Coreopsis for the Rest of Us

You see them at the garden center every year, and every year they bring out new varieties. “Jethro Tull.” “Moonbeam.” “Snowberry.” They are bright, cheerful plants, with tags that assure us that they are completely trouble-free, will never give you a moment’s worry, a backbone plant for the garden. If anything, they might spread too enthusiastically. They will bloom until frost. Butterflies will love them. Bees will love them. You will love them.

Every year I grit my teeth, and am forced to face the grim fact.

I can’t grow Coreopsis in my garden.

…okay, that’s not entirely true. The truth is I can’t grow any of the showy Coreopsis that they sell at the nursery at my garden.

I have tried. Lord, how I have tried. I cordially detest the music of Jethro Tull*, and now I detest their cultivar even more. I rescued six somewhat weary “Snowberry” from the bargain rack, planted them tenderly in the two best drained locations in the place, and was rewarded with extraordinary re-blooming. Not one survived the winter. One’s root system was so meager that it literally blew away like a lopsided tumbleweed this spring, and had to be pried out of a very confused sweet pepperbush.**

Okay, so they like well-drained soil. I have clay. Lots of clay. Extraordinary clay. You can literally dig my soil up and throw pots with it, although you’d probably want to wash it first. And yes, the humidity here in North Carolina can get pretty intense. But they keep selling the damn things at the garden centers, and when I say “I cannot grow these!” I am looked at with much the same pity as if I had just said that I don’t know how to make a grilled cheese sandwich.

But they’re easy! The tag says so! Am I sure that I am planting them in dirt, and not Play-doh or toothpaste or something? And it’s water I’m giving them, not any hydrochloric acid that I might have laying around the house? I’m sure? Huh. But they’re so easy!

Well. One of my personal principles of native plant gardening is that there comes a point when the most you can do for a species is to stop killing specimens in the garden. This is why I don’t grow Gaillardia, and why, at long last, I have given up on the showy cultivars of Coreopsis available at the big nurseries.

This does not mean, however, that my garden is a tickseed-free zone. Not hardly.

There are, in fact six species of Coreopsis growing in my yard, five of which are native and one of which is critically endangered in its home range. I dunno what’s up with those plants at the garden center, but if you’re willing to dig around at specialty nurseries, there are, thankfully, tickseeds out there for the rest of us.

Lobed Tickseed, from Wikimedia Commons

C. auriculata– Lobed tickseed is native to the Southeast, and it’s a good little plant. Mat of green leaves, little stems, little yellow flowers. It likes moisture and isn’t all that fussy about drainage (at least, compared to the cultivars.) The cultivar “Nana” is in garden centers this year, which is supposedly a dwarf version, but honestly, I’ve got both the straight species and the so-called “dwarf” and if you can tell a difference, you’re a better gardener than I. (I full expect “Nana” to die horribly this winter, given my luck, but the straight species is tough as nails, even in an area edging up on part shade.) This one does spread though, if it’s happy, sometimes a bit more enthusiastically than you might like.

C. integrifolia — This is the endangered one I mentioned above. Known as “Chipola River Tickseed,” it exists only in a few counties in Florida, but is now thankfully widely propagated through the nursery trade. Frankly, this is about as perfect a Coreopsis as ever lived. It takes more moisture, is less fussy about drainage, spreads slowly and lives much longer than is usual for Coreopsis-kind. It’s practically a groundcover. Even leaving aside the ethical tragedy if this plant were to go extinct, gardening as a whole would be poorer without it, and I hope it becomes widespread in cultivation.

 C. tripteris — Tall tickseed lives up to its name, reaching a whopping 84 inches, at least in theory. (They haven’t done that in MY yard. They got maybe four feet, which isn’t bad though.) Native to most of the eastern half of the US, it’s…tall. Name says it all, really. It has been growing on a dry clay hillside with, if not roaring enthusiasm, at least a certain workmanlike dedication.  (Occasionally doesn’t go entirely dormant, so cut back the old stalks with caution—much like Russian sage, sometimes it’s not actually dead.)

C. verticilla — What kills me about whorled tickseed is that some of those showy cultivars are OF whorled tickseed, and I’ve killed them deader than a dead thing. Meanwhile, the straight species is so hardcore that a friend of mine who worked at the arboretum accidentally left a flat locked in her trunk during a hundred-degree day. They baked for ten hours in temperatures that are not generally found on the surface of the earth (Well…maybe in Australia…) and after a long drink of water, bounced back as if they’d spent the day at the spa. You cannot discomfit this plant. I’ve got it on the same hillside as the C. tripteris and it comes back reliably every year.

C. palmata — Stiff tickseed. It’s a tickseed. Gets twenty, thirty inches tall. I can’t say there is anything else exciting about it, except that it doesn’t die.

C. helianthoides — “Helianthus-leaved swamp tickseed.” Now there’s a mouthful! (aka coastal plain tickseed, and Beadle’s tickseed.) As the name suggests, the leaves look a bit more sunflowery than anything else. Found from North Carolina south to Florida, and the first tickseed I ever managed to overwinter, this is a swamp tickseed, and so rather likes wet feet. It’s not an aggressive spreader, and SOMETHING likes to nosh it—most tickseeds are deer-proof, so I think it was the bizarre gourmand woodchuck that ate my milkweed—but it’s a pleasant little pop of yellow somewhere damp.

Now, the thing with tickseeds is that no matter what variety you’re get, it’s lots of cheery little yellow flowers, bees and butterflies will probably love it, if it sets seed, you’re probably looking at goldfinches and other small seed-eaters. They are the archetypal DYC, as Plant Delights Nursery calls ‘em. (Damn Yellow Composite.) As such, they’re useful wildlife plants, they’re tough and uncomplaining (some of them…) and every garden should have at least one.

If only so you don’t feel like the one person on earth who can’t grow a Coreopsis...



*My boyfriend once ran into my ex-husband and said “Man, I got one question for you.” My ex steeled himself. “…what the hell did you do to make her hate Jethro Tull so much? I only get to listen to it in the CAR!” “Dude!” cried my ex. “It wasn’t me! She never liked Tull, you know how she is, and don’t even ASK her about Rush!”

Fortunately, no one has named a Coreopsis after Rush.

**I am assuming that the pepperbush was as confused as I was. For all I know, though, Clethra is a philosophical genus. “Oh look,” says the pepperbush. “There is a dead Coreopsis in me. Such is my lot in life, I suppose.”

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  1. says

    Ha! I could have written this post, except you wrote it better. But my experience has been the same. Moonbeam thrives in my neighbor’s border a few feet away, but any coreopsis that has a cultivar name dies in mine. Limerock Ruby, all of them… no shows. So I dug a clump of tall yellow species tickseed out of the weedy meadow and put it in my garden and it just keeps on going in sunny yellow exuberance year after year, spreading, flopping, seeding and being very happy and unkempt. I love them.
    Laurrie recently posted..Fairy Wings and Bubblegum

  2. says

    This is one of those plants that I must have all that are for my zone…I am fortunate that they like my damp part shade gardens. I test them in not so nice conditions…although some are in drier sunnier conditions. I actually had a problem with some of the more native ones, but would love to get more of them to spread around…the finches love the seed. I will check out the ones here and see what is native to me and start the hunt…
    Donna Donabella recently posted..Simply The Best-April

  3. says

    First, nurseries have no idea what they’re doing (most of them). And plant tags are often wrong. Go online and do real research. You know this, but others need to know it.

    Second, I grow tall coreopsis in Nebraska, and the thing is HUGE on my dry clay. 7-8′ for sure. And it spreads, easily doubling by runners each year, or tripling. One is clumping at least, but the other had shoots all which way out in the wild blue yonder.

    Third, get the album Meowy Christmas by the Jingle Cats.
    Benjamin Vogt recently posted..Wilkmeed (Milkweed is Not a Weed)

  4. says

    I killed Heaven’s Gate so you know where I’m going. Now I steer clear of the fancy nursery Coreopsis. Tickseeds I have zero luck with – both here and in Maine. Not sure which varieties I’ve killed and maybe I’ve developed a nervous tick, but I’m still going to try again starting with tripteris – big things seem to do well in my now small garden. You have given me inspiration to try more varieties of the native kind as I really do have a fondness for Coreopsis and the way it wonderfully weaves in and out of other plants.
    thevioletfern recently posted..Project: Bottle Border

  5. says

    I can’t say enough good things about Coreopsis auriculata – which we call mouse-eared coreposis. Tough as nails in our Georgia clay, repels rabbits, blooms like crazy and is mostly evergreen in the winter. A fantastic plant and I’m glad to see it being sold in the nurseries (like Home Depot and Lowes even!), even if they do call it ‘Nana’. And I can’t tell the difference either.
    Ellen Honeycutt recently posted..Versatile Viburnums

  6. Rebecca Burlingham says

    I can grow Moonbeam, but that’s it. I have tried many other colors, they all die. BTW, I feel the same way about Led Zepplin. ick

  7. says

    ahhhhh….Florida’s state wildflower! FL boasts 15 species of tickseed, 12 of them natives. I have a couple in my yard and like you said, their pretty yellow heads certainly are cheery! I don’t have that tall one and it certainly sounds interesting! As always, well done Ursula!
    Loret T. Setters recently posted..Do Birds Mourn?

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