Gardening with Purpose

We have seen an abundance of blooms this spring. All this beauty and wildlife activity, particularly pollinators, has reminded me again about the roles our gardens play in benefiting our small corner of the world.  We can garden with a sense of purpose that helps wildlife ecologically.  With Pollinator Week quickly approaching (June 17th – 23rd), I thought maybe we could take a moment to think about our gardens in a different way. 

Garden with your goals in mind

When we garden, each of us has an opportunity to develop a native wildlife habitat, to design our garden to attract pollinators and wildlife, and to create a safe space where horticulture, imagination, and ecology are reflected purposefully in our garden design.  We need to think with the end-goal in mind.  By creating living sanctuaries, depleted and endangered native bees and butterflies can easily find the food, shelter and water they need for their survival. 

This is a small way you can show you care, maybe even rediscover your own humanity.  Along with others in your neighborhood who develop habitat gardens, you will help the predicament of these beneficial insects.  Even a small garden can have an impact.  Think of it as a way you can reconnect with nature in a very personal way as you care for your corner of the earth.

Monarchs

Statistics show that the monarch butterfly population in North America has declined by over 90% in just the last 20 years.  This is disheartening.  One of the biggest factors in monarch decline is the increasing scarcity of its only caterpillar host plant: milkweeds. Without milkweeds, monarchs can’t successfully reproduce or migrate, resulting in the species declines. If you plant milkweeds in your own garden you can help reverse the fortune of these beautiful insects.  You can be part of the ultimate solution, which is to provide the plants monarchs need for their life cycle.

Honey Bees

The plight of the honey bee and the collapse of entire colonies has garnered nationwide attention.  However, many of our native bee populations are in danger too.  Scientists continue to track dwindling populations of native bees, including the possible extinction of some species.  The native pollinators are key components of a healthy ecosystem.  Habitat loss, the use of pesticides and insecticides along the introduced diseases threaten their lives.  These bees often lack season-long food sources, which is obviously important to their vitality.  

Choose Native Plants

Native plants can help us alleviate some of the problems pollinators face.  Native plants have the ability to grow in our soils, are adapted to the climate, look attractive, control erosion, create beneficial habitat and are the preferred food source for many of these pollinators.  By establishing habitat gardens that use native prairie plants, we can improve their plight in this world.  Recognizing that we can make a difference should be motivation to at least begin to help them. 

Stewardship starts at home

Stewardship and conservation can start with our gardens. Despite size limitations, these prairie gardens are an important part of conserving the prairie and the wildlife that depend on them. You might be surprised how much your garden can do to reverse some of these trends.  Imagine your garden combined with hundreds of other small prairie landscapes.  True, it is not the expansive prairies of the past, but it does make a difference.  Your garden can be a piece of the patchwork of prairies.

Flower Power: Learning the Language

Spring blooming plants are just beginning to fade and early summer blooms are coming on strong. At least once a day Arboretum staff members answer the question,

“What is this flower?”

Sometimes someone shows us a photo or has a cutting of something they saw on the roadside. More often than not, however, they try to describe it to us. This is not an easy task if you don’t speak the language of flowers. For instance, if you tell my coworker Brad Guhr that you saw a round flower, he might ask you what you mean by round, and whether it was radial or globulose. There is a lot of special lingo out there concerning flowers. Here I will clarify a few common botany terms relating to flowers, and though they sound complicated, they really simplify the identification process. Learning these terms also teaches us to look closer and longer, becoming better observers.

A french poster showing the terminology related to flower position.

Inflorescence is a word you will hear often around botanists. This is just a fancy word for the complete flower head of the plant including bracts and stems. Sometimes it is even used as a verb, a synonym to ‘flowering’.

Composite flowers are special inflorescences that seem like one flower, but are actually many flowers put together. Sunflowers are a good example of a typical composite flower. Their center is made up of hundreds (sometimes thousands) of disc flowers that mature into seeds. The yellow petals of the sunflower are ray flowers (or ray florets) and do not create seed. Some composites are made up only of ray flowers, like dandelions. Some composites are solely disc flowers, like our native thistles.

The rounded head of echinacea that attracts pollinators is made up of hundreds of tiny disc flowers. The purple petals are ray flowers.

We can further describe some composite flowers as spikes. To be a true spike, each individual flower is directly attached to the main stem, like gayfeather. If the individual flowers are held away from the main stem by smaller stems (pedicels), they are called a raceme. Penstemon and coral bells are both good examples of racemes.

Penstemon digitalis flowers are clustered together on a raceme.
Agastache foeniculum is a true flower spike becuase its individual flowers are directly attached to the main stem.

Umbel flowers are some of my favorite for use in floral arrangements. These are flat topped clusters of flowers on short flower stalks, spreading from a common point. Dill, carrot, and fennel all have umbels. As the name suggests, the arrangement of the flower stalks is reminiscent of an umbrella.

Achillea looks like an umbel inflorescence, but the short stalks that hold the flowers do not all originated from the same point on the stem. It is actually a corycomb, a type of raceme.

These are just a few basic flower terms that can help you begin to identify unknown plants. Keep a look out for more installations on the topic of descriptive plant language. Now get out there and botanize!