaceous and mixed borders of traditional gardens.

Echinaceas and salvias

Prairie planting is really a bolder version of the wildflower meadow, where grasses and perennials meet to create a soothing, softly moving gardenscape that evolves and changes as the year progresses.

Based upon the natural habitat of the North American prairies the plants involved enjoy an open sunny position, and are at their best in late summer and early autumn. In fact many still look good during the winter months when dried stems, leaves and seed heads take on an everlasting beauty in the low light.

 rudbeckia seedheads in winter

Most of these subjects are also excellent subjects for the wildlife friendly garden. Bees and butterflies enjoy the nectar and pollen of prairie daisies. In some cases the winter seedheads are a food source for wild birds.

Prairie style drifts

The perennial rudbeckias start to come into their own in mid summer in a blaze of rich sunshine yellow that will brighten the dimmest of days. Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’ never ceases to impress; a true black-eyed beauty that will thrive on poor soil and the toughest of situations as long as there is some moisture deep in the soil. Leave the flower stems after the blooms have faded; the black cone shaped centres will persist throughout the winter, curiously beautiful in their own rite, a stunning contrast against frost traced grasses on a winter’s morning.

Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm' 4

The purple coneflower, Echinacea purpurea is another member of the daisy family that has become a household name because of its medicinal application. Used as a herbal remedy to boost the immune system potions containing echinacea are to be found on every supermarket and chemist’s shelves.

Echinacea purpurea

Echinacea purpurea itself is a wonderful combination of rich redddish- purple reflexed petals and a chestnut brown cone, laden with orange pollen when the flowers are at their prime. The long lasting blooms on stout stems are not only excellent border flowers but also lend themselves to cutting.

Echinacea purprea ‘Magnus’ is a particularly fine form with glowing purple pink flowers and a flatter flower form. The flowers can be truly massive and make wonderful anding platforms for bumblebees that crawl across the petals to the nectar-rich centre.

Up until a couple of years ago all cone flowers grown in gardens were pink, purple or white. The advent of orange and yellow varieties created great excitement amongst perennial enthusiasts and garden designers. The stunning Echinacea ‘Art’s Pride’ is a personal favourite although I have found it a more reluctant plant to establish in the garden. It needs good drainage but adequate moisture in summer. Get it through the first winter and it seems to be fine. Its fine petalled, burnt orange blooms combine superbly with the light airy stems and tiny purple flowers of Verbena bonariensis.

Echinacea 'Art's Pride'

The rich bronzes, oranges and reds of the heleniums have a wonderful period character. Their silky petals and velvet button centres remind me of shreds of rich upholstery. Old cottage garden plants they are popular for their disease resistance and reliable late display, and their tolerance of virtually any soil conditions. Interestingly the helenium is named after Helen of Troy; the plant reputedly sprang from the ground watered by her tears. As most species seem to be North American prairie dwellers this is something of an enigma.

Cultivars are numerous; choose them in flower when you can see exactly what shade you are getting. Helenium ‘Waldtraut’ is an outstanding upright plant reaching a metre in height. The branched stems are topped with large golden yellow and copper-brown flowers in late summer. The best red cultivar is considered to be Helenium ‘Coppelia’; this more compact cultivar with deep red flowers was raised at Bressingham Nurseries, Norfolk, England. The earliest of the heleniums is the prolific ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’ with glowing copper blooms on stout, stocky stems. It makes a wonderful drift alongside the sapphire plumes of Perovskia ‘Blue Spire’

Heliopsis helianthoides is another prairie daisy; it is a perennial sunflower with bright golden yellow flowers carried on 120cm tall upright stems. For a softer effect choose Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’ with lemon yellow flowers produced on upright plants.

Helianthus 'Lemon queen'

Bold, simple daisy flowers shine out in contrast the soft filigree seedheads of grasses and the bold spikes of agastaches, the giant hyssops. Agastaches are clump forming perennials with aromatic foliage and bottle brush flowers. ‘Blue Fortune’ has lavender blue spikes on neat compact plants. ‘Alabaster’, as the name suggests, is pure white. Both grow to around 1 metre, 3ft in height.

Prairie daisies also associate well with the architectural blooms of kniphofias, the red hot pokers. Their biggest drawback is their unattractive foliage which is easily hidden amidst prairie grasses and other late flowering perennials. The eryngiums, varieties of sea holly are also good planting partners, their silver and steely blue flowers are a good contract to the gem hues of the prairie daisies.

For more on prairie planting and naturalistic planting – take a look at the following online gardening courses:

New Style Perennial Planting by Michael King – best selling planting author

Planting Design with Perennials by Noel Kingsbury – best selling author and lecturer

Andy McIndoe

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