Pure red is an uncommon color among Missouri’s native perennials, and few are more perfectly scarlet than the fire pink (Silene virginica). Fire pinks occur along barren slopes and glades, often in very poor soils with large amounts of rock, clay, or sand. Each year, small basal rosettes form very close to ground level, eventually sending a flower spike up to a foot high in mid-to-late spring. Each spike will feature a handful of bright red, five-petaled flowers resembling a narrow version of a five-pointed star. Hummingbirds adore the blooms, both for the tubular shape and red color, as well as the perfectly timed blooming period coinciding with the arrival of hummingbirds to our area. In addition to hummingbirds, myriad butterflies feed on the nectar, using their proboscis to reach deep into the blossom. The hairs along the flower stems and base are meant to deter ants from climbing up to the flowers to steal nectar. In Missouri, Silene virginica is best planted in full sun, in dry, rocky soils. Fire pinks will tolerate some moisture but are intolerant of consistent watering. Silene virginica is a short-lived perennial, lasting only a few seasons, but will often seed itself in the immediate area. Allow the seed heads to fully mature, and you will have fire pinks for years to come!
Irises are a common garden staple in the United States, but not everyone realizes that there are native irises – even in Missouri! One such iris is the small, unsuspecting Iris cristata. The dwarf crested iris grows under a foot tall, with traditional sword-like iris leaves arranged in a fan shape. In mid-spring, light-blue to lavender flowers emerge, often times at the same level as the foliage, and feature golden-yellow ‘beards’ on the downward sloping petals, or ‘falls’. Hummingbirds and long-tongued bees frequent the flowers, and in optimum growing conditions, Iris cristata can form a dense groundcover, spreading somewhat rapidly in open areas. Dwarf crested iris is best suited for shade gardens with dry-to-medium moisture soils that are very well drained. Rich, organic soils promote vegetative growth, so be sure to find a site with poorer, rockier soils in shaded areas in the garden. Curious explorers will encounter the dwarf crested iris on wooded slopes, along shady streams, or rocky, shaded glades with little vegetation surrounding and competing for light.
Fruit trees are often associated with intense management practices: from meticulous pruning to fertilizing to excessive applications of chemicals. Missouri’s natural ecosystems offer a small-stature tree that provides a tasty fruit without the fuss – the pawpaw. Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) occur in dry and moist woodlands, often along wooded edges or near fallen trees, where light has been allowed to penetrate the forest floor. The large, glossy green leaves hang pendulously from the branches and appear almost tropical. In fact, the pawpaw is a member of the custard-apple family (Annonaceae), which is mostly subtropical and tropical species. No other member of this family extends its range into the Midwest. In mid-spring, small, 2” diameter flowers hang downwards along the branches, completely obscured by the drooping leaves. However, upon closer inspection, the blossoms of Asimina triloba prove to be quite stunning. Only by parting branches and looking up and into the flower can one appreciate the beauty of the deep burgundy petals with a soft yellow-brown center. The scent of the blooms is rather unpleasant (though not strong); flies are the intended pollinator, so the pawpaw has developed flowers with the color and smell of rotting meat.
The translucent quality of each flower is particularly showy when the sun pierces through the pawpaw’s canopy. Summer brings the development of the oblong, jelly bean-shaped fruits, about the size of a baseball. The pawpaw fruit does not fully ripen until fall, turning from a light green to a yellowish-green or brown. The fruit is very fleshy, and the taste is that of a banana custard – raccoons, possums, foxes, squirrels, skunks, and even box turtles all feed on the fruit of Asimina triloba. Growing up to 20 feet tall, the pawpaw is best suited for dappled shade, with some moisture and organically rich soil. The leaves are slightly toxic, and are not browsed upon by deer or insects, though the caterpillars of the Zebra Swallowtail butterfly and Pawpaw Sphinx moth do feed exclusively on Asimina triloba. Pawpaw will slowly sucker, sometimes forming small colonies, so this tree is best used in a hedgerow, naturalized planting, or grove.
Compiled by Cara L. Crocker