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Wildflowers: A Small-Scale Agricuture Alternative

Published December 1987

United States Department of Agriculture
Cooperative State Research Service
Office for Small-Scale Agriculture

The wildflower business may bloom as never before in coming years. Federal legislation adopted in September 1987 requires that 25 cents of every $100 in Federal highway landscaping funds be used to plant wildflowers. With few exceptions wildflowers are now part of any landscaping project on the Federal-aid highway system. Most States already have some sort of native plant growth program involving highways, following the lead of Texas, which began its highway beautification with wildflowers in 1927.

A resurgence of interest in the landscaping of the last century, with its emphasis on native plants, also noted by Dr. E. "Pat" Carpenter, professor of plant science at the University of Connecticut. House owners who want to get the most yard beauty from the least work, he says, are turning to "naturalistic landscaping."

Reduced maintenance costs also are part of the benefits from wildflowers along roads. Many native plants are highly resistant to drought. Texas reported saving millions of dollars by substituting flowers for roadside weeds.

Texas activists helped inspire the National Council of State Garden Clubs, which launched its Operation Wildflower project in 1973. Under Mrs. La Verne R. Collard of Massachusetts, it has a national newsletter (The Columbine, P.O. Box 860, Pocasset, MA 02559) and encourages work with the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Commission and State highway agencies to promote road plantings.

Such projects may not only open up new markets for producers of wildflowers seed but also stimulate greater demand for wildflower plants around homes.

Wildflower Families

"Wildflowers" is the nickname for herbaceous flowering plants native to an area. They come in many shapes, sizes and colors and grow everywhere.

Most are annuals, but many are biennials or perennials. Those along highways are usually perennials from the meadows, but they also are found in alpine, aquatic, bog, and timber settings.

Major wildflowers families include legume (including the bluebonnet, State flower of Texas, and the locoweed), rose, violet, heath (such as crimson snowplant), phlox, snapdragon, mint, sunflower, lilly, arum (including the Jack-in-the-pulpit and the skunk cabbage), and orchid(including the lady's slipper. Others not commonly thought of as wildflowers are cat-tails, poppies, capers, mustards, geraniums, callas, amaranths, cacti, and even Spanish moss.

Although wildflowers grow in all States, most are extremely sensitive as to the locale in which they can be grown. Wild plants have adapted by nature to environmental factors such as climate, rainfall, altitude, exposure to sun or shade, and the predominant soil's pH (balance of acidity to alkalinity). Any attempt to reestablish wildflowers must begin by recognizing those field factors. Relatively few natives are like the perennial columbines (Aquilegia Canadensis, etc.) of the buttercup family that thrive from border to border. Therefore, before anything else, potential entrepreneurs need to learn which flower are native to their areas.

Some species of wildflowers have even become extinct. Conservationists actively campaign against wild collection except at the commercialized site where bulldozers already are wiping out plants. They urge Consumers to buy plants or seeds from growers.


Some wildflowers are propagated best from seeds, although seeds sometimes must be frozen to get them started. Other ways of starting flowers are from divisions, or stem or root cuttings. Some can be started from bulbs, corns, rhizomes, stolons, or tubers.

But many plants are difficult to propagate, says Dr. Henry M. Cathey, director of the National Arboretum of the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), U.S. Department of Agriculture (in Washington, DC 20002). Wildflowers brought into landscaping are in "strange" territory that works against their reproduction, Cathey says. Also, the nursery industry needs though plants that survive transplanting, shipping, and other environmental changes. At the same time, the industry needs plants that can be produced on a commercial scale.

Although out of print at USDA, Cathey's ARS booklet, Growing Flowering Perennials, Hong and Garden Bulletin No. 114, may be of interest to wildflower growers. Some libraries still have it.

Other publications about growing wildflowers are:

  1. Wild Flowers of the United States by Harold William Rickett (multivolumed encyclopedia with colorful photographs).
  2. Growing and Propagating Wild Flowers by Harry Phillips (University of North Carolina Press, P.O. Box 2288, Chapel Hill, NC 27514, $16.45 pamphlet, $26.45 hard cover)
  3. American Nurseryman Magazine.
  4. Directory to Resources on Wildflowers' Propagation. (National Council of State Garden Clubs, 4401 Magnolia Ave., St. Louis, MO 63110.)

A source of bibliographic information on wildflowers is USDA's National Agricultural Library, 10301 Baltimore Blvd., Room 111, Beltsville, MD 20705)

An information source on nursery industry research involving native plants is Dr. Richard E. Bir, Extension horticulture specialist at North Carolina State University. His address is Mountain Horticultural Crops Research Station, 2016 Fanning Bridge Road, Fletcher, NC 28732-9628.

Research Center

The National Wildflower Research Center (NWRC) in Texas is the heart of research and information about U.S. wildflowers. This nonprofit organization, financed entirely by contributions, has a membership of more than 8,000. it publishes a quarterly newsletter, Wildflowers, for members. NWRC's address is 2600 FM 973 North, Austin, TX 78825.

"There is a phenomenal public interest in wildflowers for ecological, esthetic, and economic reasons," according to Dr. David Northington, executive director. The Center receives thousands of inquiries annually, from every State.

Members for $25 a year receive the newsletter, priority mail handling, and free fact sheets. Nonmembers wishing information should include a legal-sized envelope with 56 cents' postage.

The Center has cooperative projects with several facilities, such as Farmingdale University and Clark Garden in New York, Atlanta Botanic Gardens and Callaway Gardens in Georgia, Dever Botanic Gardens in Colorado, and the University of North Dakota.

Specialists at NWRC and some State Universities are always looking for easier ways to grow wildflowers. Some county Cooperative Extension Service (CES) agents have information.

USDA Assistance

A Plant Materials Program, which includes other conservation plants besides wildflowers, is conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Soil Conservation Service (SCS).

This program is handled through 25 plant materials centers in 22 States. Wildflowers are among the cultivars (cultivated varieties) that the program has developed to improve erosion control on cropland, along highways and shorelines, and at minespoils. The program also aims to boost forage yields and the protein diets of grazing livestock.

The SCS program includes help to wildflower seed growers. Much labor is involved in harvesting and packaging seed. And there is a scarcity of equipment. However, in Oregon and Washington, some commercial seed growers use grain harvesting equipment adapted to gather seed.

Any local SCS county office can handle inquiries. Experts there will have advice and can speed getting seed from a plant materials center.

SCS's publication, Improved Plant Materials Cooperatively Released by SCS Through December 1986, lists many useful conservation cultivars of plants, including wildflowers. Also known as forbs (herbaceous plants other than grasses that are common in meadows), all may be grown from field-planted seed. With their cultivar name inside quotation marks, they include:

  • 'Golden Jubilee,' a black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia Hirta);
  • 'Sabine,' an Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis);
  • 'Eldorado,' an Engelmann daisy (Engelmannia pinnatifida);
  • 'Midas,' a rough oxeye (Heliopsis helianthoides);
  • 'Eureka,' a thickspike gayfeather (Liatris pycnostachya);
  • 'Appar,' a Lewis flax (Linum lewisii);
  • 'Bandera,' a Rocky Mountain penstemon (Penstemon strictus);
  • 'Kaneb,' a purple prairieclover (Petalostemon purpureum);
  • 'Sunglow,' a grayhead prairie-coneflower (Ratibida pinnata);
  • 'Nekan,' a pitcher sage (Salvia azurea va. grandiflora);
  • 'Aztec,' of the Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani); and
  • 'Prairie God,' of the same species.

The SCS publication notes States in which each plant grows best and which plant materials centers grow them for seed. The booklet is available at no charge from W. Curtis Sharp, SCS national plant materials specialist, P.O. Box 2890, Washington, DC 20013. He also has a list of the centers which may be visited.

Accessing Markets

A 17-page report, "Accessing the Market, " is available from Pat Carpenter at the Department of Plant Sciences, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT 06268. Carpenter discusses groups of plant buyers and how to reach them through paid or free promotions. He also lists 20 State native plant associations and the regional New England Wild Flower Society, Inc., Garden in the Woods, 180 Hemenway Road, Framingham, MA 01701.

Gardeners are one potential market. Garden clubs often have garden sales at meetings. Don Shadow, owner of Shadow Nursery, Inc. (Route 1, Box 37A, Winchester, TE 37398), suggests growers also hunt for local markets at

  1. retail garden centers,
  2. organizations with botanic gardens, and
  3. larger established nurseries, which may use additional plants.

Other markets might include landscapers and interiorscapers or interior decorators for civic or other public areas, colleges, other institutions, and private apartments.

Another way to reach consumers is by displaying potted perennials at grocery stores or florist shops or from a temporary green house in a shopping center parking lot or along a highway with ample parking space.

For seed sales, growers may wish to contact groups of wildlife and bird conservationists, some of whose members may have farmland lying fallow much of the year. They welcome ideas about wildflowers bearing seeds or fruit that stays on branches up above the usual snowfall. They might be reached through want ads in professional magazines.

Market Cautions

When selling seeds, conscientious marketers should label seed packets carefully. Garden club groups point out that some seed mixes are not labeled accurately and may contain unmentioned noxious weeds, such as loosestrife. They urge purchase only of carefully controlled seed mixes that contain high percentages of indigenous species. an entrepreneur should buy seeds only for one species at a time.

Also, shippers must be aware of State and Federal plant quarantine laws designed to prevent movement of diseases or other pests across State lines. Growers should seek information either from their State plant regulatory official at the State Department of Agriculture or officials with USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS, Plant Protection and Quarantine, Regulatory Services Staff, Federal Building, Hyattsville, MD 20782).

When entrepreneurs are making plans, they might want to note that net income may be about a fifth of gross sales. Without a high gross, an entrepreneur should not expect to make more than a supplemental income even with skilled, hard work and a coldframe or two, according to Dr. Sam Jones, professor of botany at the University of Georgia, Athens.

by George B. Holcomb of the office of Information, U.S. Department of Agriculture, for USDA's Small-Scale Agriculture (OSSA); Howard W. "Bud" Kerr, Jr., Programs Director, Office of Small-Scale Agriculture.

Published December 1987

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