These words from Lamb, seasoned botanist and ecologist from the University of Waterloo, hold high reverence for the captivating power of this wild landscape. The prairie is home to more than 40 spectacular species of native grasses and up to 400 colorful species of forbs and wildflowers. The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, in Kansas, reports that, “Prairie has developed into one of the most complicated and diverse ecosystems in the world, surpassed only by the rainforest of Brazil.”
For those of us living in Oklahoma, we simply call it home. It’s the most biodiverse, pollinator-prolific, life-generating landscapes we have available to us. It’s bursting at the seams with a dazzling myriad of native plants that have holistic healing qualities, potent medicinal properties, vast wildlife value and delight-inducing dispositions. These five powerful prairie plants, when incorporated into our yards, will help us rediscover the natural systems that have sustained us for centuries.
Chickasaw Plum: According to the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service of Oklahoma State University, more than 40 species of birds utilize this plant for sustenance, perching, nesting and protection. The lesser prairie chicken, for instance, relies on this shrub for shade cover and brood-rearing habitat. For time untold, humans have enjoyed this shrub’s bounty—bright–red edible plums, which can be picked summer-long to make jams, jellies and pies.
Goldenrod: This stellar native wildflower supports the natural life cycles of more than 100 species of moths and butterflies. Forget its misguided reputation as an instigator of fall allergies—it has virtually no pollen. According to Susun Weed, one of America’s best-known authorities on herbal medicine and holistic approaches to health, she says that one or two large handfuls of goldenrod’s crushed leaves and flowers, steeped in a quart of boiling water for 30 minutes, makes a tea that can be used hot, with honey, to counter allergies.
Little Bluestem: Soil-flexible, weather-resilient and water-thrifty, this native grass is a nutritious food source for sparrows, finches and juncos. It is beautiful when planted in groupings of seven or more. Showy and easy to care for, bluestem has historically been used by our ancestors to make switches and clearing wands for ceremonial sweat lodges.
Maximilian Sunflower: Big, bold and beautiful, the Maximilian sunflower stands like a sentry at the helm of any home garden. Friend to birds, butterflies and bees, this native perennial is a nectary like no other. Douglas Tallamy, author and professor of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware, holds this sunflower in high regard as one of the best herbaceous plants for attracting butterflies and moths.
Milkweed: Lauded for its life-supportive role for the monarch butterfly, milkweed is a must for home gardens. Even the White House recently released a history-making strategy supporting proactive measures in our state, pronouncing, “Many of the priority [federal pollinator] projects will focus on the I-35 corridor from Texas to Minnesota that provides spring and summer breeding habitats in the monarch’s key migration corridor.”
Creating prairie and reaping the restorative benefits of habitat begins one plant and one yard at a time. Sally Wasowski, an author and leading authority on landscaping with native plants, has spent her life writing and teaching North Americans how to adopt natural landscapes at home. “In a real sense,” she writes in her book Gardening with Prairie Plants, “when you decide to recreate even a small prairie garden around your home or business, you are helping preserve a rapidly vanishing but vital piece of our natural heritage.”
Jamie Csizmadia is the founder and president of OLTHIA Urban Prairie Gardens, a landscape architecture firm in the heart of Oklahoma. Connect with her at Jamie@Olthia.com.