Natural Beauties: Hoosier Flora

Once a niche passion, low-fuss native plants are growing on more gardeners. Here, a field guide to Hoosier flora.

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At my old house, I spent many a fine spring day tending to flower beds in the postage-stamp yard. It teemed with unruly native plants—that is, foliage identified by botanists and naturalists as indigenous to this region—collected over many years, and I regarded that small landscape not as a garden but as a miniature nature preserve, with each specimen neatly identified by a metal nameplate. When I moved, I left the markers behind in the hope that the new owner wouldn’t mistake the plants for weeds and rip them from the earth. I still can’t drive by the house, for fear of seeing my precious collection replaced by plain old store-bought marigolds—and then crying a little.

Suffice it to say, native plants can inspire a fervent following. And lately, this niche passion is taking root among a wider audience. Benefits range from the practical to the aesthetic to the ethical. Indigenous plants are hardy; adapted to our mercurial climate, many need little fuss or watering (call it “sustainability” around your Prius-driving pals). It’s okay to let them grow a little wild, like the lush meadow in the opening shot of Little House on the Prairie. And because local fauna has evolved along with the flora, native plants turn a yard into a wildlife habitat for birds and butterflies.

While some Indiana wildflowers can be quite showy—like the sensuous, exotic-looking Passion Flower—many of the blooms are more subtle than the hybrids bred to turn heads at The Home Depot; loving them is like looking past the prom queen and falling for the girl with glasses who reads poetry. Devotees have been known to rescue delicate woodland Prairie Trilliums from the bulldozer of development and transplant them to more tranquil environs.

“Using native plants is part of the green movement,” says Nancy Hill of the Indiana Native Plant & Wildflower Society. “It’s becoming sexy.” Indeed, attendance at the group’s sale and auction, held annually at Park Tudor the Saturday morning of Mother’s Day weekend (details at inpaws.org), has increased by half over the last few years. Enthusiasts line up before the doors open, eager for first dibs. The trees, flowers, and ferns are scooped fresh from gardens or endangered habitats, plopped worms-and-all into repurposed plastic pots, and priced at $2 to $20 each. With our handy field guide, you’ll know the Hairy Beardtongues from the Birdfoot Violets.

 

Purple Passion Flower

Passiflora incarnata

Habitat Wood’s edge

Blooms Midsummer

Notes Perennial climbing vine, up to 25 ft.; attracts butterflies; hard to find for sale (but showy flowers merit the search); needs full or part sun and fertile soil

 

 

Birdfoot Violet

Viola pedata

Habitat Wood’s edge

Blooms Mid-to-late spring

Notes Perennial, 4–10 in.; attracts butterflies; prefers sun and dry soil

 

 

Prairie Trillium

Trillium recurvatum

Habitat Woodland

Blooms Mid-spring

Notes Perennial, 6–12 in.; prefers shade and rich, loamy soil

 

 

Indiangrass

Sorghastrum nutans

Habitat Prairie grassland

Blooms Late spring; rust-tone seed awns in late summer 

Notes Perennial, 3–7 ft.; likes sun and average-to-dry soil

 

 

Queen of the Prairie

Filipendula rubra

Habitat Water’s edge

Blooms Early-to-midsummer

Notes Perennial, 3–6 ft.; attracts butterflies; thrives in full or part sun and moist soil

 

 

Hairy Beardtongue

Penstemon hirsutus

Habitat  Prairie grassland 

Blooms Early summer 

Notes Perennial, up to 2 ft.; attracts butterflies and hummingbirds; needs full or part sun and dry soil

 

 

Black Chokeberry

Aronia melanocarpa

Habitat Wood’s edge

Blooms Late spring; decorative berries in late summer; colorful fall foliage

Notes Shrub, up to 12 ft.; wants sun or part shade

 


Cinnamon Fern

Osmunda cinnamomea

Habitat Woodland

Blooms None; tall, chocolate-brown fronds in the spring

Notes Perennial, up to 5 ft. (full maturity); needs shade and moist soil

 

 

Switchgrass

Panicum virgatum

Habitat Prairie grassland 

Blooms Midsummer; bushy, reddish-colored seed awns in late summer

Notes Perennial, 3–5 ft.; attracts butterflies; likes sun and average-to-dry soil

 

 

Vasevine

Clematis viorna

Habitat Woodland

Blooms Late spring

Notes Perennial vine; hard to find,but desirable due to unique blossoms; likes shade or part shade and moist soil; also called “Leatherflower

 




Dense Blazing Star

Liatris spicata

Habitat Prairie grassland

Blooms Late summer

Notes Perennial, up to 4.5 ft.; attracts butterflies, birds, and hummingbirds; wants sun and average-to-moist soil

 

Illustrations by Lucy Engelman

This article appeared in the May 2013 issue.

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