Ragweed: An Annual Affliction

Achoo!

A couple of weeks ago, my son and I started to experience the annoyance of head, nasal, and throat responses to extra pollen in the air. I did some investigating of roadsides and sure enough, the ragweed was just starting to bloom and reported pollen counts were spiking. Kansans have really enjoyed relatively cooler temperatures and ample rainfall this summer. Our landscapes have been green and our gardens have been productive. With the good comes the bad…mosquitoes and ticks have been abundant and we should expect a monster ragweed season through the rest of August and September.

Plants with annual life cycles (as opposed to perennials or biennials) are the most productive airborne pollen sources this time of the year. Annuals complete their whole life cycle of germination, rapid growth, profuse flowering (the culprit in this story), voluminous seed production, and death in one growing season. Three of the the worst annual plant offenders for airborne pollen production this time of the year include common ragweed, giant ragweed, and sumpweed.

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Wind-pollinated common ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia).

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Wind-pollinated giant ragweed (Ambrosia trifida).

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Wind-pollinated annual sumpweed (Iva annua).

While ragweed season is the worst for me, I do often notice airborne pollen spikes of flowering elms and maples in early spring, cedars and wheat crops late spring, and sometimes even warm season prairie grasses in mid summer.

All flowering plants produce pollen, but wind-pollinated plants produce smaller, lighter pollen that use wind to migrate from male to female flowers…and unfortunately our nasal passages. Wind-pollinated flowers do not need to invest energy in expensive color (and nectar) to attract insects to move pollen, so their flowering often goes undetected by the human eye. A common misconception is that colorful, perennial flowering plants, including goldenrods and sunflowers blooming this time of the year, are causing us to sneeze. However, their flowers have heavier pollen, which are not carried in the wind, and which require an insect with a hairy body/legs to migrate to other flowers. Flowers with colorful petals are not our allergy nemesis.

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Insect-pollinated Missouri goldenrod (Solidago missouriensis) does not cause allergies.

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Insect-pollinated compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) and wind-pollinated giant ragweed.

Annuals including ragweed require disturbed, open soil to thrive. Although their pollen affects me, I am glad for the ecological role that annuals play in quickly establishing disturbed soil and minimizing erosion until long-lived perennials can establish and take their place. Most of our soil at Dyck Arboretum is tied up and covered with perennial native plants, and I actually had a hard time finding examples of annuals to photograph.

I’ll finish on one more positive note. Grains including corn, wheat, rice, oats, rye, barley, and others are all wind-pollinated plants too. I guess we should be thankful for the wonderful world of plants and what their sometimes annoying pollination mechanisms have to offer.

So, grab the tissues, nasal sprays, antihistamines and suffer through.

Silphiums: Four Pillars in the Tallgrass Prairie

2015 seems to be the year of the genus Silphium in the arboretum.  In recent years, I can’t remember them looking so bright or growing so tall.  With the spring and summer rains these sun-loving, yellow-flowered plants have reached a new level.  In fact, they are among the tallest plants of the prairie in late summer and autumn. We grow and sell four species: Prairie Dock, Silphium terebinthinaceum; Cup Plant, Silphium perfoliatum, Compass Plant, Silphium laciniatum; and Rosinweed, Silphium integrifolium.  Each of these are distinct and easily identified by their unique leaves.

 

Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum)

I call this the Hosta of the prairie. It almost has a tropical-look to it, with large rough leaves up to one foot wide and two foot long.  It will make a statement in the landscape, but give it plenty of room and keep it away from walkways, because the long stems tend to arch over the path.  Individual clumps can become large over time reaching six feet in diameter.  The yellow flowers develop in mid-August atop tall leafless stalks.  This member of the tallgrass prairie is one of my favorite wildflowers.  In my opinion, Prairie Dock is a must in your wildflower garden.

Dyck Arboretum Blog: Silphiums, Prairie Dock

Prairie Dock

Dyck Arboretum Blog: Silphiums, Prairie Dock

Prairie Dock with Missouri Black-eyed Susan

 

Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum)

A natural bird bath in the landscape.  Each pair of leaves clasps around the stem forming a small basin.  When it rains, these crude cups fill with water that is then available to wildlife.   They stand tall in the landscape and therefore work well as a screen.  I have also used them as a dark green background for other shorter perennials like black-eyed Susan, and gayfeather.  The yellow blossoms can be seen starting in July and are visited by a host of butterflies.  Later, birds cherish the seeds.   Cup Plant thrives in heavier clay soils or even wet conditions.  It will be happy in any setting if given ample sunlight.

Dyck Arboretum Blog: Silphiums, Cup Plant with water

Cup Plant with water

Dyck Arboretum Blog: Silphiums, Cup Plant Flower

Cup Plant Flower

 

Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum)

Do you need directions?  This is the plant that can help.  The interesting basal leaves look like flat hands.  Those lower leaves usually orient themselves north-south to minimize exposure to the intense summer sun, hence the descriptive common name.  These extremely tall (up to ten feet) wildflowers are found in prairies and glades throughout the eastern third of Kansas.  Each stem is covered with tiny white hairs that give it a rough, bristly feel.  The bright yellow flowers emerge along the upper parts of the plant in summer.  Split or broken stems exude a clear sticky resin much like pine sap.  Native Americans used this resin as a mouth-cleansing chewing gum.  I think I will stick with Trident®.

Dyck Arboretum Blog: Silphiums, Compass Plant

Dyck Arboretum Blog: Silphiums, Compass Plant

Compass Plant Leaf

Rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium)

Rosinweed is shorter, but just as tough as the other Silphiums.  Again, the name describes the resin exuded if the stem is bruised or broken.  The golden yellow flowers that mature at the top of the stems are beautiful in the summer.  It is a pollinator magnet, attracting bees, butterflies and even hummingbirds to the flowers.  It becomes a natural bird feeder in the fall and winter as the seeds are devoured by birds.  It is quite drought tolerant once established and is at home in a wide variety of soils.

Dyck Arboretum Blog: Silphiums, Rosinweed

Rosinweed

 

While each of these wildflowers are unique in appearance, especially as you look at the leaves, they all have that “clear, sticky juice” that exudes if the stem is damaged.  I love them in the landscape, but they need room because they grow so tall.  They are great in prairie settings or areas on the periphery of your yard.  You can’t go wrong – just give them plenty of sunlight so the sunflower-like blooms can brighten your summer landscape.

Each of these plants can be purchased at our FloraKansas Fall Plant Sale, September 11 to 13.

Winfield (and the PWCS) On My Mind

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When summer vacation ends and back-to-school plans kick in, my thoughts affectionately turn to “Winfield.” For so many, this one word moniker for the Walnut Valley Festival (WVF) in Winfield, KS is synonymous with great music on stages and in campgrounds around the clock.  For my family the WVF, which occurs annually in middle to late September, has been a cherished time for reunions with friends and family, camping, great food, an easy-going time of retreat, renewal, and making memories that last a lifetime. Anticipating its 44th year, Winfield is adored by ~15,000 people annually that flock to the Cowley County Fairgrounds. Some come early for “Land Rush” to stake their coveted claim along the shady banks of the Walnut River and invest weeks of vacation, and others come for a day of stage acts, workshops and to enjoy one of the international championship competitions featuring flat pick/finger style guitar, mandolin, banjo, hammer/mountain dulcimer, auto harp, and fiddle.IMG_4643Feistylarger

My connection to Winfield began in 1998 when a grad school graduation gift of festival passes from my uncle/aunt Royce and Marge started a running 17-year love affair with this experience. Listening to music with my dad, visits to my uncle’s Buzzard’s Roost Camp, witnessing epic wee-hour jams in the Pecan Grove, the flood-displaced year at Winfield Lake, planning meals, and hanging out with friends, have all profoundly shaped my Winfield memories. My boys have attended nearly every year of their lives and their experiences have included everything from long toddler naps under my chair at the finger style championships, ukulele workshops, kid jams around the campfire, running down the levee, racing the ever-present train, playing catch on the Stage Two hill, and more. They hold the Winfield experience up there with Christmas and 4th of July.

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This time of the year also brings great anticipation for a new season of the Dyck Arboretum Prairie Window Concert Series (PWCS). Coordination of the PWCS fell into my lap in 2011 and in spite of my lack of experience with concert promotion, the Winfield experience has made coordination of the PWCS a labor of love. Winfield has had a profound effect on the artists I invite to the PWCS as it did for my predecessor, Miner Seymour and his brainchild, the Old Settlers Inn in Moundridge. Memorable performances over the years at Winfield from Mike Cross, Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott, The Wilders, The Greencards, The Steel Wheels, Tommy Emmanuel, Hot Club of Cowtown, The Infamous Stringdusters, The Waybacks, and many more have certainly shaped my musical preferences towards Americana and roots music featuring masterful instrumentals and tight harmonies. Half of the featured artists in the coming 2015-16 PWCS season have strong ties to Winfield.

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When the monarchs fill the air, and the Maximilian sunflowers blaze with yellow, it is time for my family to migrate south to Winfield. Whether I see you there or at the PWCS (our surrogate Winfield), I know we’ll be enjoying great music together and making memories.

Six Lessons I Learned from the Farm

Over the past several months, I have been reflecting on my time growing up on our farm and how those experiences prepared me for the work at the arboretum.  It is a privilege not everyone has the opportunity to experience and was a time in my life that I have taken for granted.  There was always something to learn, always something to do, whether for work or play.  Inherent danger lurked around every corner or piece of equipment.  There was planting, growing, and harvesting.  Experiencing those things were the best childhood times. They were so simple – at least that’s how I perceived them.

 

Here are some lessons I learned from the farm:

  1. Work hard at whatever you do. Then enjoy the fruits of your labor.
  2. Always beware of danger.
  3. The product is a result of planning, timing and a little luck.
  4. The land is a finite resource and should be cared for properly.
  5. Never give up, but persevere through challenges.
  6. Problems can be solved with a little creativity, a little ingenuity, a little time, a little common sense and/or maybe even a little bailing wire.

Certainly, there are more lessons than these six that I took from my time on the farm.  I was always exposed to something new.  A new way to plant, a new way to grow, a new way to harvest.  Sometimes there was pain that resulted in growth.  I don’t farm anymore – at least not on that level – but those experiences shape how I work and play today.  They even shaped how I think about the land and maybe even helped develop my “land ethic”.  I think each of us has formative moments in our lives that change us.  What are those moments for you?  Do those highlights impact who you are today?  It’s something to think about.