UNITED STATES—Wildflowers have been quite a fad. Relative to most fads, they are not so impractical. For some situations, they are a good excuse to waste less effort and resources on unrefined parts of the garden. Of course, they all require some degree of effort and resources. Most are neither as wild nor as natural as their marketing suggests them to be. Few are native.
Wildflowers that lived here centuries ago, prior to the introduction of exotic species, were relatively unimpressive. Although some bloomed spectacularly, they did so within a brief season. Winter is too cool for pollinators that wildflowers intend to attract. Summer is too dry for bloom to last long. Most bloom was limited to the transition from winter into spring.
The same native wildflowers bloom even less now than they did centuries ago because of competition with exotic species. Most exotic species that compete with wildflowers are feral forage crops that lack colorful bloom. They grow so vigorously that they obscure the natives. Mitigation of such undesirable vegetation ruins wildflowers that mature within it.
Exotics to the rescue!
Most of the best wildflowers here now are as exotic as feral forage crops. Those that are native might be more reliant on unnatural cultivation. California poppy, evening primrose, and native annual lupines might prolong bloom with a bit of extra water through summer, but need weeding. With the same watering, (non-native) cosmos stands up to the weeds.
Unfortunately, vegetation management is more important than wildflowers outside of the refined garden. Overgrown weeds are combustible and can be dangerous to pets. Weed whacking too often involves wildflowers before they get their chance to bloom, as well as foliage of spring bulbs after bloom. (It sometimes damages bark of trees and shrubs too.)
Some low and dense perennial wildflowers are more reliable than annual sorts because they exclude annual weeds. Saint John’s wort and periwinkle are invasive exotic plants, but work well as ground covers. Mowing or shearing them late in winter slows their competing weeds, and also enhances their foliar density before competing weeds regenerate.
Dwarf periwinkle, which is a vigorous but manageable ground-cover here, is an invasive weed in other regions. Locally, common periwinkle, Vinca major, is the more aggressive sort. It naturalizes in riparian situations and damp parts of unrefined landscapes. Stolons can be difficult to pull completely from the soil. Seed disperses secretively, but efficiently.
Periwinkle is almost never available in nurseries nowadays. It tends to infest gardens by sneaking in. Then, the foliage and bloom can be too appealing to eradicate. More plants are easy to divide from established colonies. Growth is tidier if mown at the end of winter. As it regenerates, it gets more relaxed, and finally gets floppy. It looks shabby if trampled.
Periwinkle blooms with sporadic, but delightfully clear blue bloom. Individual flowers are about an inch and a half wide. The evergreen leaves are an inch or two long. Wiry stems get a foot or two deep. Cultivars with white or purplish blue bloom were available before periwinkle naturalized. Periwinkle with foliar variegation still inhabits some old gardens. It is slightly more complaisant.
Horticulturist Tony Tomeo can be contacted at tonytomeo.com.