Wildflower Wonders: Appreciating the Prairie Ecosystem

Editor-in-Chief Oscar H. Will III ponders the relationship between heirloom cultivars and their wild plant ancestors.

Blackeyed susans

Black-eyed Susans are plentiful in the Kansas countryside near Hank’s home.

Photo by Joanna Voigt

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When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time hiking on and observing the mixed-grass prairies along the Missouri River bluffs in North Dakota as well as the tallgrass prairies in Illinois. Through the years, I’ve also had the privilege of walking and studying prairie in Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Kansas. Along the way, I fell quite in love with the complexities of prairie ecosystem dynamics — and especially plant-animal interactions and how they shape the prairie’s plant species matrix on a local scale. But when I needed grounding or felt slightly blue, I sought out the bright and cheerful, loud or subtle, seasonal wildflowers — for hours I’d sit and paint them. I marveled at their whimsy, tenacity, and ability to thrive in the dense sod as opposed to those flowers in my mother’s flower garden that I simply hated weeding. It was most certainly not lost on me that many of the domesticated species that we grew in the garden were developed from those awesome wild ancestors.

Fast forward to the waning years of my life, and I raise cattle and sheep on a beautiful piece of isolated, rolling prairie land in rural Osage County, Kansas. As luck would have it, more than half of my place was never suited for cultivation and has retained elements of both tallgrass and mixed-grass ecosystems. I find, growing wild, a host of wildflowers — showy, non-showy — beautiful each in its way. As I write this, leadplant (Amorpha canescens), butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), white false indigo (Baptisia alba var. macrophylla), and black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) are the showiest players. But there are plenty of little pinks (Dianthus armeria) and verbenas (Verbena hastata) here and there. The list goes on with more than 25 species currently flowering in my pastures.

We might argue that wildflowers aren’t heirloom, but I would definitely argue that domesticated heirloom plants of all types have wild ancestors. If you have any favorite wild ancestors to some of your favorite heirloom varieties and cultivars, I’d love to hear about them. Likewise, if you have favorite family heirloom plants of any kind, please send your story and related photos, if you have them, to HWill@HeirloomGardener.com — they just might wind up in a future issue of the magazine.

Keep on growing!