This month’s Working Lands For Wildlife “Snapshot” introduces us to wildflowers. Native flowering plants are important for animals, pollination, and soil health on grazing lands in the western U.S.
Led by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, Working Lands For Wildlife uses voluntary incentives to benefit America’s agricultural producers and at-risk wildlife.
By Brianna Randall
What are wildflowers?
They are flowering plants that grow without any help from people. Each type of wildflower is adapted to grow in a specific environment, such as a meadow, forest, or wetland.
A wildflower is also called a “forb.” Forbs are simply flowering plants that are neither a grass nor a woody shrub.
Common wildflowers on the prairie
Bluebells, gentian, yarrow, milkweed, asters, milk vetch, penstemon, phlox, coneflowers, and goldenrod are just a few of the native flowers blossoming in America’s grasslands.
A vital source of food
Wildflowers provide food for a host of animals. Insects feast on their pollen, rodents stockpile their seeds, hummingbirds dine on their nectar, and reptiles munch on their leaves.
Sage grouse and prairie chickens rely on wildflowers and other native plants to help conceal nests in the spring. Hens and chicks also eat wildflowers — and the protein-packed insects that live among them — during the summer and fall.
Attracting the birds and the bees
Wildflowers also attract or feed pollinators, such as bees, beetles, hummingbirds, and butterflies, which are essential for helping plants reproduce. Studies show that native wildflowers are four times more attractive to pollinators than non-native flowers because local pollinating animals and native flowers evolved to help each other thrive.
Supporting pollinators by maintaining native wildflowers is essential because pollinators help boost yields on agricultural lands and generate one-third of the food we eat.
Creating healthy soil
Wildflowers usually have deep or fibrous roots that keep soil stable and healthy. They grow best near other native plants with diverse root systems that work together to cycle nutrients, resist weeds, and keep water on the land.
In contrast, the shallow roots of non-native plants or invasive weeds don’t hold soil or water as well, which makes the land more susceptible to drought, fire, and erosion.
Wildflowers make wonderful, colorful additions to home gardens, especially if you choose varieties that are native to the area. Since they are adapted to the local environment, wildflowers don’t need extra water or fertilizer and are more resilient to disease or pests.
Although it’s tempting to pick wildflowers for bouquets, leaving them intact helps feed wildlife and allows the plants to drop their seeds to make more lovely flowers the following year.
Wildflowers have been used for centuries as herbal remedies. For instance, Echinacea, or coneflower, is a common prairie wildflower that is lauded as an immune booster and cold buster. Yarrow, another common western wildflower, is used to staunch bleeding, ease toothaches, or reduce fevers.
Threats to wildflowers
Weeds like non-native cheatgrass or medusahead are spreading fast in the American West, as are encroaching woody species like juniper or redcedar. These invading plants steal soil, space, and water from wildflowers and other native plants and can also introduce diseases.
Developing houses and roads or plowing up native plants for crops also destroys habitat for wildflowers.
Conserving native plants and wildflowers
Through Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW), the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service helps agricultural producers foster diverse native plants — including wildflowers — by cost-sharing conservation practices that maintain healthy farms, forests, and pastures.
On western grazing lands, WLFW partners with ranchers to use prescribed fire, remove encroaching trees, or put in place rotational grazing. These practices help boost forage for livestock and also benefit wildlife and native plants.
Learn more about wildflowers in the NRCS PLANTS database.