Spring Wildflowers in 5 Easy Steps

Wildflowers in the Southwest spring. Who doesn’t want some?!
Great news is that there are 5 simple steps to have them in your yard this spring. But first some background.

Why Plant Wildflowers Now?

Yes plant them Autumn!  Spring wildflowers bloom in the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts in response to the winter rains off the Pacific Ocean. Thus you have to get the wildflower seed into the soil now, because their genes are telling them that now is the time to grow. Now, in the cooling soils of autumn.

Which Wildflowers?

The best wildflowers to grow here are the ones that are native to your “here.” Whatever here that place may be. We humans can go into our cooled or heated houses – but plants have a survive right where they are rooted. A slight difference can mean a great deal to a plant. When it comes to our Southwestern deserts there can be a number of variables – different humidity, different soils, different species of pollinators, different heat loads, different winter lows.

Our glorious showy desert poppies are a perfect example of how plants can be keyed into environment – meaning how important “places” can be to plants.

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Sonoran Desert native poppy.

Sonoran Desert – plant the Mexican gold poppy (Eschscholzia mexicana). It is better adapted to Sonoran desert conditions, including colder winters.

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Mojave Desert native poppy.

Mojave desert – plant the California gold poppy (Eschscholtzia californica). The weather conditions in Mojave are very unique. Just ask the Joshua trees – it’s the only place on earth they grow naturally.

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The desert marigold found from Utah into deep Mexico. Photo courtesy W. Anderson.

Other wildflowers are not so picky about place. (I did say “can be.”) A great example of that is the desert marigold (Baileya multiradiata). It grows across the Southwest in the Sonoran, Mojave, Chihuahuan, and Great Basin Deserts. That means in the States of California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and Texas, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Durango, and Aguascalientes.

I Told You That – to Tell You This

If you buy seeds and they don’t grow well for you – it is probably NOT your fault! Blame the plant genes. You need to get the right plant in the right place! Some of the care tips below can help – but Plant & Place is key.    Yes – seeds cost money, and it is disheartening to have them fail, but don’t bemoan the money spent. Even 10 packages of seed are less expensive than a fast food meal for two (unless you are really really cheap).

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Sand loving verbena, Abronia villosa, is ideal if you have a sandy, well drained yard.

Sandy Soil in your Place?

If you have a sandy soil, consider the sand-loving native wildflowers. Consider sand verbena, arroyo lupine, sand lupine, and the desert chicory. Also the bird-cage evening primrose is really cool.

Colder Area?

Lucky you! You get to grow my favorites, the flaxes. They come in sky blue and stunning scarlet. Also the Mojave aster, lovely lavender with golden centers.

Spring Wildflowers to Consider

Along with desert marigolds, and poppies for your area, select from plants like desert bluebells, desert coreopsis, desert senna, ghost flower, golden dyssodia, penstemon, and so many more.  I have posted a nice list under “Resources” on this website. It’s a very long list because I have seen everything on there for sale in some seed package or another. Sometimes in wildflower mixes or revegetation mixes.

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Some wildflowers are tiny individually – but can still form a beautiful display. Cinchweed, Pectis papposa, is also called limoncillo and can be used in cooking. Yes it has a lemony flavor.

Where to Find Wildflower Seed?

Go to local nurseries, botanical gardens, arboreta, and keep an eye open for local garden club sales and shows. The big box stores do not carry our native seed. There are also some western seed companies that carry such specialty products. Best of all – ask around for a local seed library. There is the interweb too of course, but it is better to start local because there are many very local seed companies in our region.

Grow Spring Wildflowers – 5 Easy Steps

Step 1. Select the site.

Most wildflowers prefer a sunny location. Many do well in filtered light, say under a palo verde tree. Ideally, your wildflowers should get early morning sun. Thus if we have a winter frost they will get warming sun right away.

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Scarlet flax is more cold tolerant than some other Southwest wildflowers. Indeed, if the winter where you live is overly warm, they may die without flowering.

Step 2. Make the bed.

Or, as the books say, “prepare a proper seed bed.” Remember, these are desert plants, so preparation is mostly making sure the seed will be in contact with true soil, not gravel mulch or an artificial weed barrier.

Step 3. Sow the seeds.

Do this evenly over the surface. If the seeds are tiny, mix them with sand for ease of scattering. After sowing, gently water to moisten seeds and help mix them into the soil. Next cover the area with a quarter inch of sand to hide the wildflower seed from the hungry seed-eating birds.

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Lupine seed. they are in the legume (pea) family.

Step 4A. Protect Seeds and Young Seedlings – Part I.

There are a lot of hungry critters that love to eat seeds and seedlings. Bend a layer of chicken wire to rest about two inches off of the soil. Birds hate to land on this and gophers won’t walk on it either. Once wildflower seeds start growing and have a few leaves, they start producing the defensive compounds that keep them from being eaten. Your wildflowers will grow large enough to hide the chicken wire, or you can remove it.

Step 4B. Protect Seeds and Young Seedlings – Part II.

Wildflower seedlings need protection from a hard frost – below 28 F. The best protection is to start the seeds early enough. If they don’t come up right away, it may be because the soil is still too warm. Don’t worry if you don’t see tiny leaves for a month. If you planted natives they should be fine.

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The delicate ghost flower, Mohavea confertiflora, is a real charmer. Related to snapdragons! Photo courtesy M. Dimmitt.

Step 5. Water.

Every living thing needs water! Yes, these are natives and live with little water, but little water is not no water. Plus extra water gives better flowering results. Water two to three times per week as the seeds first germinate. Once they have about 10 leaves and are established, seedlings would appreciate a weekly watering for best show.

That’s it.  Just 5 simple steps to a lovely show of desert wildflowers next spring.  You’ll love it, and our native pollinators will too!

The Desert Diva Shares

soule-garden-successNatives preferred! Please do not plant the non-native African daisy (Arctotis stoechadifolia). It is elbowing out native wildflowers and it’s seeds are toxic to native birds. It’s seed spread easily (on the wind, like dandelions) and it is becoming an invasive weed in the desert, pushing out our lovely natives with its toxic roots, and killing baby quail who eat it unknowing. There are so many pretty natives to plant instead of this killer.

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African daisy. Not the right plant for any Southwestern place!


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