Stately Natives

This past Monday, at the swearing in of the new Kansas governor, some native plants from Dyck Arboretum got their time in the limelight. Cuttings from our grounds of evergreens, red twig dogwood, big bluestem and more were featured in the inaugural stage decorations out front of the state house. These natives are perfect for floral arrangements, and are also great performers in the landscape.

Originally, the volunteers helping to plan the inauguration festivities were looking for potted evergreens, tiny pines and spruces, lined up neat and tidy. When they contacted the Arboretum for those plants, I disappointed them — we don’t have a huge stock of evergreens outside of our sale times. But I asked, “Why not something native? Why not something that reflects the beauty of Kansas in January?” Needless to say, they were right on board.

Kirsten of Blue Morning Glory Studio was the perfect florist to take on this challenge. She regularly designs with native, home-grown and wild sourced elements. She graciously invited me to partner in the process. I have done some small floristry projects in the past, a few weddings or special events, but nothing quite so grand as this! I was immediately energized by the opportunity to work with native material from the Arboretum grounds I know so well.

The Plan: Dyck Arboretum would provide native plant materials, Kirsten will provide vision, expertise, schematics, LOTS of white tulips, and I will deliver the plant material and assist with the build at the Capitol.

My car was completely packed with plant material. So full and fragrant with evergreens, in fact, we had to drive to Topeka with the windows down.

Blue Arizona cypress made up a huge part of the display, really tying into the blue of the inauguration stage and harkening to the blue dominating the Kansas state flag. The cuttings smell fresh and citrusy, making them fun to work with. Arizona cypress (Hesperocyparis arizonica) grows well here in Kansas, making a nice privacy hedge or evergreen shelter for birds. Native to the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, it can handle drought and extreme conditions.

(Left) Arizona Cypress tree in the Northwest corner of the Arboretum. (Right) Cypress foliage

We used eastern red cedar, with its comparably greener hue, to balance the colors and make it look lush and “friendly”, as one of the state house volunteers described it. Our ‘Canaertii’ cedars in The Mother’s Garden are good at resisting the brown/yellow cast that cedars tend to take on over the winter. Deep green and well-berried, with an open branching habit, these cedars are much more attractive yard trees than regular cedars,
and come in handy at Christmas time for making wreaths and swags.

Florists always use some optical magic to make a focal point appear within an arrangement. This time we opted for the deep browns and blacks of rudbeckia triloba seed heads. This native is a mainstay on our grounds and in many landscape designs. Hardy, long lived and brilliantly yellow, it blooms early to mid summer and stays standing tall into winter. Harvest for your own dried arrangements or leave it outside for birds to nibble on.

Rudbeckia triloba seed heads from the Gjerstadt garden on Arboretum grounds.

As with any floral design, we needed some accent plants — just a little something to excite the eye. A few sprigs of red twig dogwood, a graceful arc of alder branch (complete with catkins!) were perfect additions. The alder trees on our grounds are not native and are in pretty rough shape from the harsh Kansas living, but they still produce adorable little cones that make excellent design elements or craft material.

Governor Laura Kelly with Kirsten Bosnak and I, plus our handy helpers Bob and Chris.

I am so happy to have been a part of this unique design process with Blue Morning Glory Studio, and to create displays that honor Kansas’ prairie heritage. If you are interested in creating your own floral displays with natives, the first step is to integrate them into your landscape and live with them through the seasons. Attend one of our upcoming Native Plant School classes, our FloraKansas Native Plant Festival, or stroll the sidewalks at Dyck Arboretum to be inspired by the native flora and re-energize your relationship with the land.

The Imperfect Garden

In our Prairie Notes blog, we have talked extensively about the need to utilize native plants in the landscape.  The benefits of having native plants are obvious and many.  We have shown you pretty pictures with nicely spaced plants and beautiful combinations of wildflowers and grasses.  Often, you get the sense that in order to have an attractive garden it has to be perfect. 

Perfect gardens are maintained by perfect people or by horticulturists who do this sort of thing for a living.  I don’t know of too many perfect people.  In reality, perfection is in the eye of the beholder.  Our gardens are a reflection of who we are and how much time we are able and willing to spend tending these landscapes.  In fact, there is a growing trend (pun intended) that focuses less on maintenance and more on the natural order we see in nature.

Tallgrass National Preserve in the Flint Hills. Photo by Brad Guhr.

Perfection can be a mess

The randomness of the prairie is easy to see and it flourishes effortlessly.  Plants are intertwined and touching each other.  There is not much space between plants. Instead, a matrix of lush, densely organized plants grow harmoniously together.  To some, this looks messy and unkempt, but this natural collection of plants has a beauty and resiliency that is also healthy and productive.

Designing your imperfect garden

The thought of an imperfect garden is counter cultural.  The idea that we would purposely design and then establish plants in our landscapes that mimic the prairie goes against just about every landscaping principle we have ever learned.  However, more and more people are embracing the natural landscaping trend. We are creating a sense of place.  These newly developed gardens incorporate a network of plants by grouping them together with similar growth requirements, and different textures and heights to completely cover the soil. All of these plants crowd out weeds and create layers that look natural in their setting.  This idea takes the pressure out of growing the perfect garden and instead allows you to enjoy the process.

Maintenance of an imperfect garden

Imperfect gardens are not zero maintenance gardens.  Some level of maintenance is still important, but being tied to your garden will be a thing of the past.  Again, you may have to let some things go and work toward being comfortable having less control of the natural processes.  A few dandelions and clover in the lawn can be overlooked.  Letting some plants naturally seed and spread along with uneven rows and random plants that have moved from last year can now be tolerated.  For us who want to control everything in the garden, we now have permission to back off a little and see what happens.  We still need to pull some weeds, especially at first, but as time passes weeds will become less of a problem. 

Giving the prairie a haircut in late winter

If you plant it, they will come.

An imperfect garden will attract visitors.  Pollinators, birds, and other wildlife will be drawn to your intentional prairie garden.  A functional garden will be used, and sometimes abused, by pollinators.  Your landscape is providing just what wildlife needs.  A few eaten leaves and damaged flowers is a small price to pay for helping complete the life cycle of a few thousand pollinators and other wildlife.  Even some unwanted pests may visit from time to time.  This is a perfect time to watch your imperfect garden take care of itself.  Keep the chemicals in the shed and watch the natural predators find these pests and work to eliminate them. Should we really care if they are not all gone?  You have my permission to step back and let the little critters work it out amongst themselves.

Your garden is a reflection of you.  You are already having a bigger impact than you might imagine.  Don’t be shamed into thinking that you have to have everything in its place.  Sometimes the most aesthetically pleasing garden is sterile and void of plants that actually help the environment.  By gardening, you are already an ecologist.  You may not have the official title, but you are a good gardener. 

RELAX, step back and enjoy the process.  Don’t stress about the sad little plant in the corner of you garden.  If it’s not happy, move it.  Learn about what your plants need. Most of us don’t garden for a living, so give yourself a little grace.  A perfect garden is one that gives you not stress, but joy.  

Fungus Among Us

Working on the Arboretum grounds means I have the joy of interacting with native plants and animals every day. I get to watch newly-planted trees sprout their first leaves and newly hatched goslings sprout their first feathers. I see migratory birds on their way north and south, caterpillars turning into butterflies, spiders wrapping up their breakfast of grasshoppers, and the cozy tunnels made by fastidious skunks and armadillos. But by and large my favorite living thing to observe here at the Arboretum is fungus.

That’s right – that crusty yet slimy, multicolored, spore-producing stuff that grows quietly all around us.

If you want to acquaint yourself with the world of mushroom identification, buy yourself a small, simple guide to get started. I got this handy book for only $2 at the UW Madison Arboretum gift shop and have found it very useful for beginners.

Fungi is a much misunderstood life form (and no, I am not just talking about my coworkers Brad and Scott, fun guys though they are!). While people often come to visit Dyck Arboretum to watch birds or spot their favorite wildflowers, I have yet to hear anyone shout in delight, “Guys, look over here! A stinkhorn mushroom colony!” And such a shame – I have seen so many weird and wonderful fungus (and fungus-like) creatures at the Arb that I can’t help but be enthralled by them.


In our Prairie Window Project the dense mat of grasses and plant debris create a rich environment for fungus. These tiny mushrooms, only the size of dimes, were scattered throughout a ten-foot square area.

Plant or Animal?

Perhaps you noticed I used the word ‘creature’ for fungi in the above paragraph. Aren’t mushrooms just strange, fleshy plants? No. Technically speaking, a fungus is genetically more similar to you and me than it is to a plant. In scientific nomenclature, fungi occupy their own Kingdom (there are 6 major Kingdoms of life, for animals, plants, bacteria and so on). Fungi do not photosynthesize like plants, and cannot make their own food (autotrophy). Like us, they must feed on other organisms to survive (heterotrophy). Fungus do not have roots, stems or leaves, and do not store energy as a starch like plants do. They reproduce by releasing spores into the environment, or by simply breaking apart (fragmentation) or budding (growing a clone).

I spotted these beautiful shelf fungi growing on a fallen log at UW Madison Arboretum.

What am I Looking At?

The first step into nerding out over fungus is to classify your observations. It is a tricky job, and scientists today are still in a tizzy about the genetic ancestry of fungus. For the layperson, let’s stick to the basics: yeasts, molds, and mushrooms are all types of fungus. Mushrooms are perhaps the most charismatic and well known fungi – shelf-like, gelatinous, or toadstool shaped, they spring up seemingly overnight. What we see as a ‘mushroom’ is only a small part of the organism, just the fungus’s reproductive organ. The rest of it exists as a massive web of string-like hyphae in the soil or decomposing wood.
There are several trees around the Arboretum in various states of natural decay sporting impressive shelf fungi. (Or perhaps they are spore-ting it?) But don’t be fooled – lichen, commonly found growing on trunks and tree branches, is NOT fungus. It is actually a combination-creature; algae, cyanobacteria, and fungus all sharing a body to create a new being, with an endless array of forms.

I see some flat grey lichen growing here, but I can’t tell if these charming little white growths on our Prunus virginiana are lichen or fungus – they cling like lichen but the sort of soft, furry characteristic of fungus. Perhaps a reader can help me out on this one!

Where to Look

People may assume Kansas is not a good place to find fungus – much too dry and hot. Not only do we have some delicious edible mushrooms growing wild in Kansas but a plethora of other fun-to-hunt (but potentially toxic!) fungus. In fact, they grow almost everywhere on the planet and have countless forms, colors, and methods of life. Scientists only know of 120,000 species, but estimate there are millions more waiting to be discovered.
To find your first fungus, search around decaying wood piles or heavily mulched garden beds. Check carefully and often around tree stumps; different mushrooms will feed on the rotting roots at different stages of the decay.

This red-belted bracket fungi (maybe Fomitopsis pinicola?) formed on the trunk of a long dead redbud tree near our parking lot. This beauty was almost 12 inches across!

On your next visit to Dyck Arboretum, be sure to get a peek at some magnificent fungi on our grounds. Hunting for fungus, in all its forms, is a meaningful way to interact with nature and build a relationship of wonder and respect for the land we live on.