by Debbie Mounce
The term wildflower conjures up images of pagan flowers dressed in their best ceremonial finery, gathering beneath the full moon to possibly celebrate the impending arrival of the much-awaited pollinators, the bees. The human wildflower celebration is much less obvious yet still very apparent in the contented sighs of the gardeners around town as they gaze over their color-filled palettes in early spring. The exuberant celebration will also be noted in the swelling of the chest area as the gardener remembers with tremendous satisfaction the care and planning that went into her color feast for the eyes.
September is a great time to start planning your spring wildflower celebration. With just a little thought and planning, wildflowers can be a glorious addition to your spring canvas. There are a number of both native and non-native varieties that are proven Tucson performers. In your plans, try to choose varieties that will bloom back to back; by this I mean choose varieties which have slightly differing bloom times so you can both extend your bloom period and overlap bloom periods for differing varieties. With careful planning, you should have blooms starting in late February and extending through about mid-April.
Early February is usually the earliest we see the first wildflower blooms, although sometimes in a warm January, we’ll see African daisies popping up around town. Planting the daisy seeds in September, instead of later in the fall, can also help push the bloom time forward. Another early bloomer is desert bluebells (Phacelia campanularia). Bluebells are a marvelous low-growing wildflower with vivid sapphire-blue flowers. Both bluebells and African daisies are cooler temperature lovers; so as the spring temperatures begin to climb, they pack their bags and go in search of cooler climes such as Pinetop.
There is a larger group of wildflowers that we could call mid-spring bloomers which includes Penstemon parryii, Penstemon eatonii, California poppies, scarlet flax, blue flax, and Ladybird Johnson’s favorite – lupines. Penstemon parryii is that vivid pink penstemon which stands about 2’ tall. The Penstemon eatonii also grows to about 2’, but it boasts a rich red flower. The California poppies are very common and abundant in about mid-March. They can be seen glowing in Tucson gardens and also crowding the banks of many major city streets such as Houghton Road on the far eastside. One really nice feature of the California poppy is that you are not limited to the orange color because they do come in some lesser-known colors like creamy white, red-orange, and a pale pink. Both the blue and scarlet flax have a wonderful lacy appearance to them. Their foliage has a delicate form, and the flowers are suspended above the foliage so they can catch every whisper of a breeze for their next dance. I share Ladybird’s love of lupines. It is particularly wonderful when planted with the California poppies because of its complimentary blue color.
Lastly, we have the late bloomers who are more appreciative of our “sometimes- warmer-than-warm” spring season. Candidates would be like Mexican primrose, desert marigolds, prairie coneflower, brittlebush, Mexican hats, and firewheels. Mexican primrose is a delicate pink flower with a light, sweet fragrance. Desert marigolds are another one of my personal favorites because of their simple, yellow daisy-type bloom. Both the prairie coneflower and the Mexican hats are in the Ratibita family, so they both have a daisy-type flower with lowered flower petals and a raised center. The only difference between them is that the Mexican hats are a red-orange color, and the coneflowers are yellow with a darker center. The firewheels are a type of the large family of gaillardias. The firewheel (Gaillardia pulchella) is another daisy-type flower with a deep orange color which fades from light to dark, starting at the outer edge. The flower center is a warm cocoa-brown which only compliments its rich color. Brittlebush is the last of this group and is interesting because it can be seen growing wild all around town and into the surrounding foothills and canyons. This one has always been especially interesting to me because it doesn’t look like much until it “redeems” itself with its rich yellow blooms.
Disappointment can be avoided when we understand that in order for us to get that marvelous spring show, all of these seeds must be planted in the fall. Planting can begin in the middle of September and extend into about the middle of November—remembering that the seeds need some soil warmth for successful germination. The most common mistake that I hear people make after planting their seeds is that they expect the seeds to grow with no care at all because they are wild seeds. In the wild, these seeds only grow where their needs are met; so at home, we need to meet those needs if Mother Nature isn’t doing the job. Read the seed package planting instructions carefully as some varieties I’ve discussed may require a different approach than the usual “toss and water.” Water them every day if we aren’t getting rains, and protect them from grazers if you live in a part of town which draws wildlife.
Although the wild in wildflower may not include any pagan ceremonies, the beauty of these flowers may just inspire us to organize a few pagan ceremonies of our own in celebration of their beauty.
Debbie Mounce is a proud Tucson native and the Nursery Manager at Harlow Gardens.
Harlow Gardens5620 E. Pima St., Tucson, AZ 85712