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Thinking Like A Wildflower

By Casey O'Leary

With so much of our human world in chaos right now, it feels like a good time to explore the world through the eyes of a wildflower, to give ourselves a little welcome change in perspective and a reminder that we human share the earth with a vast array of other beings, each of whom is eternally intriguing and wise in its own way. 

Like humans, wildflowers in the fall are preparing to hunker down for winter. They're shedding leaves and shuttling their energy and stored reserves either to their roots to wait out the winter under the insulation of the earth's skin, or into their seed babies, who they wrap in protective bundles of seed coats before sending them out into the world. When a seed baby is carried away from its mother by the currents of the wind, in the belly of a bear, or in some other clever way, it will be placed on the surface of the soil and will rest there, perhaps covered in a blanket of snow, until the freeze-thaw-freeze-thaw cycle of fall or spring cracks the soil surface and pulls it gently down into the earth, doing the work of human rakes or trowels. 

If anything, looking at the world through the eyes of a wildflower makes one marvel at the successes of plant domestication. After all, all of our cultivated garden plants came from wild plants. But sowing wildflowers takes us back in time, back past countless generations of loving gardeners who sowed seeds and saved them, year after year, over centuries developing bonds of trust and reciprocity that softened their wild defenses and sealed our fate as joined journeyers on the earth. Now they need us in order to survive, and we need them. 

But wildflowers are different. They don't make assumptions about who will care for them if they sprout, so their wisdom includes a complex array of protective tools. A single plant may make some seeds that sprout immediately after the snow melts or the rain comes in the spring, some that may hold on in the soil for a year or two, opting for more promising weather, and a few who lay dormant in the soil for years or even decades, waiting for just the right magic combination of climactic conditions to sprout and carry on their species. Wild seeds can have chemical coats that require the precise mix of molecules to break them down, which miraculously coincide with the gut microbes in a bird who loves to eat them. They might have a single spot on them that allows water into the seed, and until that spot becomes receptive, they refuse to drink, swell, and sprout. Maybe they're looking for a certain pH in the soil to make a go at life, or maybe they're only willing to sprout in the company of a symbiotic bacterium who will help feed them with nitrogen it can capture from the air. 

Wild West Sunflower

And once they do sprout, wildflowers often take their time before blooming. Some desert-adapted wildflowers might spend a year or more growing deep taproots to ensure they'll have enough water to support their flowers and their (hopefully) ensuing seed babies. Others prefer the opposite approach, taking advantage of spring moisture to shoot up quickly and bloom early before dying back to the ground in the hottest part of the summer. 

All of these quirky mechanisms can make gardening wildflowers frustrating for gardeners who are accustomed to plants who usually respond to their attention and care. Even folks who spend their lives studying some of them can't ever crack the secret codes that make them tick.

But while sowing wildflower seeds is far from a surefire gardening success, the gifts we receive for our efforts are nevertheless precious. There's something wonderful about engaging with the mysterious motivations of plants on their own terms. Our curiosity ignites as we learn who sprouts where, and with whom. Sometimes years go by and a cohort of unfamiliar sprouts pop up in the spring. We watch them through the season only to discover when they bloom that they're something we forgot we ever planted. We notice new species of bees visiting their flowers, lured by a special structure that fits their bodies perfectly. We see life unfolding on its own terms. And overall, we remind ourselves that we, in all our human largesse and drama, are merely another species on this planet, humbly going about our tending, and trying to find where we fit. 

Tips for sowing wildflower seeds:

Best:  Sow wildflower seeds directly outside in the fall. This lets the weather and all the moisture, temperature fluctuations, and other climactic conditions do its work on them. They will sprout in the spring when and if they are ready.

Good: Put your seed packets outside in the fall or early winter, or place the seeds in a bucket of damp sand outside in the fall or early winter, and then sow them in the spring as soon as the ground starts to thaw.

OK: Store your seeds in damp sand in the refrigerator for a 4-8 weeks before planting. This will mimic winter but will not allow the temperature fluctuations and varying moisture that can help the seeds know when the time is right to sprout in spring.

Additional Tips:

*If you are unsure of what they look like when they sprout, consider sowing the seeds in rows so it is easier to see where you are expecting the sprouts to be.  

*The NRCS Plant Database is a great resource for finding additional information and tips for germinating and growing many different types of native wildflower seeds.

*Sow seeds that are hardy in your zone. If you are unsure what plant hardiness zone you live in, you can check out the USDA's Plant Hardiness Zones map. Looking at what plants grow wild around you will also help you understand what grows well in your area. 

*Sow a larger diversity of species than you otherwise might, to allow what suits your place best to take hold. Sometimes after a species that can really rock it in your area is there for a year or two, it can provide protection or other subtle encouragements to additional species to join it in your yard.