Growing California Native Wildflowers from Seed

Native Annual Wildflowers – great for the Pollinators and other Beneficial insects!

Clarkia unguiculata
(The blooms of this native clarkia range from white, pale pink, salmon, and bright pink to magenta. Flowers in full sun or partial shade. Clarkia grows in sandy, well-drained soils, but also thrives in clay soil. Spring blooms, 1-3’ tall, drought tolerant, moderate water for best flowering display.)

Eschscholzia californica
(The state flower of California, every garden should have this cheerful annual. California poppies like fast draining soil and plenty of sunshine but are very hardy and will tolerate poor soil conditions as well. Put out seed once winter rains start. Will reseed easily. 12” high, spring-summer blooming.)

Gilia capitata
(Easy to grow from seed, this drought tolerant native thrives in almost any soil. Give it full sun or some shade. Gets 1-2 ft, tall with fern-like lacy foliage. Covered in lavender-blue flowers attractive to pollinators from spring to early summer. Deer ignore it. Beautiful combined with CA poppies.)

Gilia tricolor
(This species of gilia is unique to California and very easy to grow. Each plant yields hundreds of half-inch flowers on upright stems surrounded by soft, lacy foliage. Gilia is very attractive to bees, butterflies, and other beneficial insects. Spring blooms, low water, 18” tall, reseeds.)

Madia elegans
(Tarweed is in full bloom from late summer through fall, providing pollen and nectar when little else is available for bees and beneficial insects. A great choice with asters, goldenrod and grasses; heavy bloomer, reseeds readily. Usually 4 to 6 ft. tall, full sun, very low water needs.)

Phacelia tanacetifolia
(One of the very best pollinator plants! Lavender blooms unfurl in early spring and attract bees, butterflies, and other beneficial pollinators. It grows well in fast-draining soil and in regular garden loam. Spring blooming, 1-2’ tall, low water, will do well in full or part sun, reseeds.)

Growing California Native Wildflowers from Seed

First of all, the most important concept behind getting wildflowers started from seeds is the understanding that the gardener is just the catalyst setting a process in motion. The ultimate goal is to have wildflowers reseeding themselves and establishing populations which germinate at the right time, and in exactly the place and manner in which they prefer to grow.

Gardeners know that the time to get wildflower seeds started is with the advent of the rainy season, but in the wild seeds ripen and get eaten or scattered during the dry season. That’s also the time when we’re out there collecting some of those seeds for our own purposes.  

We will clean and dry the seed, then store it until the fall, at which time we prepare the soil for seeding. When I’ve separated most of the seeds from the stems and chaff, I always take the leavings (I think of it as wildflower straw) and spread that out in a place where I’d like to see more flowers.

If you are thinking of seeding wildflowers in an area that has not been planted before, the first step will be to get rid of as many non-native weeds and grasses as possible before you begin the process. One way to accomplish this is to water the area to encourage the existing seed bank to germinate so that the weeds show themselves, and can be easily pulled. This may be a process over time, depending on how heavily weed-infested the area is, so plan ahead and give yourself plenty of time to prepare the area.

Once most of the undesirable plants have been removed, the soil will need to be loosened, but only to a depth of two to three inches; a light sprinkling of compost can be added, but isn’t necessary. Combine your seed with river sand (never beach or playbox sand) and sprinkle it evenly over the area. Then walk all over it to achieve good seed to soil contact, water it in only once, and let the rains do the rest. If regular rains fail and germination has started, then the gardener must do the watering.

When the seed has been sown you may want to protect it against predation. A light cloud-cover fabric can be laid loosely over the area until seedlings are large enough to be exposed to all the risks of life. A loose covering of small branches or a light covering of a straw mulch will also help protect seeds and young seedlings from predators.

Wildflowers are generally happy in very poor soils; overly fertile soils often just encourage rank green growth and minimal flowering. The best seedbeds in my garden are the gravel pathways; so many seeds germinate there that I’ve recreated similar conditions by mulching with gravel in my wildflower meadow area.

I’ll often sow wildflowers in a container – a large shallow pot works really well – and then set that container into an area where I wish to see the wildflowers take hold naturally. Letting the containerized wildflowers progress through their whole life cycle in that setting will allow them to seed naturally into the area.

If you’re then faced with lots of small seedlings that may be over crowded, or growing where they will be stepped on, you can transplant the individual seedlings to small pots, and grow them on to a larger size to be eventually planted out to a container or garden border.

Most annual wildflowers germinate within 5 to 10 days, and within another 2 to 3 weeks have developed true leaves. When the seedling has these true leaves and is about 3 to 4 inches tall, it will survive transplanting readily, as long as the root system is intact, and very carefully and quickly handled. A hori-hori knife is probably the best tool to use when extracting seedlings.

When you’re transplanting an annual wildflower from a nursery pot to a garden bed or container, the less you handle or try to open up the root system, the better that wildflower seedling will adapt to its new location.