Native Perennials That Bloom in July
July can be the forgotten gardening month. The excitement of new annuals and planting may be starting to fade out as vacation and family barbecues move to the forefront in midsummer. The heavy rainfall in June could almost make us forget that our beloved plants still need a drink. We tend to neglect deadheading as we focus on other tasks. Not to mention “Who will tend to the garden while I am away on vacation?” — sometimes leading to a crispy brown flowerbed upon return. The same thing often happens in nurseries and garden stores as the wilted plants are now discounted. Is summer over? Is there no bloom left?
July can be full of efflorescence! Your ornamental gardens can flourish with less maintenance if you add native plants, which means more time for family fun and summer vacation.
Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
It is believed that the French queen Henrietta laughed when this flower was introduced to Europe in 1626. It reminded her of the high-ranking officials in the Roman Catholic Church, and therefore, was named after the cardinals’ bright red robes. Its genus — Lobelia — was named after the French botanist Matthias de L’Obel, who wrote under the name Lobelius. The cardinal flower is in the bluebell family, Campanulaceae. It self-seeds and sends out shoots. It can be divided after a few years. It grows better in moist, rich, organic soils (pH 5.5-7), and it will thrive in filtered light with morning sun. The basal leaves are evergreen so that they can store energy for future plants. The cardinal flower is pollinated by hummingbirds. They are the only pollinators with long enough tongues to reach the nectar through the long tubular passage. When it reaches this sweet drink, the hummingbird’s head will get covered in pollen. Lobelia cardinalis is considered to be deer resistant!
Picking cardinal flower in the wild has reduced its population. Please look and do not pick when finding these glorious creatures in nature. Although Native Americans were known to use this plant for typhoid and stomach ailment, it is considered highly toxic.
I had always assumed that the native cardinal flower would be a beautiful, hardy, and easy-going plant to introduce into the July ornamental garden. However, a recent event gave me pause. It all began when the owner of one of the gardens I tend asked me if I had pulled up a cardinal flower during an early spring clean-up. I was pretty sure I hadn’t, but the perennial wasn’t showing signs of returning this summer. I was absolutely frantic. What had happened? For a passionate gardener, there is nothing worse than thinking you accidentally uprooted a beloved plant.
After, more research, reconnaissance, and pondering plant logic as well as my own actions, I decided there could be many factors as to why the cardinal plant might not return every year in the same place. First, (to my dismay) I had to admit that I might have accidentally picked it out. Perhaps the cold this year had killed it. Also, I have read that cardinal flower can be short-lived. The plant might be missing for reasons I just can’t know! Yet, with all the mystery this plant can conjure, it does add a tremendous amount of vibrancy, so it’s well-worth a gardener’s efforts.
But I do recommend taking care when cleaning up around cardinal flowers in the fall or early spring. And don’t spread the mulch too thickly; you don’t want to cover up the base of the plant, or seeds or new seedlings. This plant has evergreen basal leaves which need exposure to the sun for continued photosynthesis through the winter. A mulch can be tucked underneath the leaves to protect the shallow roots through winter, but the plant may die if the basal rosettes are covered with leaves or mulch. Va.NativePlantSociety/vnps.org/wildflowers-of-the-year/1991-cardinal-flower-lobelia-cardinalis.
I have read that the great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) — cousin to the cardinal flower — may be easier to grow, and has a similar preference for moist soil. Rain, bog gardens, or wet spots would be ideal spaces to grow the blue lobelia. These plants naturally grow next to streams and therefore could be planted near ornamental ponds and on the banks of water features. The vivid color and shape of these plants certainly makes the indeterminate outcome of its return worth the journey.
Digital resources for Cardinal flower:
Turk’s cap lily (Lilium superbum)
I wanted to mention the Turk’s cap because it is part of the family Liliaceae, the first recorded plants. They were documented as the ancient Greek flowers of Hera and as Eve’s tears when she was banished from the garden of Eden. It is magnificent to think about how this beautiful flower has been looked upon for thousands of years and yet still grows in our gardens today. I haven’t seen Turk’s cap in any of the gardens I work in, probably due to the fact that deer love to eat them — so much that the overpopulation of deer due to urban sprawl has almost wiped out Turk’s cap. Named from the the petals that curve backward like a hat, this plant is hardy and likes moist rich soils like the cardinal plant (pH 5-6.6). It can grow in partial shade, needing to sunbathe at least two hours a day. What’s unusual about this plant — in addition to its huge, multiple blooms — is its preference for very moist soil.
I have been working with an owner at a large historic estate south of Charlottesville incorporating natives into his ornamental beds. He asked us if we could restore the areas by the pool by planting the so-called “tiger lilies.” He remembered his mother having these plants in these beds when he was a child. He was referring to the non-native orange daylillies — genus Hemerocallis — that have escaped cultivation and frequently appear on our roadsides. I went ahead and planted the “tiger lilies” because that is what he wanted, although I should have encouraged him to plant Turk’s cap because it is the native plant. I’m now hoping that we can remove the daylilies and replace them with Turk’s caps. Of course, we will need to assure the proper moisture level and secure the bed with deer resistant borders in order for the Turk’s cap bed to be a success.
Digital resources for Turk’s cap:
Sundrops (Oenothera fruticosa)
I truly fancy the evening primrose family. I suppose the initial connection is the reminder of my native Mississippi land. These delicate flowers bring back childhood days of picking bunches of buttercups and playing with them in a fairy land of pink and yellow petals. The pink primroses grow wild on the banks of High Street near the bus stop. I pass them daily on my way home and the sight always pleases me after a hard day of gardening. It puts everything I have done into retrospect. The simple life. The joy of continuous growth without the touch of the human hand.
I noticed the yellow sundrops in a garden I work in this year and found this intense yellow color a very happy and therapeutic delight. It really allured me to its presence this year as if to assure its recognition into the ornamental garden. ). Cherokee Indians are known to have used this plant for its medicinal properties.
This plant is easy to grow in average to moderately fertile, well-drained soil (pH 5-6) in full sun. It can tolerate poor soil and light shade. If its foliage declines in summer after flowering, you can cut the stems back to the basal rosette. Sundrops will slowly spread via these basal rosettes.
Digital resources for sundrops:
Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
This trendy immune-boosting plant is a go-to with Black-eyed Susan for a hardy, low maintenance long bloom in the summer. It can reseed itself and can be divided in the fall. It grows most anywhere, except in really wet, soggy soils. It tends to come back with brilliance each and every year.
Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida or hirta)
My family called my sister “Black-eyed Susan” because she is the only one in the clan with dark brown eyes. Since they called me “Coconut” because I was so hardheaded, Black-eyed Susan remains more forever dear to my heart. I love the idea being called a beautiful flower rather than a nut with an impermeable shell! This plant, like the coneflower, is in the aster family, sometimes called the sunflower family. Just a note: I adore the sunflower so much that I still jump with joy whenever I see them. It becomes quite the annoyance with my family when it startles them. Below there is a link from the Virginia wildflower website that discusses the differences between the orange coneflower and Black-eyed Susan. Orange coneflowers grow most anywhere as well and can tolerate a lot. Therefore these flowers together can leave a lasting impression all summer and provide food for the birds in winter.
Digital resources for coneflower and black-eyed Susan:
Bee Balm (Monarda)
This is another plant I’d like to suggest for low maintenance — Monarda. It is colorful and attracts many pollinators. There are many species of this plant that you can pick up from local nurseries. It grows well with planats having similar pH and soil types, such as purple coneflower and Black-eyed Susans. Bee Balm can be an aggressive spreader and may need to be discouraged from growing too wildly in ornamental beds.
The list of July blooming natives is rather long. To encourage the restoration of native summer bloomers and to find even more choices that will suit your particular needs, please see the following plants and look at their links. These natives can also be found in the books referenced at the end of the article.
Yellow-Fringed Orchid (Platanthera ciliariaris)
Strawberry bush (Euonymus americanus)
There are so many delightful native plants that can be introduced to ornamental gardens. These blooms can be so enticing that mid-summer gardening will not be forgotten nor neglected. Plus, by incorporating them into your beds, you may have an easier time maintaining your gardens, which could create less stress when planning vacation and family barbecues.
Gardening with Native Wild Flowers (Samuel B. Jones, Jr., and Leonard E. Foote, 1997)
Growing and Propagating Wild Flowers (Phillips, 1985)
The New England Wild Flower Society Guide to Growing and Propagating Wildflowers of the United States and Canada (Cullina, 2000)
Native Plants of the Northeast: A Guide for Gardening and Conservation (Leopold, 2005)
Southeastern Wildflowers (Midgley, 1999)
Wildflowers Around the Year ( Ryden, 2001)
Wildflowers in Color: A Field Guide to More Than 250 Wildflowers of Eastern North America (Stupka, 1994)
Wildflowers of the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains (Adkins, 2005)