No matter what part of the country you grew up in, most of us have fond childhood memories of the wildflowers that sprung up each year around our homes, parks and roadsides.
For many, this fondness has carried into our adult years. This week, we celebrate National Wildflower Week as a way to share our interest and to increase public awareness for wildflowers in the landscape.
The beauty of wildflowers can indeed stir up memories of a certain place or time. But the wildflowers that are native to a particular place also serve an important function in the ecology of that place.
Native wildflowers are those species that were already growing in an area before settlers came and planted their favorite flowers from their homelands. Plants that are native to an area are better adapted to the local growing conditions than non-native ones. They are generally easier to establish, require less water and fertilizer and are more tolerant of the pests and diseases found in that area.
Many populations of native wildflowers have been lost because of urban development, competition from invasive plant species and some modern farming practices.
We’ve learned that agriculture can benefit from native wildflowers. Patches of wildflowers located adjacent to crop fields can attract insects and other types of wildlife that in turn pollinate the crop and increase yields. In fact, more than a third of the world’s food crops are dependent on pollinators to produce fruit.
USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is working to combat this decline of wildflowers by promoting planting of them on farms and ranches. Several of the Farm Bill programs that NRCS administers have specific financial incentives tied to planting wildflowers.
NRCS also maintains a national network of Plant Materials Centers that can provide information on which native wildflowers to plant to improve pollinator habitat and guidance on recommended methods for establishing and maintaining wildflower plantings.
At the Plant Materials Center where I work, we recently partnered with the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation to track flowering periods of several native wildflowers. This information is being used to help develop seeding mixes for attracting pollinators to crops grown in Florida.
Flowering periods of the crop and the wildflowers that we plan to use to attract pollinators must be in sync for successful pollination to occur. The information we gather can help determine the best wildflower species for farmers to plant in field borders, contour buffer strips and other conservation practices to ensure pollination of their crops.