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What Is a Wildflower?

Dried vanilla beans. Vanilla comes from a variety of orchid wildflower.
Wild pitcher plants are endangered.
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  • Written By: Debra Durkee
  • Edited By: Daniel Lindley
  • Last Modified Date: 26 June 2014
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A wildflower is a flower that grows naturally without any help. Most will do well in poor soil and have adapted to thrive in their native environments. They require no pollinating, fertilizing, weeding, or any other interference from man, although many have been domesticated and encouraged to grow in home gardens; these can be highly desirable because of a hardy nature and low maintenance.

Wildflowers can be described in several different ways. If the flower always grew in a certain area and was not brought in from another place, it is called indigenous or native. In some cases, a wildflower was brought by man from a different country or continent, then planted. If the conditions were right, seeds of the plant could be spread by birds, animals, or the elements, and the flower could take root and begin growing without interference. These types of wildflower are called naturalized.

Naturally hardy plants, wildflowers grow without any outside help from a gardener. This means that the flowers must be well adapted to thrive in whatever type of soil the seeds fall into; many can survive in poor soil, where the nutrient content is low or where there is a lot of competition. This hardiness has made many types of wildflower popular for gardens that have low-quality soil and less than ideal growing conditions.

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Many flowers now considered staples in gardens around the world were originally more common as wildflowers. The morning glory, snapdragon, the zinnia, the black-eyed Susan, and baby's breath were all wildflowers brought into domestic gardens. Many of these flowers and their cultivars have retained their wild form, while others have been interbred and cultivated in greenhouses to accent specific traits within species.

In spite of their hardy nature and ability to survive in poor soil, many wildflowers do not live long after being picked. Some do not do well when transplanted, and removing wildflowers from their native environment to plant them in a garden can damage the natural ecosystem. The popularity of some wildflowers such as pitcher plants has left them endangered in areas where they once thrived.

The variety among the different types of wildflower was first documented by the Greeks, who began to classify the flowers by type and location. Over the centuries, many wildflowers became prized for their versatility as spices for food or believed medicinal properties. Saffron is from a wildflower and highly prized for the flavor it adds to food, while vanilla actually comes from a variety of orchid wildflower. The desire for new spices and dyes from wildflowers drove much of the early expansion and trade from the time Rome was a world power to the voyages of Columbus.

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