The prairies of ……where?

– Posted in: Garden Visits

OK, competition for you. Where is it?


Its prairie innit? So must be in the states, question is, which state?

FYI its now in its second year since planting out from one year old plugs, looks like its doing pretty well.

Some very tall Joe Pye weed – Eupatoriadelphus, as we must learn to call it, as the botanists have clearly been doing re-sorting. And some nice scarlet Lobelia cardinalis, but this is pretty short lived, so let’s hope it self-sows.

Echinacea, this one is E.pallida have become perhaps a bit too popular, they aren’t hugely long-lived at the best of times, but if you can get them through the first year they should keep going for at least five.


Eh,  what’s this funny looking building, looks like it’s seen better days. Doesn’t look very Midwestern, or indeed very west side of the pond at all.


Here’s who made it, Elliott Forsyth, head gardener for Cambo gardens, just south of St. Andrews in south-east SCOTLAND.


Pour yourself a wee dram of whisky and take another look.

I’ve written before about the apparent paradox of Europeans growing prairie plants. But there are good reasons and some good historical precedents. Good reasons first – the British flora is very poor on late-flowering native species, so if gardeners grow all this North American late prairie stuff the butterflies and a great many other insects have greatly increased food sources. Birds love the seedheads too. I’m sure seedhead productivity is far greater at this time than our natives.

The historical precedent is simply that during the early years of the 20th century perennial planting for grand late season ‘herbaceous borders’ became very popular. Wealthy garden lovers would employ armies of staff to cultivate them. Many of the species were North American, but they tended to be high-maintenance and the style gradually fell out of favour. With a modern range of mostly species plants however maintenance can be minimised.

Cambo is 56degrees north, way north of any prairie in North America, that’s like being on the southern shores of the main bit of Hudson Bay. Summer is cool but wonderfully light, and winters are not that cold, because of the weather systems coming in from the Atlantic, and then the North Sea is not that far either.

‘Far north’ gardeners lose out on really late things: vernonia (Ironweed) perhaps and some asters, and the grasses need a lot of heat so they grow really slowly, but there are plenty of ‘fake’ prairie grasses we can use, and some of our own native grasses can pass.

The moral seems to be, 1) there is no simple relationship between place of origin and plant growth requirements, and 2) growing natives is nice, but dogmatically clinging to the belief that only natives benefit wildlife is patent nonsense.


I am now publishing e-books  through Amazon, for Kindle, smartphones, iPads etc. There are currently two of collections of writings for Hortus magazine from the early 2000s, plus a transcription of an hour long interview with Beth Chatto, one of the most influential gardeners of modern times.




Noel Kingsbury

Noel Kingsbury

Noel Kingsbury is a gardener and writer based in the west of England. Author of over 20 books, including four collaborations with Dutch designer Piet Oudolf, he is passionate about wild-style planting and bringing nature into the garden.

Noel Kingsbury

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Benjamin Vogt September 28, 2011, 9:28 am

So, will these non native American prairie plants become invasive across the pond? Sure, they will benefit wildlife with nectar and seeds, but I wonder if you can better defend their placement in Scotland. Is there any report on native grass or forbs becoming invasive, or in the very least, popping up here and there in “wild” places? I garden for prairie in Nebraska.

Noel Kingsbury September 28, 2011, 12:03 pm

Important point – We have an odd native flora which defends its own patch against outsiders with great vigor – some competitive sod-forming grasses in particular, which in fact have covered vast tracts of North America.There is a long history of plant introductions here, all the main vigorous daisy genera were here over a hundred years ago in gardens – there have been limited problems in mainland Europe but not here, escapes certainly; a goldenrod and an aster, but they tend to join our naitve plant communities not overwhelm them. We are very lucky in this respect. We do have problem plants – Japanese knotweed and a rhododendron are the worst but little else.

Judy Nauseef September 29, 2011, 8:13 am

These photos could have been from my prairies. I love to see these plants used elsewhere. Maybe more Americans will decide prairie plants are desirable because Europeans are using them.

Cynthia Newby September 29, 2011, 9:31 am

Interesting assertion–do you have the science to refer to Doug Tallamy’s work (Bringing Nature Home) as ‘patent nonsense’…..

Noel Kingsbury September 29, 2011, 9:47 am

The BUGS project run by Sheffield Uni (UK) and some work by Prof. Wolfram Kircher about 10 years ago indicate that growing native plant species is not necessary for the support of high levels of insect biodiversity. That’s in NW Europe obviously. It also begs the question about particular species of insect with very specific larval food requirements. However, I think there is a real danger of native plant enthusiasts painting all non-native plantlife as the ‘green cement’ we see around supermarkets and office blocks – whereas in fact a garden with a wide variety of plant life covering everthing from trees to teh smallest creepy thing is a good wildlife habitat no matter the origin of the species concerned, which in public relations terms is an easier and more attractive message than “grow only natives”. People respnd better to positive advice than negative strictures in my experience.

Cathy September 29, 2011, 10:03 am

The issue of invasiveness came to mind for me as well, especially since it has come up in comments on my blog and others quite a bit recently.

I think we all cringe when we think about kudzu. One of the scariest things with kudzu is that it is much more aggressive and invasive here in the southeastern US than it is in its native Japan, so you can’t always rely on past performance in another habitat to judge how a plant is going to behave in a new envirnment.

Even so, I love our roses and the many other flowering perennials we grow in our gardens, many of which are not native to our country. Knowing the pleasure we get from our blooms, I wish the same for Mr. Forsyth… much success in his endeavor!

Noel Kingsbury September 29, 2011, 10:08 am

presumably Kudzu is lacking it pests and diseases that keep it in check in Japan. This year some bugs from Japan were imported here after many years of research to start sucking away at the Japanese knotweed.

Cathy September 30, 2011, 10:28 am

Re the knotwwed….. I pray for success in controlling it! That stuff is nasty, and we are dealing with that here.

ann October 2, 2011, 1:08 pm

Invasive is as invasive does. I have that horrible weed, wild morning glory, around these parts, it is called ‘creeping jenny’. Most of my yard could be called weeds but I do think they are all nice as want a lot of beauty and little work.
My thoughts are Lobelia cardinalis looks as if it is more than just a prairie favorite. Gorgeous.

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