‘There are always flowers for those who want to see them’ – Henri Matisse
For most of my life, I’ve been more attracted to ornamentals than to wildflowers. Yes, I’ve noticed many beautiful native species in the landscape, but never really taken the time to observe them. You might say, I’ve been wildflower blind.
So, recently I decided to become acquainted with some of the plants in my area. I began by taking a walk near my home on the Chesapeake Bay and photographing every flower I saw blooming. Then, I set about trying to identify the various species using native plant databases. It was much harder than I thought it would be.
It turns out that nature’s garden is far more complex than my own, with a seemingly infinite number of variations. And each species has a particular purpose, whether it’s to furnish pollinators with nectar, baby butterflies with food or grazing animals with forage.
Bee on common milkweed
Learning the names and habits of the wildflowers in my home area has proved enormously rewarding. No longer anonymous, the tiny roadside flowers now have meaning. Their colorful stories have opened up a brand new world.
Where I once saw weeds, I now see a garden.
Here are a few of the standouts making waves on the Bay in early July. Most of these wildflowers can be found up and down the east coast and in many other parts of the country. See if you don’t run into some of them in your own area!
Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana)
A member of the buttercup family, thimbleweed has large, showy white sepals that resemble petals and a seed head that looks like a thimble. In my photo here, the seed head is still hidden by the yellow flowers.
At the end of June on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, these striking wildflowers with paddle-shaped leaves can be found growing everywhere. Domed clusters of fragrant mauve flowers rise high atop stout stems and bloom well into summer. Common milkweed provides food and habitat for a wide range of insects, in particular the monarch butterfly.
Monarda didyma (Bee Balm)
There’s a beautiful stand of monarda didyma growing next door at our neighbor’s house. The deep red, tufted flowers with spiky hair hold their own on tall, sturdy stems in the toughest of ocean breezes. Lean in close and you can’t mistake the plant’s distinct minty smell, a favorite among bees.
I’ve always loved monarda because it reminds me of one of the Muppets characters.
Coastal Panic Grass
What’s not to love about the name of this native grass whose deep roots help stabilize the soil in our area? Grasses don’t have showy petals, but they do have flowers. The flowers, which are enclosed by scales, are called florets. The nodding, feathery blond flowers of coastal panic grass are a common sight along the roadsides in our area.
Coastal panic grass
St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum)
A low shrub with dense clusters of yellow flowers, St. John’s wort has been used for centuries for health purposes including treatment of wounds and mild cases of depression. The plant blooms in our area from July through September. St. John’s wort was apparently gathered and burned to ward off evil spirits on the eve of St. John’s Day (an ancient feast celebrating the birth of John the Baptist), which is how the wildflower got its name.
St. John’s Wort
Cross Vine (Trumpet Flower)
A woody vine, cross vine gets its name from its tendency to grow in cross sections. Climbing by miniature claws to as high as 50 feet, it laces the branches of trees and shrubs while covering itself in showy, orange-red, trumpet-shaped flowers. The semi-evergreen leaves change from dark green in summer to reddish-purple in winter.
A member of the aster family, daisy fleabane gets its name from an old superstition that held that dried clusters of the plant could be used to rid homes of fleas. Although the plant hasn’t shown it can actually do that, it can be used as a diuretic and medicine for stomach ailments.
Daisy fleabane has hairy stems and leaves. Its flower is composed of short, petal-like white rays and a large, bright yellow central eye.
As its name implies, this short-lived perennial grows primarily in fields and wide open spaces. Its large purple flowers are cupped by a ring of green leaf-like structures called bracts. Field thistle is a favorite of American goldfinches, who eat its seeds.
Goldfinches also use the thistle down to line their nests.
Thistle down of field thistle
Common white yarrow
Common yarrow is a familiar sight along coastal roadsides during the summer where its flat-topped clusters of small white flowers bloom from April to October. Growing to just around 3 feet in height, its feathery, fern-like leaves emit a grassy, almost astringent, fragrance. The nectar of the flowers attracts many insects, especially flies and wasps.
Common white yarrow
Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica)
Introduced to North America in the mid-1800s as an ornamental plant, Japanese honeysuckle has since become an invasive species in most areas, spreading rapidly by long runners that take root wherever they touch moist ground. Japanese honeysuckle is often seen girdling young trees and shrubs, which cuts off the flow of water to those plants.
On a good note, Japanese honeysuckle’s sweet-smelling, delicate white flowers come in pairs and turn a soft yellow with age. Their nectar is a favorite among hummingbirds, bees and other pollinators.
Queen Anne’s Lace
I never knew that this popular wildflower has a near-identical cousin, poison hemlock. Both Queen Anne’s Lace and poison hemlock have taproots that look a lot like carrots and their small white flowers and deeply cut leaves are similar. But poison hemlock (not to be confused with the hemlock tree) is highly poisonous to humans. If ingested, it causes a progressive paralysis, leading to respiratory distress and eventually death. Socrates was poisoned by hemlock juice.
Queen Anne’s Lace
All to say that it’s important to be informed before cutting any of these lovely flowers to avoid any unnecessary complications. For more info on the differences between the two plants (as well as photos), check out this helpful guide at Hansen’s Northwest Native Plants Database.
Interested in learning more about your area wildflowers? One of the very best databases for wildflowers is the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas. You’ll find many full color photos of each species as well as detailed information. Check it out. It will make your next afternoon walk infinitely more interesting!