Among the wildflowers: Hunter's passion a gift for Arkansas gardeners

by Jan Spann

Carl Hunter wrote several highly regarded guidebooks for exploring the flora and fauna found in Arkansas. Before and after his retirement as a wildlife biologist with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, Hunter spent his free time studying and photographing Arkansas wildflowers.

In 1984, his 300-page book, Wildflowers of Arkansas, offered Arkansas residents and tourists a handy guide to help identify hundreds of flowers. Hunter wanted to share his passion for Arkansas native flowers so others could learn how to cultivate these beautiful blooms in their own gardens. Here are a few of his hints:

With more than 1,000 species of wildflowers growing in Arkansas, you are sure to find ones that grow under your condition. Many of these are now available as plants or as seed (see list with this article).

You should grow wildflowers that are growing in the wild under conditions similar to yours. Most are very adaptable, although there are some exceptions. Each garden has a unique bio-climate influenced by the plants in it, soil and other biological components. Growing wildflowers that grow in your part of the state will encourage growth, but sometimes what works in your friend’s garden may not work in yours. Keep notes and try something else if a certain wildflower just won’t sprout for you.

For the seedbeds, remove grass and leaves, then prepare the soil about three inches deep. Rake the soil so it is as smooth and level as possible. Seeds must be in contact with soil. Average seeds can be lightly raked in. Large seeds can be planted about three times as deep as the thickness of the seed.

Tiny seeds that are almost like dust should simply be dropped on top of the prepared soil. They can be mixed with dry sand to get an even distribution and to show where you have put the seed. Sand is a good addition for clay soils, and small bags of playground sand can be found at garden centers.

If yours is a rocky landscape or has other limitations, remove garden litter, then drop the seeds and cover with a thin layer of topsoil. Now cover that with commercial or well rotted manure and follow with fertilizer.

Use 13-13-13 general purpose fertilizer to promote seed sprouting. The three numbers in fertilizer formulation are nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. These three nutrients are required for plant growth. Nitrogen aids the formulation of chlorophyll.

Phosphorus stimulates root growth and development. Potassium helps plants survive drought and other stressors that affect proper growth. Too much fertilizer attracts aphids, so this is a case where too much of a good thing is bad. Mulch and compost can also fertilize without chemicals, and these provide a slower process, thus avoiding the aphid invasion.

Nearly all seeds can be planted in the fall, especially perennials. To plant wildflowers in October or November, site preparation described above must start in August or September. Soil prep can also include herbicides if you’re reclaiming an area that has been grass or weeds. Use caution when using herbicides that contain glyphosate. Two less invasive herbicides are Bayer Advanced Bermudagrass Control and Ornamec 170. To find safety information about a chemical or product, search the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) online for free. Do not mow before applying herbicide so the non-preferred plants can take in the poison. Organic alternatives to manufactured weed management include vinegar, soaps and essential oils.

Set out perennial plants in the fall or in early spring, and annuals are also planted in the spring. January is a good month to plant seeds inside in pots for transplanting a few months later when the soil is warmer and the plants have established strong roots.

Many established wildflower plants could be killed with herbicides designed to kill grass so use caution when spraying around them.

If plants become pale, yellowish or don’t seem to be growing well, apply fertilizer at a low rate (particles about one inch apart).

Pull or hoe grass and weeds. As the plants grow, you can use shredded newspaper or compost around the plants to discourage weed and grass growth.

Many wildflowers are drought tolerant, which make them a wise choice in our gardens to provide you more time to enjoy and less time working the garden patch. When hot summer bakes the soil, water enough to keep the soil moist so the plant roots can thrive.

This is necessary for good blooms.

Carl Hunter worked for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission during his college days when he attended University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. He was one of the first full-time hires in 1945 after the agency’s restructure. His first significant contribution to Arkansas was the deer restoration population and his compilation of the state’s wildlife, found in his 1951 publication, A Survey of Arkansas Game. He spent 20 years managing Wingmead Farms, a wildlife preserve and farm in east-central Arkansas. He returned to the state agency in 1977 where his assignment was to acquire land for wildlife management areas, lakes and other agency uses. Promoted to assistant director in 1980, Hunter retired from the AGFC in 1987.

Two excellent state resources for wildflowers are Holland Wildflower Farm ( or 800.684.3734) and Pine Ridge Gardens ( or 479.293.4359). Holland Wildflower farm has offered wildflower seeds and native plant mixes for more than 30 years. Pine Ridge Gardens offers 400-plus species of native plants, vines and trees and nearly 100 species of ornamental cultivars. Check the website for open house dates or call for an appointment as the nursery is not open on a regular basis. Check your local garden center and ask for native plants.

Commercial and residential construction and practices such as chemical application and intensive farming have affected many native habitats, eliminating some wildflower species and endangering others. Carl Hunter’s extensive research and cataloging allows wildlife enthusiasts and gardeners the opportunity to cultivate these wonderful natives in our own backyards.