Tough native plants

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Contributing writer
Sunflowers

The Japanese Peace Garden (JPG) had cracks so large small puppies and children could disappear inside them. I hope by the time this is published it has rained and the garden has become reconstituted. Shawnee is so much on the edge of the deepening drought affecting 94% of the western US. Have you seen the parade of drought maps recently?

Which is why I was pleasantly surprised to see so many of the plants in the JPG hanging in there. They have had only nature’s moisture this year. No supplemental water. The prairie-centric plants are doing what they are designed to do, endure extreme conditions and yet find the energy to live and bloom. For years plants in the JPG were selected on how hardy they could be in the face of adversity. The pretty little corporate plants look wonderful just after being planted, but occasionally were removed and taken home by a few unscrupulous characters or simply gave up the ghost when the weather got tough. Years of trial and error in a wild west garden!

The robust Maximilian sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani) have grown deep strong anchors. Those hardy prairie denizens can produce roots down to 15 feet deep. These 7-foot-tall perennials also form underground thick rhizomes. Their numbers have definitely increased the past few years. A colony has become established in the Deep Fork Prairie Garden.

Asters, goldenrods, sneezeweeds and sunflowers are some of the last plants to bloom before the cold weather hits. Migrators and permanent residents alike depend on sunflowers. They are one of the last plants to bloom before the cold. Pocket gophers eat the roots. Rabbits, woodchucks, butterfly caterpillars and livestock eat the leaves. The flowers attract bees…long-tongued bees, short-tongued bees, bumble bees as well as butterflies and moths. After blooming, Goldfinches dart from one yellow flower head to another, madly picking out the ripe raw protein-rich seeds. Blue jays, mockingbirds, chickadees, mourning doves, woodpeckers and squirrels also go for sunflower seeds. Me too, but I like my sunflower seeds raw in trail mix or roasted and salted in the shell. Messy but delicious.

New Horse in the City at the Japanese Peace Garden

Along the edge of the Zen Garden continue to bloom some of the shortest ever Common Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus). Common sunflowers can be 9 feet tall (tallest sunflower on record a towering 30 feet), but compromising circumstances (lack of water) has influenced the growth of these guys. Not to worry, the branched annuals have formed a dramatic but short yellow flower backdrop. They are alive. That’s what counts.

Never fear, the Yuccas are here. The smaller Yuccas were rescued from roadsides, and after a few years have decided the JPG is not a bad place to live. Yuccas grow in different ecological regions as far south as Guatemala. The sharp, thick waxy green leaves indicate their drought tolerant status. Would you believe they are in the asparagus family?

The Yuccas and sunflowers are examples of incredibly valuable prairie plants. Plants that thrive in extreme conditions with little maintenance and even less water. Take note, you gardeners. These are tough native plants that can save your landscapes while adding interest and color.

The Deep Fork Audubon Society has teamed up with the Oklahoma Correctional Industries and the City of Shawnee to put two benches inside the Heart of the JPG. The Great Egret, symbol for the National Audubon Society, graces the back of each. This bird was hunted nearly to extinction during the late 19th century, simply for its feathers to be used in hats. The sturdy, well-made green metal seats provide places to sit and enjoy the garden and do a little bird or butterfly watching in solitude. Gaze out to the painted horse “Bridging Friendships between Countries.” See the traditional red Japanese Shinto Gate? Cherry blossoms on the mane and tail? Mount Fuji is on the other side.

The Japanese Peace Garden is a great place to visit.