Wildflower and Native Plants: Are they the same?

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Wildflowers with a sunny backdrop

Author: Nancy McDonald, Master Gardeners of Ottawa-Carleton; published with permission

It’s not only new gardeners who assume that wildflowers and native plants are the same. And that when we purchase a wildflower packet of seeds to plant, it will mean many years of bloom with very little gardening maintenance. We may be envisioning a meadow landscape filled with wildflowers growing freely and visited by native bees, pollinators, and beneficial insects. A true meadow ecosystem will provide habitat for other living creatures too, such as birds, bats, small mammals, snakes, toads, and frogs.

A Definition of a Native Plant

Often, the terms native plants and wildflowers are used interchangeably, as though they are one and the same. But should they be? The City of Ottawa’s website states, “Native plants are adapted to local climate, soil conditions, and diseases.” The website goes on to say, “Make sure the plants you choose are actually native to eastern Ontario, not just to North America in general.” A native plant is one that occurred naturally in a particular region, ecosystem, or habitat prior to European contact.

A Definition of a Wildflower

To add to the confusion, some wildflowers are indeed native plants, but others have been introduced either intentionally or as garden escapes. Essentially, a wildflower, according to the Cambridge dictionary, is “any flower that grows without being planted by people.”

Introduced Wildflowers Can Displace Native Species

Introduced species have the potential to displace native species in the wild. Queen Anne’s Lace and dandelions are two introduced species that came with settlers and have spread readily. Wildflowers, either native or non-native, can establish and reproduce without our assistance. Hence, the idea of establishing a meadow garden seems to imply less work at first glance.

Packaged Wildflower Mixes

So, what about those prettily packaged wildflower mixes available everywhere? I purchased two such packets from well-known seed companies to do an analysis. One was described as a perennial mix and the other as an annual all-purpose mix. In the perennial mix, I found seeds such as baby’s breath, calendula, California poppy, alyssum, wallflower, and lupin. The percentage of the mix for each seed ranged from one to sixteen percent, with the highest percentage of seeds belonging to the baby’s breath. Gardeners in British Columbia are warned each Valentine’s Day not to put baby’s breath, often included with rose bouquets, in their compost as it is invasive in that province. The perennial packet suggests most varieties will bloom the second year.

Without the botanical name on the packet, there is no assurance that the perennials included are native. The annuals in the packet, which may reseed, are certainly not native.

The second packet of annual all-purpose mix does not give a percentage of seeds included but does give the botanical name rather than the common name. This packet states there should be blooms from June until frost. Some of the seeds included, such as Lupinus perennis, are perennial. As well as baby’s breath (Gypsophila), this mix also contains Centaurea cyanus (bachelor’s button), an aggressive spreader, and a non-native species now considered a weed in Ontario. The problem is that Centaurea seeds are common in many wildflower mixes. So really, it is buyer “be aware” with these mixes.

We must ask if packaging a mixture of annual, biannual, and perennial seeds together makes good gardening sense. Do all these seeds enjoy the same growing conditions and planting specifications? Very unlikely.

Advantages of Native Plants

What is a well-intentioned gardener to do? Luckily, we are learning more about what we should plant in our Ottawa gardens. The advantages of using native plants include:

  • They are adapted to our cold winter temperatures, summer heat, and periods of drought.
  • Once established, they require watering only in extreme periods of drought and do not require fertilization.
  • They resist or are tolerant to pests and diseases.
  • They provide a habitat with foods suitable for native pollinators.

VASCAN Database

VASCAN is the go-to database for reliable information on the vascular plants of Canada. You can type in the plant you are researching. As an example, I typed in one that many of us grow in our gardens, Aquilegia canadensis. Aquilegia canadensis: Database of Vascular Plants of Canada (VASCAN) (canadensys.net) and quickly saw on the map where this plant was native.

We are fortunate in Ottawa to have a resource such as the Ottawa Wildflower Seed Library, which is a local grassroots organization. I encourage you to visit their website, Ottawa Wildflower Seed Library, and take advantage of their native seed giveaways, which occur throughout the city. This organization provides seeds for plants native to our area. They also have excellent information and a list of resources on their website.

As demand grows, more native plant websites and growers, along with garden centres, are offering native plants. This is where research helps to ensure you are purchasing the true species rather than a cultivar or hybrid. Always look for the botanical name and information on whether the seeds were collected locally or in the wild. If the seeds were mass-collected, they may not have been sorted and will likely contain weed seeds. I have been pleased to recently see some native seed companies producing seed packets with fewer seeds, which are well suited to the home gardener.

Our local public library has a copy of Lorraine Johnson and Sheila Colla’s 2022 book, A Garden for the Rusty-Patched Bumblebee. It is a wonderful resource, and I keep it close by when I am considering adding new plants to my garden. Douglas Tallamy’s 2020 book Nature’s Best Hope gives encouragement for what I can do to preserve biodiversity in my gardens. Climate change and other frightening environmental challenges often seem beyond our control, but I hope that what I decide to grow in my garden can have an impact.

As I get ready for the gardening season, I ask myself, “How can I improve my suburban ecosystem this year and create a beneficial habitat for our native pollinators and wildlife?” Planting native plants comes back as part of the perfect answer.

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