Wildflower plants for sunny prairie-style gardens

North American prairie wildflower plants evolved in regions where winters are long and cold and summers hot and dry, so it’s no wonder they are tough beauties and easy to grow.

Once these perennials are established, they will thrive in ordinary soil without watering, and they attract butterflies and seed-eating songbirds.

Here are step-by-step instructions and suggested prairie plants.

Wildflower plants – getting started

Start with a clean, weed-free planting area in a sunny spot. Any sunny, level site is suitable for a wildflower plants.

The site should have at least six hours of full sun. Turn the soil with a spade and fork or a tiller. Rake smooth.

More planting tips:

  1. Plant in spring to give root systems of your wildflower plants plenty of time to establish themselves, spacing plants about 8 to 12 inches apart. Water well.
  2. Mulch with 3 to 4 inches of straw to help keep the soil moist and prevent weeds from germinating.
  3. Water until the young wildflower plants are established, especially if there isn’t enough rain.
  4. Weed carefully in the first couple of growing seasons. Once plants are established, they’ll shade out most weeds.
  5. Cut plants back in early spring and remove cut material to expose soil to the sun to help warm it.
  6. Every few seasons, prairie gardens benefit from a burn rather than a cut. (Do this only if you live in an open area, and your plants are well away from buildings, can get permission to burn from local authorities, and not run into trouble with your insurance company.)

Wildflower plants to grow – flowering plants

wildflower plants liatris

Meadow blazing star with monarch butterfly
Photo: © Y. Cunnington

The following are some the wild flower mainstays of a prairie style garden:

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta): Yellow flowers from mid-summer to early fall

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa): Orange flowers in mid-summer

Heath aster (Aster ericoides): Tiny white flowers in late summer to early fall

Lance-leaf Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata): Yellow flowers in mid-summer

Lavender hyssop (Agastache foeniculum): Purple flowers in mid to late summer

Meadow blazingstar (Liatris ligulistylus): Mauve purple flowers in late summer; very attractive to monarch butterflies, as shown above

Prairie Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata): Blooms are attractive drooping yellow petals in late summer (right)

Prairie dock (Silphium terbinthinaecum): Large, showy leaves; yellow flowers in midsummer

Prairie smoke (Geum triflorum): Pinkish flowers in spring, followed by feathery seed heads

Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea): Mauve-pink flowers from mid-summer

Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida): Very light mauve-pink flowers with drooping petals, mid-summer

Smooth penstemon (Penstemon digitalis): White flowers in early summer

Wild bergamot, or bee balm (Monarda fistula): Lavender flowers from midsummer to early fall

Prairie dock (Silphium terbinthinaecum): Large, showy leaves; yellow flowers in midsummer.

Native grasses for your wildflower prairie

wildflower plants ratibida

Prairie coneflower blooms in mid- to late summer
Photo: © Y. Cunnington

In nature, grasses dominate prairie lands. For a backyard garden, short to medium-sized native grasses make wonderful companions for perennial wildflower plants.

For a more colorful meadow, use 40 percent grasses and 60 percent wild flowers (forbs).

For a grassier look, half to two thirds of the plants should be grasses such as the following:

Little blue stem (Schizachyrium scoparium): Medium-sized blue-green clumping grass; flowers and turns coppery in fall

Prairie dropseed (Sporobulus heterolepis): Attractive fine-textured, fountain-like green hummock; leaves turn bronze in fall; fall-blooming flowers have a scent like cilantro

Side oats gramma (Bouteloua crutipendula): Short green clump with attractive oat-like seed heads on one side of the stem.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum): Large grass with airy flower panicles. (Excellent cultivated varieties available.)