Spring-Blooming Prairie and Woodland Plants

Spring-blooming prairie and woodland plants are among the first to take advantage of warmer soils and days with increasing sunshine. Even though it has been a cold and slowly developing spring, the green shoots of spring bloomers are emerging and starting to produce colorful flowers that feed early pollinators and brighten sunny to partially-shaded landscapes.

The following 16 species are some of my favorite spring prairie and open woodland plants that also serve as landscaping gems, flowering in April and May:

a. Baptisia australis var. major blue false indigo full sun
b. Callirhoe involucrata purple poppy mallow full sun
c. Clematis fremontii Fremont’s clematis full sun
d. Geum triflorum prairie smoke full sun
e. Koeleria cristata Junegrass full sun
f. Oenothera macrocarpa Missouri evening primrose full sun
g. Penstemon cobaea penstemon cobaea full sun
h. Penstemon digitalis foxglove beardtongue full sun
i. Pullsatilla patens pasque flower full sun
j. Tradescantia tharpii spiderwort full sun
k. Verbena canadensis rose verbena full sun
l. Amsonia tabernaemontana blue star part shade
m. Aquilegia canadensis columbine part shade
n. Heuchera richardsonii coral bells part shade
o. Senecio plattensis golden ragwort part shade
p. Zizia aurea golden alexander part shade

 

SpringFlowersBlogV2

There are so many benefits to be found in landscaping with native plants. They will greatly enhance the biological diversity and ecology of your yard by providing food for insect larvae and flower nectar for pollinators. Small mammals and birds feast on the abundance of available seeds. Predatory insects, birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles will find food in the abundance of available insects. Even the smallest of native gardens can be a mini wildlife sanctuary.

 

Black swallowtail butterfly (male). Golden alexander is a host plant for the black swallowtail caterpillar.

Native plant gardens connect us to our natural and cultural history and give us a sense of place. Even if you don’t use your home landscape today as your grocery store, home improvement store, and pharmacy, Plains Indians and European settlers certainly did not too long ago. The plants and animals of the prairie were critically important to human survival.

The deep roots and unique traits of native plants make them very adaptable to our Kansas climate and provide sensible and sustainable landscaping. Once established, these plants need little to no supplemental water and require no fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides if properly matched to the site.

Even if you are only interested in colorful garden eye candy, this list of spring flowering native plants will provide a beautiful array of flowers to brighten your spring landscape. You can find these plants at our FloraKansas Plant Festival!

 

Photo Credits

 

Landscape Scale Prairie Gardening – Thinking Bigger

If you follow our blog, you are probably thinking about creating a prairie garden, are in the process of creating one, or have already done so. One of the reasons you might be participating in this enjoyable ritual is because you want to increase wildlife habitat for insects, birds, small mammals, amphibians, and reptiles in your home landscape. Indeed, if you increase native plant diversity in your landscape, you will attract more wildlife.

I want you to consider going a step further and thinking about how your landscape, which is increasing in biological diversity through your prairie gardening habits, relates to the greater landscape of your neighborhood. The study of landscape ecology tells us that ecological function generally improves as you increase the size and diversity of a particular ecosystem. For example, three landowners in succession creating prairie gardens will create more storm-water holding capacity and wildlife attraction than only one of those landowners doing so. And if those three adjacent landowners happen to be situated next to a stream, a park, a hay meadow on the edge of town, etc., the ecological function of those combined green spaces will increase.

In her 1993 book Noah’s Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Back Yards, Sara Stein tells inspiring stories about how she converted from traditional chemical and water-intensive suburban landscaping to a style that included more native plants, more habitat for wildlife and more connectivity with other green spaces. She promotes contiguous greenway corridors that allow for greater wildlife diversity and freer migration through urban areas. This was a very influential book that helped push me toward the pursuit of an advanced degree in ecological restoration.

I recently learned about an intriguing resource created through a collaboration between two entities I greatly admire – The Nature Conservancy and The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Habitat Network brings people together to explore the effects of new conservation practices in urban, suburban, and rural landscapes. The Habitat Network website is a free citizen science resource that invites people to map their outdoor space, share it with others, and learn more about supporting wildlife and improving backyard habitat in cities and towns across the country. It takes the concepts of powerful GIS mapping software and puts them into a user-friendly, public platform that anybody can use. This looks like a great tool that I look forward to exploring and reporting on in future blog posts.

 

A captured image that helps describe the Habitat Network mapping process.

So, while I start mapping habitats and measuring the ecological value of Dyck Arboretum of the Plains and my home landscape, consider picking up a copy of Noah’s Garden and spend some time with Habitat Network yourself. Let’s think bigger, explore how we can document and expand our beneficial ecological footprint through landscape scale prairie gardening, and consider ways to convince others to follow our lead.

This is a conversation to be continued…

 

Inspiring Landscapers

This Saturday, February 24 at our Native Plant Landscaping Symposium, 10 inspiring landscapers will share their native plant gardening stories.

 

A common thread of these landscapers/gardeners (I use these words interchangeably) is that they have each uniquely contributed to my approach and style of landscaping over the years. I have been drawn to their passion for gardening and landscaping. They are botanists, ecologists, master gardeners, landscape artists, and inquisitive students of gardening. Most of them have had successful careers in areas other than landscaping. Yet each considers landscaping a labor of love and finds great joy in working with plants that shape the landscapes around them. Their enthusiasm is infectious. I look forward to hearing their brief prepared stories with photos all being told in a one day symposium format where they can also answer questions. While it is difficult to fit these individuals into specific landscaping categories, I have generally ordered them in speaking sequence from wild and ecological to horticultural and manicured.

I won’t have time to give them each the full and flowery introduction that they deserve. But I will say a bit about their styles and approaches that have influenced me over the last 25+ years.

The Speakers

 

Dwight Platt was my major professor at Bethel College where I studied biology and environmental studies in the early 90s. He introduced me to Lorna Harder, then curator for natural history at the Kauffman Museum. The two of them were responsible for developing the oldest prairie reconstruction in Kansas on the museum grounds, and I was able to serve as a prairie intern with them before graduating. My appreciation for the diverse ecology of the prairie and how prairie plants can be incorporated into landscaping started with them. They inspired me to pursue further education in ecological restoration and landscape architecture.

Kauffman Museum Prairie

Dwight and Lorna’s home landscapes utilize many native plants with a focus on attracting biological diversity to those landscapes. Bob Simmons carries a similar approach. His intimate knowledge of host plants and what butterflies they attract guides his approach to landscaping as well. All three of these folks are passionate knowledge seekers of the birds and butterflies around them. They are regular attendees of annual bird and butterfly counts in Harvey County that contribute to citizen science.

Pipevine Swallowtail Caterpillar on Host Plant

My work at Dyck Arboretum with the Earth Partnership for School (EPS) Program has opened my eyes to the power that native landscaping can have inspiring children. Developing prairie gardens on school grounds offers fun learning opportunities through hands-on, project-based learning. High school science teachers Jay Super (Maize) and Denise Scribner (Goddard) are award-winning educators that have displayed how prairie gardening offers a useful learning tool for their students.

Goddard Eisenhower High School Prairie Garden

Locally grown food is important to our health and well-being and I have long been intrigued by the mixing of vegetables and native plant gardens in our landscapes. The Sand Creek Community Garden in N. Newton has been an example for me in recent years of how growing vegetables and tending native prairie gardens are mutually beneficial. Attracting pollinators and insect predators can only help food plots and they certainly add interest to gardening experience as well. Duane Friesen was the main organizer of this community garden seen as one of the best in Kansas. And as my father-in-law, Duane has also taught me much of what I know about growing vegetables. Joanna Fenton Friesen has a real eye for designing beautiful gardens with native plants and has been an organizer for the perennial flower beds at the community garden. They each have inspiring home landscapes with vegetables and native plants as well.

Sand Creek Community Garden

Pam Paulsen, Reno County Horticulture Extension Agent, is one of the top education resources in Kansas and she has immense knowledge about vegetable gardening, pollinators, and natural pest management. She is also an avid student of the prairie and a great photographer.

Aesthetically arranging native plants in organized assemblages adds enjoyment to landscaping. It also makes native plant gardening, often seen as unkept and weedy, more palatable to the general public. My colleague, Scott Vogt, has a horticulture degree and has helped influence me in this regard by encouraging plantings in groupings. Duane and Joanna with their eyes for aesthetics and surrounding native gardens with edging and mulched trails have also been influential.

A Clumped Planting at Dyck Arboretum.

Two gardens that I have enjoyed visiting in recent years have been the home landscapes designed and tended by Laura Knight (Wichita) and Lenora Larson (Paola). Their displays of not only native plants, but adaptable perennials and annuals too have expanded my understanding and appreciation for sustainable landscaping. They also have an appreciation for art in the garden, beautiful walking paths, water features, and weeding – all elements that enhance the garden aesthetic experience. Lenora also pays close attention to choosing plants that offer either nectar or food for insects.

Lenora Larson’s Garden

I hope you will join us Saturday and experience even a fraction of the inspiration that I have received from these gardeners and landscapers.

Know Your Native Plant Families

As we approach our Native Plant Landscaping Symposium on February 24, where speakers will tell stories about their favorite native plants, they may make reference to using certain families of plants. Thinking about the organization of plants in this way makes landscaping with native plants even more interesting.

In a way, native plants are like people. The closer people are in genetic relation to each other, the closer they resemble each other. Family members share skin color, body type, hair texture, and facial features. While a unique name is given to each person to recognize their individuality, part of that name is kept the same and recognized both with close and distant relations. These closely-bonded people develop similar habitat preferences and interact with their environment in similar ways.

In 1758, Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus developed a Latin naming system for plants and animals. Each plant or animal was given a “genus” (generic name) and “species” (specific name). Plant families include genetically related plants share floral structures, leaf arrangements, and stem shape. Multiple genera can make up a family. Along with the scientific name, people have also given each plant species many common names or nicknames.

Asclepias incarnata, otherwise known as swamp milkweed or marsh milkweed, is a member of the DOGBANE FAMILY.

For example, plants in the DOGBANE FAMILY have five-parted flowers, opposite leaves, and a milky juice in the stems and leaves with a bitter-tasting, toxic compound that protects the plants from being eaten by insects (excluding monarch butterfly larvae). In this family, the milkweed genus (Asclepias) has 22 different species in Kansas. You may not recognize from their common names that butterfly milkweed and green antelopehorn are related, but when you see their Latin names, Asclepias tuberosa and Asclepias viridis, you will know better.

Kansans have many good reasons for landscaping with native plants. Some of the best benefits are: 1) they provide natural beauty throughout the seasons, 2) they attract pollinators and other wildlife that are part of the food chain, 3) they offer drought-tolerant, environmentally-friendly plants to work with, and 4) they represent our state’s rich prairie natural heritage. By learning more about native plant families, you can add more diversity to your garden, creating a wider range of habitat for wildlife.

Additional plant families commonly found in the prairie, which are well represented at our plant sale, include:

SUNFLOWER FAMILY

Includes the largest number of species in the prairie; many flowers or “florets” in one head with both inner disk florets and outer ray florets.

Echinacea pallida, otherwise known as pale purple coneflower, is a member of the SUNFLOWER FAMILY.

BEAN FAMILY

These “legumes” have a distinctive five petal flower, form bean pods, and fix nitrogen into the soil thanks to special bacteria living on the roots.

Baptisia australis, also known as blue wild indigo or blue false indigo, is a member of the BEAN FAMILY.

MINT FAMILY

These plants have square stems and opposite leaves that create aromatic oils. Most garden herbs are in the mint family.

Salvia azurea, also known as blue sage, is a member of the MINT FAMILY.

GRASS FAMILY

Flowers are colorless and wind pollinated, and stiff fibrous stems help carry fire when dormant. Most agricultural crops are in the grass family.

Schizochirium scoparium, also known as little bluestem, is a member of the GRASS FAMILY.

 

Each summer at our Earth Partnership for Schools Institute, we begin our week-long K-12 teacher training with an introduction to plants through an exercise called “Plant Families”. This is a great way to give some organization to the understanding of how plants are named and classified. I think you will enjoy having access to this resource – check it out and have fun while learning your plant families! (Plant Families EPS Curriculum Activity)

Teachers examine grass flowers while learning about plant families.

 

2017 Dyck Arboretum Year in Review (Limerick Style)

End of December, in its last week,
dormant plants means the prairie’s asleep.
From our 35th year,
the events we will cheer,
this time when darkness is peak.

Winter Lecture Series

For wildfires, bird sounds, and butterflies,
folks brought open ears and wide eyes.
Learn new facts and stats,
about birds, bugs, and bats,
The 2018 Series will make you wise.

Spring Symposium: Living A Land Ethic in Kansas

Our members for an ethic take a stand,
with Kansas animals and plants in demand.
Farmers and ranchers spoke,
Teachers and leaders invoked,
a clear message – take care of the land.

Leprechaun Run

Around the Arboretum we ran,
to catch the bearded leprechaun.
Costumes were so green,
time away from the screen,
great fun for each child, woman, and man.

Landscaping Classes

Good folks want to limit their grass.
Mowing’s such a pain in the…rear.
Just add native plants,
attract birds, bees, and ants,
biodiversity you will amass.

Wisconsin trip to give talks at Aldo Leopold Foundation Land Ethic Conference

I paid my respects to Leopold.
A story that he simply told –
take care of the land,
to the future we’ll hand,
An ethic that’s worth more than gold.

Summer Soiree

Nice food and a speaker we did host,
sitting inside so that folks would not roast.
Stayed out of the sun,
silent auction was fun,
we love our supporters the most!

Weddings

In a setting where native plants live,
brides and grooms their vows they did give,
Their families were happy,
words may have been sappy,
discord we hope they’ll outlive.

Arboretum Grounds Management

Nice grounds that our members admire,
demand work with a rake, mulch and fire.
Native plants will create,
space for insects to mate,
and landscapes of which you will not tire.

Spring and Fall FloraKansas Plant Sales

Choose a forb, grass, sedge, shrub or tree.
We love to see a good buying spree.
Plant sales feed our mission,
and bring home the bacon,
friendly advice here is given for free.

Earth Partnership for Schools Program

Native plant lessons teachers do hear,
a program that is in its 12th year.
the kids lend a hand,
their lessons are grand,
prairie gardens on school grounds endear.

Field Trips

Kids come to learn things about prairie.
New names like bluestem and ground cherry.
Plant roots go so deep,
flower nectar so sweet,
insects are our friends and not scary.

Concerts

Great music in a prairie garden setting.
Enjoy tunes in nice seats without sweating.
Plucked strings are a treat,
harmonies are so sweet,
Crust & Crumb breads at break you’ll be getting.

Eclipse Trip

We drove to the corn state to see,
a brief view of the sun worry free.
All eyes in the air,
such shows are so rare,
wearing dark glasses was key.

Luminary Walk

Our grounds after dark are a sight,
gentle glows given by candle light.
Festive notes please the ear,
tasty treats add good cheer,
bundle up so you don’t get frostbite.

Thank you for being part of our Dyck Arboretum family

Our staff love our jobs that is clear,
volunteers and members we hold dear.
With a mission so true,
we’ll work hard for you,
Season’s greetings and happy new year!

Looking Inward

In recent weeks, the staff, board of directors, and select members at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains have been looking inward through a strategic planning process to help better guide our future. We are in a process of filling out staff personality profiles, collecting survey data from members and volunteers, hearing from the public through round table input sessions, and will soon be having a strategic planning retreat in early 2018 to make sense of all this feedback. We are working together with Legasus Group, LC to guide us through this process.

Kids are good at examining the world close to them. Strategic planning is helping Dyck Arboretum look more inward to strengthen our future.

We hope this process will help Dyck Arboretum maintain relevance in an ever-changing society and culture, stay aligned with the values of our mission, remain sustainable well into the future, and keep our staff passionate about our vocations.

We have had good participation from our passionate and dedicated board and members during this process. They have been active taking the survey and attending round table sessions. A summary of the round table sessions is still forthcoming, but highlights from the survey are as follows:

  • 187 individuals completed the survey with 70% of respondents being active members
  • 68% of survey respondents participated in at least 3 different Arboretum sponsored activities with the FloraKansas Plant Sale being the most attended
  • 45% of respondents live less than 11 miles from the Arboretum
  • Respondents agreed that the Arboretum is a very valuable resource for the community and its facilities are well maintained, however, respondents knowledge of how they could support the Arboretum may be an area of improvement
  • Respondents seem to value the educational opportunities and having a beautiful space for events
  • 78% of respondents are highly likely to recommend the Arboretum to others, while only 3% of the respondents wouldn’t be as likely to do so

I love data and do tend to geek out on these kinds of number summaries. My personality profile tells me, after all, that I am a “thinker”. . . what I apparently lack in imagination and humor, I make up for in logic. So, it makes sense that I would tend to salivate at the lessons learned from this survey. Doesn’t everybody think that a spreadsheet conference sounds like a great time!?!

I obviously can’t convey all of the survey findings to you in this short blog post. But I can leave you with a few survey summaries of age demographics, events attended, and a Dyck Arboretum “word cloud.” The Wordle word cloud was generated by an analysis of the five pages of open ended responses of what people value most about the Arboretum. The word cloud gives greater prominence to words that appeared more frequently.

Age of Participants

  • 18-25 years old                     1%
  • 26-34 years old                    2%
  • 35-54 years old                    27%
  • 55-64 years old                    30%
  • 64 or older                            40%

Events/Activities Participated in the Last 3 Years

  • Plant Sale                                           73%
  • Luminary Walk                                    54%
  • Prairie Window Concert Series          46%
  • Winter Lecture Series                         24%
  • Summer Soiree                                   17%
  • Landscaping Classes                          15%
  • Spring Symposium                              12%
  • Leprechaun Run                                  12%

Below is a Wordle word cloud analysis of the responses to the question: What do you value most about the Dyck Arboretum of the Plains?

An Annual Dilemma

A recent September Dyck Arboretum trip to Kansas City and the home of Lenora Larson spurred for me a dilemma regarding landscaping with non-native annual plants. I have typically spurned the use of annuals for reasons I’ll elaborate on more later. But Lenora makes a very compelling case for using more annuals in the home landscape.

Front walkway to Lenora Larson’s home

“Best Butterfly Godmother Possible”

Lenora Larson is indeed a master gardener with a mastery of providing host and nectar plants for a great variety of insects. Her father was a botanist and her mother was a landscape designer, so she certainly has a lineage for creating interesting and beautiful gardens. She was a microbiologist before retiring; with a scientist’s curiosity, she keeps alive a keen interest in learning more about the natural world (especially plants and insects) around her. This passion was evident during her “Gardening for Butterflies” winter lecture talk at the Arboretum in March this year, and it was especially apparent as we toured the gardens around her home.

Lenora Larson giving a tour of her garden

Lenora hates planting and, therefore, smartly touts the use of long-lived perennials as well as self-sowing annuals. She is a hard-working gardener, and loves spending 6-8 hours per day weeding and mulching during the growing season. She breaks down by hand all the vegetation on site to keep around the seeds and insect eggs that will keep the cycles going next year. Lenora is an artist who has a genius eye for aesthetics, composition, texture and color. Not only are her gardens graced with “plant art”, but many permanent art installations of sculptures, trellises, paths, and walls are carefully and purposefully included as well. Her gardens are visually stunning.

Lenora Larson’s Garden

To an ecologist’s eye, Lenora’s gardens are fascinating. The numbers of butterflies, moths, bees, flies, beetles, and insects in general were incredible and so interesting. She could recognize and identify practically every insect we saw and her stories extended to amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals and more. Lenora’s planting formula is generally to plant about 50% native perennial host plants for hungry insect larvae, and then as many flowering nectar plants as possible (annuals included) for the adult insects. Thanks to the annuals, Lenora’s gardens feature flowers from April through November. Lenora is willing to use glyphosate (e.g., Roundup) herbicide carefully to keep her paths looking clean when needed, but as you might imagine, she is staunchly against the use of insecticides.

Lenora Larson’s Garden

My Historical Context for the “Dilemma”

Allow me to give a bit of background on why landscaping with annuals even poses a dilemma for me.

I have been a bit of a snob in the past about planting only native perennial plants. With a fresh background in plant ecology and ecological restoration when I came to the Dyck Arboretum nearly 14 years ago, my focus was all about trying to mimic native plant communities while conducting prairie restorations, improving the ecology of my own back yard, and providing others with landscaping recommendations. This included not only the exclusive use of species with historic presence in south central Kansas, but trying to stick to local ecotype plants of those species as well whenever possible. Native annuals such as annual sunflower, and a couple of different ragweed species are important ecologically in their functions of holding soil and providing lots of seed food for wildlife. However, they generally aren’t appreciated in landscaping applications, because they are aggressive and/or aggravate allergies.

These “native only” ideas were fairly compatible with the mission and focus at Dyck Arboretum, which are firmly rooted in landscaping with native plants. In Central Kansas, that means using plants of the prairie. This approach is what sets us apart from other plant nurseries. It feeds our mission of education and stewardship, and it connects us to a sense of place by embracing historical plant communities important to our Kansas cultural and natural history.

But while this restrictive approach of “natives only” had its merits in designing, collecting seed, and planting our Prairie Window Project prairie restoration at the Arboretum, I quickly learned that this ivory tower mentality was not held by most other people. It also wasn’t a very sustainable approach for an organization engaging the general public on environmentally-responsible landscaping.

So, in addition to promoting use of native plants, our mission also embraces the use of adaptable perennials that may have originally grown elsewhere, but are still adapted to grow well in our soils and climate. Today, in a cosmopolitan world where information and biological organisms are shared easily around the globe, it seems impossible to take a natives only approach.

 

Using Annuals

One of the main reasons I’ve been biased against annuals for landscaping is their regular need for water. Annuals have shallow root systems compared to perennials. Dry, hot Kansas summers are not always conducive for growing annuals from places in the world with cooler and wetter climates.

Lenora Larson’s house sits next to a well-fed pond that she uses for her irrigation needs. Cosmos and zinnias have done well as part of our community garden vegetable plot, because we water them regularly. And we do enjoy the abundance of butterflies they attract throughout the summer. I’m just not sure if I want to commit the time and environmental/monetary costs to keeping annuals alive around my home too.

But in 2018, I have decided that I’m going to give this annuals approach a try to supplement my native perennial gardens. I plan to follow Lenora’s succinct 3-page guide, in which she summarizes her gardening approach and offers her favorite self-sowing annual plant species choices with descriptions of each. For many of these species she recommends, I’ve searched online and provided photos of the flowers below. Maybe you are already implementing many of Lenora’s annual species suggestions and seeing the rewards. If not, consider joining me!

Cosmos bipinnatus

Zinnia angustifolia – Profusion Orange

Nicotiana alata

Ricinus communis

Four O’Clock

Celosia cristata

Cleome spinosa

Impatiens balsamina

Tithonia rotundifolia

Verbena bonariensis

Lenora’s Self Sowing Annuals Guide

Photo Credits

Sassy Sunflowers

Sunflower

The word “sassy” seems like a good word when considering Helianthus, the genus for sunflowers, because of its double meaning. In a positive context, sassy means “bold,” “fresh,” and “audacious.” They have also become annoyingly invasive. But let’s keep it on the positive side for a moment.

There are at least nine species of Helianthus in Kansas present in nearly every habitat type.  The official state motto of Kansas is the Latin phrase; Ad Astra Per Aspera (meaning “To the Stars Through Difficulty”). This fits perfectly with the state flower of Kansas, annual sunflower (Helianthus annuus). Its leaves and flowers reach for the sky throughout the state in spite of a variety of harsh conditions it faces with regard to soils, precipitation, and temperature.

At the very least, sunflowers are extremely resourceful, using a variety of strategies to survive. Their colorful ray flowers attract pollinators, and the hundreds of disc flowers per head are easily pollinated. Quick ballpark counts of the number of flowers in one flower head and the number of flower heads on one annual sunflower plant has me estimating that the annual sunflower pictured below will produce more than 100,000 seeds!

Annual sunflower

 

Many of the perennial sunflower roots feature spreading rhizomes that can help a single plant produce large vegetative colonies. Some are also allelopathic and produce chemicals that hinder the growth of neighboring plants.

Spreading rhizomatous roots of rigid sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus)

 

Sunflowers are also a beautiful hallmark of the late summer and fall prairies of Kansas. They aesthetically grace our roadsides with golden yellow, bolster the food chain by providing nectar for insects during what can be a dry time, when little else is blooming, and their seeds provide loads of food for birds and small mammals throughout the fall and winter.

Willow-leaf sunflower (Helianthus salicifolius)

Now, for the negatively sassy side of Helianthus that can be defined as “overbold,” “glaring,” and even “flagrant.”

For the reasons described above, Helianthus is very successful in establishing colonies and can do so at the expense of other species. I’ve known this for decades and have typically kept sunflowers out of prairie reconstruction plantings here at the Dyck Arboretum and for landowner consultations. However, knowing that this group of plants is a natural part of the prairie and provides tremendous benefits for wildlife, I decided with our most recent and largest Arboretum prairie reconstruction planting in 2009 to include a little bit of seed (only 0.000079% of the wildflower seed mix) of rigid sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus).

Now I’m second-guessing that decision. A recent (July 2017) vegetative sampling of this prairie reconstruction showed that rigid sunflower was by far the most dominant species of the 56 species of wildflowers and grasses sampled. In the northern, most visible parcel of the Prairie Window Project prairie reconstruction, rigid sunflower made up nearly 19% of the species sampled. The second most common species at nearly 9% was also a Helianthus, Maximilian sunflower (H. maximiliani), a species we didn’t even include (at least knowingly) in the seed mix.

Rigid sunflower in Prairie Window Project

Rigid sunflower in Prairie Window Project

Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani)

There is still nice species diversity in this young prairie reconstruction that appears to host a diverse array of wildlife including insects, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and birds. I’m not ready to throw in the towel and start spraying Helianthus patches. I will, however, begin to try and manage this genus with specially timed mowings and prescribed burns to try and slow its spread and reduce its dominance. Perhaps I’ll even connect with a farmer friend or two that would like to experiment with grazers such as cattle or goats in small enclosures and hope they have a hankerin’ for Helianthus.

In the meantime, I will try to appreciate positively sassy and enjoy the bold, fresh, and audacious floral display of Helianthus that is currently gracing our prairie reconstruction in a big way.

 

The Wildly Attractive Leavenworth Eryngo

Leavenworth eryngo (Eryngium leavenworthii)

During the last week, the stunningly-brilliant display of blooming Leavenworth eryngo (Eryngium leavenworthii) near the Dyck Arboretum Visitor Center has been extremely eye-catching. Given the number of attracted pollinators, I have to wonder if Leavenworth eryngo doesn’t look to them like a neon lights spectacle similar to what we might observe at the night time Las Vegas Strip.

On two plants of blooming Leavenworth eryngo (also appropriately called purple pineapple), I have seen butterflies (18 painted ladies at once!), moths, bees, bumblebees, flies, crab spiders, soldier bugs, ants, grasshoppers, and a variety of beetles. The color and nectar combination of this plant must be simply irresistible to pollinators. The following video gives a glimpse of the immense activity happening right now.

 

Eryngium leavenworthii grows most abundantly in the southeast quarter of Kansas and can be found in dry, rocky prairies, open woodlands, and waste areas on limestone or chalk soils. I’ve collected seed in the Flint Hills only 30 miles from Hesston.

Leavenworth eryngo complemented by dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata) in the foreground and golden valerian (Patrinia scabiosifolia)

Leavenworth eryngo is an annual in its life cycle. It is programmed to put most of its energy into flowering and producing seed, and is not held back by having to produce a root system to help it survive another year. Nobody here remembers how it got established in our display beds, but it can now be found growing in more places each year as the seeds are dispersed.

While it resembles, a spiky thistle to some, it is in the parsley family. As Mike Haddock describes on his website Kansas Wildflowers and Grasses, Leavenworth eryngo was named for its discoverer, Melines Conklin Leavenworth (1796-1862), an explorer, army surgeon, and botanist.

The predatory spined soldier bug on Leavenworth eryngo

On the eve of our fall FloraKansas plant sale (September 8-10), we at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains are big promoters of perennial native plants that are adapted to our Kansas soils, climate, and pollinators. We sell natives that thrive alongside Leavenworth eryngo. However, as an annual, this plant is best established by distributing its seed in the fall/early winter. The cold/wet conditions of winter will prepare it for germination in the spring.

After this plant has become dried up and brown later this fall, we will collect seed and grow some for next year’s spring sale.  We believe that all our native plant enthusiast members would enjoy the aesthetic and ecological benefits of annual Leavenworth eryngo growing and spreading in their landscape.

 

 

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.