How Do You Create a Wildflower Meadow?

 Everyone has at one time or another encountered a fantastic meadow filled with wildflowers.  These are especially prevalent at high elevations but may occur naturally in a variety of situations.  They are  ephemeral and many have tried to develop a means of duplicating the process and providing such a view in yards or fields for pleasure and to encourage native pollinators.  Indeed the federal government has even funded a program for this purpose and fine tuned the process which involves killing the existing usually exotic grasses and weeds, and replanting with a mixture of grasses and flowers.  We have installed three of these at our farm in VA with some success (see photo of the results after three years in a 1.5 acre plot) but the relative abundance of desired species vs invading grasses and weeds is transitory and involves considerable experimentation.  



At Wildflower Preserve (WF) we are often met with the question "where are the wildflowers?"  Of course the name is derived from the former golf course which did not manage for wildflowers, but during the natural process of five years of "recovery" when the golf course was abandoned, some flowers colonized the former greens and fairways.  However many of these which are highly preferred by butterflies such as Spanish needles and cow peas, would likely be considered weeds by those not familiar with their value for wildlife.  Thus the volunteers at  WF have begun a process of trying various methods to establish flowers that may be attractive both to people and butterflies.  One such method is the same as used on our farm whereby the existing vegetation is killed with herbicides and seeds planted.  To date this tried and true technique has not been notably successful at WF.  Look at the photo of the planted "meadow" at WF several months after the seeds were planted.  Water has been a problem since this is the dry season but water pumped from a nearby pond has been applied periodically. Although a number of seedlings have germinated from the planted seeds, many more have germinated from weeds and pre-existing native flowers such as Gaura and evening primrose.  


So far the one exception has been the flowering of Drummond's phlox.  This is an exceptionally beautiful bright red phlox.  Drummond’s phlox is endemic to the central prairies and gulf plains of Texas. It is an annual, which grows from a taproot and blooms in spring and forms patches of hundreds to tens of thousands. The five petaled flowers have a long central corolla tube, which any insect must probe to get nectar.  The stamens are inside this corolla tube.  The outsides of the corolla tube and the stems are coated with sticky hairs which seem to be designed to discourage ants or crawling insects from stealing the nectar.   I have seen black swallowtails apparently getting nectar as well as monarchs and gulf fritillaries. To give you an idea of how such butterflies can reach down the long corolla tube, look at the side view of the rolled up tongue of a zebra butterfly.  Thus this flower is designed specifically to attract butterfly and hummingbird pollinators.


Should it surprise us that the creation of such a seemingly simple habitat as a wildlfower meadow is actually very complex? Perhaps not if you have never tried it.  Alternate methods involving removal of weeds by hand and planting of actual plants of native flowers in unchanged soils is being tried in the butterfly garden with some success.  Another approach is to remove the parent soil which in places is very disturbed by the former golf course and replace it with an artificial soil before putting in plants.  Gardening can be very challenging but at Wildflower Preserve we are trying various approaches and learning as we go.  Come and visit, get down and dirty, and enjoy the mantra of the gardener, no pain no gain!


Bill Dunson 
Englewood, FL, and Galax, VA