O Cedar Tree, O Cedar Tree

Here is a repost from last year about using local cedar trees for your Christmas decoration this year, for the ecological benefits and the fun folksy style! Enjoy —- 

This past weekend I cut down a red cedar to use as my Christmas tree; just the right shape and size and with the right amount of character. I feel great about cutting one of these trees out of the wild (an Arboretum staffer condoning tree felling? Yes!). Red cedars are beautiful, strung with lights and tinsel, but they have become a real pest in the Great Plains ecosystem. Here are a few reasons to skip the plastic tree or spruce farm and simply cut yourself a cedar!

Any Christmas tree, cedar or artificial, can benefit from some ecologically conscious decorations. Dried grass and seed heads of prairie plants look magical amongst warm white lights, but are biodegradable.

Cedars have become invasive

Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) is native to Kansas and much of central and eastern North America. Native though they are, the USDA labels cedars as invasive, and rightfully so. Too many pastures and meadows are overgrown with cedars, choking out native grasses and wildflowers. Without natural wildfires and regular controlled burns, cedars have been allowed to flourish in places that historically would not have been suitable. The tallgrass prairie is one of the most rare and endangered ecosystems in the world, and the invasion of cedars upon open grasslands decreases species richness, changes soil composition and even threatens indigenous wildlife. If you are a landowner looking to do maintenance of your grassland or clear it of cedar trees, Dyck Arboretum can provide helpful information.

Trees and shrubs are overpopulating grassy landscapes. Randy Rodgers has a wonderful essay here on the impacts of trees encroaching on the prairie.

Cedars degrade the prairie ecosystem

Grassland dependent birds, insects and small mammals become displaced or outcompeted when red cedars populate formerly open land. The University of Nebraska has compiled a lot of data on this subject at The Eastern Red Cedar Science Literacy Project, where you can find informative and alarming tidbits like:

“Grassland birds are the most rapidly declining avian guild in North America (Fuhlendorf et al. 2012) and are rarely observed once juniper exceeds 10% of land cover (Chapman et al. 2004).” (Twidwell et al. 2013)

and…

“An increase in overstory cover from 0% to 30% red cedar can change a species-rich prairie community to a depauperate community dominated by 1 (small mammal) species, Peromyscus leucopus.” (Horncastle et al. 2005)

Endangered and vulnerable species like the American burying beetle and the greater prairie chicken are only further threatened by the turnover of grassland to cedar forests. Cedars do have redeeming qualities – winter shelter and forage for birds, drought tolerance and erosion control. Red cedars certainly have their place in a hedgerow or small grove, but should be carefully limited from spreading.

Cedar trees make prescribed burning  tricky and often exacerbate already dangerous wildfires by sending up massive flames. Overgrown cedar pastures are a serious fire risk, and may have been a factor in the 2015 Anderson Creek wildfire.

My coworker Brad has some great bumper stickers that encourage regular prescribed burns to prevent cedar overgrowth.

Cedars are a ‘green’ choice

For all the aforementioned reasons, cutting a cedar for a Christmas tree is already a very ecologically conscious decision. But there is more! Unlike plastic trees, cedars are biodegradable and can be used for firewood or garden mulch. Also note that conventional Christmas tree farms providing spruce or firs require lots of resources:

  • clearing/agricultural development of land
  • years of regular water input
  • pesticides to keep needles bug free
  • shipping and fuel costs to get the trees to distributors around the country

Why don’t we skip all that frivolous resource usage and cut down some of these pesky cedars instead? You can feel good about a tree that’s low on carbon waste but high in old-fashioned, folksy quality.

Get permission from a farmer, landowner or your county land management officials before you start cutting. They will likely be happy to get rid of one, and you may get it for free (more money for gifts, yippee!) and enjoy a lovely, cedar-scented home this holiday.

Beautiful Bee Balm

Even though the grasses of the prairie are drying up and seed heads are ripening, creeping quietly beneath it all is bee balm – still green and growing. I have stumbled on to quite a bit of it around our grounds as I begin to hang Christmas lights through the gardens. I can tell when I am tromping through a patch of bee balm because of the fresh, minty smell the crushed leaves exude. Extremely hardy and adaptive, monarda species stay green long into fall and early winter. Bee balm is a timeless prairie flower, and an excellent performer in the landscape.
Here are some tips to getting the most from your Monarda!

Monarda fistulosa flower, photographed by Brad Guhr

Know Before You Grow

Though bee balm is quite adaptable, each species has its preferences and will thrive in specific environments. Monarda fistulosa, for example, is native to much of North America and thrives in full to part sun conditions. You may have heard this plant referred to as wild bergamot or Oswego tea. This is the species you are most likely to find in the prairies of eastern Kansas. Monarda didyma, however, prefers a much shadier and protected environment. This type of bee balm is native to eastern regions of the US and cannot handle our full Kansas sun. There are countless varieties of bee balm, specially made to fit any color scheme or garden space. Just be sure to check the parentage of the cultivar to know what its true growth habits are.

‘Cherry Pops’ Bee Balm. Photo courtesy Walters Gardens.

Not Just For Bees

As I mentioned earlier, Monarda species often have common names that refer to its culinary use. It is sometimes called wild bergamot because of its aroma, reminiscent of bergamot orange oil in Earl Grey tea. The use of bee balm as a tea has a long history within the nations of Native Americans, for its pleasant taste and medicinal properties. I have personally had tea made from bee balm growing right here on the Arboretum grounds, and I love the warm, spicy flavor. I have even seen people use the flowers as cake decorations and in salads! Do your research and be sure you have edible species of bee balm growing in your garden before you decide to make any herbal concoctions of your own.

Monarda seed heads in winter add lovely texture to the landscape.

The Mildew Dilemma

One of bee balm’s fatal flaws is its tendency to contract powdery mildew. This is a fungal disease that causes the leaves to look as if they have been dusted with powdered sugar. This affliction causes leaves to twist and break off, and can lead to quite a bit of defoliation. It usually doesn’t harm the health of the plant, but can make it look a little sickly through the growing season. There are lots of ways to treat this issue, from conscientious watering to chemical options, as well as low-cost low-impact homemade remedies. Even though Monarda is so susceptible to this disease, it still stays in my top list of landscape plants because of its floriforus habit, aromatic leaves and pollinator attraction. As you see in the photo above, it even looks nice in the winter when the globe-shaped seed heads make their debut!

Be an Advocate for the Prairie

At Dyck Arboretum, we focus a lot of our energy on spreading knowledge and appreciation for the prairie. We love Kansas’s natural landscape and we are alarmed by how little native prairie is left intact. The prairie needs more advocates – people who will stand up for its preservation and defend its value to native wildlife and community health. Most of our direct efforts target land owners – people who can plant native prairie gardens and landscapes at their home or school. But these are not the only people who can make a difference! Here are a few ways you can be a prairie advocate even if you aren’t able to plant a prairie of your own:

Community Involvement

I enjoy attending my local city council meetings to keep tabs on what is happening in the community, especially in regards to environmental issues. Most city council meetings have a citizen comment session at the beginning or end of every meeting. This is the perfect platform to express your thoughts on community green spaces, roadside prairie preservation and responsible neighborhood development. Letting your local government know you want to see more natural prairie in and around the city could inspire big changes!

Encouraging your city to adopt sustainable land management policies can create pollinator habitat, help clean stormwater run off, absorb carbon pollution from the air, and much more! Carpenter Bee on Purple Prairie Clover (Dalea Purpurea)

Volunteerism

We say it all the time, but it deserves repeating — Dyck Arboretum couldn’t do what we do without volunteers. If you are passionate about prairie preservation and live in the area, consider volunteering for us! Here at the Arb, volunteers do everything from mow lawns and pull weeds to answer phones and process memberships. When you give your time to an organization, you free up the staff to focus on the heart of its mission and widen its impact. Search VolunteerKansas.org to find a place near you to volunteer your time and advocate for native landscaping, environmental education or sustainable agriculture.

Volunteers often help out on the grounds, planting new flower beds and maintaining old ones. They keep the Arboretum looking beautifully managed!

Membership

Lastly, if you don’t have lots of time in your schedule to attend community meetings or volunteer somewhere, don’t fret. The simple purchase of a membership to an organization you support can make a big difference. The Dyck Arboretum, and other non-profit organizations like us, depend on memberships as a large portion of our budget. Membership gifts also support our programming and events. We use membership numbers to gauge whether our message resonates with the public. It is always so encouraging to see that number grow, one membership at a time! Becoming a member tells us that you support the work we are doing and that you want us to keep it going. If that is how you feel about Dyck Arboretum, become a member and a prairie advocate here.

Staff and members get to know each other at the annual Summer Soiree, an evening of fine food and entertainment.

Butterfly Hunting 101

Fall is an excellent time of year to go searching for butterflies. The late season flowers like goldenrod, asters, and maximilian sunflowers are all important nectar sources, and are usually swarming with pollinators. If you want to get the most out of your butterfly watching expedition, consider these helpful hints.

Grey hairstreaks (Strymon melinus) are my favorite butterfly, even though they are very small and not overly showy. I caught a picture of this one as it fed on wild quinine flowers.

Look on the Sunny Side

Butterflies are most active on sunny, warm days, because they cannot regulate their own body temperature. This is why you don’t see them fluttering around in deep shade – their flight is dependent upon body temperature, which is dependent upon the sun. Daytime temperatures between 80-100 degrees fahrenheit are optimum. Anything colder and they will start to slow down or quit flying all together. To warm themselves back up to flying form, they ‘bask’ by spreading their wings and sitting very still on a rock or sidewalk to soak up heat from the sun. For a successful butterfly hunting mission, be sure to choose a warm day and look in areas of full sun.

Bordered patches are commonly found throughout the southwest US and Northern Mexico, but I have spotted quite a few in Kansas through early fall.

Keep an Eye on the Weather

Cold fronts and warm fronts can have a big impact on the kind of butterflies you will see. Earlier this week, a strong south wind stalled several hundred monarchs from continuing their journey to Mexico. Choosing not to waste precious energy and fight the wind, they hunkered down in protected areas of the Arboretum and waited it out. When monarchs gather together in groups and rest on tree branches, they are ‘roosting’. They do this at night as well, or to avoid flying in a storm. Additionally, strong winds can blow in butterflies that aren’t usually in our range or cause otherwise active butterflies to be still, giving you a good opportunity to view them in detail.

This video was taken last fall in our butterfly garden. Asters are a great pollinator attractant, as you can see by the monarchs, queens, painted ladies and bees all enjoying their lunch.

Get a Better View

A pair of good binoculars can greatly enhance your butterfly watching experience and allows you to see details that the naked eye might miss. Short range binoculars, meant for backyard birding perhaps, give you a much more detailed view of nearby butterflies without getting too close and startling them. This can be especially useful when you are butterfly watching with children. Often excitable and loud on these kinds of outings, children can be taught how to use binoculars to keep them at a distance and prevent them from scaring away all your winged friends!

This viceroy butterfly is a monarch look-a-like, but is smaller and has a horizontal line on its hindwings that help us tell them apart.

Dyck Arboretum is a great place to come for a butterfly watching experience, and we often have many species feeding at once in our butterfly garden area. But it’s easy to attract these beauties to your own home by planting native and adaptable plants that provide food and shelter. We still have a few plants for sale in and around our greenhouse. I’d would love to help you create a butterfly oasis of your own! Call the office today and ask about our remaining inventory and special sale items – coneflowers, a butterfly favorite, are 25% off through October 5th.

Caterpillar Mania – Part II

Part II of my blog series about caterpillars will cover their bodies and behaviors, and the habitats you can build for them at home.

Anatomy

Once you look closely, you can easily see that caterpillars are more than just a pudgy worm. They often have visible faces, charismatic coloration and interesting behaviors. Caterpillars are actually six legged creatures (because, of course, they are insects!), though it looks like they have many more. The six real legs are located at the front of the body near the head. All other legs are considered ‘prolegs’; appendages for gripping, and moving, but not true jointed legs.

Some caterpillars seem to have horns or antennas visible on their heads, but you are actually seeing tentacles. Most caterpillar antennae are very small and inconspicuous, located near the mouth, while tentacles are large, fleshy and can occur in several places along the top of the body. Tentacles on the head help them sense the world around them while tubercules (fleshy knobs along the body) are usually for intimidating predators.

You may have questioned at one time or another how caterpillars ‘breathe’, or if they do at all! In fact, insects breathe through holes in their bodies called  ‘spiracles’. These tiny openings (found along the sides of most caterpillars) bring air into the trachea of the insects and usually deliver oxygen directly to the body tissues.

A white-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata) caterpillar blending in with a rusty brown redbud stem. As long as my finger at least, this is one huge caterpillar!

Dude with a ‘Tude

When you are such a delicious and nutritious snack for birds, it pays to defend yourself and stay hidden! In the last post I discussed defense mechanisms such as special coloration, camouflage or toxic setae (hairs). But sometimes their defenses have much more attitude! For instance, swallowtail caterpillars are famous for their charismatic show of osmetrium, a forked organ that shoots out suddenly to startle predators. When threatened, the caterpillar quickly extends the osmetrium to scare the offending spider, bird, or ant. A great video of this reaction is found here. The organ resembles a snake tongue or tiny horns and can secrete unpleasant odors to further repel a would-be predator.

Monarch caterpillar on a swamp milkweed leaf outside the Arboretum greenhouse.

Flinging Frass

Caterpillars with osmetrium purposely produce unpleasant odors to scare predators, while other butterfly larvae take drastic measures not to produce an odor. Silver-spotted skipper caterpillars are famous for their ability to fling their frass (the fancy word for caterpillar poop) incredible distances. Scientists believe this helps keep predators such as wasps from detecting where the caterpillar is living. To be sure no predator finds their cozy home, a tiny skipper caterpillar can shoot their turds up to 5 feet away! That’s about 30 times their body length. They accomplish this feat through a controlled burst of high blood pressure.

You have to see it to believe it — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WW5j7eY15Yw

Silk

Caterpillars have amazing organs called ‘spinnerets’ that produce silk. We know that silkworms are bred especially for their prolific silk production, but many of the caterpillars in your very own backyards also make silk. Some caterpillars use silk to escape predators by attaching it to a leaf and ‘bungee jumping’ to safety. They also use it to make mats or trails around the plant they live on to make travel easier. Some caterpillars will make elaborate tents or ‘bags’ out of silk, with hundreds of their kin inside with them. And when it comes time to mature into a butterfly, a silk ‘button’ helps the chrysalis hang from a leaf or twig. Moths make their entire cocoon out of silk, surrounding themselves in a soft yet protective barrier.

The fall webworm (Hyphantria cunea) is a well known but harmless pest. Characterized by a large sticky silk nest and a voracious appetite, they rarely cause lasting damage to otherwise healthy trees. By Alison Hunter [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], from Wikimedia Commons

Habitat

Regular visits to the Arboretum will provide ample bug-watching opportunities, and our staff are eager to chat with you. But the best way to learn about insects is to see them in person. Plant a native garden of your own where insects can thrive! Lots of wonderful resources exist about butterfly gardening, but remember: it isn’t a butterfly garden unless it includes host plants. They need host plants (the specific plants the larvae feed on) and native nectar to sustain their entire life cycle. Otherwise, as Lenora Larson might say, you are just “bartending”, serving only “adult beverages” to the butterflies but not supporting the larvae.  If you need some inspiration to create your own native garden paradise for butterflies and moths, talk with one of our staff members at the upcoming FloraKansas Native Plant Festival!

Caterpillar Mania – Part I

This time of year is great for caterpillar hunting. I have been finding lots of amazing, colorful critters munching away on the foliage here at Dyck Arboretum. I am always eager to get a picture of them, if I can, so that I can properly identify them later using guides and help from the internet. In doing so, I become engrossed in their beautiful and strange anatomies – spots, stripes, horns, hairs and amazingly grippy legs. There is much to know and discover!

I get close up photos of insects on my phone using a clip on macro lens. By doing so I can see the tiny details on this white-lined sphinx moth caterpillar (Hyles lineata), like the yellow tips on his legs and the white spots on his head.

Caterpillars vs Worms

When a child sees a caterpillar, they might be tempted to point and say “Oooh, worm!”. But we must remember that caterpillars are not worms, they are larvae. Larvae is the immature form of an insect. A true worm, such as an earthworm, isn’t an immature form of anything. There are several other easy to notice differences:

  • Worms do not move on legs – Caterpillars do
  • Worms are not insects, and do not metamorphose into insects – Caterpillars change into an adult butterfly or moth
  • Worms can be microscopic or gigantic, up to 180 ft long!  – Caterpillars are visible, but not larger than 12cm

Also, caterpillars often sport wacky colors and patterns while most of the world’s worms are much more inconspicuous. Earthworms and some marine worms, roundworms, and tapeworms are usually sporting brown or tan skin. However, many types of ocean dwelling flatworms are incredibly colorful, though you won’t likely confuse these guys for caterpillars.

An adult black swallowtail caterpillar feeding on Zizia in our greenhouse. These swallowtails can only feed on plants in the Parsley/Carrot family.

This black swallowtail caterpillar is in one of its early ‘instars’ or phases of development. It will shed its skin as it gets bigger, and coloration changes during this process as well. In the top left, you can see a black swallowtail caterpillar farther along in its development.

Hairy and Scary

Caterpillars are genius defense players. They are so packed full of protein and delicious to predators, they have had to evolve many ways to protect themselves. Some caterpillars, like the monarch butterfly, make themselves taste bad by eating milkweed leaves with toxins in them. Others try to look intimidating with aposematic coloration – body patterns and colors that warn predators to stay back! And some, like the spicebush swallowtail, even grow fake eye spots on their bodies to fool their hunters into thinking they are snakes. My personal favorites are the hairy ones. Caterpillars will sometimes grow hairs to make them hard or unpleasant to swallow. What bird wants a mouth full of hair anyways? Sometimes these hairs are designed to fall off and lodge in the skin/mucus membrane of whatever is disturbing it, causing an itchy rash in some people.

 

This is a cycnia moth caterpillar feeding on Asclepias sullivantii in our plant nursery. This little guy needs milkweed just as much as the monarchs, but doesn’t get the same press for some reason. I made sure not to touch him because of all those potentially itch-inducing hairs!

In part II of this topic, I will talk a little bit about the specific parts of their body, special caterpillar diets, silk making abilities, and how you can design your very own caterpillar-attracting butterfly garden. Until then, keep a lookout for these special critters and do a little discovering of your own!

Coneflowers: Native vs Hybrid

Echinacea, or coneflower, is possibly one of the most well known prairie flowers. Endemic to North American prairies, it is known around the world for its medicinal properties and its versatility as a cut flower. There are ten distinct species of naturally occurring echinacea, but the horticultural industry has created countless hybrids.
Though native echinacea only comes in purple, pale purple, or yellow, hybridized echinacea can be red, orange, pink, green or even multi-color. But what besides color make these new coneflowers different? And are there any downsides to using engineered plants over natives?

 

Our native Echinacea pallida always has thin, reflexed petals and a pale purple hue.

‘Julia’ is a hybrid coneflower sporting vibrant orange flowers on strong stems. Photo courtesy of Walter’s Gardens.

How They Are Made: Wilderness Vs Laboratory

Most newfangled varieties of Echinacea are from the species E. purpurea. Unassuming and bright, the ‘straight species’ of Echinacea purpurea has long lasting purple blooms that readily self seed in the garden. Insects pollinate these wild coneflowers by carrying pollen (i.e. genetic material) between whatever echinaceas are nearby, producing seeds with mixed traits and variable habits. However, hybrid varieties have much more protected DNA, developed by humans through hand pollinating of flowers with desirable qualities. It can take years to successfully select, cross, and stabilize a genetic line of new coneflowers for the garden market.

This variety of Echinacea called ‘ Cleopatra’ has eye catching yellow flowers. Photo courtesy of Walter’s Gardens.

Pros

Using hybrid echinacea gives you more options. If you like to make bold statements and thematic garden designs, a wider color pallette is always more fun. The hybrid types come in all different sizes as well, meaning customers can choose tall or dwarf types to fit multiple landscaping needs. Native coneflowers, like E. pallida or E. paradoxa, will always be between 1.5-3 ft tall when planted in optimal conditions. Beyond height, genetically modified coneflowers often have better branching and a more compact habit than the native type. They are usually less prone to flopping over, and some even have a longer bloom period. For gardens with limited space, hybrid coneflowers offer lots of color in a more manageable package.

E. angustifolia is an iconic prairie flower, beloved by pollinators and humans alike.

 

‘Salsa’ Echinacea is from the Sombrero series of coneflowers offered by Walter’s Garden. All of the varieties shown in this post will be available at our fall plant sale!

Cons

Native coneflowers are excellent food sources for pollinators, but the jury is still out on whether hybrids are as beneficial. We know that hybrid echinaceas with double and triple blooms are useless to pollinators because the extra petals block nectar and pollen. However, preliminary studies on the subject suggests some single flowered hybrids are as attractive to pollinators as their parent plants.

Additionally, some hybrid varieties are sterile and do not produce viable seeds to support seed eating birds. Humans reproduce most hybrid varieties through vegetative propagation, either by tissue culture or by cuttings and divisions. This means they are genetic clones of each other and do not contribute to genetic diversity within the Echinacea gene pool. Less genetic diversity transmitted to the next generation of plants leaves echinacea species’ at risk for disease and decay of their genetic line. Ecological considerations aside, some new varieties don’t seem to be as long lived as the true natives. 

Bumblebee visiting Echinacea purpurea – photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

Whether or not you go with true natives or new varieties of coneflower depends on the purpose of your planting. If you want an ecological planting that increases biodiversity and improves habitat, then stick with Kansas natives. But to simply improve the aesthetics of your landscape and add a splash of color, new hybrid varieties will do the trick. Come to the FloraKansas fall plant sale and get your fill of coneflowers, native and otherwise!

Medicine Gardening

Plants are the pharmacy of the world, providing us with healing elixirs for all manner of ailments. We often associate medicinal plants with the tropics, but North American prairie natives have much to offer as well! Indigenous North American people made use of prairie plants for medicinal and spiritual purposes. Most modern day medicines are now synthesized in labs due to cost and the risk of overharvesting wild populations. However, creating a medicine garden in your landscape can still be a rewarding pursuit!

Monarda fistulosa flower, photographed by Brad Guhr

 

What is a Medicine Garden?

A medicine garden is a collection of medicinally useful plants, usually organized in an aesthetically pleasing way. Instead of tromping across miles of prairie to find a certain plant, tend that species right at home instead. Medicine gardens can include herbaceous perennials, reseeding annuals, cooking herbs, and shrubs. This no new trend: many cultures throughout the world have tended medicine gardens far back into ancient times. Though plants are the basis of many healing compounds, never use a plant for medicinal purposes without checking first with your physician. Ancient peoples may have relied on herbal potions for healing, but the practice is fraught with pseudoscience and was often more harmful than helpful. Your medicine garden can be of practical use, or purely aesthetic, depending on your needs.

But with so many prairie plants, where do you start? Here are few staples to include that will bring cultural and historical significance to your garden.

Monarda fistulosa

Monarda, commonly called bee balm, is a well known medicinal plant. Not only is it beautiful and attractive to pollinators, but it is also low maintenance and drought tolerant. It keeps a clumping, upright habit and produces long lasting lavender tinted blooms early to mid summer. Native people of the Great Plains used this plant to treat all manner of ailments including colds, fevers, stomach pains and acne. You can use the fragrant leaves, with the aroma of Earl Grey tea, as dried potpourri to perfume clothing or linens. At the Arboretum, we have enjoyed using the leaves as a refreshing iced tea.

Monarda blooms profusely in this photo from Kansas Wildflowers and Grasses taken in Riley County, KS.

 

Echinacea angustifolia

Probably one of the best known medicinal plants in North America, purple coneflower is a must-have for any medicinal garden. According to Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie, “Echinacea angustifolia was the most widely used medicinal plant of the Plains Indians”(Kindscher). It grows to be 2 ft tall with thin stems topped by light purple flowers. Native people and eventually the invading European settlers used the crushed root to treat snake bites and bee stings, and other infected skin wounds. Modern science has proven coneflower power against the growth of infectious bacterias. You can chew the seeds briefly to numb the mouth and gums, creating a tingling sensation. Echinacea tinctures, teas and creams are quite popular and commercially available. This means you can get your echinacea fix without digging up your gorgeous garden!

Purple coneflower is an iconic prairie flower, beloved by pollinators and humans alike.

Allium canadense

Prairie onions offer delicate blooms and strappy foliage, a great addition to the front border of any garden. The bulb of wild onions was traditionally used to treat coughs (if drunk in a tea) and insects stings (when applied topically). Plains people used an infusion of the bulb to treat ear infections. Interestingly, combined with Monarda it was used to cool the skin around swellings or sores (Kindscher, Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie 1992). Several of toxic bulb plants look similar to alliums, so take caution when including these in your medicine garden.

There are too many garden-worthy botanicals to mention here, but hopefully I have piqued your curiosity. For more detailed information about the relationships between these plants and specific tribes and nations of indigenous people, come to our gift shop and grab a copy of Kelly Kindscher’s fascinating and well researched Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie or Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie. Our fall plant sale is just around the corner and expert staff will be there to help you pick out plants that will thrive in your landscape for years to come.

Living Fences

I recently read an article in the summer edition of National Wildlife Magazine that caught my attention. It was all about living fences – areas of dense plantings that form a barrier between two properties or areas. These spaces not only make your yard feel more private and cozy, but are great for attracting and sustaining wildlife.

Living fences can be big (like a hedgerow) or small (like a back garden border). They can enclose your yard, your patio, or even your driveway. By Brian Zinnel [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

What’s it made of?

Living fences should be layered and lush. As the article suggested, it should have 3 layers in descending height. Plant the first layer in small to medium sized trees or shrubs. The second layer is mainly shrubbery, with some tall perennials. The last and lowest layer is herbaceous perennials. You should consider each plant for its wildlife attracting qualities: Does it have thorny branches to protect birds from predators? Does it have flowers for pollinators to visit? Is it dense enough for rabbits, opossums, bats or other small mammals to take refuge in? Are there caterpillar host plants included? Each of these factors increases valuable habitat on your property, making life easier for the animals we share space with.

Living fences are not a new idea. In the days of old, people would actually bend young trees to train their growth into a lattice pattern. By Johann Georg Krünitz [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Plant Selection

Suckering or thicket forming trees such as pawpaw (Asimina triloba), dogwood (Cornus drummondii), serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) and tall sumac (Rhus typhina) make excellent top layer specimens for our area. Thickets provide the dense cover that small birds need to build nests and feel safe.

The middle layer could be populated with New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) or lead plant (Amorpha canescens). These shrubs reach from 3 to 7 feet tall and have ample blooms to feed pollinators. Beautyberry is also a favorite among berry eating birds.

The shortest layer should include a few host plants for caterpillars. Not only will it help insect populations, but even seed eating birds rely on caterpillar and insect protein to feed their young. Plant golden alexanders (swallowtail butterfly host plant), wild senna (sulphur butterfly host plant), and wild violets (Viola pedata, regal fritillary host plant) to see more butterflies and caterpillars in your yard as well as more happy momma birds hunting them.

 

American beautyberry is unique shrub with arching branches and bright purple/pink berries. By Forest and Kim Starr [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Benefits

Planting a green living fence has lots of perks. Besides attracting wildlife and supporting healthy habitats…

  • green fences are constantly renewing themselves and need little maintenance once established. You’ll never have to  replace missing slates, reseal the wood or fix rusted gates.
  • the thick foliage and multiple layers help to block out road noise and unsightly neighbors
  • just looking at and being near landscapes that are dynamic, engaging and green can naturally enhance your mood and decrease stress.
  • established trees and good landscaping can increase the value of your home, and depending on if they shade/protect the house, can help you save on heating and cooling

The butterflies will thank you if you include buttonbush in your living fence. The globe shaped flowers are eye catching! By Bob Peterson from North Palm Beach, Florida, Planet Earth! [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

People all over the world, even in Cuba, have used green fences to enhance or disguise their traditional fences. By Arnoud Joris Maaswinkel (Arnoud Joris Maaswinkel) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

There are a myriad of good reasons to plant living fences – from the anthropocentric need for privacy and happiness-inducing green space to the environmental crusade to help wildlife thrive in an increasingly urban world. If you, like me, have a canine in your yard that needs a true fence, simply compromise –  a cheap chain link fence keeps Fido secure and thick shrubs of a living fence will grow through it enough to hide it from view.

Plant Profile: Mountain Mint

Mountain mint plants are underused in the landscape. With dainty white blooms, a clumping habit and tons of genera to choose from, mountain mints (Pycnanthemum sp.) can fit in any style of garden. P. tenuifolium, P. virginiana, P. flexuosum, and P. muticum are the species most often available for purchase at FloraKansas. I always wonder why they don’t fly off the greenhouse bench at our sales – it must be because people don’t know enough about them!

Virginia mountain mint is an attractive species, in the garden or out in the prairie!

Piqued for Pycnanthemum

All species in the Pycnanthemum (pick-nan-the-mum) genus are native to North America. They are in the mint family, so the leaves have that delicious, refreshing mint aroma when crushed. They spread via rhizomes and left unchecked can cover ground fast, though not quite as aggressively as other members of mint family. The blooms attract a wide array of pollinators. It is a special favorite among bees, flies and wasps, though swallowtails, grey hairstreaks, buckeyes and skippers often visit them as well. Ironically, mountain mints most often thrive in meadows and grassy prairies, not in alpine situations.

So Many Mints, So Little Time

There are lots of varieties of mountain mint out there, but the various species can be tricky to tell apart for the layperson. The blooms are all very similar: round and clustered, whitish to light purple, with spots. However, the leaves do have distinct shapes that vary between species. My favorites are the thin leaved species such as P. virginiana and P. tenuifolium. 

P. tenuifolium, narrowleaf mountain mint. Photo credit: Nelson DeBarros, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

P. muticum is easily recognized by its teardrop-shaped leaves, much wider than the other species. Found from Texas and Missouri all the way to Maine, this native grows in moist meadows and woodland areas. Like all mountain mints, it likes full sun to part sun and average soil moisture.

The short, stout leaves of P. muticum. I, SB Johnny [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], from Wikimedia Commons

P. flexuosum is not native to Kansas, but still grows well here. This plant grows wild in the Carolinas, Florida, and west to  Mississippi and Alabama. Thick, lance-shaped leaves set it apart from the others. As New Moon Nursery describes it, “Pycnanthemum flexuosum is an aromatic perennial wildflower.  This mint relative bears oval toothed leaves on strong square stems.  In summer, plants are topped by dense frizzy ball-like clusters of tiny white to lavender tubular flowers.”

Appalachian mountain mint, P. flexuosum By Photo by David J. Stang [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

P. tenuifolium By Katja Schulz from Washington, D. C., USA (Slender Mountain Mint) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Mountain mints are easy to care for and will spread fast in the garden, filling in the gaps and looking lush all season long. The densely clustered flowers of this pollinator powerhouse will add beauty and wildlife value to your landscape. Be sure to ask for mountain mint at the next FloraKansas!