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Hardy prairie plants don’t need any coddling

Prairie crocus

Svyatoslav Kolesnykov/Thinkstock

Native plants that have grown up on the Prairies know a thing or two about drought. But dry as dust they're not. These hardy fellas are among the prettiest and most carefree sun-lovers for any garden. It's important to water them well in their first season of growth, but once they've developed a good root system, these plants know how to take care of themselves. And don't coddle them with fertilizers and rich soils – for the most part, they thrive on poor but well-drained dirt. Give them sand and grit and they'll be happy.

One of the first to bloom is the prairie crocus (Pulsatilla patens, sometimes sold as Anemone patens), a low-growing plant that is not to be confused with the crocus bulbs we plant in fall and bloom in spring. The prairie crocus is a perennial with softly nodding flowers in shades of purple and blue. After flowering, they form attractive, wispy seed heads that last for weeks and combine beautifully with blue grama or mosquito grass (Bouteloua gracilis). A clump-forming grass, blue grama produces clouds of quirky-looking, horizontal flowers that a friend of mine describes as looking like little mustaches blowing in the breeze.

Later in the season, the magenta-purple flowers of purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea) start to bloom. Inexplicably hard to find outside of specialty nurseries, this perennial deserves more attention for its elegant flowers and feathery foliage. It looks terrific against the blades of little bluestem (Andropogon scoparius), the quintessential grass of the Prairies that changes through the seasons from grey-blue to burnished burgundy and bronze, offering summer, fall and winter interest.

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One of the longest-blooming drought-tolerant of all is the prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera). No cousin to the similarly named purple coneflower, this is a coneflower of a different colour and genus. Petals of bronzy burgundy or yellow surround a conical peaked centre, inspiring its other common name of Mexican hat.

With all these specimens, plant them as early in the season as you can, to give them a chance to get well-established before winter sets in.

Insider tip

Three super-easy prairie plants to grow from seed are blanketflower (Gaillardia aristata), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) and lanceleaf tickseed (Coreopsis lanceolata), says Miriam Goldberger of They bloom for months and make fabulous cut flowers. Sow outdoors now or start in seedling trays and then transplant outdoors in late August or throughout September when they have formed substantial roots.

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