Garden Variety: Wildflowers are in bloom; here’s how to identify them
Black-eyed Susans, yellow sweet clover, Queen Anne’s lace, and many other wildflowers and grasses are putting on a show on Kan- sas roadsides, in native prairie sites, and in the nearby Flint Hills. If you have the chance to go for a drive, a bike ride or a walk in one of these regions, this is a good time to take note of the plants around you. Here are a few plants you might see and resources for identifying others.
Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) are some of the most recognizable wildflowers. Look for daisy-like flowers with yellow petals and dark brown to black centers held on rigid stalks above the foliage. Plants grow 1 to 3 feet high and are typically found mixed with prairie grasses or other wildflowers.
Yellow sweet clover (Melilotus officinalis) is abundant right now on roadsides and in grasslands. The plants grow to 5 feet tall, with small, yellow flowers borne along long, wispy stems that wave in the wind. Plants tend to grow in large clusters or patches that make them more noticeable and are abundant in years when there is adequate moisture in the spring such as this one.
Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) is also known as wild carrot. Flowers are white and tiny but borne in round, flattened clusters that from a distance look like one larger flower. These clusters are called umbels and may be 2 to 6 inches in diameter. Stems are thin, and the flowers wave in the wind similarly to yellow sweet clover.
The plant varies in height depending on soil conditions and moisture but can reach up to 5 feet tall. Typically, flowers are held well above the ferny foliage and are the most notable feature. Plants bloom throughout the summer. Queen Anne’s lace is an introduced species that was probably brought to the U.S. by early European settlers but has since naturalized over a broad region.
A few other common plants on roadsides and in grasslands right now are white and red clovers, daisy fleabane, bachelor’s button and crown vetch.
White clover (Trifolium repens) only grows to about 8 inches tall maximum. It is common in lawns and low-maintenance lawn grass areas such as parks and may go unnoticed on roadsides. It is also an introduced species that has naturalized and is considered beneficial because it returns nitrogen to the soil.
Red clover (Trifolium pratense) grows to 3 feet tall. Leaves are similar to but much larger than those of white clover. Flowers are also shaped similarly to white clover but are larger and pink to reddish purple.
Daisy fleabane (Erigeron strigosus) is another wispy plant with white, daisy-like flowers that are about a half-inch in diameter. Overall plant height is about 3 feet tall. Bachelor’s button (Centaurea cyanus) is also known as cornflower and usually blooms a little later in the summer, but it is already blooming this year. It has 1-inch-diameter light blue flowers borne sporadically along the stem. Plants grow to 3 feet tall.
Crown vetch (Coronilla varia) is often planted to prevent erosion on roadsides or disturbed areas. Flowers are pale purple and borne in spherical clusters that are usually 2 to 3 inches in diameter. The flowers are held above low-growing masses of leaves that look similar to those of a honeylocust or mimosa tree.
One of the best resources for identification of plants growing on roadsides and prairie areas in Kansas is the Kansas Wildflowers and Grasses website, kswildflower.org. This site allows users to look through plants by flower color and bloom time, which is especially helpful when trying to identify an unknown plant. The site is maintained by author Michael Haddock, who has written multiple books on the subject.
The Kansas Native Plant Society website, kansasnativeplantsociety.org, offers resources for identification and further study of native plants and wildflowers.
For those who prefer printed books, try these:
• “Kansas Wildflowers and Weeds,” by Haddock, Craig C. Freeman and Janét E. Bare.
• “Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines in Kansas” by Haddock and Freeman.
• “Weeds of the Great Plains” by the Nebraska Department of Agriculture. (An updated version will be available later this year.)
• “Wildflowers and Grasses of Kansas” by Haddock.
— Jennifer Smith has worked as a horticulturist for various government entities. She has experience in landscape design and maintenance and as an educator.