On Gardening: Spring magic occurs with the arrival of native phlox

March 21, 2016

This time of the year something magical begins to happen over the eastern two-thirds of the United States and that is the spring arrival of phlox. It will be happening from Texas north to Quebec, Canada and then to the east coast.

If you think about it geographically that is quite extraordinary that the woodland phlox or wild blue phlox, Phlox divaricata and its close cousin the prairie phlox, Phlox pilosa both have a native range covering such a wide expanse.

Once you take that to mind you have to agree that these two phlox would probably be adaptable to your landscape. Indeed the wild blue phlox is a tried and true perennial that offers fragrant flowers in bright blues, lavenders and pinks that normally coincides their bloom in dazzling partnerships with dogwoods, redbuds and azaleas. I’ve seen them combined wonderfully with Dutch iris and daffodils creating an idyllic complementary color scheme.

The prairie phlox also called downy phlox boasts a delightful fragrance and is often called fragrant phlox. It too comes in lavenders and pink shades which sometimes lead to confusion as to which species passersby see as they zip down the country roads. The prairie phlox does offer you the rare ability to create one of those dreamy wildflower meadows where they can be combined with plants like coreopsis, white indigo and early rudbeckias.

As with many natives these aren’t the everyday staple at the garden center. On the other hand no respectable native plant nursery would be without these stalwart performers. The wild blue phlox likes a site with morning sun and afternoon shade while the prairie phlox can take much more of a full sun approach. While the soil need not be too luxurious, strive to make it both fertile and well drained. Neither phlox will be particularly happy if the soil stays soggy for long periods of time.

Plant nursery grown transplants 10-12 inches apart planting at the same depth they are growing in the container. Apply a good layer of mulch after planting to help deter weed growth, conserve moisture and keep soil temperatures moderate. Once the woodland phlox has finished blooming cut the foliage back by half. This will encourage new growth. Take this opportunity to stick the cutting in moist sand or peat to start more plants. The prairie phlox spreads by rhizomes and seeds so depending on the size of patch desired you can let the seeds fall naturally or cut back, relying on the plants underground ability to enlarge.

The woodland phlox is often sold generically despite several well-known varieties. Louisiana Blue, May Breeze, and Clouds of Perfume are well known selections. My favorite is Chattahoochee which is actually a hybrid of the woodland and the prairie phlox. The result is a light purple with a striking dark eye.

The prairie phlox doesn’t have an abundance of named varieties. Ozark Rose, Slim Jim and Forest Frost are three that I have seen touted in the trade, so keep your eyes open. You may also find named selections special to your area. Regardless if you purchase by variety or go generic you will be getting a wonderful native perennial that will give years of enjoyment.