Plant Profile: Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium)

There are quite a few native wildflowers that everyone knows – coneflowers, gayfeathers, prairie clovers, evening primrose and so on. But when I tell folks to try some rattlesnake master, Eryngium yuccifolium, I get the blank stare, or the proverbial crickets in the room sound. What does that do? What does that look like?  True, it is one of the lesser known wildflowers, but I contend that it is just as attractive as some of the common wildflowers.

Rattlesnake master, Eryngium yuccifolium, gets its name from the belief that the roots have the ability to heal snake bites. In today’s world, I would stick to the true antidotes. Often the root was dried and used in bitter teas as a supposed cure for maladies such as venereal disease, liver problems, impotence, expelling worms and to induce vomiting. It makes me thankful for modern medicine, but back in the 18th and 19th centuries many herbs from the prairie were used to cure a variety of ailments because they had nothing else.

This unique wildflower’s scientific name comes from the close resemblance the leaves have with a yucca plant. The sword-like leaves have soft tiny barbs along the edges that make it easily recognizable. In the summer, the white thistle-like flowers develop atop the stout upright stems. Even though it looks like a thistle, it is actually a member of the carrot/parsley family. Rattlesnake master ultimately reaches about three to four feet tall with a spread of one to two feet. I like to combine them in groups of three in the middle to back of the flower bed.

In the landscape or in a prairie, it is quite a striking plant. The grey-green foliage and one inch diameter flower heads make it stand out in the garden as an accent plant. The flowers slowly dry and become yellow-brown later in fall and into the winter. The stalks are sturdy and remain well into winter, providing interest in the landscape. We have even used them in dried flower arrangements.

Plant them in full sun or part shade for best growth. They are quite adaptable, but prefer a medium to dry soil. I have planted in spring and fall with easy establishment either time of the year. This is a plant that should be used more in roadside plantings, prairie restorations, prairie landscape settings, and in your wildflower garden.

You may never need a rattlesnake master for a snake bite, but you do need some rattlesnake master in your garden. Its attractive appearance and resilient beauty are outstanding. Plus, pollinators love it too.  You may have just found your next favorite plant.

Visit A Favorite Place – Chase State Fishing Lake

June is almost here and it is time for the prairie to shine. The prairie gardens we promote in our urban landscapes feature many prairie elements that start to look really nice this time of the year as well, but sometimes it is most enjoyable to visit the source prairies. One of the best locations to do this in Kansas is the Flint Hills physiographic region and specifically, Chase State Fishing Lake (CSFL).

An anvil cloud approaching CSFL

I’ve probably been there at least a couple of dozen times in the last 15 years and have found something new and fascinating each time. Years of seed collecting for our Dyck Arboretum prairie reconstruction introduced me to this place, and subsequent trips have had me return with Arboretum members, interns, family and friends as I seek to share this unique Kansas gem with as many people as possible.

My son, Ben, searching for treasures at CSFL

CSFL has its human-made construction marks, including the access road, dam, reservoir and spillway. These amenities promote easier access and recreation opportunities including camping, fishing, and swimming. The spillway highlights a series of limestone shelves where, during times of higher water flow, cascading waterfalls are a powerful sight to see. During low flow times, the shady dripping falls and clear shallow pools are a delightful destination during a hot summer day. There is nothing like a watershed made up entirely of prairie to provide a reservoir of pristine water for fishing and swimming.

CSFL spillway during high flow

My spouse, Sara, and I at a section of the CSFL spillway falls

The lake edge is a great location to witness the history of this place dating back to approximately 70 million years ago in the late Cretaceous period when Kansas was under an inland sea. Exposed sedimentary limestone features fossils including gastropods, bivalves and crinoids. During seed collection forays, my boys in their younger years would spend hours looking for fossils lakeside and I have to smile when I occasionally find crinoids around the house from their collections.

Fossils in limestone at CSFL

The wildlife is plentiful at CSFL. I don’t typically spend much time seeking it out during visits, but the diverse prairie ecosystem is teeming with insects, spiders, mammals, reptiles, and birds. Even though wild populations of bison are gone from the Flint Hills, evidence of buffalo wallows from hundreds and even thousands of years ago are still visible as small round compacted wetlands on the prairie ridge tops. It wasn’t till after a number of trips there that an accompanying herpetologist friend turning over rocks while I was collecting seed, alerted me to the fact that a diverse world of snakes and scorpions could be found under foot if you just look for it.

A focus of mine during some visits has been documenting prairie birds and butterflies. Bird species such as upland sandpipers and Henslow’s sparrows and butterfly species such as arogos skippers and regal fritillaries may have become rare throughout the Great Plains in general, but these species still thrive in the expansive prairies of the Flint Hills.

My first ever and only confirmed sighting of the rare arogos skipper occurred at CSFL

Regal fritillary butterfly (Speyeria idalia) on tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum)

Maize High School students observing the abundance of insects…

…and spiders at CSFL

The crown jewel of CSFL, in my opinion, is the prairie vegetation. Hundreds of species of grasses, wildflowers, sedges, vines, shrubs, and trees makeup the diverse skin and lifeblood of this Flint Hills landscape. Searching out flowers and seeds of these species is a like a deluxe scavenger hunt from March to November. A good reason to visit in early to mid June is to enjoy the stunning shows of butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) among dozens of other species blooming at the same time.

Flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata)

Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Finally, there is no better place to take in the grandeur of the relationship between the land and the sky. I’ve been fortunate to watch a thunderstorm roll in at CSFL and I can only imagine what it is like to witness a prairie fire there. With few to no trees to impede your view of the horizon, a ridge top there is an exquisite place to watch the sun rise and set. With only the sound of the wind and the dickcissels, meadowlarks, and grasshopper sparrows to serenade your visit, I find it one of the most enjoyable and even spiritual natural places in Kansas.

A tour group enjoying the last hours of daylight on a ridge top at CSFL

Prairie sunset at CSFL

Scott’s Favorite Wild Places in Kansas

Believe it or not, there are still some fantastic wild places in Kansas that are worth discovering. These regions don’t fit the stereotypical mold of a Kansas landscape (flat and boring). I have compiled a list of some the best spots that I have enjoyed.  Maybe you can take a day trip this summer and reconnect with the land.

Kanopolis State Park

This park has a special place in my heart because of the time and my classmates and I spent the night there in fourth grade. The teachers must have been crazy watching us overnight, but we had a great time. A few years later they came to their senses and now only spend the day at the park. Anyway, Kanopolis State Park, the first state park in Kansas, is situated in the rolling hills, bluffs and woods of the scenic Smoky Hills region of the state. If you have a chance, take a hike along the Horsethief Canyon Trail and enjoy the wildflowers, ferns, caves, streams and scenic views.

Wilson State Park

Many people consider this to be the most beautiful of Kansas’ state parks. It is located in the heart of the Smoky Hills. Wilson Reservoir features a rugged shoreline punctuated by scenic cliffs and rocky outcrops. Wildflowers abound throughout the year, but especially in spring along highway 232 from Interstate I-70, leading you to the lake. Another point of interest worth the short drive is The Garden of Eden in Lucas.

Rocktown. Photo by Craig Freeman

Clark State Fishing Lake and Big Basin Prairie Preserve/St. Jacobs Well

These areas are interesting and worth the drive. Big Basin features St. Jacob’s Well, a water-filled sinkhole that has never run dry. This water source was a stop for many settlers migrating west. The Big Basin is a lush mile-wide crater-like depression, also resulting from a sinkhole. Clark State Fishing Lake in Clark County of southwest Kansas is located in an extremely scenic setting of canyon country.

Chase County State Lake

The wonderfully diverse native prairie along the uplands overlooking the lake make this a beautiful setting to camp and fish.  It is a little known treasure in the heart of the Flint Hills. Take a short jaunt to Cottonwood Falls to eat at one of the local restaurants or make the short 15 minute drive north to the The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.

Evening at Chase County State Lake. Photo by Bob Regier

Cross Timbers State Park

This park west of Yates Center in Woodson County is a gem that more people need to experience. The forested streams with ancient oaks and upland prairies provide visitors an opportunity to discover trees dating back to 1730. Hiking to the top of the rugged sandstone-capped hills are a great way to take in the scenic views of the area.

This is just a sampling of the places I have experienced over the years living in Kansas. I’m sure you have your favorites as well.  A point worth noting is the importance of these wild places for future generations to enjoy. These wild places help reconnect us to the land.

Eco-Friendly Lawn Replacement

Anyone who has ever been in the car with me, driving through a city or suburban area, has been subject to my rant about turfgrass. My friends and family have come to know this argument by heart. I love a nice green lawn as much as the next person, but with pollinator habitat disappearing by the acre and freshwater around the world becoming ever more precious, I can’t help but be a little critical of them. The fact is, a nonnative grass monoculture (area of only one species of plant) of bluegrass or fescue is something of a pollinator desert – offering no larval host plants or flowering food sources. And beyond that, they can take a lot of chemical and water input to keep them green and weed free. There are so many more interesting, attractive and ecologically friendly options for lawn replacement!

 

This home in southern California is making smart water choices  by using slopes and drainage to their advantage. Drought tolerant plants like russian sage and agastache reduce water cost and uncut red fescue forms an attractive, wavy mat. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:WS-outdoor-west-gallery-40_(32751871504).jpg

Ditching your front yard isn’t a new trend – it was hip in the middle ages too! The historic home of Anne Hathaway (wife of Shakespeare) has a beautiful and diverse front yard cottage garden. England has long been famous for their colorful cottage gardens. By Richard Peat [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

So Many Reasons, So Little Time

Between homeowner yards, business fronts, and miles of narrow hellstrips along city streets, our love affair with turfgrass runs inexplicably deep. And we have much too much of it here in Kansas – in 2011, Kansas had 495,000 acres of lawn, slightly more than the acreage of wheat but less than our acreage of corn. But there are so many good reasons to rethink our grass obsession and transition to more productive landscapes:

  • native grasses/garden provide larval host plants and habitat for overwintering insects
  • native plants produce seeds and berries for birds
  • deep roots of native plants enrich soil and are resilient against drought
  • dense garden spaces provide carbon sequestration and help to cool the air

I won’t tell you transitioning from a lawn to a prairie garden is easy. It takes lots of time and a fair bit of labor. I see it as trading one type of work for another. Instead of mowing every week, you will mow it down once a year. You save money on fertilizers and herbicides, but you spend time planting and weeding. I find gardening much more enjoyable work than traditional ‘lawn care’, and all the less tedious because I know the work is part of responsible resource use and providing habitat.

Wild ginger (Asarum canadense) makes a great substitute for turfgrass in shady areas. It creeps along the ground and has small cupped flowers. https://www.wildflower.org/gallery/result.php?id_image=21411.

But even I am not a purist here; I will always have a little bit of grass lawn in my landscape. I have a dog who loves to play frisbee and roll in the grass, so that space gets well used. Additionally, you can use small areas of green grass to give the eye a rest in an otherwise diverse and colorful landscape. There is a whole spectrum of choices: you can go gung-ho and convert all your grassy areas to garden spaces, or you can simply commit to decreasing your square footage of turfgrass while still keeping certain areas for recreation and aesthetics.

Go All In

If you are ready to swear off weekly mowing, regular applications of fertilizer, aeration, and all the other tasks that lead to a perfectly green lawn, consider a total transformation. Who says a garden has to be relegated to a small corner of the back yard? Make your lawn into a pollinator paradise with flowering natives. To keep the space looking organized and intentional, plant in masses or clumps. Following a landscape plan that draws the eye through the landscape with repeated colors and shapes also helps.

This home in Oklahoma has skipped the traditional grass lawn by planting shrubs and perennials around pathways and decorative rocks. The sidewalks keep things looking tidy and also make for easy access to the beds. By Lebuert [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], from Wikimedia Commons

Starting Small

Perhaps you, like me, still need some green lawn for your dog or space for a game of horseshoes. There are lots of ways you can decrease your ecological impact and create habitat without giving up your grass completely. Wide grassy pathways with curved edges create a fun, natural looking space that still provides room to play. Alternatively, think about areas of your landscape that are already divided up – do you have a sidewalk or fence that separates one part of your yard from this other? Commit to converting on of those spaces to native garden while the other can remain grass. This method allows you to learn as you go instead of being overwhelmed by an entire yard full of new plant material.

Internationally, people are leaning towards less grass and more flowers! This garden in the Czech Republic is a great example of how to use small areas of grass to keep garden beds contained.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:7.d%C3%ADl_html_4ae5ed86.jpg

If you are thinking of making changes to your yard, big or small, Dyck Arboretum can provide landscape designs and choose native species that will thrive. The birds and butterflies you attract will be happy to see a yard full of food and color!