Winter Storytelling

We have below zero wind-chill temperatures today, making it not very conducive to being outside as a polar vortex grips the Great Plains and Midwest. But we are fortunate at Dyck Arboretum to have warm, comfortable facilities in which to share our mission to cultivate transformative relationships between people and the land.

At least a few examples of storytelling come to mind through which we are able to engage our membership in winter – stories about cultural history, musical arts, and the natural world, which help us continually seek a sense of place here in Kansas.

Wichita Nation Civilization of Etzanoa

Nearly 200 people (the most ever to attend our Winter Lecture Series) were riveted to a fascinating lecture last night from Wichita State University archaeologist, Dr. Donald Blakeslee. With more than 43 years of experience, no living archeologist has spent more time studying the Plains Indians. He reported on his cultural anthropology detective work in uncovering the roughly 400 year-old stories of a former thriving city of Etzanoa, which was likely populated by 20,000 Wichita Indians and was located at what we know today as Arkansas City.

A capacity crowd listening to Dr. Donald Blakeslee’s Etzanoa presentation.

Dr. Blakeslee showed photos of original maps, Spanish explorer journal entries, artifacts of hunting points, hide scrapers, bison hide hole-making tools, and more. He exhibited aerial maps of encampment sites they have located and where they still plan to explore. Donald showed photos documenting the tools they use from primitive shovel-testing methods to high tech, expensive 3-D modeling laser devices. Drawings of artistic renderings of what the Wichita Nation lodges and agricultural gardens probably looked like only enhanced Dr. Blakeslee’s storytelling.

Wichita Nation point artifacts used for hunting bison. Dr. Blakeslee’s multiple tracings of point outlines (in red) show the consistency used in their production.
Drawing depicting the lodges and fields of a Wichita Nation settlement.

Music of Moors & McCumber

Personal stories of family life, travels, history of places, and the culture of our times are all part of a Prairie Window Concert Series (PWCS) experience. The duo of James Moors and Kort McCumber expertly told these stories a few nights ago for a capacity crowd of 210 music enthusiasts. With a guitar, mandolin, fiddle, cello, accordion, bouzouki, ukulele, banjo, tight harmony vocals, and engaging stage presence, James and Kort made an hour and half of musical storytelling seemingly go by in an instant.

Moors & McCumber at Dyck Arboretum.

The Prairie Window Concert Series experience of “gourmet music and food in a prairie garden setting” is about more than just great live music. It is further enhanced by the delightful intermission faire of Crust & Crumb, a chance to stroll around the Arboretum for a bit of exercise, glimpses of Dyck Arboretum native plant landscaping changes through fall/winter/spring, and mini-reunions with familiar faces that have been enjoying this concert series for decades (PWCS History).

The setting sun streamed into the Prairie Pavilion and illuminated the PWCS crowd.

Native Plant Landscaping

Starting tomorrow evening, our staff will be telling stories through our native plant school, which offers six different classes related to native plant basics, garden design, landscape maintenance, propagation, composting, and attracting wildlife.

The Flint Hills prairie species butterfly milkweed can also thrive in home landscapes.

Native plant landscaping provides so much more than visual beauty. One of the most rewarding aspects of landscaping with native plants is learning the complex stories that accompany these plants.

For each of the hundreds of species of native Kansas wildflowers, grasses, sedges, shrubs, and trees we promote for landscaping, there are numerous stories to learn related to biology, ecology, environmental sustainability, ecosystem function, culture, and natural history.

A clear wing moth seeking nectar from common milkweed.

Native landscaping enhances ecosystem function in urban areas. Every Kansas plant has value to one or more wildlife species as a larval food source, nectar source, or protection from the elements or predators. For this reason, native plant landscaping can add biological diversity to the places we live. Who doesn’t enjoy seeing more butterflies and birds around their landscape?

Native landscaping also has low environmental impact because native plants are adapted to our climate, require no chemical inputs, and reduce our need to irrigate with valuable, clean drinking water. Additionally, native plant gardens act as landscape sponges and can help municipalities slow the erosion-causing migration of storm water.

Native plantings attract wildlife diversity while acting as a stormwater sponge.

Prairie plants also help establish a sense of place by connecting us to previous cultures that have lived here before us. The plants of the prairie have provided sustenance of food, medicine, and goods for people as well as an ecosystem for bison that helped Indian tribes make their home on the Plains. For European immigrants, the prairie provided sod homes and wonderful soil fertility for growing crops created by the presence of thousands of years of prairie roots.

Using multiple species of native plants compounds the rich stories to be told through an urban landscape.

Today, the prairie has been foundational to the Kansas economy that is built on agriculture, from the prairie soils that make us the “breadbasket of the world” and existing grasslands that make Kansas a top cattle ranching state.

Compass plant provides nectar for a variety of insects, seeds for birds and small mammals, it is a favorite food for cattle, its sap can be turned to chewing gum, and its leaves can orient your directions. It is the ultimate storytelling plant!

Blackbird Ribbons

The last story I will tell is about the time-relevant phenomenon of blackbird ribbons. A consistent observation of mine the last few mornings during my 5-mile drive from Newton to Hesston a little before 8:00 a.m. is seeing 2-3 long and thick ribbons of blackbirds. At that time of the day, they fly from west to east barely over the ground as LONG flowing ribbons that undulate over hedgerows and highway traffic with numbers surely in the millions. The timing is consistent with what I have seen around January and February in past years and you may have been noticing them too. I’ll leave you with more information on this topic from a previous blog post.

Thank you for sharing in our stories at Dyck Arboretum.


How to Increase the Value of Your Prairie Garden

Prairie gardens have become increasingly popular over the past ten years as homeowners and businesses seek to directly reverse the trend of prairie degradation.  Using prairie plants in the landscape is one way you can implement small-scale conservation and stewardship practices and become a part of a growing patchwork of prairie gardens in the Great Plains region. 

These patchwork prairies will not replace what has already been lost, but can begin to help raise awareness about conserving any remaining prairie remnants.  Hopefully, we will no longer take for granted the prairies around us and work toward managing and conserving this landscape that is quickly vanishing.

Aquilegia canadensis, columbine

You may ask yourself, “Can a backyard prairie garden really make an impact?  How do I increase the value of my prairie garden?”  The value of a small prairie garden seems minuscule compared to the large prairie tracts that are being lost each year. 

Here are a few things you can do to maximize the impact of your small patchwork prairie garden and further your backyard conservation efforts.

Plant a diverse prairie garden

As you design your garden, look to include as many different species as possible.  It is important to have a succession of bloom from spring through fall.  Include some of the native grasses to provide vertical elements and alternative textures. These elements will support and frame some of the native wildflowers.  Your garden can become a conversation starter within your neighborhood.  Your neighbors’ perspective may shift as your intentionally “wild” and slightly “messy” garden creates habitat for wildlife and pollinators.  People will notice the difference. Your garden, along with many other prairie gardens throughout neighborhoods, will add value to the environment and broaden the conversations we can have.

Fall Blooming Asters with Little bluestem

Connect with where you live

For many of us, we take for granted the prairies around us.  Even though we have some of the largest tracts of prairie like the Flint Hills at our doorsteps, we often don’t see the peril they face.  So in light of these difficulties, it is imperative that we use native species from our region.  Create a sense of place by incorporating as many plants of a local eco-type as possible.  These plants are adapted to your climate and soil.  Cultivated varieties and hybrids give us consistent characteristics and qualities. However, they often lack the same landscape value to pollinators as the true species and are most likely not from your region.  Choose your plants wisely to maximize the impact they have to the garden aesthetic and the wildlife that need them.    

Create an immersive experience

Layers of plants from different perspectives or vantage points will offer you the most enjoyment from your garden.  As you are drawn through the landscape, surrounded by lush plantings, you can enjoy the changes from season to season.  Sunlight, texture, color, and varying heights combine to provide unique encounters with your landscape.  The value of these experiences for your body and soul cannot be measured.  Quiet reflection can calm you after a hard day or bring you some perspective in your life.

Early summer in the Kansas Wildflower Exhibit

Most gardens will never be as perfect as we want them to be, but they still have value for us and our environment. They are valuable to wildlife and pollinators. Valuable for the broader conversation about stewardship of the land.  Valuable to us as we become more aware of the role we can play in conservation and as we develop a relationship with the land. 

Don’t sell short the importance of the prairie, no matter how big or how small. Every step taken, every wildflower or grass propagated, every patchwork prairie garden planted has value.

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.

Dried grasses, evergreens, mixed with vases of white tulips brought a formal feel to the event while still showcasing Kansas flora. Photo by Jerry Jost

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.