This may come as a shock, but I’m a bit of a wildflower enthusiast.
I spent my summers from about 6th grade until graduating from college tromping through wood and prairie, swamp and mountains, primarily to take pictures of wildflowers. I rarely left home without my single lens reflex camera (manual, film required) and close-up filters. On many a drive, Mom and I kept an eye out to the ditches, and whenever one of us spotted a splash of color that looked unfamiliar, Mom would hit the brake and swerve onto the shoulder (if a shoulder even existed). Then we’d tromp back to see what flower caught our attention, camera in hand. When I started going on backpacking trips with my uncle out in the Rocky Mountains, his eyes were lifted to the peaks; mine were lowered to the ground, scanning for new and interesting flowers.
After college I switched from primarily photographing wildflowers to drawing them (not that I have given up stalking with a camera). And now that we own a house with extensive yard for gardening, I have expanded to gardening with wildflowers as well. All the better for inspiration, right?
This spring I’ve turned my porch into a wildflower propagation chamber. Currently there are 12 trays of wildflowers (72 cells each), plus 4 more trays of other flowers and vegetables germinating. In the trays I’m growing Large-Flowered Beardtongue, Tall Bellflower, Dotted Blazing Star, Meadow Blazing Star, Butterfly Weed, Orange Black-Eyed Susan, Fireweed, Downy Gentian, Dwarf Blue Indigo, Jacob’s Ladder, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Prairie Onion, Pasque Flower, Wild Blue Phlox, Purple Poppy Mallow, Purple Prairie Clover, Royal Catchfly, Blue Sage, Amethyst Shooting Star, Midland Shooting Star, and no doubt a few others that I can’t remember off the top of my head.
It turns out, you can buy wildflowers and seed without having to ravage the wilds.
Yes, I’ve tried collecting seed in the fall from plants in the wild in hopes of growing them in my garden. But let me tell you, a wildflower in October looks nothing like it did back in July when it was blooming. My seed-saving attempts have not been very effective. Transplanting from the wild is a questionable practice; there’s a Minnesota Statute devoted to what you can and can’t do, and some plants simply don’t transplant well. And on the other hand, there was the Incident of the Transplanted Wild Rose, and “aggressive” does not begin to describe a wild rose in a garden setting.
This is where native seed sellers and nurseries come in handy—they’ve done all the work of figuring out what dead plant is what, collected and cleaned the seed, and put them in nice little labeled packets for easy planting. Or they’ve already planted it and grown a reasonable-sized plant much like any other nursery. And they warn you in advance if a plant is suitable for a garden! Again, beware the wild rose. So beautiful. So fragrant. So aggressively taking over the rose garden.
My favorite wildflower shops:
Hands down, Prairie Moon out of Winona, MN is the best for wildflower seed. Though they do sell seed mixes, all species are also sold separately ($3 a packet), so you can pick and choose the plants you want and make sure to plant them where you want. And they have over 650 species! They’re also great at giving germination tips—every seed packet comes with instructions for the best practice to coax those plants to grow. Some wildflowers require special treatment in order to germinate, be it soaking the seed in hot water, scarifying the outer seed coat, or mimicking winter, summer, and winter again before the seedling emerges. I’ve discovered the joy of planting some of the trickier species per their instructions and watching the little plants emerge in the spring.
Prairie Moon also sells potted plants and bareroot plants of certain species in the spring and fall, though they sell out quickly. For live plants, pre-ordering is the only way to go!
If I’m looking for potted wildflowers, Morning Sky Greenery in Morris, MN has some of the best selection. They have over 250 options, not including their stock of native grasses and trees. You can shop in store or online, and their shipping fees are comparable to other nurseries. Many plants have the option of a six-pack for only $8.95—a great deal for native perennials. Growing from seed may be cheaper, but an established plant will bring flowers much quicker! Many native species take 2-4 years to bloom.
Other Minnesota native plant purveyors:
Some native plant nurseries cater to large-scale prairie restoration rather than small gardens, and some deal primarily in person rather than online, so be sure to shop around until you find precisely what service you are looking for.
Blazing Star Gardens in Owatonna, MN
BluePrairie Native Plant Nursery in Watertown, MN
Ecoscapes Sustainable Landscaping in Elko, MN
Glacial Ridge Growers in Glenwood, MN
Landscape Alternatives in Shafer, MN
Minnesota Native Landscapes in Otsego, MN
Natural Shore Inc. in Independence, MN
Prairie Restorations Inc. in Princeton, MN
Shooting Star Native Seeds in Spring Grove, MN
Whitewater Garden Farms in Altura, MN
And if you must have lady’s slippers . . .
Yes, there is a way to get safe, legal, viable lady’s slipper plants.
Generally speaking, it’s hard to acquire and raise lady’s slippers. They are illegal to dig on public property. Even though you can transplant them under certain circumstances, realistically, they’re likely to die; all wild lady’s slippers have a symbiotic relationship with a special fungus in the soil, and if you move them, you separate them from that fungus, sentencing them to a slow death as they waste away without the proper nutrition to survive. Not to mention a lot of them require specific habitats that are not easily replicated in a home garden.
To get the specifics on Minnesota’s wildflower laws, see statue 18H.18 Conservation of Certain Wildflowers.
Seed isn’t a viable option either, at least for the average gardener. Lady’s slipper seed is roughly the size of dust. It can remain viable—yet dormant—for years, waiting for conditions to be perfect to germinate, and then take take several more years to grow sufficiently to produce a flower. In the wild, Cypripedium acaule, the Moccasin flower, can take 20 years from germination until its first flower. And don’t forget, it won’t germinate at all without its special fungus friend.
For a fascinating and incredibly in-depth look at how lady’s slippers are grown from seed, check out Spangle Creek Lab’s system. Don’t worry, those are just baby lady’s slippers, not maggots.
However, there are nurseries that have specialized in Lady Slipper propagation. (This is still a tricky option; there are nurseries that dig plants from the wild, so do your research! If they don’t advertise a laboratory-propagated, or describe in detail their propagation methods, be wary.) In Minnesota, we have:
As far as I know, this is the only legitimate lady slipper propagation nursery in Minnesota. All lady’s slippers seedlings are laboratory propagated, then shipped bareroot in the spring. Pre-ordering for the following year becomes available in late August, and they run out quickly. The plants are tiny and require care, and they will take around four years to flower.
If you want established plants rather than seedlings, Itasca Lady Slipper Farm is the nursery for you. They order all their seedling from Spangle Creek Labs, then raise them up to healthy adult plants to sell. Like Spangle Creek Labs, they sell out quickly, months before the plants are available.
Alas, I do not have any lady’s slippers in my garden. Being on a dry hill puts most of them out of reach. But maybe someday I’ll buy a yellow lady slipper to grow under our shady elms.