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Letting the Garden Garden: Native Self-Seeding Annuals

One of my favorite flowers in the garden is a plant that some might mistake for a weed: Annual fleabane.  Now, a fleabane doesn’t sound like much, but I love this plant, and each year I am excited to see where it will grow – a spot in a garden bed?  The lawn? A planter? Anywhere?  It is all ok with me. 

Annual fleabane (Erigeron annuus) and black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), two self-seeding annuals, brightening up the evening. Black-eyed Susans self-seed like crazy and are regularly “edited.”

Annual Fleabane is a graceful, 3 to 4 foot tall plant that blooms from early June through much of the summer, with little white daisy-like flowers. They are bright and cheerful during the day and seem to glow at dusk.  And on an evening (even if I am just taking out the compost), when I pass through the annual fleabane, with the fireflies flashing, I feel like I’ve wandered into a magical place -all the more magical because I did not plant this plant!  I’ve never planted it.  Years ago, annual fleabane just arrived in my garden and planted its own plant-self.  

A few fireflies with the glowing annual fleabane.

Depend on Disturbance

Annual fleabane is in a class of plants that has recently been getting a little more attention: Self-seeding Annuals.  Short-lived plants that will grow and bloom pretty quickly, set seeds, and then… die.  But their seeds carry on!  And once in the garden, the cycle of blooming and seeding should continue, as long as your garden has a little open spot for them.  

Summer azure butterfly (Celastrina neglecta) visiting tall bellflower (Campanula americana). Tall bellflower is another beautiful self-seeding biennial that arrived in the garden 5 years ago and has self-seeded ever since.

Many plants that fit into this live fast, die young life plan are considered to be disturbance dependent. In nature, they are depending on bare ground creating events: a flood, or fire, a tree falling over, or a new buffalo wallow, something that opens up a patch (or thousands of acres in some cases) of soil and creates a space that is mostly free of competition for light, water, and nutrients.  Disturbance dependent plants need to grow fast and spread many seeds before bigger rooted, bigger bodied, longer lived plants take residence and out compete them.  

Blanket flowers (Gaillardia aristata) are loved by bumblebees. They bloom their first year and will re-seed in an open, well-drained spot without much competition.

In my garden, a disturbance mostly means our dog digging for moles, or me smothering a spot with a forgotten tray of plants, or the kids playing with the jet setting on the hose.  As galling as some of these disturbances can be, annual fleabane and other self-seeding annuals need these dynamic, ephemeral patches of bare earth in the garden where their seeds can continue making a go of it.

Native Gardens: Playin’ Chess, not Checkers!

“A traditional gardener’s definition of success is when a plant survives, but an ecologist doesn’t view that plant as successful unless it also reproduces.”

Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher, Garden Revolution, How our landscapes can be a source of environmental change

In the excellent and useful book, Garden Revolution, How our landscapes can be a source of environmental change, Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher write so well about how to ecologically design meadows (or prairies) so they are successful and self-sustaining in the long term. And most of the ecological lessons for larger plantings are just as useful in a smaller home garden. One point they raise is the importance of including plants with multiple reproductive strategies. Seed droppers, wind dispersers, animal dispersers, rhizomes, stolons, you name it, these guys are arguing for biodiversity. And although they have noble reasons for doing so, like supporting more complex ecosystems, they also have an eye to practicality: filling the many ecological niches (a.k.a. the many ways plants grow and function) in a garden, means there is less opportunity for weeds to fill those niches, and that a garden can become less maintenance over time.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) is a self-seeding annual, and Prairie sage (Artemisia ludoviciana) is a rhizomatous species. Both volunteered to help fill this garden spot under the Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) leaves.

For example, let’s say the ground got a bit messed up when you were transplanting purple coneflowers. Well, if you have enough fast growing, self-seeding annuals dropping seeds in your soil seed bank, that spot is more likely to be filled by black-eyed susan, or annual fleabane rather than some lousy garlic mustard (or some other exotic invasive) -that is the general idea.

Now, if you do not have children or dogs who will blissfully destroy your garden for you, you can be intentional when creating bare earth in the garden. In Garden Revolution, they discuss this: placing seeds heads of cardinal flower on bare ground right where they’d like to see them in a couple years; gathering seeds, scratching up the dirt and helping easy spreaders spread, right where they want them. Last fall I gave it a go because I’d like more annual fleabane in the lawn. I know it sounds a little crazy, but for me, leaving patches of annual fleabane to grow up and walk through, or pass by, here and there in the lawn, creates such an ethereal atmosphere and an expanded sense of being in the garden. The garden -not just for garden beds anymore.

Some annual fleabane in the lawn and background -beautiful and just right to my sensibility. But just last night, I read in Garden Revolution, Larry Weaner describe the growth habit of annual fleabane as “rank.” What?! I’m shocked. I guess beauty is in the eye and all that. It does look scraggly at the end, but it’s super easy to cut out then.

The Case for Self-Seeding Annuals, Continued

Some of these self-seeding annuals are plants that are already common in the garden, like black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta), or some often arrive of their own accord, like tall bellflower (Campanula americana). But I guess I feel like a bigger case needs to be made for this class of plants because while looking things up for this post (and my own garden), it became apparent that, while many are easy to find, some of these plants are just not available. For example, I would really love to get large flowered clammyweed (Polanisia dodecandra subspecies trachysperma) -very difficult to find the seeds! And I’m sorry, I know I’ve been talking about annual fleabane, but you can not buy the seeds anywhere! I’m sorry! What gives! (Fortunately, if you keep an eye out, you might be able to just find annual fleabane in your yard.)

So here is my extra case for self-seeding annuals, beyond biodiversity and weed suppression (which are truly good reasons in themselves).

  1. Self-seeding annuals are fun. I’m not just saying this because I am enthusiastic about these things. It is true.
  2. These plants pop up in surprising places and keep the garden design lively and changing.
  3. Unexpected plant combinations can be inspiring.
Annual fleabane (Erigeron annuus) grew mixed with bee balm (Monarda fistulosa). An unexpected combination that looks so delicate!

4. Many bloom their first year and have a long bloom time!
5. This is especially good for the first year or two in a planting, adding flowers before longer-lived perennials come into their own.
6. They plant themselves!  (I really, really appreciate this.)
7. Many are host plants for a variety of moths and butterflies, and
8. Some support pollen specialist bees.
9. A lot of these guys are pretty short, which can be useful in the garden.
10. Surprise reasons that I don’t know right now that are even better than the reasons above.

With all that said, after some searching and cross-referencing, here is a list of native self-seeding annuals and biennials that I am excited to include in my Mid-west garden (and many are native to other regions as well).

Native Self-seeding Annuals! (and some biennials!)

Many thanks to Dr. John Hilty of Illinois Wildflowers for the use of the following photos and for maintaining his great online wildflower resource (each flower name links to Illinois Wildflower’s botanical information when possible).

And if there are any plants you think I have missed here, please let me know!!

A printable list can be found here:

Partridge pea
Chamaecrista fasiculata

Larval host for the little yellow, sleepy orange and orange sulfur butterflies.

Yellow Sneezeweed
Helenium amarum

Larval host of the aster borer moth, and the rigid sunflower borer moth.

Mistflower
Conoclinium coelestinum

Larval host for the clymene moth and the lined ruby tiger moth.

Spreads by rhizomes and seeds. Considered aggressive in some places. Considered more of a short-lived perennial.

Blanket flower
Gaillardia aristata

Black-eyed Susan
Rudbeckia hirta

Self seeds like crazy here!
Larval host plant for the silvery checkerspot.

Plains coreopsis
Coreopsis tinctoria

Larval host plant for the wavy-lined emerald moth and the dimorphic gray moth.

Snow on the Mountain
Euphorbia marginata

Tall (or American) bellflower
Campanula americana


This flower arrived in the garden on its own.

Anise hyssop
Agastache foeniculum

The flowers are visited by the specialist bee, Dufourea monardae.

White snakeroot
Ageratina altissima

This flower also arrived in the garden. It’s a very welcome addition in the fall.

Likely larval host plant for the eupatorium borer moth, burdock borer moth, ruby tiger moth, lined ruby tiger moth, and the gracillariid moth.

Considered a short-lived perennial.

Annual fleabane
Erigeron annuus

This is another one that will just show up.

Larval host of the lynx flower moth.

Swamp marigold
Bidens aristosa

Larval host for the goldenrod stowaway moth.
Photo courtesy of R.W Smith, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Spotted jewelweed
Impatiens capensis

Flowers attract Ruby-throated hummingbirds. Larval host plant for the obtuse euchlaena moth, pink-legged tiger moth, white-striped black moth, and toothed brown carpet moth.

Spotted bee balm
Monarda punctata

Self-sowing in very well-drained soils. Larval host plant for the pyralid moth and the gray marvel moth.

Common evening primrose
Oenothera biennis

Just a single plant showed up of this guy last year. Hoping to find more next year.

The primrose miner bee specializes on this plant, and it’s a larval host plant for the pearly wood nymph, grape leaffolder moth, white-lined sphinx, and a momphid moth.

Biennial gaura
Gaura biennis

Larval host plant for two momphid moths, the primrose moth, and the gaura moth.

Large flowered clammyweed
Polanisia dodecandra trachysperma

The reason I want this plant so much is that I once saw them covered with eastern tiger swallowtails (if I’m remembering correctly) in St. Louis. I’ve been on the look out for this plant ever since.

Brown-eyed Susan
Rudbeckia triloba

This one was here when we moved in, along the edge of the yard.

Provides pollen for the specialist bee, Andrena rudbeckiae.
Larval host plant for the caterpillars of the tortricid moths.

Celandine poppy
Stylophorum diphyllum

Blue waxweed
Cuphea viscosissima

Photo courtesy of Alan Cressler, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Rabbit tobacco or sweet everlasting
Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium

Cardinal flower
Lobelia cardinalis

A favorite nectar source for ruby-throated hummingbirds.

Wild columbine
Aquilegia candensis

Larval host plant for the columbine duskywing and a species of borer moth. A short-lived perennial according to Garden Revolution.

Foxglove beardtongue
Penstemon digitalis

Larval host plant for the chalcedony midget moth.
A short-lived perennial according to Garden Revolution.

Quick Garden Tips

Just a couple tips when trying to encourage these guys in the garden:

  1. Try to reduce mulch in the garden, or reduce mulching in early spring. Mulch that suppresses the germination of weed seeds will also suppress the germination of self-seeding natives. Mulching later allows for seedlings to grow a bit and then you can mulch around them.
  2. If an area is quite thick with self-seeded seedlings, go ahead and thin them out to a good plant spacing, so the ones left can grow well.

I’m very curious to know what your favorite self-seeding annuals might be. Please let me know in the comments!

Resources:

Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change, by Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher

Illinois Wildflowers, by Dr. John Hilty

Native Plants of the Midwest: A Comprehensive Guide to the Best 500 Species for the Garden, by Alan Branhagen

Prairie Moon Nursery

Growing Home with Native Self-Sowers, by Jared Barnes

Tips for Using Self-seeding Plants in the Garden, by Megan Shinn

Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

Plantiful: Start Small, Grow Big with 150 Plants That Spread, Self-Sow, and Overwinter, by Kristin Green

Cultivating Chaos: How to Enrich Landscapes with Self-Seeding Plants, by Jonas Reif, Christian Kress, Jurgen Becker

17 replies on “Letting the Garden Garden: Native Self-Seeding Annuals”

I also have and love fleabane. My “volunteers” besides fleabane are blue mist flower, jewels of opar, goldenrod, three seeded mercury, and obedient flower. I love my wildflowers!

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Oenothera speciosa. Aggressive and good looking. Blooms forever. It’s seems that there’s no attraction for winged wildlife until one day something just happens then there’s plenty of buzzers!

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Put me down as another fan of annual fleabane. My 2nd choice would be rabbit tobacco with the tongue-twisting Latin name of Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium. It is a more airy-looking doppelganger for pussy toes and smells absolutely divine (like real maple syrup) at maturity in the Fall.

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Mistflower is very aggressive in my yard, every year I pull up lots of it! I love the color in the late summer garden. I would love to have cardinal flower, but have never had any luck growing it, and as for three seeded mercury, I consider it a weed, and am constantly fighting to get rid of it.

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Hi Carol! Maybe I’m lucky I haven’t seen three seeded mercury around my place! And I will amend the mistflower comments. I have had zero luck getting mistflower to take off! But I’ll be trying again this year. Last year, every time I went to the library in the fall, I saw a monarch on the mistflowers there. Thanks for the heads up!

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Obi-Wan Conobea Leucospora multifida
This one just showed up in my pollinator/prairie garden 2 years ago, this last summer one was next to driveway so I mowed around it. I identified it with iNaturalist.

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