Periwinkle is pretty for a weed.

Wildflowers have been quite a fad. Relative to most fads, they are not so impractical. For some situations, they are a good excuse to waste less effort and resources on unrefined parts of the garden. Of course, they all require some degree of effort and resources. Most are neither as wild nor as natural as their marketing suggests them to be. Few are native. 

Wildflowers that lived here centuries ago, prior to the introduction of exotic species, were relatively unimpressive. Although some bloomed spectacularly, they did so within a brief season. Winter is too cool for pollinators that wildflowers intend to attract. Summer is too dry for bloom to last long. Most bloom was limited to the transition from winter into spring. 

The same native wildflowers bloom even less now than they did centuries ago because of competition with exotic species. Most exotic species that compete with wildflowers are feral forage crops that lack colorful bloom. They grow so vigorously that they obscure the natives. Mitigation of such undesirable vegetation ruins wildflowers that mature within it.

Most of the best wildflowers here now are as exotic as feral forage crops. Those that are native might be more reliant on unnatural cultivation. California poppy, evening primrose, and native annual lupines might prolong bloom with a bit of extra water through summer, but need weeding. With the same watering, (non-native) cosmos stands up to the weeds. 

Unfortunately, vegetation management is more important than wildflowers outside of the refined garden. Overgrown weeds are combustible and can be dangerous to pets. Weed whacking too often involves wildflowers before they get their chance to bloom, as well as foliage of spring bulbs after bloom. (It sometimes damages bark of trees and shrubs too.)

Some low and dense perennial wildflowers are more reliable than annual sorts because they exclude annual weeds. Saint John’s wort and periwinkle are invasive exotic plants, but work well as ground covers. Mowing or shearing them late in winter slows their competing weeds, and also enhances their foliar density before competing weeds regenerate.


8 thoughts on “Wildflowers Are Flowers Gone Wild

  1. Hi tony,

    I always try to read your blog posts although I can’t keep up.. This one I found hard to understand. I’m confused about natives and exotics. I am trying to limit new plantings in my small backyard to “natives” for the purpose of attracting pollinators. But it is still a buzzing mystery to me. I was gratified to learn the term ‘feral foraging’ and just subscribed to a group about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Exotic species are merely those that are not native. Some of the native are not really native locally, but are not considered to be exotic because they are ‘nearly’ native. For example, Monterey pines are native to Monterey and a colony near the Santa Cruz and San Mateo County line (as well as Cambria), but are also considered to be native here, even though they are a few miles away from their natural range. Monterey cypress gets the same status. There are a few species that no one seems to know about, such as the Valley oak. It seems to be native to the San Lorenzo Valley, but it could have naturalized here after getting planted along Highway 9 a very long time ago. There are some at the depot of Mount Hermon that were planted, but no one knows if they were just planted there because they already lived in the region. Also, some of what is obtainable from nurseries are cultivars of natives. Even the ‘Soquel’ redwood is a cultivar. It is certainly native, but was selected for its dense and strictly conical form.


  2. Interesting, I have this vision of California filled with fields of the poppies…I went to the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve over the weekend to see the spring wildflowers..just amazing but not seen in many places anymore.

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    1. In the right places and at the right times, the wildflowers are spectacular here. During the bloom of the Mojave Desert, wildflowers are awesome on the horizon, but weirdly not so colorful up close. They are not so densely set, but stand up above their foliage, so seem to be more densely set in a horizontal view. I can remember a meadow and a few small hills covered with California poppies just south of San Jose when I was a little kid. The bloom diminished over the years until there was just an orange blush at the base of the hills in the early 1990s, . . . just before more homes were built on the site.

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      1. Well, there are different flowers now, mostly within landscapes, and there are more of some types of butterflies than there should be. Monarch butterflies swarm some of the blue gum and red gum. Tourists came to see it in the neighborhood where I used to live. Their babies somehow find plenty to eat, because they grow up to return later. The problem is that, because they prefer the exotic blue and red gums, they neglect species that rely on them for pollination.


  3. Few people understand the distinction between naturalized exotics and native wildflowers. Fields here are full of chicory and queen Anne’s lace in summer but neither are native. People buy “wildflower” seed mixes that may do more harm than good.

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