Flower Power: Learning the Language

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

“What is this flower?”

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

A french poster showing the terminology related to flower position.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katie’s Weeding Guide Part II

In a previous blog post I discussed tips for common weed identification, but hinted at a second installment covering plants that don’t quite qualify as weeds. After all, a weed is just a plant out of place! Some lovely native flowers have ‘weedy’ tendencies but don’t deserve total eradication from the garden. Here is an introduction to a few of those characters, and what you can do to control them when weeding your gardens.

Spiderwort – Tradescantia ohiensis or T. tharpii

A lovely member of the dayflower family, spiderwort puts on a wonderful show throughout spring.

Ranging from true blue to purple, spiderwort germinates readily from seed and can quickly take over a garden. I find it in every garden we have here at the Arboretum. Hairy leaves with purple veins and a pronounced fold along the mid vein are easy ways to identify spiderwort. The short stemmed species (T. tharpii) is a nice filler around other perennials and will grow as a ground cover. T. ohiensis is taller and more unwieldy, crowding out desirable plants. When Arboretum volunteers are weeding, I ask them to remove all but a few intentional clumps. I cut the flowers frequently to prevent those clumps from seeding.

Prairie Petunia – Ruella humilis

So petite but not so polite, Ruella spreads rapidly and travels all over the garden, thanks to its exploding seeds pods. White, pink, or lilac flowers are borne on purple stems with deep green foliage. With a mainly prostrate habit, this creeper makes a nice border plant, especially spilling over rock edging. Deep rooted, it is hard to pull once mature. If these fellas get started in your garden, regular weeding won’t do it – you will need to dig them out. But maybe they are the free, fast growing ground cover you have been looking for!

Curly Cup Gumweed – Grindelia squarosa

Gumweed can be found growing north of our Prairie Pavilion, but not for long! I am overdue in weeding them out. This western US native is cheery and adorable, but too wild to be running amuck in our formal gardens. I’d be much happier to see it growing in our prairie or around the pond edge. If you have the space, don’t pull them all out – it is attractive to pollinators and can be controlled by cutting the flowers before they seed. 

Public domain image, USA

These are just a few of the weedy native flowers that your soil’s seed bank may be harboring. Perhaps they can find a happy home in your garden, as long as you are willing to tame their bad habits. 

Kansas Native Ferns

At FloraKansas Native Plant Festival our customers were surprised to see we offer Kansas native ferns. Perhaps they were surprised to hear Kansas even had native ferns! With our hot, dry summers and deep-freeze winters, Kansas does not seem like hospitable environment for delicate, shade loving plants. However, we have several naturally occurring fern species in the state that are hardier than you might think. They are fascinating to observe growing in the wild, but also make excellent additions to your shade garden.

Royal Fern

Osmunda regalis var spectabilis


According to fossil records, the royal fern family (Osmundaceae) dates back about 365 million years. 3 to 4 feet tall (shorter in poor, drier soil), this fern becomes a large and impressive specimen in the shade garden. O. regalis var spectabilis grows happily in the far eastern part of Kansas and throughout the eastern third of North America. Royal fern has attractive bright green foliage and rust colored spore plumes. It prefers moist, somewhat acidic soil and shade though it can handle sun if the soil is kept wet. This fern can live up to 100 years if planted in the right location!

Royal fern is an easterly species, occurring from the Ozarks through the southeastern US and north into eastern Canada.

Christmas Fern

Polystichum acrostichoides

This festive native fern grows in far southeastern Kansas. According to Missouri Botanical Garden, it “…typically grows in a fountain-like clump to 2′ tall and features leathery, lance-shaped, with evergreen (green at Christmas time as the common name suggests) fronds.” If you love boston ferns but want something perennial, this is a great option. When planted in an average moisture, shaded area it will spread slowly to form a colony.

If you are up for some botanizing, head to these southeastern counties in moist, partially wooded areas to catch a glimpse of these ferns.

Sensitive Fern

Onoclea sensibilis

Onoclea is unique native fern, with arching fronds and oblong, creeping rhizomes. Getting its name from sensitivity to frost, O. sensibilis is surprisingly hardy. It can easily survive the cold dry winters in Kansas, Nebraska and even the Dakotas. This species is native to the eastern half of North America as well as far eastern Russia and China. According to Wikipedia, you can help your ferns survive the winter by leaving dried fronds on the plant instead of clearing them away.

There are many more native ferns I could include here, from the marginal woodfern found in Wilson, Elk, and Greenwood counties to the tiny rock ferns growing among the monoliths at Rock City in Minneapolis, KS. Get out and do some fern hunting, or buy a few at our fall sale to enjoy for years to come.

Katie’s Weeding Guide

Spring is finally here and what a great feeling it is to be out in the gardens again, seeing supple green buds and new growth. But that is not all I am seeing these days — weeds, weeds, everywhere! Tons of henbit, chickweed, and bindweed invading our gardens faster than I can pluck them out.

Here I provide a pictorial guide of our biggest offenders so that you might correctly identify these pests in your own garden and dispatch them quickly before they go to seed.

Oenothera biennis, common evening primrose, is not the well behaved, short statured primrose we use in landscaping. This garden bully is tall, lanky, and spreads seeds everywhere! Identification trick: looks for the prominent white vein and semi-pointed leaf tips.

What is a Weed?

I don’t like to throw that word around, and if you are unclear about what I mean by ‘weeds’ feel free to revisit my blog about proper lingo related to pest plants. In this post, I am simply meaning undesirable plants. This includes plants that may be native or naturalized, but are too aggressive or unattractive to be allowed in the gardens. This is a very subjective definition, but to keep this post brief, it must suffice!

Pennycress, Thlaspi arvense, forms many leaves on its rosette before it flowers. ID tip: leaves are hairless and elongated, and they form a sort of nest for the budding flower.
Wild carrot (Daucus carota) and spanish needles (Bidens bipinnata) are very hard to tell apart when they are young. No problem, because I don’t want either of them in this garden! This photo shows wild carrot. ID tip: look for hairy stems and smell the crushed foliage. It should smell like a bitter carrot. DO NOT TASTE THIS PLANT! Wild carrot is very similar to poison hemlock, so do your homework and be safe.

Fool Me Not

Plants are wonderful tricksters. It is often too hard to positively identify them in their early growth stages. In this way, weeds and desirable plants alike commingle in our gardens because we are afraid to accidentally pluck out something we want! Many young plants have basic, nondescript leaves and haven’t developed hairs, waxy coatings, or conspicuous colors that help humans tell them apart. Many weeds right now are in their rosette stage, without flower stems to distinguish them. So you must find other ways to suss them out! Each photo caption includes an ID tip to help you out.

Wild lettuce (Lactuca serriola) is a rather pernicious weed that has weasled its way into our Birdwatch Garden. Some people use this plant as a wild-foraged addition to their salads, but I will stick with my garden spinach! ID tip: Wild lettuce will have spines on the underside of the leaves along the center vein. As it matures, its leaves stiffen and take on a bluish cast.
Field pansy (Viola bicolor) are a member of the Viola genus, just like pansy flowers from your nearby garden center. These adorable tiny flowers invade lawns and gardens alike. Could you stand to pull up something this cute? I don’t even bother. These add to the diversity of our lawns and they die away before the buffalo grass greens up.

Keep an eye out for part two of this topic, wherein I dive deeper ‘into the weeds’ about which weed species are truly pests and which should be allowed to happily coexist in your landscape.

Happy weeding!

Preparing for FloraKansas

The Arboretum greenhouse is warm and alive this time of year, beginning to fill up with stock for FloraKansas Native Plant Festival. FloraKansas is our largest fundraiser, and takes a lot of prep work. Luckily, I relish my time spent time in the greenhouse, so it is a welcome change of pace from the snow-shoveling and office work of winter. Here is a behind the scenes look at how it all comes together in just a few short months.

Each spring we receive about 15,000 plants. Many plants come to us as plugs — pre-grown plants that are transplanted into sale-size pots. This is an economical and user-friendly way for us to plant thousands of plants without the risk associated with caring for tiny seedlings. We order plugs from lots of native plant nurseries around the country and around the state to ensure a nice variety for our customers.

Plugs are small and have fragile foliage, but also have well formed root systems.
Photo of a small plant, a newly transplanted plug.
Plug plants arrive with very few leaves on. With a few days of sun and moisture, they begin to leaf out and grow quickly.

Sometimes we seed our own plants with seed we have collected or purchased from a trusted source. Though this is very tedious and time consuming, it is so rewarding to see those little sprouts poking through the soil! We then use a fork to tease apart the tiny roots and plant them into individual pots.

Tiny seedlings are so sensitive to changes in temperature and moisture, so I try not to seed more than I can take care of! In previous years, Scott and Brad seeded much more of the nursery stock than we do today.

We heat the greenhouse with industrial heaters during the cold nights of February and March and vent with large fans during the day. Keeping plants at optimal growing temperature helps them green up in time for the sale. Surprisingly, during a sunny day in spring, temperatures in the greenhouse can reach 90 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit quickly, even though it is cold outside!

Our director, Scott, waters mature shade plants in our greenhouse. Too much water can mean mold and rot for our plants, but too little can also be deadly!
Photo of greenhouse in bloom, mature plants after many weeks of growing and care.
After many weeks of care and worry, my little plant babies are all grown up!

FloraKansas would not be possible without volunteers. They transplant, water, sweep greenhouse isles, load and unload trucks, and so much more. I couldn’t possibly do all of those tasks by myself! And that doesn’t even include the many volunteers who help us on the days of the event, cashiering and helping customers to their cars. FloraKansas is a great time to be an Arboretum employee — surrounded by enthusiastic volunteers who support our mission, it makes the job easy. If you would like to volunteer at FloraKansas or otherwise, click here for more information.

I hope to see lots of our blog readers at the spring sale! It is a wonderful time to talk face to face with our members and supporters. Come see us soon, and pick up a few native plants while you are at it.

A Garden for the Dogs

As a horticulturist and a dog lover, life can be a little ‘ruff’. I dream of a beautiful, lush landscape of gorgeous plants and well-tended lawn, but we all know how dogs wreak havoc on our outdoor spaces. Even my sweet pooch, well behaved and trained to a T, inadvertently tramples my plants and upends my #gardengoals with every enthusiastic game of frisbee.

But there is light at the end of this long, muddy, paw-printed tunnel — with some careful planning, you can love your dog and your yard.

To save my small lawn from total destruction, Rosie and I sometimes take our game of fetch to the tennis courts or a park.

Safety First

This should be a no-brainer, but bears repeating: Keep harmful chemicals and pesticides out of a dog-friendly yard! Even if you think your dog doesn’t “go over there that often”, or you are pretty sure the treatment “will dry by the time she gets there”. Remember that your doggo is in direct paw-to-ground contact with the plants and soil they walk on – not to mention the digging, rolling, and rooting around that pups do on a daily basis. Some studies show a growing link between lawn-care products and cases of canine lymphoma. So, if you or your lawn care professionals are applying ANY pesticides or herbicides, do your research and call your vet to make sure you are making a safe choice for your canine friend.

We all love our dogs and smother them in love, and your yard is part of that! Commit a little time to providing a safe and fun space for them!

Do Your Homework

It is impossible to keep straight all the poisonous and non-poisonous plants out there. Even the most well intentioned garden center clerk might get it wrong, putting your pup at risk. Check before you buy at ASPCA.org’s Poisonous Plants database. Be aware that even the most benign plants can cause problems if ingested in large quantities or if your pup has other health issues.

On the whole, plants in the mint genus (Mentha) seem to be fairly safe for dogs, including peppermint and spearmint, (but excluding Mentha pulegium.) In fact, many common herbs are safe for dogs and keep their highly evolved noses stimulated. Look for lavender, basil, rosemary, and oregano to include in your garden. Not only will these herbs freshen your pet’s breath should they choose to take a nibble, but they also attract pollinators and have lovely foliage.

As much as I love milkweed, this plant DOES NOT belong in a pet-friendly garden. Milkweed has toxic sap with cardiac glycosides in it. Keep all milkweed species far away from your pup’s nibbling snout.

Dog-Friendly Perennials

As native plants go, it gets a little more difficult to pin down exactly what is safe and what is not. Most native plants only have a toxicity rating for livestock, but with completely different digestive systems, does that rating apply to dogs as well? There are lots of online sources for toxic plant information, so all I can provide here is a short list of native and adaptable plants that DO NOT appear on those toxic plant lists and DO appear at our spring sale.

Aquilegia spp. – columbine
Agastache spp. – hummingbird mint
Callirhoe involucrata – winecups
Coreopsis spp. – tickseed
Echinops spp. – globe thistle
Glandularia canadensis – prairie verbena
Heuchera spp. – coral bells
Monarda spp. – bee balm
Oenothera macrocarpa – evening primrose
Phlox divaricata – wild blue phlox
Phlox subulata – creeping phlox

Be sure to check with your veterinarian before assuming the safety of any plant, especially if your pet is prone to grazing.

Winecups (Callirhoe involucrata) make an excellent ground cover. They love hot sun and dry conditions.
Oenothera doesn’t show up on many toxic plant lists. Its large cheery blooms and drought tolerance make it perfect for xeric gardens.

Happy Tails, Happy Trails

If your dog spends unsupervised time in the yard, you have surely found narrow, hard-packed trails devoid of vegetation. These are a dog’s version of cattle trails — a safe and quick way to get from A to B. Dogs are creatures of habit, and this one may stem from their wolf ancestors. Pro tip: DO NOT try to change the trail. It is extremely unlikely you will change his walking pattern; this deeply ingrained behavior is stronger than your desire for a perfect lawn. If you plant anything in this path your pup will tromp over it or dig it out of the way. Instead, think about hardscaping problem areas with pavers, gravel, or a charming boardwalk. A friend of mine has four huge Labradors (yes, you read that correctly) and still manages a stunningly beautiful landscape. How? By planting and planning in accordance with their flow of traffic.

As a young pup Rosie often came to work with me. Here she is staying cozy in our trusty Arboretum work truck.

How to Stop the Digging

A once beautiful garden can turn into an ankle-twisting nightmare once your pooch gets the urge to dig. Punishment often won’t deter this behavior, as it is almost impossible to catch them in the act. In some cases, this is just a phase of puppyhood and the dog will grow out of it. In others, it signals she is bored and frustrated – time for us humans to get serious about fetch, walks, and training to placate their need for interaction. Lastly, if you notice the holes seem to only show up in summer, it means Fido is just trying to find a spot to stay cool. Dogs will dig in cool, moist areas of soil to create a comfortable spot to lounge. An easy fix for this comes from landscape designer Maureen Gilmer,

“…provide them with a pit of their own where it’s more damp and cool than the flower beds. Give them sand to lie in and it won’t make mud or stains, and easily falls away from their fur. Keep the area moist and your dog will prefer that spot over all else .”

THE DOG-SCAPED YARD: Creating a Backyard Retreat for You and Your Dog

With some careful planning, your backyard can be an oasis for dogs and people alike. If you are needing a little help planning out your garden space, please call us to set up a landscape consultation. If you would like to get Fido out of the yard for a while, visit the Arboretum grounds for a long walk in the prairie. Be sure to have your pup on a leash and to clean up after her! Our grounds are open dawn to dusk, 365 days per year.

Stately Natives

This past Monday, at the swearing in of the new Kansas governor, some native plants from Dyck Arboretum got their time in the limelight. Cuttings from our grounds of evergreens, red twig dogwood, big bluestem and more were featured in the inaugural stage decorations out front of the state house. These natives are perfect for floral arrangements, and are also great performers in the landscape.

Dried grasses, evergreens, mixed with vases of white tulips brought a formal feel to the event while still showcasing Kansas flora. Photo by Jerry Jost

Originally, the volunteers helping to plan the inauguration festivities were looking for potted evergreens, tiny pines and spruces, lined up neat and tidy. When they contacted the Arboretum for those plants, I disappointed them — we don’t have a huge stock of evergreens outside of our sale times. But I asked, “Why not something native? Why not something that reflects the beauty of Kansas in January?” Needless to say, they were right on board.

Kirsten of Blue Morning Glory Studio was the perfect florist to take on this challenge. She regularly designs with native, home-grown and wild sourced elements. She graciously invited me to partner in the process. I have done some small floristry projects in the past, a few weddings or special events, but nothing quite so grand as this! I was immediately energized by the opportunity to work with native material from the Arboretum grounds I know so well.

The Plan: Dyck Arboretum would provide native plant materials, Kirsten will provide vision, expertise, schematics, LOTS of white tulips, and I will deliver the plant material and assist with the build at the Capitol.


My car was completely packed with plant material. So full and fragrant with evergreens, in fact, we had to drive to Topeka with the windows down.

Blue Arizona cypress made up a huge part of the display, really tying into the blue of the inauguration stage and harkening to the blue dominating the Kansas state flag. The cuttings smell fresh and citrusy, making them fun to work with. Arizona cypress (Hesperocyparis arizonica) grows well here in Kansas, making a nice privacy hedge or evergreen shelter for birds. Native to the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, it can handle drought and extreme conditions.

(Left) Arizona Cypress tree in the Northwest corner of the Arboretum. (Right) Cypress foliage

We used eastern red cedar, with its comparably greener hue, to balance the colors and make it look lush and “friendly”, as one of the state house volunteers described it. Our ‘Canaertii’ cedars in The Mother’s Garden are good at resisting the brown/yellow cast that cedars tend to take on over the winter. Deep green and well-berried, with an open branching habit, these cedars are much more attractive yard trees than regular cedars,
and come in handy at Christmas time for making wreaths and swags.

Florists always use some optical magic to make a focal point appear within an arrangement. This time we opted for the deep browns and blacks of rudbeckia triloba seed heads. This native is a mainstay on our grounds and in many landscape designs. Hardy, long lived and brilliantly yellow, it blooms early to mid summer and stays standing tall into winter. Harvest for your own dried arrangements or leave it outside for birds to nibble on.

Rudbeckia triloba seed heads from the Gjerstadt garden on Arboretum grounds.

As with any floral design, we needed some accent plants — just a little something to excite the eye. A few sprigs of red twig dogwood, a graceful arc of alder branch (complete with catkins!) were perfect additions. The alder trees on our grounds are not native and are in pretty rough shape from the harsh Kansas living, but they still produce adorable little cones that make excellent design elements or craft material.

Governor Laura Kelly with Kirsten Bosnak and I, plus our handy helpers Bob and Chris.

I am so happy to have been a part of this unique design process with Blue Morning Glory Studio, and to create displays that honor Kansas’ prairie heritage. If you are interested in creating your own floral displays with natives, the first step is to integrate them into your landscape and live with them through the seasons. Attend one of our upcoming Native Plant School classes, our FloraKansas Native Plant Festival, or stroll the sidewalks at Dyck Arboretum to be inspired by the native flora and re-energize your relationship with the land.

Fungus Among Us

Working on the Arboretum grounds means I have the joy of interacting with native plants and animals every day. I get to watch newly-planted trees sprout their first leaves and newly hatched goslings sprout their first feathers. I see migratory birds on their way north and south, caterpillars turning into butterflies, spiders wrapping up their breakfast of grasshoppers, and the cozy tunnels made by fastidious skunks and armadillos. But by and large my favorite living thing to observe here at the Arboretum is fungus.

That’s right – that crusty yet slimy, multicolored, spore-producing stuff that grows quietly all around us.

If you want to acquaint yourself with the world of mushroom identification, buy yourself a small, simple guide to get started. I got this handy book for only $2 at the UW Madison Arboretum gift shop and have found it very useful for beginners.

Fungi is a much misunderstood life form (and no, I am not just talking about my coworkers Brad and Scott, fun guys though they are!). While people often come to visit Dyck Arboretum to watch birds or spot their favorite wildflowers, I have yet to hear anyone shout in delight, “Guys, look over here! A stinkhorn mushroom colony!” And such a shame – I have seen so many weird and wonderful fungus (and fungus-like) creatures at the Arb that I can’t help but be enthralled by them.


In our Prairie Window Project the dense mat of grasses and plant debris create a rich environment for fungus. These tiny mushrooms, only the size of dimes, were scattered throughout a ten-foot square area.

Plant or Animal?

Perhaps you noticed I used the word ‘creature’ for fungi in the above paragraph. Aren’t mushrooms just strange, fleshy plants? No. Technically speaking, a fungus is genetically more similar to you and me than it is to a plant. In scientific nomenclature, fungi occupy their own Kingdom (there are 6 major Kingdoms of life, for animals, plants, bacteria and so on). Fungi do not photosynthesize like plants, and cannot make their own food (autotrophy). Like us, they must feed on other organisms to survive (heterotrophy). Fungus do not have roots, stems or leaves, and do not store energy as a starch like plants do. They reproduce by releasing spores into the environment, or by simply breaking apart (fragmentation) or budding (growing a clone).

I spotted these beautiful shelf fungi growing on a fallen log at UW Madison Arboretum.

What am I Looking At?

The first step into nerding out over fungus is to classify your observations. It is a tricky job, and scientists today are still in a tizzy about the genetic ancestry of fungus. For the layperson, let’s stick to the basics: yeasts, molds, and mushrooms are all types of fungus. Mushrooms are perhaps the most charismatic and well known fungi – shelf-like, gelatinous, or toadstool shaped, they spring up seemingly overnight. What we see as a ‘mushroom’ is only a small part of the organism, just the fungus’s reproductive organ. The rest of it exists as a massive web of string-like hyphae in the soil or decomposing wood.
There are several trees around the Arboretum in various states of natural decay sporting impressive shelf fungi. (Or perhaps they are spore-ting it?) But don’t be fooled – lichen, commonly found growing on trunks and tree branches, is NOT fungus. It is actually a combination-creature; algae, cyanobacteria, and fungus all sharing a body to create a new being, with an endless array of forms.

I see some flat grey lichen growing here, but I can’t tell if these charming little white growths on our Prunus virginiana are lichen or fungus – they cling like lichen but the sort of soft, furry characteristic of fungus. Perhaps a reader can help me out on this one!

Where to Look

People may assume Kansas is not a good place to find fungus – much too dry and hot. Not only do we have some delicious edible mushrooms growing wild in Kansas but a plethora of other fun-to-hunt (but potentially toxic!) fungus. In fact, they grow almost everywhere on the planet and have countless forms, colors, and methods of life. Scientists only know of 120,000 species, but estimate there are millions more waiting to be discovered.
To find your first fungus, search around decaying wood piles or heavily mulched garden beds. Check carefully and often around tree stumps; different mushrooms will feed on the rotting roots at different stages of the decay.

This red-belted bracket fungi (maybe Fomitopsis pinicola?) formed on the trunk of a long dead redbud tree near our parking lot. This beauty was almost 12 inches across!

On your next visit to Dyck Arboretum, be sure to get a peek at some magnificent fungi on our grounds. Hunting for fungus, in all its forms, is a meaningful way to interact with nature and build a relationship of wonder and respect for the land we live on.

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!