Garden report: More wildflowers, despite the drought


We’re hitting the road for our trek across the southern Great Plains tomorrow, not to return until next Thursday. Since I’m going to be away from my “unlawn,” our restored native wildflower-grassland yard for more than a week, I figured I’d better document what’s blooming now. Right now, some parts are still pretty green, and the indian paintbrush are blooming like crazy. But since the last moisture we got–a mere half an inch of rain–fell more than a month ago, I don’t expect it to stay that way. Such is life with global climate change.

What else is blooming right now?

This lovely native silvery lupine (Lupinus sericeus), for one. It’s a perennial and grows tall, unlike the tiny annual ant money lupine of my earlier wildflower post. Sulphur butterflies drink nectar from its flowers, and its roots are host to blue-green bacteria that “fix” nitrogen from the atmosphere, enriching the soil by adding that essential nutrient.


Then there’s the unusual member of the composite or daisy family in the photo above, cream tips (Hymenopappus cinereus). Unlike sunflowers and daisies, it has no petal-like ray flowers. Its “heads” of many small flowers are made up only of the yellow “disk” flowers, and its foliage is ferny, like yarrow (a distant relative) and covered with tiny white hairs to shade the plant’s tissues and help it keep from dehydrating.


Rocky Mountain penstemon (Penstemon strictus), in the photo above, is one of our classic late-spring/early summer wildflowers. Bees squeeze their stout bodies into the wide flower tubes to suck the nectar from glands at the flower’s base. As it sqeezes in, a bee brushes the flower’s anthers, picking up pollen on its hairy body. When it flies to the next flower to drink, along comes the pollen, and as the bee brushes past the flower’s stigma, its sticky female surface, pollen adheres to it, thus cross-pollinating the flower. The wasps in the photo, an invasive species from Europe, are free-loaders: they drink the flower’s nectar, but their smooth bodies do not pick up pollen, which means the flowers get sucked dry but don’t get cross-pollinated, so the plant may not reproduce.


The insect in the photo above is a pollinator, in fact, a native bee–I think a sweat bee in the Halictid family of bees. She’s snoozing in a pricky-poppy (Argemone pleicantha), another of the wildflowers blooming now. This little bee is taking a break from collecting pollen to provision the nests where she’ll lay eggs. The pollen, as fat-and calorie laden as Dove ice cream bars, will sustain her larvae through their growth into adult bees.


The ground-hugging composite in the photo above is perky sue (Hymenoxys acaulis), with a mat of thread-like leaves at the base and these sunny yellow flowers, one to a stalk. Among the most drought-tolerant of our wildflowers, perky sue only grows in the parts of our “unlawn” that receive no supplimental water.


Two of our spring grasses are still blooming as well: Needle-and-thread grass (Stipa comata, in the photo above), named for the long “awns” that stick out from each needle-tipped seed, and indian ricegrass (Achnatherum hymenoides, photo below). Needle-and-thread’s awns are hygroscopic (they absorb moisture from the air). When the awn absorbs sufficient water from spring rains or snows, it curls in corkscrew fashion, literally screwing the seed into the soil, just when conditions are right for it to sprout. (If you pour water on a needle-and-thread seed, you can watch the awn curl as it absorbs the moisture, and the heavy seed with its needle tip begins to bore into the ground. Amazing!)

Indian ricegrass is named for its plump, grain-like seeds, which have been cooked as food for millennia. They’re tinier than rice, and heavy, which means that as soon as they are ripe, they drop to the ground, where the harvester ants and mice usually find them first.


I’ll be away from the internet most of the time until we get to Denver next Tuesday, so I may not get a chance to post until then. In the meantime, imagine Richard and I traversing the southern Great Plains on our way to and from Arkansas in our little dirt-brown Subaru, hand-in-hand, air-conditioning on high, listening for meadowlarks and watching for wildflowers and the exotic forms of scissor-tailed flycatchers. Life with brain cancer is pretty grueling, but we haven’t forgotten how to find the grace-notes along the way.