Some may be going to seed early or are already dormant — but they’re alive. Some are still blooming.
“I planted my black-eyed Susans months ago and haven’t watered them since, and they are doing just fine,” said Scott Hamilton, president of the mid-Missouri chapter of Wild Ones, a native plant group. “My begonias, a non-native, are all gone if they haven’t been watered religiously.”
As the drought continues, the benefits of native plants are becoming more apparent. They are adapted to this region’s typically dry and hot summers. Native prairie grasses, for example, have extensive root systems five to 15 feet deep.
But even native plants have their breaking points.
“To think that native plants will survive anything is a misconception,” said Hamilton, an urban conservationist. “During record drought conditions, it’s natural for some plants to die.”
Those that have been adapted to moist and shady woodland areas are having trouble.
“There is an impressive nine-foot Prairie Dock (a prairie wildflower) at the conservation department office on College, but I’ve seen red bud trees that have been planted in full sun that are showing signs of stress,” Hamilton said.
Ginny Wallace, education outreach coordinator for the Grow Native program, a part of the Missouri Department of Conservation, said native spring woodland plants usually stay green all summer.
“But I’ve seen many that have already gone dormant,” she said.
When plants are dormant, they look dead, but their roots are still alive. The difference can’t be known with certainty until spring.
Wallace has a yard full of native plants at her home, southwest of Jefferson City.
“We don’t have to water them as much, they provide a natural habitat; they are more pest resistant and we don’t have to replant them every year,” she said. “Even some of the woodland plants that look dead will come back next year; they are just dormant.”
Wallace’s native trees and shrubs — for example, the spicebush and the flowering dogwood — are having the most trouble. Some are losing their leaves, a way for them to shut down early instead of later in the fall.
“As long as we have a good winter and spring, they should be fine,” she said, referring to much-needed rain.
Mary Kroening, an MU horticulturist, has both native and non-native plants in her yard in rural Boone County.
“I water all of them, but the non-natives start wilting while the natives still look beautiful,” Kroening said.
Her lawn includes buffalo grass, a native low-growing turf grass that resists drought. Kroening said there is an obvious difference between her native stretch of lawn and her non-native one.
“The buffalo grass is still green, but the rest is suffering,” she said.
Nadia Navarrete-Tindall, an MU native plant researcher, has several experimental plots with perennial native plants around Columbia, including ones at Sanborn Field and Bradford Farm. Even she was surprised by the hardiness of some native plants.
“When I was doing a plant inventory in a natural area at Bradford Farm, I expected the common milkweed, a monarch butterfly favorite, to be wilted, but it was still blooming,” Navarrete-Tindall said.
A sign of stress in natives that she has seen is early seeding. Some of the flowers have responded to the dry conditions by stopping the blooming process to conserve energy to produce seeds. Adaptations such as early seeding are what make native plants able to survive even under extreme conditions.
“The same common milkweed in my garden was flowering this time last year, and now it is producing seed,” Navarrete-Tindall said. She said some natives have a bad reputation for looking weedy in gardens.
“Weedy plants can be pruned or pinched back to produce shorter and more uniform plants,” she said. “Others don’t require extra pruning and are very showy, such as purple and white prairie clover, butterfly weed, white and blue indigos, black-eyed Susans and rose verbena.