Illinois, known as the “Prairie State,” has several native plant species. Prior to European settlers in Illinois, 60 percent of the 22 million acres was prairie. Today less than one hundredth of one percent of the original undisturbed prairies exists in Illinois. Some of these original prairies can still be found in pioneer cemeteries, fencerows and railroad rights-of-way.
Prairie plants native to Illinois are good choices for inclusion in the landscape because they evolved with the climate, soils and pathogens in its native habitat for thousands of years. Extensive root systems make prairie plants resistant to drought and dry conditions, and they can reduce soil erosion. In general, prairie plants have few insect and disease problems. Once established, they need minimum maintenance. And prairie plants provide habitat for birds and other grassland animals.
Prairie plants are best planted in the spring, while late fall is the best time to sow prairie plant seeds. Purchase native plant species from reputable local nurseries or mail-order catalogs. Usually plants from a local source are adapted to your area. Don’t dig native plants from the wild.
While there are many noteworthy prairie plants, some of my favorites include prairie dropseed, little bluestem and purple prairie clover.
Prairie dropseed, also called northern dropseed, Sporobolus heterolepsis, is a clump-forming, warm-season native grass. The graceful arching leaves give the plant a fountain-like appearance. Prairie dropseed is a very good native grass for the landscape as it will tolerate a wide range of soils, including clay. Full height of the plant in flower is 2 to 3 feet and spread is 2 to 3 feet across. In late summer, open-airy flower heads appear on thin stems which rise above the clump of foliage. Prairie dropseed is a see-through plant, as you can see between the flower stems. Single flowers are borne in sparse clumps at the end of the stem. Blooms are pink and brown-tinted. The foliage turns golden with orange hues in the fall, fading to light bronze in the winter. The plant gets its name from the tiny rounded mature seeds which drop to the ground in autumn.
Little bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium, has bluish stems that change from orange to russet red color throughout the fall and winter. Little bluestem’s common name refers to the bluish coloration at the base of the stem. It reaches a height of 2 to 4 feet and has a dense root system which may reach 5 to 8 feet deep. Fluffy white seed heads are produced in late summer on arching stems.
Purple prairie clover, Dale purpurea, was used as a medicinal plant by Native American Indians and early settlers. This slender plant grows up to two feet tall. In June and July, purple thimble-like flowers are produced at the ends of the stems.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources has a publication, “Prairie Establishment and Landscaping,” by William E. McClain, that is available print and on the Internet at http://dnr.state.il.us/conservation/naturalheritage/prairie/table.htm. This publication also offers a list of sources of native Illinois prairie plant seeds.
Gardeners looking for a great selection of native plants have an opportunity to attend two upcoming plant sales.
The Central Chapter of the Illinois Native Plant Society will hold its annual plant sale on Saturday, May 1, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Washington Park Botanical Garden, Springfield. Many native trees, shrubs and wildflowers will be available, as well as non-invasive exotic species and cultivars. Some selections are extremely rare and seldom seen in cultivation. Plant experts will be on hand to help with your questions.
Prairie Wildflower Plant Sale will be held on May 15 and 16 at Lincoln Memorial Garden. The event will be held at the Lincoln Memorial Garden Nature Center, Springfield, and will run from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday. Prairie plants will be priced at $5.
Jennifer Fishburn is horticulture educator for University of Illinois Extension, Sangamon-Menard Unit. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.