Cary George

The Friends of the Wild Flower Garden


From Tall to Tallest in the Summer Garden

The Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary


Adapted from an original text by Cary George

Note: You can find more photos and information on each plant mentioned here by accessing the link to the individual plant pages or by going to the "Photos" menu.

The Prairie Garden begins it's spectacular show of color in June with False Blue Indigo (Baptisia australis) perhaps the most asked-about early blooming prairie plant. Often mistaken for the indigo plant from which indigo dye is made, this bushy legume is actually an introduction to Minnesota. Recently, I’ve planted many White False Indigo (Baptisia alba). While not as vigorous as blue indigo, this native indigo gives a nice contrast. Both have seed pods that rattle - a favorite of kids visiting the Garden.

False Blue Indigo
False Blue Indigo
Baptisia australis
False White Indigo
White False Indigo
Baptisia alba
Prairie Dock
The height of Prairie Dock towers over these visitors.

Three of the tallest composite sunflowers are Prairie Dock, Cup Plant and Compass Plant. Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) has a flower stalk that can reach over ten feet and has large egg-shaped basal leaves. It may be the tallest plant in the Garden. Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum) is a distinctive plant because of its thick square stem and opposite leaves that actually form a rather deep cup that holds water and attracts birds.

Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum is named for its leaves whose edges are always oriented within ten degrees of true north and south. Early pioneers used this characteristic to find their way on cloudy days. All three Silphiums are a favorite of beef cattle and buffalo. Therefore, they’ve declined in native prairies where grazing has taken place. At Eloise Butler they add a dramatic accent in height, surpassing even the tallest grasses.

Prairie Dock
Prairie Dock
Cup Plant
compass plant
Compass Plant

Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) is a late bloomer that has colonized a portion of the southern-most hillside of the prairie. It, of course, has a delicious edible tuber that can be boiled or roasted like a potato. This tall composite sunflower has spread from cultivation, and home gardeners would be wise to use caution in their planting decisions. Everyone asks about the asparagus, that is so conspicuous in its growing spears in the spring. Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis), while not a native, is harmless enough and provides a wispy, fern-like presence to the Garden if mischievous visitors don't snap the spears off early in the year.

Jerusalem artichoke
Jerusalem Artichoke
asparagus stem

ARTICLE INSERTION: Three tall plants not mentioned by Cary are Prairie Dogbane (Indian Hemp), Apocynum cannabinum; Tall Meadow Rue, Thalictrum dasycarpum, and Alumroot, (Heuchera americana var. hirsuticaulis). All can reach heights of up to six feet and are conspicuous in early summer.

Indian Hemp
Prairie Dogbane (Indian Hemp)
Tall Meadow Rue
Tall Meadow Rue
Alum Root

Cary George with lilies
Gardener Cary George above with the Turk's-cap Lilies

The regal beauty of native lilies, in my opinion, is equal to our wild orchids. One is a species of the open woodland: Wood Lily (Lilium philadelphicum). Three lilies are in the Prairie Garden: Canada Lily (Lilium canadense) is a spotted yellow lily that grows to 5 feet. The Turk’s-cap Lily (Lilium superbum) is an orange-red lily that grows to 8 feet. Its nodding flower head is shaped somewhat like a turban. This is the largest native lily and it can have 40 or so flowers per plant. Michigan Lily (Lilium michiganense) is almost indistinguishable from Turk’s-cap except for its lack of a green star in the center of the flower. These lilies, much like the lady’s-slippers, are a photographers favorite and care must be taken to not trample other wildflowers in an attempt to get a perfect photo.

canada lilu
Canada Lily
Turkscap lily
Turk's-cap Lily
Michigan Lily
Turk's-cap Lily

ARTICLE INSERTION: Cary refers above to the height of some grasses in the Summer Garden. The two tallest are Indian Grass Sorghastrum nutans and Big Bluestem Andropogon gerardii. The photo below shows both growing together on the trail leading to Lone Oak Hill.

Big Blue stem grass group