While most of the native plants that are common within the horticulture industry are perennial, there are plenty of annual native plants that deserve just as much attention as their more enduring relatives. These plants, like any other annual plant, live fast - germinating, maturing, and reproducing all within their first year. Due to this reproductive strategy they also have the tendency to self-sow and naturalize readily, something that may be sought after as you try to fill in the spaced between your taller perennials. It is disheartening that these plants are not produced on a large scale within the horticulture industry, as non-native annuals such as Pansies or Marigolds are regularly produced and stocked on shelves across the nation. These annuals are not alone though, as many other interesting native perennial wildflowers also don't get the attention they deserve - most likely due to their diminutive nature. Instead, it is up to home gardeners like yourself to start these native gems by seed if we are to enjoy them within the home landscape.
Each year I dabble a little bit more with native annuals. Over the past two years, I have focused largely on my native lawn-alternative which mostly consists of Short-beaked (Carex brevifolia) & Bicknell's (Carex bicknellii) Sedge along with Purple Love Grass (Eragrostis spectabilis) and Pussytoes (Antennaria spp.). Now that these perennials plants are established, I am planning on adding in some annuals wherever there is an open space - with the long term goal of having self-sustaining populations of these annual wildflowers reproducing and growing within my garden.
Slender False Foxglove is an annual that grows to a max height of 2 feet. I plan on mowing or cutting back to prevent them from reaching this height. Like the other plants in this garden, they enjoy dry, sandy, or rocky soil. It readily self-sows and is slightly parasitic so it is best planted with a diverse mix of other grassland species. This species requires 60 days of cold-moist stratification.
Small Skullcap is a perennial that only grows to 4 inches tall. It also enjoys dry sandy soil in full sun and is happy as long as other plants don't shade it out. This species self-sows readily and benefits a large range of pollinators, making it ideal for native gardens and curbside plantings where it is happy to grow in the extreme growing conditions provided by the road.
Rattlebox is a native legume that reaches heights of 12 inches. It also prefers the same dry, sandy, nutrient-poor soils in full sun as many other grassland species. This species also self-sows but requires light to germinate and so will not grow if shaded by taller species. The seeds may remain dormant in the soil until disturbance provides the light necessary for germination. Seeds pods rattle when dry - giving the plant its common name, and seeds are dispersed after the dead plant breaks away from its taproot and tumbles in the wind.
Forked Bluecurls is a stunning annual wildflower that can be found in dry grasslands and open woods. Growing 1-3 feet, this is one plant that is actually available in potted options locally and we do our best to stock it for the public while supplies last. It is heavily-fragrant, with new blooms emerging each morning only to close by afternoon. This one will also self-seed and adds much ornamentation to a small meadow.
Annual Woolly Bean is one of our native bean species! While it is edible, the seed pods are not very large and so it is not considered a staple food source. This annual bean, not to be confused with Perennial Woolly Bean, is a nitrogen fixer, supports Bumblebees, and can grow in excess of 7 feet long. If no structure is provided to allow vertical growth, this bean will trail along the ground. My seeds are ecotype of the Hempstead Plains (collected for personal use with permission).
If you have moist soil, have no fear - the Beggarticks are here! Also known as burr marigolds, cobbler's pegs, and tickseeds, these annual plants are all members of the Bidens genus. Some of the species within this genus are not very showy, while others make it clear they are members of the Asteraceae family and aren't afraid of showing it. Growing up to 4 feet tall, these bright wildflowers enjoy moist soil and can often be found growing near wetlands in nature. Enjoyed by pollinators, the seeds are eaten by songbirds and dispersed by mammals as the burrs stick to their fur for transport before dropping off and germinating.
After initially seeking out Azure Bluets (H. caerulea), I had to settle for the next best thing. Longleaf Bluets is a perennial and enjoys the same growing conditions as its cousin, being happy in dry, sandy soil in full-partial sun. Only growing to 6 inches, this is another great option for growing within a short-sedge meadow or lawn alternative. This species supports many forms of native pollinators and is only rarely consumed by herbivores such as Rabbits, making it a great addition to a suburban garden.
Partridge Pea is another fantastic native annual that is often used within new plantings as it makes a fantastic live-mulch. Being another member of the legume family, this species is a nitrogen fixer and helps feed other plants around it. A boom for pollinators such as Bumblebees and, as its common name suggests, relished by song and game birds, this species will also self-sow until displaced by larger perennials. Some intriguing aspects of this plant include its seed dispersal mechanism that launches seeds up to 5 feet away from the mother plant, leaves that react to disturbance and fold up when touched, and extra-floral nectaries along the stems that provide nectar for ants in exchange for protection from pests.
A relative of the common Yellow Wood Sorrel (O. stricta), this lesser-known Oxalis species can be found growing in dry, open woodlands, rocky summits, and woodland edges. It enjoys full-partial sun and often behaves as a late spring ephemeral - going dormant after blooming. Sometimes it will reemerge later in the year a bloom for a second time if conditions are right. This dainty little wildflower only grows to 4 inches, making it the perfect mix-in with Sedges and other low-growing ground covers that may require an added splash of color. This species is often available as a bare root specimen, growing from a layered bulb (almost like a lily) which can be divided to create more plants.
While not native to the Eastern United States, the Annual Sunflower was domesticated within the Southeastern US in prehistoric times. Unlike its perennial relatives that are native to our region, this species does not require large amounts of space due to spreading colony-forming rhizomes, making it ideal for the home garden. Regardless of which Helianthus species you grow, wildlife tend to benefit in the same way and so this species receives an honorable mention in this blog. A favorite of just about everyone, Sunflowers are extremely important to pollinators and feed small mammals and songbirds. Bonus points if you are able to source Wild Annual Sunflower that has not been domesticated or "improved" as these varieties will have greater genetic diversity and offer seeds that are more appropriately-sized for small songbirds like Goldfinches.
These are just some of the harder-to-find native species that are often only available in the form of seeds. Together they represent just a fraction of possibilities for home gardeners looking to increase the diversity within their native plantings and provide more habitat to wildlife (as well as these increasingly rare plant species). I look forward to germinating these new species and providing you with updates as the year progresses.