Many gardeners love the toughness of native plants. They can take care of themselves for the most part and seldom have pest problems. These plants have endured and flourished in a wide range of conditions for many years. They have brightened fields, meadows and stream banks for eons without any intervention by human hands for their survival. Wildflowers were the first garden plants, no doubt transplanted around the first dwellings as a way to brighten the world of those who lived there and many tough as nails plants graced the doorways of people who had little time to spend on decorative gardens. These plants still have a purpose in modern gardens, however sometimes they can outgrow their welcome.
Callirhoe involucrata is a North American native that is comfortable in a wide range of climate and garden conditions. Originally a plant of the plains and prairies from central North America down into Mexico, we now see it all over the continent and it is hardy in USDA Zones 4-9. It forms mat-like patches and covers the ground in full-sun areas, creating a wonderful show. It is known by several common names: buffalo rose, wine cups, and purple poppy mallow, just to name a few. The bright magenta flowers shine like jewels when they are in bloom.
I first encountered this plant as a wildflower on a visit to Texas and was absolutely delighted to see it along the roadways and in the fields. I couldn't wait to examine them up close and personal. Incidentally, the wildflower show in Texas is spectacular each spring, it is worth the trip. As our hosts were showing us around the ranch, I spied a large clump of them off the trail and headed over to investigate. I was quickly called back and informed not to walk where I couldn't see the ground due to the large rattlesnake population, so I had to wait for a better spot. Once the chance presented itself, I was quick to take advantage of the opportunity and saw immediately why its common names are so accurate, The buffalo rose looks like a single wild rose from a distance, but once you get closer this cousin of the large mallow tribe has a distinct hibiscus shape. The flowers are held upright on slender stems much like a poppy, so all of these common names are quite descriptive.
I wanted to learn more about this great plant, so did a little research. The buffalo rose blooms from early summer into early fall and prefers a sunny location. Once it is established, it can withstand drought because of the large sweet potato-like tuber it forms. During extreme drought, it may even go dormant, however the moisture stored in the tuber helps it survive until rain falls again. Due to this large root, mature plants are hard to transplant. The root is edible and was often used by the native peoples as a starchy food source and tastes similar to a sweet potato. The leaves are also edible and were often added to soups and stews as a thickening agent, much like okra. The root was used in the native pharmacy as a pain reliever and to remove warts.
Wine cups do well in a casual, prairie-type garden. However they tend to take over and get a bit thuggish in more formal settings. They happily reseed where they are comfortable and many gardeners find themselves battling an ever-growing mat that overtakes large portions of their property. Few pests bother them and if conditions are right they can end up being too much of a good thing. This isn't usually a problem in the northern part of their range, however in the warmer climate, they might be best left to the fields and prairies. If you do decide to plant some, they pair well with native milkweeds and liatris. Like those plants, buffalo rose is a host plant for several butterflies such as gray hairstreaks and checkered skippers. Bees and pollinators are attracted to the flowers and rabbits, deer and small herbivore mammals do enjoy the foliage, so protect young plants until established if they are an issue. Plant in full sun and in a well-drained part of the garden. This plant does not like wet feet. It also tends to get leggy in the shade. The mat of foliage is usually between 12 to 18 inches tall, with the flower stalks held above that, so they do make a nice middle of the border plant if you have the room. Just remember that it can get quite aggressive where it is comfortable. Native plants make a good choice where containment isn't an issue, but gardeners should do their research to determine if a particular plant is best for their property. It can prevent headaches and heartaches in the future.