Willa Cather is one of Nebraska's preeminent writers and her finest writing grew out of her understanding of the prairie and its people. The sea of shaggy grass dotted with wildflowers that surrounded her Red Cloud home created a passion for the land that inspired her stories.
Cather once told a reporter, "I had searched for books telling about the beauty of the country I loved, its romance, the heroism and strength and courage of its people that had been plowed into the very furrows of its soil and I did not find them. And so I wrote O Pioneers!."
The Cather Garden of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Botanical Garden and Arboretum pays tribute to the prairie landscape with a collection of native grasses, wildflowers, shrubs and trees. Displayed in this very urban environment, these plants recall the colors and textures of the great prairie that once covered the state but fell beneath the plow of Willa Cather's pioneers.
Like the prairie itself, the Cather Garden changes with each shift of light or season. On an autumn day, the slanting rays of the afternoon sun set the little bluestem ablaze, recalling Cather's description of "the red grass (that) made all the great prairie the color of wine-stains."
In the deep cold of a seemingly colorless January, wild plums show a silvery-mauve against the brick wall of Love Library. With the coming of spring, the shrubs clothe themselves with fragrant white flowers. The leaves of Cather's beloved cottonwood trees dance in the summer breeze and cast coin-shaped shadows on the walks.
The Willa Cather Garden was established with help of a donation in memory of Johanna Abolins and a grant from the Lincoln Garden Club.
Urban Prairie Plants
The Cather Garden illustrates the use of prairie plants in an urban setting. It is impossible to recreate the prairie's vastness and sense of movement in a limited space. But here, amidst imposing buildings and concrete, native plants are a striking addition to the landscape.
The same qualities that ensured these plants' survival on the wide-open plains are a blessing to the city gardener. Native plants thrive in continuous sun and shrug off the wind that howls between the buildings. Most grow well in the slightly heavy soils of eastern Nebraska.
The native prairie was an immense expanse of grass dotted with flowering plants. In the Cather Garden, prairie plants are instead massed for more effective display of their blooms, a design more appropriate to the urban landscape.
A stroll through the garden gives some idea of the many colors, forms and textures of prairie plants. The lacy leaves and dancing flowers of columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) contrast with the coarse foliage and bold yellow flowers of sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale). Airy, delicate Gaura lindheimeri, covered with white and pink blooms in June, gives way in late summer to the violet flowers of Joe-pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum).
Native grasses such as little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis) sway in the prairie wind and their seedheads color the landscape into winter. The purple spikes of gayfeather (Liatris punctata) rising among the grasses capture the look of the prairie.
For hundred of years before the pioneers turned the prairie sod, native peoples had harvested the prairie plants for food, medicine and other domestic uses. The same plants we enjoy in our gardens were indispensable in the daily lives of the Native Americans.
Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) and purple coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia), commonly found in the prairie landscape, were important to Plains tribes. Every part of these plants, from roots to stems, leaves and berries, had some use in Native American culture. Baskets and toothbrushes were fashioned from stems, and tannin for tanning hides came from sumac leaves. Roots and berries were brewed into beverages. Both plants provided medicines for treatment of colds, influenza, sore throat, mouth sores, toothache and snakebite.
Willa Cather (1873-1947) came to Nebraska at the age of eight when her father bought land near Red Cloud. Her life in the wide-open prairies, sparsely settled by Norwegians, Swedes, Bohemians and Germans, deeply influenced her work.
After graduating from the University of Nebraska at nineteen, Cather moved to the east coast where she taught and worked on newspapers. She worked for six years on the editorial staff of the McClure's magazine before resigning to devote herself to writing.
Cather's first novel, Alexander's Bridge, published in 1912, was followed by such eminent works as O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, My Antonia, A Lost Lady and Death Comes for the Archbishop. Cather received the Pulitzer Prize in 1922 for One of Ours and the gold medal of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1944.
Cather Garden Herbaceous Plants
|Andropogon gerardii paucipilus
|White Upland Aster
|White Wild Indigo
|Purple Poppy Mallow
|New Jersey Tea
|Narrow-leaf Purple Coneflower
|Canada Wild Rye
|Joe Pye Weed
|Roundhead Bush Clover
|Great Blue Lobelia
|Panicum virgatum 'Rehbraun'
|Salvia azurea pitcherii 'Nekan'
|Nekan Pitcher Sage
|Solidago canadensis 'Golden Baby'
|Golden Baby Goldenrod
|Sorghastrum nutans 'Bluebird'
|Bluebird Indian Grass
Cather Garden Woody Plants
|Montana Mountain Mahogany
|Kentucky Coffee Tree
|American Wild Plum