Plug(in) for Citizen Science

Opportunities to conduct citizen science are all around us and doing so can add great value to our lives. You can refer to an earlier blog post (Get Rich and Happy with Phenology) to see how much I enjoy scientific pursuits in my spare time. These activities include various elements of plant conservation, and looking for/identifying butterflies and birds.

My data collection tools for the Harvey Count Butterfly Count

I discussed in this past post that phenology is the observance of cyclical and seasonal natural events. Citizen science is a method of observing and documenting phenology. The Oxford English Dictionary defines citizen science as “scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions.”

Field data sheet from a past Harvey County Christmas Bird Count

Kansas is flush with great people and resources when it comes to conducting skillful citizen science. Nowhere is this more obvious to me than in the Kansas birding community. I know a number of committed folks who will spend entire weekends and even vacations focused on the pursuit of observing and identifying as many birds as possible. The especially skilled and driven birders identify more species in a day than most people will recognize in a lifetime. Some may consider these folks a bit wack-a-doodle-doo, but I consider them inspiring contributors to citizen science. I will strive to be more like them in my empty nest years (yes, pun intended), which are coming soon.

The drive for many birders to scientifically document nature around them then extends to the follow-up data sharing. This is where personal enjoyment in bird watching becomes important citizen science. And this is also where I get to the reference in my title for this blog about “plugging in”.

Electronic Reporting

With mobile devices making the Internet available almost anywhere and with ever more nature-based reporting platforms coming available, sharing findings about animals and plants has never been easier. Here are some online reporting options for you to check out:

A popular reporting platform is eBird, created by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology in 2002. Through this platform, birders can report their findings and track data according to their life lists, county/state/country lists, etc. Ornithologists world-wide are using eBird data to better understand population ranges, changes in this data related to climate change, and so much more.

Birds are probably the most abundantly reported subject when it comes to citizen science of the natural world. Other Cornell Lab popular platforms and outlets for collecting bird data close to home include Project FeederWatch, NestWatch, and Great Backyard Bird Count. Breeding Bird Surveys, and Christmas Bird Counts (see a previous blog on this topic HERE) offer birding outlets for more adventurous birding in the region where you live.

Butterfly Tracking

Butterfly tracking is also gaining popularity. A good platform for reporting findings about monarch butterflies is through Monarch Watch. With their trending decline over the last couple of decades, monarchs are a popular focus for butterfly monitoring. Through Monarch Watch, citizen science data inputs for the public can include host plant emergence in the spring, and larvae and adult monarch sightings. They even detail how to tag monarchs for further tracking. Developing habitat for monarchs and improving available native nectar sources is also good for all butterfly species.

Check out a recent edition of On T.R.A.C.K.S. (V25:1), a publication produced by the good folks at Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism for more ideas about citizen science reporting. This information-packed issue provided the topic idea for this post. Tt goes into much greater depth on many of the resources I refer to. This issue also highlights and further describes additional electronic platforms related to documenting biodiversity in general, plant flowering and seeding, climate change, precipitation, frogs, ladybugs, and even litter.

Our first lecture of our 2020 Winter Lecture Series with Chuck Otte will focus on Kansas Bird Populations and Distributions. Chuck is a fantastic resource, a great advocate for citizen science, and an interesting speaker. Put it in your calendar Tuesday, February 11 at 6:30 and come join us.

Happy Kansas Day! I can’t think of a better way to celebrate than to spend more time studying and reporting on the natural world of Kansas. Now, get out there, plug-in for citizen science, and have fun in the process!

2019 Year In Review

As the calendar year comes to a close, it is a natural time to reflect on the events that shaped 2019 at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains. I reviewed the last 12 months of the staff calendar and social media posts, made a list of activities our staff have been involved with, and plugged that list into a word cloud generator. Here is the resulting image:

Created via https://www.wordclouds.com/

This image brings back a flood of fond memories of 2019. I have so enjoyed working alongside fellow facilitators Scott, Janelle and Katie as these experiences have come and gone. But what gives me the greatest joy is how these events have been made possible and experienced by SO MANY MORE than the four of us.

Our Dyck Arboretum board of directors, volunteers, members, underwriters, event patrons, Hesston College staff, interns, business partners, and collaborating organizations are the glue that hold this word cloud together. I couldn’t be more grateful for how you have so enriched our year. You, who make up this diverse community of people, are an essential element of our mission to cultivate transformative relationships between people and the land.

So, whatever role(s) you have played in helping make this 2019 cloud of activities happen, I want to say a most heartfelt THANK YOU. Your involvement is essential to the Dyck Arboretum community and we look forward with you to the year ahead!

Generated by https://www.wordclouds.com/
Dyck Arboretum staff: Janelle Flory Schrock (office manager) Katie Schmidt (grounds manager), Scott Vogt (director), Brad Guhr (education coordinator)

Appreciating Dormancy

December in Kansas is the time to enjoy textures in the landscape and appreciate dormancy. These textures have been present during earlier months, but they have been obscured by the bright, colorful eye candy that more dominantly draws our attention.

Blue sky envelopes switchgrass and Maximilian sunflower.

The waning purples, yellows, reds, and greens of fall have served their purposes of pollinator attraction and energy production and finally given way to the variously rich shades of brown in winter. These remaining warm hues of frugal colors make shapes and textures stand out more prominently in the prairie against itself and the sky.

Osage orange skeletons, dark accents of round-headed bush clover, and Indiangrass
Grey-headed coneflower

The previously perfect ovals of grey-headed coneflower seed heads, slowly release their grip on propagules, only to uncover another perfect oval.

Grey-headed coneflower
The reddish-brown seeds of Illinois bundle-flower look like wagging tongues as they rattle out of their pods in the wind.
Little bluestem

The white hairy pappus of a variety of grasses, asters, and goldenrods, which will eventually carry away its host seed in the wind like a parachute, is particularly eye-catching in the way it reflects light while held on winter stems.

Panicled aster

From a prairie management perspective, wintertime is the best time to see and root out invading tree stems with their obvious coarse textures that are otherwise hidden by greenery.

Bradford pears are notorious for invading natural areas.

As we approach the winter solstice and its comforting darkest depths, try to get out into a nearby natural area and find ways to appreciate the dormant textures in the rich variety of browns while you still can. A good way to do this is by attending our Winter Luminary Walk, December 6 and 7.

The interfering colors of spring will be here before you know it.

October Richness

Life flies by for all of us and it is easy to miss or forget what happens in a given month. When reviewing recent photographs on my phone, I was pleasantly reminded of all the richness that happened over the last four weeks or so. October in Kansas is that great fall transition period between summer and winter, hot and cold, green and brown, and fast and slow when there is SO MUCH to see. For those that feel that they endure the extremes of Kansas to revel in the moderation that comes with fall, October is your time.

I was reminded from these photos of our Dyck Arboretum of the Plains mission – cultivating transformative relationships between people and the land. Let’s review in the following photos the richness that can be found in that interface between the plants/wildlife of Kansas and the people that enjoy this place in October.

Monarch fallout.

October 1 brought a monarch “fallout” when their migration was interrupted by strong south winds. They momentarily took a break from their journey and sought shelter in our Osage orange hedge row.

Tagged monarchs.

Local monarch enthusiast, Karen Fulk, took advantage of the fallout to capture and tag monarchs with identification numbers that help other monarch observers in Mexico or elsewhere to better understand the speed and location of their migration.

Middle school students measuring tree height with the “rough estimate” method.

Santa Fe Middle School students from Newton were able to witness the end of the monarch fallout on October 2 and also enjoyed various activities on the Dyck Arboretum campus that included insect collecting, plant sampling and measuring tree height. The Dyck Arboretum’s Kansas Earth Partnership for Schools (EPS) Program curriculum has a lesson that teaches students how to measure tree height with five different methods including estimation, shadows, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry.

Measuring tree height.
Lorna Harder teaching a 5th Grader about plant identification.

On October 6, former and current Dyck Arboretum board members hosted tours of their homes and land near Hesston for Arboretum Prairie Partners. Lorna and Bob Harder gave a tour of their solar photovoltaic-powered home and surrounding prairie landscape and LeAnn and Stan Clark hosted everyone for dinner on their patio surrounded by extensive native plant landscaping.

Lorna Harder leading a tour of the native prairie she is helping steward.
Director, Scott Vogt, welcoming Arboretum Prairie Partners to a meal on LeAnn and Stan Clark’s patio.

Hesston Elementary students took a field trip to the Arboretum on October 10 to conduct a leaf scavenger hunt, learn about monarch migration, observe different seed dispersal mechanisms and study insect diversity in the prairie.

Hesston Elementary students search for insects in the Arboretum reconstructed prairie.
Finding seeds, grasshoppers, beetles, flies, spiders, true bugs, and more.
Insect sweeping.
Students found a female striped wolf spider carrying its newborn young on its abdomen.
Grasshoppers are plentiful in the prairie during October.
Initial insect skittishness turned to fondness during the field trip.
Beehives at Earhart.

Earhart Environmental Magnet Elementary in Wichita, a Kansas Earth Partnership for Schools participating school, engages their students in environmental education with hands-on activities such as beekeeping. Students tend the bees, grow and maintain native plant gardens as nectar sources, and regularly camp on their grounds to learn more about the natural world around them.

Earhart students check a birdfeeder while searching for insects in one of their courtyard native plant gardens.
Earhart students found a preying mantis egg casing or ootheca.

On October 17, Walton Elementary (another Kansas EPS School) students came to the Arboretum to collect seed and study how seeds disperse. They each had a target plant they were searching for and from which they were aiming to collect seed. They did the same last year, germinated the seed in their greenhouse over the winter, and had a successful native plant sale in the Walton community.

College students observing a garter snake.

Bethel College environmental science classes visited the Arboretum on October 24 to learn about the native plants and wildlife of Kansas, natural resource management, and ecological restoration. When students become interested in and well-versed about the natural world around them, they will turn into more informed and better-educated environmental decision-makers of the future.

Bethel students found a Pandorus sphinx moth caterpillar crossing an Arboretum sidewalk.
‘Tiger Eyes’ sumac from an Arboretum plant sale was in autumn splendor on October 26 at my house.

Part of establishing a rich sense of place for people in any one location involves not only natural history connection cultural enrichment through the arts. The Dyck Arboretum’s Prairie Window Concert Series (PWCS) features eight live music performances each season. Our 2019-20 season was kicked off with October bookend performances featuring Mark Erelli on September 29 and recently The Steel Wheels on October 26.

Mark Erelli – the first show of the 2019-20 PWCS.
The Steel Wheels – the second show of the 2019-20 PWCS.

On October 29, a stunning cold front rolled through Kansas and chilling temperatures caused delicately-held leaves on trees like ash, maple, Osage orange, and ginko to fall within hours. Social media posts were featuring leaves dropping quickly that day all over Kansas to make for a memorable fall day.

Ginko leaves and ‘iron butterfly’ ironweed.

The 2019 Eco-Meet Championships will be held at Dyck Arboretum in early November. In late October, organizers and high school teams from around the state were visiting the Arboretum to prepare for the big event. The competition will allow some of the brightest science students from around the state to showcase their knowledge on subjects including prairies, woodlands, entomology, and ornithology.

Students from Smoky Valley High visited the Arboretum on October 31 to prepare for Eco-Meet.

The cold nights and relatively warm days of late October have allowed the grass and tree leaves to show off their bright colors that have been hidden all growing season by the green pigments of chlorophyll. Seed heads are opening and dispersal mechanisms that catch the wind or lure animals are on full display. Good ground moisture and warm temperatures are still even allowing for a bit of late-season flowering from some species.

Sugar maple.
Little bluestem.
Seeds dispersing from a common milkweed pod.
The fall prairie is loaded with seeds this season which is good for seed-eating mammals and birds.
It has been a mast year for trees and the ground under this burr oak was covered with acorns.
Late season flowering by Leavenworth eryngo.
Aromatic aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite’.

I’ll leave you with a video (sorry for the terrible camera work) of one of my favorite sights of every October – when the aromatic asters are in full bloom and late-season pollinators belly up to the nectar bar on a warm fall day. Enjoy.

Video of Pollinators nectaring on aromatic aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite’

Finding Value in the Undesirables

It is time to give some props to the plants that don’t always play nice in the urban landscape. Over the past month, I have enjoyed finding value in the undesirables.

In recent years, we have culled tall and aggressive native plant species from our plant sales because they become weedy and dominant in small manicured gardens. They out-compete shorter, slower-growing species for which we also find value. But even though some of these species may be landscape bullies, they still provide nectar for pollinators, food for seed eaters, vegetation for host-specific insect larvae, and beautiful flowers to please the human eye.

In some of the low-maintenance habitat areas here at the Arboretum, I’ve been recently admiring the profuse blooms and insect-attracting abilities of the following species:

  • Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis),
  • western ironweed (Vernonia baldwinii)
  • tall joe-pye weed (Eupatorium altissimum),
  • brown-eyed susan (Rudbeckia triloba),
  • tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum),
  • common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca),
  • compass plant (Silphium laciniatum)
  • prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum)
  • Maximillian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani)
Canada goldenrod with a host of fly, beetle, and true bug pollinators.
Western ironweed with a beetle and a sweat bee.
Tall joe-pye weed with an Ailanthus webworm moth and a beetle.
Tall joe-pye weed with a wasp.
Tall joe-pye weed with a predatory wheel bug.
Brown-eyed susan with an ambush bug.
Brown-eyed susan with a checkered skipper.
Brown-eyed susan with a Horace’s duskywing.
Tall thistle with an eastern tiger swallowtail.
Common milkweed with large milkweed bugs.
Common milkweed with a milkweed longhorn beetle.

While I would not recommend these plants for the more manicured parts of your yard where you weed, mulch, and tend for a tidier look, consider these “undesirables” for more wild places around you. You will only find a couple of these species for purchase at our plant sales. But you can find all of them in the landscapes around our grounds and I will be happy to pick some seed for you to take home and disperse in your wild places. The insects and greater ecosystem around you will benefit!

Concentration of Blooms

When I recommend native plants for a particular landscape, I’ve learned to focus on the fact that people and the insects they are hoping to attract are conditioned to desire seeing a concentration of blooms with decent repetition. Some of the fascinating parts of landscaping with native plants are that they also have interesting features regarding their vegetation, seed pods, relationship to insects as host plants, and natural/cultural history stories that accompany them as Kansas native plants as well. But first and foremost, their flowers are what most intrigue the masses.

A profusion of purple is about to happen at Dyck Arboretum when the annual Leavenworth eryngo (Eryngium leavenworthii) hits its colorful stride in late August to early September.

A Long Growing Season in Kansas

The challenge when landscaping in Kansas is that our growing season is long, spanning 7 to 8 months, generally from March to October. A given landscape only has so much space for plant repetition and one has to choose which plant species will be planted in big numbers to have a concentration of color when desired. With a school planting, for example, I will mostly choose species that bloom in either April-May or August-September when students will see and enjoy them.

The angst I have in knowing that rigid sunflower (Helianthus rigidus) is having an increasingly dominating presence in our Arboretum prairie reconstruction is slightly soothed by the salve of its showy floral display in mid-September.

When you plant just a handful of species with big numbers of each for a few different times of focused colorful brilliance, you look like a genius during those times of flowering. Each perennial species, however, blooms for only a couple of weeks or so. When the plants are not blooming, critics of native plantings may label your garden as “too wild” or “dead-looking” when vegetation begins to senesce. These folks are not too forgiving of the fact that perennial plants must first build vegetation before they can flower. and then invest energy in building roots so they can come back again next year. So, one needs to find a reasonable balance between sufficient repetition of a given species and making sure there are enough species to provide blooming overlap throughout the growing season.

Prominent Prairie Grasses in July

This concept of concentrated flowering, or lack thereof, is on my mind every July when the Kansas temperatures are hottest and the well-adapted warm-season prairie grasses that are a significant part of the prairie matrix begin to shine. Grass flowers are wind-pollinated and understandably not investing in colorful flowers with a design to attract pollinators. It always seems to me that prairies in July are dominated by green, and that any blooming non-grass flowers stand out.

Kansas gayfeather (Liatris pychnostachya) looks great when it blooms around our pond edge in late July, especially because of its eye-catching repetition.

Inspiration of High Elevation Wildflowers

My family and I usually get away for vacation to Colorado or somewhere west of Kansas to enjoy different landscapes. These trips usually take us to areas with higher elevations, cooler air, and snow-melt streams. Above 5,000 feet in elevation, these areas have much shorter growing seasons, roughly half of that in Kansas. This phenomenon concentrates the flowering of available species into a tighter window of opportunity causing many blooming occurrences to overlap. Since late July is the center of that growing season, the wildflowers are often at their peak during our visits.

Sunflower family plants wash this mountain-side in yellow with the punctuation of purple penstemon and red Indian paintbrush along Brush Creek Trail above Crested Butte, the so-called “Wildflower Capitol of Colorado.”

During our last two July vacations to Montana’s Glacier National Park (GNP) and Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) in 2018 and 2019, respectively, we witnessed especially lush displays of wildflowers that made hikes for me most enjoyable. The following photo collage includes species observed on mountain trails that made me pause and take note. They each have similar-looking close relatives in Kansas.

While I know that most mountain wildflowers won’t survive in Kansas, I am still inspired by them. I observe their site-specificity with regard to moisture/light, what wildlife they attract, and their growth form — often including many plants of one species creating a concentration of color. Our upcoming Fall 2019 FloraKansas Plant Festival will offer many native species that thrive in our Kansas climate and soils. Plan to peruse the options, see what catches your eye, plant them in repetition, and be inspired.

Creamy-colored beargrass (not a grass, but a lily) and pink subalpine spirea provide landscaping inspiration along the Iceberg Lake Trail in Glacier National Park.

The Prairie Window Concert Series Is Good for You

I usually like to have data and science to back up what I believe and claim. But today, I’m going to go with a gut feeling and make a bold statement. The Prairie Window Concert Series (PWCS) is good for you. It will make improvements to your physical, mental, spiritual well-being…yeah, all of it.

If you are anything like me, I would expect you to approach this claim with skepticism. Therefore, I’ll include a couple of references in this post to loosely back up its premise and make both of us feel better. (See obligatory reference #1 after this paragraph). But with this claim, I profess it mostly because it feels right.

The Goodness of Music

I’ll start with how music is seemingly ever-present during some of the most revered time with my family and friends throughout the year. Vacation and holiday playlists always are special and highly anticipated. The Walnut Valley Festival (aka, “Winfield”) playlist is extensive and was put together with great care. When it starts playing late summer in anticipation of September, it brings about tingling excitement in our family like no other time of the year. Music is essential to these experiences and these experiences are good for me, so there you have it.

The next generation making music at Winfield (Photo by Jenni Koontz).

Whether I’m happy, sad, excited, somber, exercising or being still, I know of music to fit that particular situation. Americana, bluegrass, classical, country, rock, jazz, rap, honky tonk, Irish, new age, Zydeco, hip hop, and alternative are all proper contributors. Portable devices, powerful small speakers, noise-canceling headphones, feather-light earbuds, digital music collections, and limitless streaming services make it easier than ever to allow music to accompany us and accentuate any occasion. (Obligatory reference #2, How Music Affects the Brain) Usually, that music listening happens while multi-tasking on something else.

The Prairie Window Concert Series

Thanks to the Old Settler’s Inn and the Prairie Window Concert Series, I’ve been able to regularly enjoy the music of blues legend, Guy Davis, up close and personal.

When you specifically focus on live music, uninterrupted in an intimate, listening room setting with friends and family, the music experience can be even better. With the PWCS at Dyck Arboretum, you can engage your senses further with a stroll through a diverse and thriving landscape teeming with colorful flowers and pollinators.

Late summer is a great time to visit the Arboretum when flowers and pollinators are showiest.

At intermission, you can indulge in delicious Crust & Crumb fare. The culmination of these layers at a PWCS show has to be good for you.

Crust & Crumb loves you and is good for you (Photo by Sharon Entz).

28 Years and Counting

Miner and Valetta Seymour designed this experience to perfection in 1991 at the Old Settler’s Inn in Moundridge. (See PWCS History) The overall structure of the series, including Sunday afternoon shows to hear quality artists of various genres and enjoy good food during intermission, still thrives 28 years later. Talented artists bring their passions to the PWCS stage on eight occasions each season. They share their finely honed craft, passions, and dreams while trying to make a living doing something they love.

Today, I am excited to introduce the 2019-2020 PWCS lineup. It is loaded with immense talent that includes a number of new artists and a few familiar ones. Visit our website, learn more about the artists and enjoy their music. Join the growing group of season ticket holders and take advantage of our early bird discount, and consider becoming an underwriter. You will not only support this unique live musical arts experience in South Central Kansas, but you will have fun while engaging regularly with familiar faces in a music-loving community.

Dare I say, your happiness and well-being depend on it.

Welcoming Insects

“If you build it, they will come.”

I often use this phrase to describe my home prairie garden which is a common misquote from a favorite 1989 baseball movie, Field of Dreams. The actual quote uses he, not they…multiple baseball players walk out of the cornfield when he builds the field…hence the likely confusion. Nevertheless, the premise of my misquote seems to be proven by my observations. Insects and a whole host of other wildlife species come to my yard, because of the plants I am adding to my landscape.

Monarch caterpillar on common milkweed

I haven’t done any quantitative sampling of insects in my yard to prove with statistical certainty that landscaping with native plants has increased the presence of fauna around my home. However, every year I do see what seem like increasingly more insects, as well as other animals that eat insects, around my yard. Therefore, I am deducing that Kevin Costner’s quote (or my made-up version) rings true for me.

Red milkweed beetle on common milkweed.

A Diverse Food Web

It would make sense that an increase in insects in my yard would happen as plant diversity increases in our landscape. The principles of ecology and trophic levels of food webs tell us this will happen. In a previous blog post (In Awe of Insects), I discuss an Earth Partnership for Schools curriculum activity called “Sweeping Discoveries.” We do this activity at Dyck Arboretum on a regular basis with teachers and students to test whether insect diversity is higher in a fescue lawn or prairie garden. The prairie garden always produces greater numbers and greater diversity of insect species.

Ailanthus webworm moth – an introduced species that uses the invasive exotic tree-of-heaven for its host plant. Unfortunately, this tree is showing up all over our neighborhood and it makes sense that this little moth is around now too.

Plenty of Moisture

Another factor coming into play that is likely causing a bountiful number of insects in our yard has been an abundance of rainfall in the first half of 2019. Roughly half of the Newton, KS area’s 34 inches of average annual precipitation fell in record-breaking fashion during the month of May. Not only is this prairie garden mature, since I have been adding to it regularly for 15 years now, but the existing plants are reaching their maximum size and duration of flowering due to the abundant moisture. There is plenty of host plant material and nectar right now for insects.

15+ inches of rain in the last six weeks has made the garden quite lush.

Herbivores and Carnivores

I make daily morning/evening weeding and observation visits in our prairie garden. I have enjoyed watching butterflies, flies, moths, beetles, true bugs, ants, katydids, small bees, big bumblebees, and more in recent weeks. The especially intense blooming of common milkweed has really attracted plant-eating and nectar-sipping insect visitors lately.

Bumblebee on common milkweed.

As one would expect, species that eat insects should also be abundant. Insectivorous birds common around our urban yard include grackles, cardinals, brown thrashers, black-capped chickadees, Carolina wrens, bluejays, starlings, Baltimore orioles, chimney swifts, and American robins. Joining these birds in our yard are carnivores including assassin bugs, Great Plains skinks, big brown bats, preying mantis, spiders, cicada killers, eastern screech owls, and Cooper’s hawks that have made their presence known (somewhat regularly).

Our big brown bat population (up to 16 at last count) eats loads of insects around the yard.

Harvey County Butterfly Count

If you have any interest in learning more about the butterflies in Kansas and even if you are a butterfly novice, consider joining me and others this Saturday, June 22, 2019 at our 20th Annual Harvey County Butterfly Count. Spend either a half or full day looking for, identifying, and counting butterflies with experienced group leaders around the county. This citizen science data is logged through the North American Butterfly Association and helps track trends in butterfly populations. Send me an email if you are interested and I will get you involved.

With monarch populations on the decline, regular monitoring of this species is more important than ever.

Now, get out there and tune into the fascinating world of insects around you. Consider what you can do to add more plant diversity, and ultimately more insect and wildlife diversity to your landscape. Both you and the insects will benefit.

Woodland Phlox

Few plants are as visually striking to me in spring as woodland phlox with its showy lavender color, blooming mid to late April in Kansas. Woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata) is a woodland understory species with a vast native range that covers much of the Eastern U.S. (including the eastern third of Kansas) and Canada.

A Book About Phlox

Jim Locklear, a former director for Dyck Arboretum of the Plains, published in 2011 the book Phlox: A Natural History and Gardener’s Guide. In his description of woodland phlox (he calls it timber phlox), Jim highlights just how perfect this species is found to be: “It speaks volumes that horticulturists in eighteenth-century Europe just left timber phlox alone. While they started refining the other phloxes coming in from the American colonies as soon as they got their hands on them–making selections and breeding new hybrids–they found little reason to fiddle with timber phlox. What could be done to improve upon the earthy, cerulean mood it brought to the springtime garden? Today, timber phlox is an essential element of the shade and woodland garden on both sides of the Atlantic, valued for the bluish hues of its fragrant flowers and its early season of bloom.”

Growing Woodland Phlox

Growing woodland wildflowers in historically prairie-adapted Kansas can be a struggle. Even under the shade of city shade trees, the hot, windy summer conditions here still make it challenging to replicate a moist, cool woodland understory environment where these plants thrive. But among the spring woodland wildflowers I’ve inserted into the shady areas of my home landscape, woodland phlox seems to be one of the easier species to establish. It is even spreading specifically in the locations where I have planted it.

Missouri Botanical Garden (MOBOT) provides the following for the best conditions in which to grow woodland phlox: “Best grown in humusy, medium moisture, well-drained soil in part shade to full shade. Prefers rich, moist, organic soils. Appreciates a light summer mulch which helps retain moisture and keep roots cool.” As with any new planting, be sure to give it regular water as needed for the first year, and since it is a woodland species, supplemental water after that during hot summer droughts.

MOBOT further describes that the genus name is derived from the Greek word phlox meaning flame in reference to the intense flower colors of some varieties. The species epithet divaricata means spreading. Woodland phlox attracts butterflies and hummingbirds.

Conveniently, woodland phlox is showing off its flare along the path to our Dyck Arboretum greenhouse to the delight of the throngs of people visiting during our spring FloraKansas Plant Festival happening this weekend. Consider adding woodland phlox to a shady location in your landscape and enjoy its “earthy, cerulean mood” for many springtimes to come.

Fire: A Link Between People and the Prairie

Over the last week, I have been helping conduct prescribed burns on the prairies at Dyck Arboretum as well as for some area landowners. This annual spring ritual for me is one of the most engaging examples of our mission – cultivating transformative relationships between people and the land.

A prescribed burn in process at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains

For thousands of years since the last ice age, prairie has evolved with fire, an essential element of disturbance that maintains prairie as prairie. Without fire, readily available seeds of trees and shrubs will invade and turn prairie into forest within decades. Gone are the days when lightning or Native American-set fires regularly kept this element of maintenance in place every few years. Today, landowners, ranchers, and land managers must regularly be the starters of fire. A few years ago, I blogged more in depth about why we should Embrace Prairie Burning.

Conducting A Safe Burn

I cannot sufficiently instruct one to conduct a prescribed burn in a short blog post, but I will summarize the important elements to be considered when making fire go where you want it go. Conducting a safe prescribed burn is in actuality a simple process, but one MUST adhere to strict guidelines regarding 1) relative humidity, and 2) wind speed. When relative humidity (RH) is at 80%, fire is very difficult to start and when it is at 20%, fire is very difficult to put out. Making sure that the start and end time of the burn stay within those parameters is paramount, and sunlight and temperature have a profound effect on RH. With every 20-degree F increase, RH drops in half.

Wind speeds between 5-15 miles per hour (mph) are important too. Below 5 mph, winds can be shifty, unpredictable and dangerous when trying to control fire. And it probably goes without saying, but winds over 15 mph can easily carry flames where you don’t want them to go. A 911 dispatcher will not allow a burn to start if wind gusts are above 15 mph, anyway.

There are three types of fire we regularly refer to in prescribed burning. A back fire works directly against the wind, a flank fire works perpendicular to the wind, and a head fire is pushed with the wind.

A back fire working against the wind is the most easily controlled fire type.
A flank fire, is the second most controllable fire and it is only lit once a back fire has safely established the downwind portion of the burn unit.
A head fire that roars with the wind is only lit after the back and flank fires have safely secured all areas of the burn unit.

The intensity of these three fire types is from low to high, respectively, as is their ease of control. To most easily contain a fire within a particular burn unit, we start with downwind back fires until a sufficient black line is established, work around to flank fires until those flanks are made safe, and then finish with a head fire to most quickly finish the burn once all the boundaries have been sufficiently secured. The following diagram, shows the general progression of a prescribed burn, otherwise known as the ring fire technique.

Graphic from fact sheet on Planning and Conducting a Prescribed Burn, provided by Kansas State University Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Important tools in managing fire include those that help you quickly move fire and those that help you quickly put it out. In the past, I used a drip torch full of a diesel/gas mixture, but have more recently relied on the much simpler (and lighter) tool of a garden rake for dragging fire. My favorite water carrying device is a water backpack and hand pump with support of extra water in a larger water tank carried by our new Hustler MDV. The backpack with a 5-gallon capacity can get heavy and cumbersome, but it sprays a reliable 10-15′ stream of water and is easily the most mobile and useful tool I know for carrying water and putting out fire.

Prescribed burning water backpack with hand pump.

Strengthening A Human Connection to the Land

The act of burning a prairie brings together the four classical elements (earth, air, fire and water). The earth produces prairie vegetation, and in spring time, the prairie is renewed after it combusts when brought together with air and fire. We use water to bring this process to a conclusion. As I stated above, people are essential to keeping this positive feedback loop going today.

The people who are essential to this stewardship process of prescribed burning include my colleagues, volunteers willing to lend a hand, and the landowners themselves who initiate the process. All of these individuals make up an important community of people strengthening a connection to the land.

Dyck Arboretum staff, student interns, and faithful volunteers are prepared to conduct a prescribed burn on a parcel of our Prairie Window Project prairie reconstruction.
Landowners Ryan (far right) and Audrey Magill (second from left) are the current stewards of a 17-acre parcel of prairie near Hesston and engaged their family, friends, and neighbors to conduct a burn last week.
Naomi Rutschman, the former land steward of the Magill property, came out to observe the prescribed burn. I was able to burn this same parcel with Naomi and her husband Orville 13 years earlier.
During a burn at Bethel College earlier this week, I was able to greet a friend and mentor who inspired me over 30 years ago to pursue a career in prairie management and education. Emeritus professor, Dwight Platt, in his late 80s still mows and hand rakes acres of prairie hay for mulch on his vegetable garden.

The identity of Kansas is built around the native landscape of the prairie and fire will always be a part of that identity. While the implementation of prescribed burns may be a laborious task that can make my body feel old, it is an important ritual that keeps my spirit young.

One of my favorite experiences of conducting a prescribed burn is often found in the final moments of such an event. Once the final head fire has been lit and the hard work is complete, there are a few moments to enjoy the sounds of crackling flames of moisture-laden grasses and the happy sounds of mating boreal chorus frogs in the background.

In the video below, I leave you with the magical sights and sounds of this experience.