Category Archives: native plants

Ode to the Cup Plant

I didn’t know what I was getting into when I bought a tiny cup plant plug six years ago from Seed Savers Exchange.  I thought that it was cool that they were selling Midwestern prairie plants in addition to their wide array of vegetable starts, so I got the cup plant, a prairie blazing star, and a purple prairie clover to plant in my then-new front yard.  The prairie blazing star blends right in with everything else; it’s fine but not spectacular.  It’s kind of floppy and looks rather shag dog by summer’s end; it’s also a dime a dozen in Chicago’s landscaped environs so doesn’t offer much in terms of rarity.  The purple prairie clover is still one of my favorite plants.  Its tutu-like purple flowers are dazzling when they bloom in July, and the plant is almost never seen around the city.  But I fear that my own purple prairie clover is forever stunted by the dry conditions in my urban front yard; the plant still takes up barely ¼ square foot of space and is therefore easily overlooked in favor of more imposing species.  Like Silphium perfoliatum, more commonly known as cup plant.

Imposing and aggressive it is.  At 10 feet tall, the cup plant easily grabs your attention over other plants.  Each spring, when cup plants crop up all over my yard and my neighbor’s yard and who knows where else, its aggressiveness kind of irks me.  I’ve given cup plant seedlings away and walked away feeling rather coy.  Will the new owner curse me in two years’ time the way that I have cursed my own endless cup plant supply?  Or will they be able to hang in there — weeding it out where it isn’t wanted — and appreciate the magic it brings to the landscape?  Even though it can be a pain in the ass, in the late summer days of the Midwest, the cup plant has no equal.

The cup plant holds water in its leaves, which form a cup where they meet the sturdy stalk.  This is an incredibly useful feature for birds and butterflies, who sometimes find water in short supply, especially water that is high up and out of their predators’ reach.   Today, for instance, is generally hot, muggy, and dry, but we did get a little rain last night.  Leave it to the cup plant to save that precious rain for our thirsty friends.  And those same water-holding leaves also provide protection from the hot mid-day sun, serving as a quasi-umbrella for small birds or bugs when the heat is too much.

cup plant

The cup plant is opportunistic.  It leaps out of the cracks between our front yard and the sidewalk and flowers prolifically even when squashed between my neighbor’s chain link fence and our gangway.  Provided it has some sun and space, the cup plant will do well.  It has deep roots and is incredibly drought tolerant.  Never has it been on my laundry list of garden chores to “water the dear old cup plant.”

All of this is well and true, and I do so appreciate the cup plant for all of it.  But my favorite thing about the cup plant is something that makes me tear up as only a handful of things in the garden will:   winter’s first snowdrops perking their heads up beneath 18 inches of slush, strawberries ripening when the robins were busy looking the other way, hips following roses on a buxom Rugosa rose, and the unmistakable high-pitched song of goldfinches visiting the cup plant at 3 o’clock every afternoon.  I suppose it’s their early bird happy hour.  As my friend Craig once commented, “It’s their beer and peanuts,” with the beer being the stored-up water in the leaves and the peanuts, the large flower seeds.  Our cup plant has hosted a pair of goldfinch couples every late summer for years now:  two stunning gold yellow males and two subtly brown-yellow females.  Their song and their presence stops me in my tracks each afternoon and reminds me why I planted a garden in the first place, to give something to others and in so doing, to myself.

two female goldfinches in our front yard cup plant


Something Different in Yellow

There’s lots of yellow in the garden right now — black-eyed susan, sunflowers, cupplant, a little coreopsis still hanging on, my friend Gin’s early goldenrod.  The thing is that yellow can get mundane, so I try to keep my eye out for yellows that are particularly cool or different.  I don’t have the space to provide for a whole swath of yellow like that provided by five or seven fireworks Goldenrod, so my one Solidago rugosa just kind of sits there:  it ain’t too exciting, truth be told.  I figure if you only have room for yellows by the individual plant, those plants you do put in should knock ’em dead.  If I haven’t seen the plant much around the city, that’ll often knock me dead. And if I find out that it’s native, I’ll want to plant it myself.  A lot of times with these uncommon yellow-blooming plants, you can’t find them in local garden centers.  There’s only one thing to do: you’ve got to start those yellow babies yourself.  I get psyched up about this prospect.  Start my own rosinweed!  Start my own wild senna since the one (I thought) I had turned out to be fleabane.

Wild Senna, don't the leaves look like a sensitive plant's?

Lincoln Park Zoo has a year-old planting of about 30 acres of natives, some of them with their feet in the water or semi-submerged.  The plants are around the Zoo’s newly redesigned South Pond, and they call it the Nature Boardwalk.  I took a class there the other day and saw some unusual plants.  The Wild Senna is blooming over there right now and their Horticulture guy was nice enough to send me the above photo.  I’m even more determined to get it for myself now — there’s nothing quite like it.

There are a bunch of perennial sunflowers doing their thing right now.  I’ve got some kind of Helianthus that came with my yard when we bought a house; all my neighbors seem to have it too.  It does bloom a long time, granted, but it’s kind of floppy and a bit of a water-hog and it’s not unusual.  But over at the Nature Boardwalk, they’ve got Downy Sunflower.  It’s not blooming yet but looks super cute at its present budding stage.  It will probably be open next week and that’ll really be a good show.

Downy Sunflower, never seen one in a Chicago yard

Downy Sunflower’s  foliage is a blue-green that adds life to the same old, same old green-green garden.  Something different in yellow, something different in green.

Stiff Goldenrod, looks good before it opens too

Similar in appearance to the Downy Sunflower is Stiff Goldenrod.  I remember learning about it last year in a U of I-Extension Native Plant info session.  Solidago rigida is about the same height as other goldenrods, but its yellow flowers come in flat-topped clusters rather than plume-like ones.  They form a neat clump and don’t spread by rhizomes the way that Showy Goldenrod does.

And finally a plug for the Dumbo’s Ears Black-Eyed Susan.  This July-bloomer is goofy-looking and nowhere to be found at the Nature Boardwalk.  I don’t think it’s a native; it looks like it’s from another planet.  I got mine at Gethsemane Garden Center when I was working there unloading a delivery of perennials off a truck.  There were only about six of them and my boss warned that they wouldn’t always take in certain spots.  She wasn’t sure what made them work one place and not another but she knew that they wanted sun and she guessed that they needed space.  Old Dumbo’s Ears doesn’t bloom anywhere near as long as Rudbeckia goldstrum, which most folks in Chicago have yellowing up their yard from late July through October, but when it does bloom, people take notice.


Rudbeckia something, Dumbo's Ears

p.s. Something Different in Purple

Instead of Liatris spicata, the Prairie Blazing star we see all the time and refer to as Dense Blazing Star, there is Liatris aspera, Button Blazing star.

Prairie Blazing Star, but with buttons instead of clumpy spikes

The flowers are individualized instead of one long cat-taily clump.  The Button variety stands erect.  Admittedly, my Liatris spicata’s floppiness could be due to a scarcity of water.  The only place I’ve seen the Button is in a spot where the ground tends to be wet.  It looks terrific.  I wish I could swap it for my floppy spicata.