Beetle Barrage

Green June Beetle in my garden

 

OK, “beetle barrage” may be a little over dramatic, since I’ve only witnessed a dozen or so of the startlingly large, shiny beetles in my yard. But by exhibiting a bumble bee flight pattern, buzzing sound, and a 3/4 to 1 inch long metallic-looking velvety green and brown body, they certainly caught my attention in a big way. I’ve never seen or noticed this beetle before, later identified as a green June beetle (Cotinus nitida) that is categorized in the Scarabaeidae or scarab family . For about ten days or so in late July, a small population hung around my home prairie garden in Newton on taller plants of annual sunflower and common milkweed (no apparent eating, mostly chillin’).

Green June Beetle in my garden

Their presence was a bit unnerving at first because I wondered if they were an invasive, non-native species. Mostly they reminded me of the smaller Japanese beetle, a serious pest of more than 200 food and landscaping plants throughout the Eastern United States that has exploded on the scene in recent years in the Western U.S. as well.

My temporary beetle anxiety was based on the fact that non-native species are a big problem in this country. Their exploding populations without natural controls/competition have displaced native biological diversity. In addition, the U.S. has spent hundreds of billions of dollars annually trying to fight the spread of these invasive species.

Some examples of animal and plant species wreaking havoc with ecosystems around the country include the following:

  • European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) and house sparrows (Passer domesticus) have homogenized bird life in many urban areas throughout the U.S.
  • Silver carp (Hypophthalmichthys molitrix) are spreading throughout major rivers of the Midwestern U.S.
  • Zebra mussels (Dreissena polymorphaare) are choking streams, lakes and reservoirs of the Northeastern U.S.
  • Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) has overtaken wetlands of the Northern U.S.
  • Sericea lespedeza (Lespedeza cuneata) has invaded many grasslands of the Eastern U.S.
  • Old world bluestems (Caucasian, Bothriochloa bladhii, and yellow, B. ischaemum) are invading grasslands throughout the Southern U.S.

Green June Beetle Larva. Photo by Clemson University USDA Cooperative Extension

But I was glad to learn that green June beetles are not an invasive problem. Their larval grub form grows to about 1.5″ and is distinctive for crawling on its back using stiff body hairs. The larval grub form of this beetle can be considered a pest when causing damage to the roots of turf grass, and the adults are attracted to rotting fruit. It is found throughout the Eastern United States. Nowhere did I find, however, that this species is a significant problem pest.

Green June beetle range map.

The whole experience of learning about this new (to me) insect bolstered my fascination with beetles. One of my favorite classes in graduate school was Introduction to Entomology. My professor for that class, Dr. Dan Young, was a beetle specialist, and he continuously touted the many interesting and important elements of this insect group. Beetles make up the largest insect order, Coleoptera, made up of about 400,000 species, and constitute almost 40% of described insects and 25% of all known animal life-forms; new species are discovered frequently. Beetles interact with their ecosystems in several ways. They often feed on plants and fungi, break down animal and plant debris, and eat other insects.

Photo by Margarethe Brummermann – Arizona, showing Arizona beetle diversity. The specimen two down and two over from the top left corner is a figeater beetle (Cotinis mutabilis), a close relative of the green June beetle.

The September Kansas State Fair is nearly upon us once again and one of my favorite features there is the 4-H building housing all the extensive, diverse, and beautifully displayed insect collections. Now I’ll have one more familiar species to spot in the green June beetle.

A Land Pilgrimage to the Home of Aldo Leopold

Canopy with pines planted by the Leopold family near the Shack

A pilgrimage is defined as a journey to a shrine of importance to a person’s beliefs and faith. A recent late-June trip to the Aldo Leopold Foundation in Baraboo, WI and the UW-Madison Campus and Arboretum in Madison, WI, was a land pilgrimage for me indeed.

The trip was spurred by the opportunity to give a couple of presentations at the Building A Land Ethic Conference at the Leopold Foundation. Aldo Leopold’s famous “land ethic” concept basically stated that people and land are of similar importance in a vibrant community.  The conference carried this theme consistently throughout its programming and especially focused on how we should seek to build bonds that heal our current urban-rural divide.

Leopold Foundation education buildings and reconstructed prairie

LEED certified buildings with solar panels and rain water collection aquaducts moving water to a rain garden

Meaningful symbolic artwork for the conference was a patchwork quilt, where seemingly useless fragments and pieces are bound together to form a rich, vibrant and very useful network.

2017 Building A Land Ethic Conference theme artwork

Stimulating lectures on land, water, art, and food, mini workshops about land ethic leadership, field trips to the Shack, and networking opportunities with people from around the world were all important parts of the conference.

“The Shack”, a dilapidated chicken coop turned into a weekend and summer getaway along the Wisconsin River in the 1930s and 40s is a centerpiece of the Leopold Foundation grounds.

The Leopold Shack: Except for some chimney repair, the Shack exists nearly as it did when Aldo Leopold died in 1948.

Aldo Leopold and his family camped, hunted, fished, played, cut wood, grew food, planted trees, and restored prairie at the Shack for more than a decade.

One of two saws likely used to cut “The Good Oak” (a chapter in A Sand County Almanac)

Aldo’s observations and writings were compiled into the book A Sand County Almanac and published in 1949, a year after Aldo died of a heart attack fighting a wildfire near the Shack. The Shack and grounds are now a National Historic Landmark and the eloquently written book featuring the Land Ethic has become one of the most famous pieces of literature in the conservation movement.

Memorial site where Aldo Leopold died fighting a wild fire

Family experiences at the Shack must have been foundational for Aldo’s five kids, because they all went on to earn advanced degrees and pursue careers related to ecology and conservation. Estella Leopold, now 90 years old and the only living Leopold child, recently wrote Stories from the Shack, a delightfully detailed set of memories from her childhood days along the Wisconsin River.

Estella Leopold recounts in her book many childhood memories around the construction and enjoyment of this fire place in the Shack.

For most of the people attending this 2017 conference (the majority were from outside of WI), the teachings of Leopold and the lessons from A Sand County Almanac have been profound. I studied botany and ecological restoration at UW-Madison 20 years ago and Aldo’s words were important in the development of my ideals, vocational directions, and views of how humans should care for the land. After reading A Sand County Almanac again this spring and just finishing Estella’s new book, I was eager to return to and soak up the stories and landmarks of the Shack again a couple of decades later.

The world’s second oldest reconstructed prairie – one of many Leopold Family labors of love undertaken while at the Shack

Aldo Leopold taught wildlife management in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at UW-Madison, the same college where I did my graduate work a half century later. A significant part of my botany, ecology, and plant propagation studies as well as work internships happened at the UW-Madison Arboretum where Leopold was the first research director. After the conference, I rounded out my Wisconsin pilgrimage with a quick trip to Madison to walk through campus, hike the prairies, savannas and woodlands at the UW-Arb, and spend a bit of time visiting old friends.

Curtis Prairie, the world’s oldest reconstructed prairie, at UW-Madison Arboretum

White wild indigo in Greene Prairie at UW-Madison Arboretum

Marsh milkweed and Ohio spiderwort in Greene Prairie at UW-Madison Arboretum

Eagle Heights Gardens near UW-Madison Campus – where Sara and I tended our first vegetable gardens

The iconic UW-Madison Terrace along Lake Mendota, one of the best places to enjoy Wisconsin’s finest food and drink offerings

To finish this story, I got back to Kansas just in time to join our Dyck Arboretum staff in hosting Aldo Leopold Biographer, Curt Meine, as our Summer Soirée speaker. Curt’s message about how Leopold’s land ethic ideals are fitting in Kansas today more than ever was a nice wrap-up to our year of events celebrating our 35th anniversary. He finished his talk with the following quote:

“I have purposely presented the land ethic as a product of social evolution because nothing so important as an ethic is ever ‘written’… It evolves in the minds of a thinking community.” The Land Ethic, A Sand County Almanac.

After this pilgrimage journey, now more than ever I look forward to carrying on this land ethic conversation with our local and wider thinking community.

Double rainbow in Madison. What I have found at the base of this rainbow is way more valuable than a pot of gold.

Earth Partnership for Insects

Sweeping for insects.

We had a great time with our 11th annual Earth Partnership for Schools Summer Institute last week. K-12 teachers brought their enthusiasm for learning and a willingness to put themselves in the shoes of their students. For five days, they practiced hands-on curriculum activities and developed action plans to plant native prairie school gardens in the coming years with their students.

A big focus of the week is the study of insects. We learn about their diversity, preferences for different habitats, and importance in pollination. We make observations, conduct studies, think about how certain plant shapes and colors attract certain insect groups, and even play insect charades.

Insects are critical components in the function of nutrient cycling, natural areas, food systems, and general human existence. We hope that teachers will embrace the importance of these critters and inspire the next generation with the fascinating world of insects.

 

Models showing common insect orders of classification.

Conducting and presenting science inquiry studies with insects.

Studying whether pollinators are attracted by different colors.

Data collection with soapy water insect traps near purple coneflower.

Flower-pollinator observations at Maxwell Wildlife Refuge with butterfly milkweed in the foreground.

Mint family flower shapes attract certain types of pollinators.

Legume family flower shapes attract certain types of pollinators.

Observing a clear wing moth collect nectar from common milkweed during the week.

The clear wing moth is also known as the squash vine borer.

After seeing the two sets of wings, efficient lateral movement, compound eyes, and short antennae, it becomes obvious that this is a dragonfly.

Butterflies nectaring at a flower.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Be A Good Host for Insects

Monarch ovipositing on common milkweed (April 9, 2017).

There are many positive things that can be said about insects. They are important to healthy ecosystems. If you have any appreciation for wildlife of any kind in Kansas, you have insects to thank. Aside from a handful of pests they are beneficial to humans as well. Click HERE to see an earlier blog post on why I am in awe of insects.

Many insect species require a specific host plant or group of plants to feed their young. Therefore, it should be no surprise that greater plant diversity leads to greater insect diversity and ultimately a greater abundance of wildlife. I like to see more biological diversity in urban landscapes and this is why my landscaping tendencies trend towards more plant diversity rather than less.

Butterfly enthusiast and master gardener Lenora Larson gave us this similar message last month at our March winter lecture. She highlighted more than two dozen species of butterflies and moths that folks can easily attract to their landscape with specific host plants. A summary of her presentation, host plant and butterfly species lists, and helpful references can be found HERE.

Monarch egg on common milkweed (April 10, 2017).

Monarch Update

A little over a week ago on April 9, I saw my first couple of northerly migrating monarchs of the season. There were many other reports of first of season monarchs reported that weekend as well. In the week since, newly emerged milkweed shoots more often than not are found hosting one to six monarch eggs each. Yesterday on April 18, nine days after the first monarch siting, I observed the first two hatched caterpillars. More on the plight of the monarch and why we are so carefully observing this progress can be found HERE in an earlier blog post.

Newly hatched monarch caterpillar on common milkweed (April 18).

We’ll be touting at our spring plant sale the many benefits of gardening with Kansas native plants. Attracting insects and biological diversity to your landscape is one of those many benefits.

A Land Ethic is Alive and Well in Kansas

On Saturday, March 18, we held our 11th annual spring education symposium entitled Living the Land Ethic in Kansas, and learned how much we have to celebrate in Kansas. This symposium was many months in the making and it went smoothly thanks to our four staff, help from a number of board members, the assistance of many volunteers, and underwriting support from Kansas Humanities Council.

The speakers were top-notch and their messages were filled with immense knowledge and passion. Those among the 85 registered attendees were literate, engaged, and full of great questions. The homemade baked goods for breakfast, Lorna Harder’s venison stew for lunch, and nice day outside to enjoy during breaks all helped round out a perfect day.

Rolfe Mandel

Craig Freeman

Michael Pearce

Jason Schmidt

Pete Ferrell

Brian Obermeyer

Erin Dowell

Wes Jackson

I gave a brief introduction of how this symposium developed as part of our year-long Dyck Arboretum 35th anniversary celebration with a focus on Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic chapter in his famous book A Sand County Almanac. We then heard presentations about the essential Kansas natural elements of “The Land” from educators and writers, Rolfe Mandel (soils), Craig Freeman (vegetation), and Michael Pearce (wildlife) and how these elements are foundational to our Kansas natural history, agriculture/ranching-based economy, food systems, and land-based enjoyment and recreation. Land stewards Jason Schmidt, Pete Ferrell, and Brian Obermeyer told their stories of how being a land caretaker is not only a way to make a living but that it is part of a cherished way of life through which one strives to sustainably pass along stewardship responsibilities to future generations. Elementary school teacher, Erin Dowell explained how critical it is to instill a land ethic in our children that will be our future land stewards. And visionary, Wes Jackson, rounded out the day with a presentation about how we as agricultural agents must steward the land as part of a living ecosphere.

The day was filled with dialog and rich with a variety of science as well as humanities topics about the important interplay between the land and people. Thank you to all participants!

Blackbird Ribbons

I’ve been fascinated if not mesmerized recently with this phenomenon of blackbird “ribbons” flying across the sky. While they’ve become familiar to me during the winter in recent years, I’ve noticed them with much greater regularity this year. While the photos and video taken with my iPhone don’t do the phenomenon justice, they will at least give you some idea of what these ribbons look like.

Since early January I’ve seen good examples of this phenomenon perhaps 15-20 times. When I’ve seen them, they have either been flying east around 8:00 a.m. or flying west around 5:00 p.m. They range in density, usually stay within 100 feet of the ground, and stretch for miles. I’ve tried to do some sampling counts while watching them, often for a duration of 5-10 minutes, and figure they number easily in the tens to hundreds of thousands of birds – if not more – in these formations.

Whenever I’ve see them, I have not had binoculars with me and have been unable to get any positive species IDs. They seem to all be red-winged blackbirds, but I wouldn’t be surprised if grackles and/or starlings were in the mix. Local birding expert from Newton, Gregg Friesen, has spent time identifying species in blackbird flocks and says they commonly consist of 90 percent red-winged blackbirds, 5 percent brown-headed cowbirds and a mixture of starlings and the occasional Brewer’s blackbird.

Look closely to see the tens of thousands of birds in this photo.

Some plausible reasons for flying en masse like this might include protection from predators, higher probability of finding food, aerodynamic efficiencies in flight and more. But why the consistency of “punching the clock” with regard to time of day and direction? Does it have something to do with photoperiod? Perhaps they do it throughout the day and I’m only seeing them during my commute.

Some searching for information via the Web, the Kansas Bird Listserv, and my bird books, has turned up very little on this phenomenon besides that red-winged blackbirds like to flock in winter. I posted my inquiry to the Kansas Bird Listserv (a very knowledge-rich resource of birding enthusiasts from around the state) and got some insightful responses.

There is some interesting footage and information on the Web regarding starling murmurations that resemble these blackbird ribbons. Here is one such article made available by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. University of Kansas science educator, Brad Williamson, describes that the behavior and spacing of birds in these formations can be explained by simple rules in mathematical models that most likely relate to competitive advantages in finding food and protection from predators.

Educator Eugene A. Young from Northern Oklahoma College responded to my inquiry with the following: “Certainly there is strength in numbers, aerodynamics helps, but it appears the birds are usually flying from the roost to forage areas.  Once they get to these areas, they disperse into smaller flocks (100-10,000).  These flocks, as the crow flies, can travel 50 miles.  Once they are done foraging, they begin to gather in larger concentrations, and eventually make their way back to the roost.  And different lineages begin to accumulate along the route, eventually forming these long meandering lines of birds.  I suspect they use visual cues to find their way back and forth, thus the low flights.  But upon reaching the roosting area, they accumulate in staging areas before they go to roost.  Often this is wires, trees, bushes or on the ground, and huge congregations form.”

Eugene also confirmed that the timing of movement from roost to forage and back happens right around the time I was seeing this happen and that it relates to photoperiod. A related and informative article (Young, E. A.  2002.  Blackbirds Singing.  Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks Magazine, 59(2):2-6) can be found here.

This year at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains we are trying to be more in tune with phenology as we study the writings of Aldo Leopold. Observing this pretty amazing phenomenon has been just one of many ways I’ve been enjoying a connection with the natural world around me using phenology.

I’ll leave you with a fitting quote from the end of Eugene Young’s article…

“To appreciate the beauty of large blackbird roosts in Kansas is to recognize that large spectacles of animal life are becoming rare. Rather than to be deplored for their droppings and contentious odor, they should be applauded for their mere presence. Imagine what it would have been like to cross the Plains with the large bison herds, or never being out of sight of prairie dogs. What about the huge flocks of passenger pigeons that once flew across the Midwestern sky, with millions of pigeons from horizon to horizon? These moments are gone, lost forever, except for the thoughts and accounts left behind by those fortunate enough to bear them witness. Where can you see such phenomona today? Here in the Plains, but a few short months of the year!”

Symposium: Living the Land Ethic in Kansas

“All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts.The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants and animals, or collectively the land.” The Land Ethic, A Sand County Almanac.

When I think about what Kansas means to me, I think about the land. I think about the Kansas prairie; the soils that support it and the wildlife it supports. I think about the water that flows through it and I think about the sky above it. I think about the food it produces. You and I are important parts of this community too.

 

On Saturday, March 18, we will celebrate and learn more about these rich Kansas connections of the land including its soil, prairie, wildlife, and people, and how they all interact. An all-star cast of interpreters and stewards of Kansas (Rolfe Mandel, Craig Freeman, Michael Pearce, Jason Schmidt, Pete Ferrell, Brian Obermeyer, Erin Dowell, and Wes Jackson) will be assembled for our 11th annual spring education symposium.

 

 

 

We have an early bird discounted fee if you sign up by March 9. See the following link for more details. Come join us!

 

Symposium: Living the Land Ethic in Kansas

Observing Natural Cycles Around Us

We observed the winter solstice yesterday on December 21st. I shared my thoughts on this beloved time in a winter solstice blog post last year. Whether it is the rotation of distant planets, stars and moons around one another or the episodes of weather, plants and animals closer to home, observable natural cycles are abundant around us.

Phenology wheel – a collaborative nature journal

We will be focusing on the closer to home cycles for the coming calendar year at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains. Earlier this year I introduced the importance of “phenology” in a blog post. Now we are now ready to practice and enjoy this ritual in earnest over the coming year here on our grounds. We will be observing and documenting events related to weather, plants, and animals at Dyck Arboretum. With the help of visitors, we will record precipitation amounts, presence/absence of migrating bird species, notable events with other forms of wildlife, flowering and seeding of plants, and more.

We invite you to help us document these phenological events by recording your observations on a sheet in our Visitor Center entryway. At regular intervals, we will compile these observations and record them onto a large wall-mounted “phenology wheel”. The phenology wheel concept was created by Partners in Place, LLC. The idea has been promoted to teachers and students through our Earth Partnership for Schools Program here at Dyck Arboretum, and through the Earth Partnership Program founders at University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum. An example of what we have in mind was recently exhibited at the nature center for Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

Phenology wheel observations recorded at Miller Woods, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

Become a citizen scientist

So, help us fill up our very own phenology wheel in 2017 by activating your observational skills and recording your findings at Dyck Arboretum. Be observant, take photographs and share them with us, write descriptive notes, make drawings, bring in a leaf or flower if you’d like help with identification, note dates and weather conditions, and educate yourself by engaging with the natural world around you. Through your citizen science observations in 2017 and the display of this Dyck Arboretum phenology wheel, we will all benefit from your findings.

Burr oak through the seasons phenology wheel.

Finding Common Ground with Native Landscaping

In the gardening off season now, you have a chance to think about the big picture of what you want for your landscape. Consider a plan that resonates with the general public by finding common ground with native landscaping. I will offer some suggestions that help keep your native landscaping from looking like a “weed patch”.

Let’s start with some perspective. Landscaping in the United States has many different influences and varies greatly from formal to wild/ecological. You have a whole spectrum of styles to consider.

Formal Gardening

Many of us were taught to appreciate the formal landscapes and garden designs made famous in Europe and France centuries ago featuring rectilinear lines with meticulously-trimmed lawns and hedges. Much of our society today still prefers this landscaping style as is evident in city codes and homeowner association regulations that encourage and even mandate manicured vegetation. With this style, we value leaves over flowers, vegetation simplicity, order, control and tidiness. Intensive use of mowers, trimmers, water, fertilizer, herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides, help efficiently maintain this style of landscaping that symbolizes human domination of nature.

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Gardens of Château de Villandry, France. Photo by Peter Dutton.

Ecological Restoration

On the other end of the landscaping spectrum is ecological restoration. Plant communities native to a place are used as the blueprint to reconstruct a functioning ecosystem. Seeds of that plant community (i.e., prairie grasses and wildflowers in South Central Kansas) are planted and disturbance vectors (i.e., fire and grazing) that originally maintained that plant community are restored. While intensive preparation and planning go into reconstructing a prairie, this style of landscaping is eventually low maintenance, requires only implementing/simulating occasional disturbance, and mostly embodies working in sync with nature.

Reconstructed Prairie at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains.

Reconstructed Prairie at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains.

Native landscaping advocates, promote many benefits of this latter landscaping style:

  • Colorful flowers and seed heads with varied shapes and textures
  • Diverse habitats with food and shelter that attract various forms of wildlife
  • Dynamic landscapes that provide year-round visual enjoyment
  • Long-term low input needs with regard to water, fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides
  • Adaptation to natural environmental conditions
  • A cultural connection to earlier inhabitants that used native vegetation for food, medicine, and ritual; building a “sense of place”

There are barriers, however, to landscaping this way in cities. Fires and grazing are not practical in urban areas. Annual mowing adequately simulates these activities, but dealing with that much biomass can still be cumbersome. Codes limiting vegetation height and social expectations driven by the formal garden mindset are hurdles for folks wanting to landscape with native plants. Native plantings are often seen as messy “weed patches”.

But you can still landscape with native plants in publicly palatable ways and enjoy many of the listed benefits. While my training and education are in ecological restoration and I used to be an advocate for restoring diverse prairies in urban areas, I realize that is not usually practical. I’ve moved towards the middle of the landscaping spectrum when it comes to recommendations on landscaping with native plants, to find common ground between formal and ecological styles.

With more than a decade of lessons learned from helping schools implement native plant gardens, I’d like to offer some of the following management practices to make native plant gardens more visually appealing to the general public.

Native Plant Garden Best Management Practices

  1. Define Garden Goals – Wildlife habitat in general? Single species habitat (e.g., monarch)? Rain garden? High profile or in backyard? Prairie or woodland?
  2. Start Small – Hand irrigation to establish plants in the first year is important as well as establishing a regular weeding routine takes time. Keep the workload manageable. You can always enlarge/add more gardens later.
  3. Prepare the Site – Eradicate existing perennials with a couple of Glyphosate treatments in summer, especially important for getting rid of weed enemy #1, Bermuda grass.
  4. Consider Height Proportions – Think about being able to see layers of plants. Island gardens are visually more appealing with shorter plants and there are many short to medium height native options to consider. Gardens against building walls do allow for taller vegetation in the back.

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    Be sure that plants are not too tall for the scale of small island plantings.

  5. Add Hardscaping – Include features such as bird baths, feeders, houses, artwork, and benches for human enjoyment.
  6. Get Edgy – Establish the boundary where weeding meets mowing. A flexible edge such as flat pieces of limestone is a favorite. A visible edge also conveys that this garden is purposeful.

    Limestone edging helps define this garden.

    Limestone edging helps define this garden.

  7. Clumping of Species – When a garden has high visibility for the public, choose fewer species and plant them in clumps or waves to convey that this garden is intentional. Too many species planted will appear random and thrown together over time.

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    Suggestions for planting in waves or clumps.

  8. Don’t Fertilize – Native plants will survive fine without fertilizer. Extra nutrients benefit weeds and only make native plants taller (and more wild looking).
  9. Mulch Is Your Friend – One or two applications (2”-4” deep) of free wood chip mulch from the municipal pile or delivered by a tree trimmer keeps the native garden looking good and helps control weeds. A layer or two of newspaper under the mulch also minimizes weeds.
  10. Signage Educates – Whether a wildlife certification sign or species identification labels, signage helps convey that this garden is intended to be there. Education leads to acceptance.
  11. Weeding Is Mandatory –Weeding regularly and often minimizes the need for a long backbreaking weeding session that will make you hate your garden. It is therapeutic and good exercise. Plus, a high frequency of visits to your garden will add to your appreciation and enjoyment.

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    Weeding can be fun!

Now, resume your planning and consider going native. Do so in a visually pleasing way and maybe your neighbors will follow suit.

Photo Credits

Seeds for the Future

The words “seeds for the future” are easy to use in abstract terms when talking about carrying out Harold and Evie Dyck’s long-term vision for an arboretum (35 years old and counting), or doing education activities with K-12 kids through our Earth Partnership for Schools Program. I use this phrase all the time.

But right now, I want to use those words in the literal sense.

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Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) seeds.

It has been a bountiful year for seed production in South Central Kansas. Oaks have had a mast year. Native shrubs are laden with fruits. Prairie wildflowers and grasses are full with ripe seeds. Seed production helps these plants have a future presence.

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Rigid goldenrod (Solidago rigida).

The ecological food web starts with plants as the producers. When this base plant layer of energy is healthy and diverse, the rest of the food web of wildlife it supports is more robust. Seeds are an important part of this food web. Insects are abundant this year. Birds, small mammals, amphibians, and reptiles are finding plenty of food as well. The following chart of rainfall totals from this summer (generated from Weather Underground data) shows why our native Kansas vegetation was so productive.

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Starting from Seed

A big focus of my first seven years at Dyck Arboretum was to reconstruct 12 acres of diverse prairie from seed as part of our Prairie Window Project. This process involved finding local remnant prairies, documenting their plant species, collecting and cataloging seed from April through November, cleaning seed, designing seed mixes, and planting. Developing this project engaged legions of volunteers, expanded our reputation as a prairie conservation resource, and diversified our educational outreach. We collected and planted a lot of seed during those years both mechanically and by hand. The resulting prairie is maturing nicely.

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Prairie wildflower and grass seed mix used for our first 2005 Prairie Window planting.

I often tout landscaping with native plants because of their year-round interest. They do offer aesthetically pleasing flowers during the growing season that appeal to the average gardener. But their interesting seed heads, dormant season vegetation, and myriad of changing colors and textures also provide habitat and landscaping value for wildlife and people through the fall and winter.

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Open pods of Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis).

A year of abundant seed production helps a prairie build up its soil seed bank. This is especially important on a site like this one with a seed bank dominated by annuals and non-native species from decades of agricultural use. Enhancing the abundance of prairie seeds in that seed bank will help add resiliency to this prairie in future years when drought or disturbance occur.

 

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Large flat seeds of compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) falling away from the seed head.

Seed Collection

I enjoy collecting seed. Walking a prairie with a rhythmic movement of hand to bag is therapeutic. I have never been a farmer, but, in a way, this process connects me to the harvest rituals of my ancestors who made their living in agriculture.

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Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis).

Time spent collecting prairie seed over the years and developing a mental image for certain targeted plants at different times of the year have helped me recognize many species in seed form almost easier than when they are in bloom.

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Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seeds ready to disperse in the wind.

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Some plants like purple conflower (Echinacea angustifolia) may even have more value to us in seed form. Echinacea seeds (three visible in middle of seed head) and roots have medicinal value as a pain killer and immune system booster. Chewing on a few seeds has a temporary numbing effect on your teeth and tongue.

 

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Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans).

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Seeds of native tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum) are held tightly now, but will loosen and fall away this winter.

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With a parachute-like pappus, Dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata) seeds are ready for a breezy liftoff.

Evolution of Seed Dispersal

Plants evolve with all kinds of seed dispersal mechanisms. Woodland plants develop tasty fruits around their seeds, spring-loaded propellers, and Velcro-like hooks and barbs that latch onto fur. Plants of the open prairie sometimes employ these kinds of mechanisms, but most simply take advantage of the abundant wind by growing hairs/wings that allow them to take flight. By scattering their seeds to other locations, plants help insure their presence in the future.

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Whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata).

May you find more enjoyment in the dormant vegetation and seeds persisting around you this fall and winter.