In honor of National Wildflower week we wanted to re-share this Leaflet article (fall 2018 edition) by Rufino Osorio, native plant enthusiast and author of A Gardener’s Guide to Florida’s Native Plants.
In Defense of Native Wildflowers
American wildflowers are having a renaissance and their virtues are being discovered by many American gardeners. Although sometimes grown principally or only for their aesthetic appeal, native wildflowers have an array of valuable traits. First and foremost, many wildflowers have outstanding wildlife value and their roots, leaves, nectar, pollen, and seeds or fruits may serve as food for a great many herbivores, from the tiniest insects to large hoofed mammals. Many of these animals, in turn, serve as food for other creatures higher up the food chain. Wildflowers sometimes exhibit high degrees of ecological interdependence with herbivores, pollinators, fruit or seed dispersers, seed predators, and gall formers. Often to such an extent that no non-native plant can take their place.
Rudbeckia mollis, photo by Rufino Osorio
Besides feeding many hungry mouths, wildflowers, and the many native grasses that grow with them, have an important role in protecting our soil and water and they help to moderate climate warming. For example, many Florida native wildflowers and grasses have deep roots that can extend several feet. Such roots push apart soil particles and serve as pathways that assist in the penetration of water deep into the ground. Studies have shown that wildflowers and grasses sequester carbon into the ground, in the form of extensive roots. So much so that some prairies can store quantities of carbon dioxide that equal the amounts stored by a forest. Additionally, the extensive root systems of native wildflowers, in concert with those of native grasses, hold the soil together and prevent erosion and surface water runoff. Thus, it is not surprising that the richest and most productive soil on the entire planet, America’s corn belt, was produced by the wildflower-filled prairies of the Midwest.
Fire is an essential component of many of Florida’s natural habitats, such as pine flatwoods, and, without periodic fires, these habitats rapidly decline. Luckily, the dry, dead herbage of wildflowers and grasses facilitate wildfires — which is a good thing as it has been found that natural, periodic fires result in a more diverse mosaic of plant communities, which in turn leads to much higher levels of biodiversity than would otherwise be the case. Frequent wildfires help to clear up combustible vegetation whose accumulation over long periods of time would lead to infrequent but extremely dangerous conflagrations.
A diverse mixture of many different wildflowers of different growth form and height, combined with native grasses, result in a complex three dimensional habitat. It is no surprise that many different organisms can live together in such a habitat. These complex spaces increase biodiversity, because there are many microenvironments that can dramatically differ in temperature and humidity and thus accommodate numerous and diverse organisms. Additionally, habitats that have a complex three dimensional structure also provide innumerable hiding places where these same organisms can escape from their predators.
Lastly, I end with the first value that I mentioned: aesthetic beauty. No one can doubt the eye-catching splendor of orchids, gingers, begonias, heliconia, bromeliads, and the many other tropical plants grown in south Florida. However, many wildflowers can be just as beautiful, especially if grown en masse, and native wildflowers often makeup what they lack in size and color by their simplicity, grace, and elegance.
Wildflower Vista: A scattering of Gomphrena, Cuphea, Calendula, Tagetes and Florida natives Tropical Salvia and Wand Goldenrod, photo by Kari Dabrowski