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!

Eco-Friendly Lawn Replacement

Anyone who has ever been in the car with me, driving through a city or suburban area, has been subject to my rant about turfgrass. My friends and family have come to know this argument by heart. I love a nice green lawn as much as the next person, but with pollinator habitat disappearing by the acre and freshwater around the world becoming ever more precious, I can’t help but be a little critical of them. The fact is, a nonnative grass monoculture (area of only one species of plant) of bluegrass or fescue is something of a pollinator desert – offering no larval host plants or flowering food sources. And beyond that, they can take a lot of chemical and water input to keep them green and weed free. There are so many more interesting, attractive and ecologically friendly options for lawn replacement!

 

This home in southern California is making smart water choices  by using slopes and drainage to their advantage. Drought tolerant plants like russian sage and agastache reduce water cost and uncut red fescue forms an attractive, wavy mat. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:WS-outdoor-west-gallery-40_(32751871504).jpg

Ditching your front yard isn’t a new trend – it was hip in the middle ages too! The historic home of Anne Hathaway (wife of Shakespeare) has a beautiful and diverse front yard cottage garden. England has long been famous for their colorful cottage gardens. By Richard Peat [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

So Many Reasons, So Little Time

Between homeowner yards, business fronts, and miles of narrow hellstrips along city streets, our love affair with turfgrass runs inexplicably deep. And we have much too much of it here in Kansas – in 2011, Kansas had 495,000 acres of lawn, slightly more than the acreage of wheat but less than our acreage of corn. But there are so many good reasons to rethink our grass obsession and transition to more productive landscapes:

  • native grasses/garden provide larval host plants and habitat for overwintering insects
  • native plants produce seeds and berries for birds
  • deep roots of native plants enrich soil and are resilient against drought
  • dense garden spaces provide carbon sequestration and help to cool the air

I won’t tell you transitioning from a lawn to a prairie garden is easy. It takes lots of time and a fair bit of labor. I see it as trading one type of work for another. Instead of mowing every week, you will mow it down once a year. You save money on fertilizers and herbicides, but you spend time planting and weeding. I find gardening much more enjoyable work than traditional ‘lawn care’, and all the less tedious because I know the work is part of responsible resource use and providing habitat.

Wild ginger (Asarum canadense) makes a great substitute for turfgrass in shady areas. It creeps along the ground and has small cupped flowers. https://www.wildflower.org/gallery/result.php?id_image=21411.

But even I am not a purist here; I will always have a little bit of grass lawn in my landscape. I have a dog who loves to play frisbee and roll in the grass, so that space gets well used. Additionally, you can use small areas of green grass to give the eye a rest in an otherwise diverse and colorful landscape. There is a whole spectrum of choices: you can go gung-ho and convert all your grassy areas to garden spaces, or you can simply commit to decreasing your square footage of turfgrass while still keeping certain areas for recreation and aesthetics.

Go All In

If you are ready to swear off weekly mowing, regular applications of fertilizer, aeration, and all the other tasks that lead to a perfectly green lawn, consider a total transformation. Who says a garden has to be relegated to a small corner of the back yard? Make your lawn into a pollinator paradise with flowering natives. To keep the space looking organized and intentional, plant in masses or clumps. Following a landscape plan that draws the eye through the landscape with repeated colors and shapes also helps.

This home in Oklahoma has skipped the traditional grass lawn by planting shrubs and perennials around pathways and decorative rocks. The sidewalks keep things looking tidy and also make for easy access to the beds. By Lebuert [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], from Wikimedia Commons

Starting Small

Perhaps you, like me, still need some green lawn for your dog or space for a game of horseshoes. There are lots of ways you can decrease your ecological impact and create habitat without giving up your grass completely. Wide grassy pathways with curved edges create a fun, natural looking space that still provides room to play. Alternatively, think about areas of your landscape that are already divided up – do you have a sidewalk or fence that separates one part of your yard from this other? Commit to converting on of those spaces to native garden while the other can remain grass. This method allows you to learn as you go instead of being overwhelmed by an entire yard full of new plant material.

Internationally, people are leaning towards less grass and more flowers! This garden in the Czech Republic is a great example of how to use small areas of grass to keep garden beds contained.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:7.d%C3%ADl_html_4ae5ed86.jpg

If you are thinking of making changes to your yard, big or small, Dyck Arboretum can provide landscape designs and choose native species that will thrive. The birds and butterflies you attract will be happy to see a yard full of food and color!

Using Natives in Floral Design

Even on cool days, our greenhouse is warm and humid and full of blooming plants! Unfortunately, they are blossoming much too soon to be enjoyed by our FloraKansas shoppers. I have been fastidiously clipping those flowers off in hopes it will boost leaf growth. With all these cut flowers at my disposal, I have been making floral arrangements for all my friends and family. You don’t have to be an artist or a professional florist to make gorgeous, natural looking arrangements with natives. You just have to know what plants to use and a few basic design principles.

Every grandma loves to get some unexpected flowers!

Design Basics

On my first cutting of early greenhouse flowers I found some ‘Violet and White’ columbine, ‘Lynnhaven Carpet’ daisy fleabane and ‘Gold and Bronze’ coreopsis. I combined those flowers into a small, columnar arrangement and gave it to my grandma as a surprise. To create fast, no-fuss arrangements on the fly I follow a few simple design principles.

1. Tall elements go in the middle and back, short elements belong in front and sides
2. Use shades/variations of the same color and colors opposite each other on the color wheel
3. Use foliage or thicker blooms at the base of the arrangement as filler to hold things in place

This leaves lots to learn, but if you start with these rules you are sure to get fast, eye-catching results. Serendipitously, this fist cutting was the perfect combination of colors — dark purple columbine, light lilac columbine and daisy fleabane, along with yellow coreopsis, provided that pop of interest that only complementary colors can do so well.

Using Natives with Style

I have had the opportunity to do floral design for many of my close friends’ weddings. Some of them specifically requested the use of native plants, others wanted a touch of native, but mostly traditional choices. I am always amazed at how many beautiful stems, blooms and greenery I can find locally. I pluck these from my yard and the landscapes of friends and family as well as roadsides and pastures (always being careful not to trespass or over-harvest, depleting the future seed bank). By using what is on hand, I am avoiding the costly fresh-cut flower industry and the huge carbon footprint that goes into it. Here are a few examples, in order from ‘least native’ to ‘most native’ material used in the composition.

A friend of mine requested only green and white in her bridal bouquet, and wanted something very small and unassuming. I choose store-bought hydrangea blooms and baby’s breath, with varying shades/shapes of greens to keep it interesting – grey, stiff eucalyptus leaves, bright green huckleberry and fresh cut white pine tips, the only locally sourced element seen here. The huge round hydrangea was the centerpiece of the bouquet, so I used tall elements to create a fan effect.

This is a bridal bouquet I did for a church wedding. The bride specifically requested something rounded and traditional, but also incorporating her wedding colors (peach and navy blue). I purchased roses, eucalyptus leaves and baby’s breath (which I used floral spray paint to turn blue). In the road side I found dainty yellow blooms of native Coreopsis tinctoria, a perfect complementary splash against blues and greens. I also added some asparagus greenery from an old patch in my parent’s yard – airy and light, it adds nice movement and more green tones without bulking up the bouquet.

In Kansas, summer and fall are great times to get married if you want to incorporate native elements. This particular bride and groom requested wheat heads and lavender as must-haves, along with lots of yellow wildflowers. I bought light pink roses and baby’s breath, but everything else I found in the gardens of their family and friends, making the flowers just that much more meaningful. The Echinacea purpurea, Rudbeckia fulgida and Achillea ‘Sunny Seduction’ were from the grandparents of the groom, as well as the massive white hydrangeas I used at the base for filler.

Beyond the Bouquet

Photo by Rachel Rudeen

I created an alter decoration for that wedding, using fresh Russian sage (Perovskia) from the mother-of-the-bride’s garden and leftover baby’s breath. It smelled amazing and kept its shape even in the drying sun.

Boutineers are a tedious task, but oh so cute! I created an easily reproducible teardrop shape boutineer for the groom, with wheat as a vertical element. To match the bride’s bouquet, I included tiny cuttings of yarrow, lavender and baby’s breath. Knowing that boutineers will need to keep their vigor without water for many hours, flower choice is key – native wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium) is a white, stiff pearl shaped flower that mimicked the look and shape of the bride’s hydrangeas perfectly, which would have quickly wilted if used in a boutineer.

Winter Wonders

Don’t think the flower power has to end when the growing season does – with strong stems and seed-holding blooms, native plants are excellent specimens for dried arrangements.

Grasses such as Pancium provide airy but firm filler to work around, and the black, bulbous seed pods of Baptisia australis add interest. This arrangement is complementing the artwork of Leah Gaddert, available for purchase at the Arboretum Visitor Center.

The round seed heads of Eryngium yuccifolium and Echinacea species contrast well with the upright nature of Liatris pycnostachya. Chasmanthium grass (far left in vase), also known as fish-on-a-string, provides a whimsical note.

The best way to always have gorgeous arrangements is to have a great garden to cut them from. By planting native you can feed wildlife and pollinators, as well as your eye for design. Using natives and adaptables in your floral designs is cost effective, has a low-carbon impact and offers new options in every season. Come to the FloraKansas Native Plant Festival and pick up some native plants to get started on your own floral art!

Waking Up: The Exciting Life of Buds

The landscape may still be dominated by the browns and tans of winter, but inside the greenhouse is a different story -oodles of green buds bursting out of dormancy, waking up to warm, humid air! It’s refreshing to spend time around these green little beauties, and it is an indicator that plants outside will soon be doing the very same thing.

Buds excite us for many reasons. They portend flowers and color, and the lush greenness to come. But they also are a signal of life! Life after the cold winter months, life after dormancy – a breaking forth from a long sleep, part of the natural cycles of activity and inactivity that we all experience.

Beyond metaphor, their botany is just plain cool! Here are a few things to know about the buds emerging on your landscape plants at home.

Salix Mt. Asama is an early bloomer. It’s bright yellow and pink pollen clusters are showy, suspended on fuzzy, whimsical silks.

What is a Bud?

A pal? A friend? I certainly see them that way! But scientifically speaking, a bud is an embryonic shoot just above where the leaf will form, or at the tip of a stem. As I previously covered in my November post on pruning, there are lots of different types of buds: terminal buds (at top of stem), lateral buds (on sides of stem, producing leaves or flowers), dormant buds (asleep and waiting for spring), and many more.

Buds can be classified by looks or location.
By Mariana Ruiz Villarreal LadyofHats [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

‘Confetti Cake’ hellebore has a pure white flowerbud, but when it opens will be spotted with dark purple.

Bud Beasties

Inspecting your buds is important to stopping a potential problem. The first thing to inspect for is aphids. Buds are succulent little treats for these pests, and have less waxy protective coating than mature leaves, making them an easy target. Often the buds won’t show much damage until you have a nasty infestation, so inspecting buds early is key. Be sure to look on the inner folds of the bud if possible, as aphids are quite good at hiding themselves.

Ogon spirea blooms earlier than other spirea, long before it has fully leafed out. The flowers are white with yellow centers and closely clustered together, making a nice effect in the spring landscape.

Health Check

Even if you see buds on your trees, shrubs and outdoor plants, that may not be an indication that everything is A-OK. All too often I see lots of buds on my potted shrubs only to find out that they are dead – by pressing gently on them, they easily break off and reveal dead wood at the wound. If you have any doubt about the hardiness of a shrub or perhaps neglected your winter watering schedule, take a close look at the buds. Buds that are soft and mushy or dry and brittle are a bad sign, and may indicate dead wood that needs trimming back this year. Firm buds that don’t break off at a light touch, be they green or still brown, usually mean they are alive and waiting to spring open.

I’m dismayed that FloraKansas Plant Festival is still months away – so many early blooming plants are at their best right now, budding out and coming alive! Come visit the Arboretum and enjoy all the buds (and bulbs!) that are waking up!

Imposter Plants: What it Means to Be Native, Part II

This post is the second installment of the Imposter Plants series. In the first post I discussed the differences between native and adaptable, while also trying to clear up the confusing descriptor ‘naturalized’. Here I will dig into the details on what it means to be invasive, noxious, weedy, alien or exotic.

Garden Bullies

On February 3rd 1999, President Bill Clinton signed an executive order that was meant to protect the US from imminent invasion – plant invasion! Non-native plants that become out of control can affect agriculture, ecology, endangered species and human health, and the President was right to be concerned.

There are many definitions for what an invasive plant is, and some are contradictory. Here is my simplified aggregation of the most prevalent ones on the web: a plant is invasive if it is non-native to the region and spreads aggressively enough to displace native plant populations. These plants are not only bullies in the home landscape, they can easily escape into the wild and begin reproducing. Harkening back to the previous post, non-native plants that reproduce on their own in the wild are ‘naturalized’, but the important distinction is that naturalized plants do not degrade habitat and cannot outcompete natives for nutrients, water or sunlight. Invasive plants certainly do, often causing damage to the local flora and fauna.

 

Field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis) is an invasive plant as well as a noxious weed. Brought here from Eurasia, it quickly adapted to the North American climate and is pervasive enough to choke out native plants and hinder agriculture.

 

Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) is a beautiful native species, but spreads aggressively and can take over your garden. Even so, this is not technically an invasive plant.

Weedy and Noxious

I truly despise the term ‘weedy’. Not only is it vague, it is completely subjective. One person’s weedy plant is another’s favorite flower! The true definition of a weed is merely ‘a plant out of place’; a weed can be any plant, native or non-native, that does not belong in its current place. We use this word to describe the behavior of the plant more than the plant itself. Does it pop up everywhere? Does it come back even after you pull it? Well, a gardener might call this plant a weed, even if they once planted it there themselves. But since it only describes the action of the plant and not the legal status or origins, this word doesn’t hold much weight with me.

Brad Guhr captured this delaware skipper (Anatrytone logan) enjoying the bloom of a native thistle, Cirsium altissimum. People often confuse these with non-native thistles classified as noxious weeds. Our native tall thistle is important to pollinators.

 

Regal fritillary on native tall thistle. You can identify native thistles from the noxious by their leaves – Cirsium altissimum leaves are green above white and woolly underneath. To learn all the details on native and non-native thistles from Brad Guhr, click here.

A noxious weed is a different story. Noxious is a legal term and its definition is closely tied to agriculture. Per the 1974 Federal Noxious Weed Act, “a plant that directly or indirectly injures crops, other useful plants, livestock, poultry or other interests of agriculture, or the fish or wildlife resources of the United States” is considered noxious. Confusingly, native plants can be noxious weeds. A noxious weed grows aggressively, multiplies quickly without natural controls (such as herbivory) and threatens agriculture. The USDA regulates these plants and monitors their populations.

Extraterrestrial and Just Plain Weird

Lastly, let’s tackle a few terms that arise occasionally to confuse and befuddle. Though we call some plants ‘alien’, this doesn’t mean they have invaded from Mars. We can use this term interchangeably with ‘non-native’; both mean that a given plant is not naturally found in the area. You may also hear a plant called ‘exotic’. What comes to mind might be tropical, rare, or expensive specimens, but in fact this is just another name for a non-native plant. An exotic plant has origins in another place, perhaps on another continent. Exotic and alien are often bundled together with other terminology – exotic introduced (a non-native plant brought to a new place), an alien invasive (a non-native plant that harms local ecosystems), an exotic naturalizer (a non-native that reproduces in the wild but doesn’t cause major problems) … and so on!

Tamarix is an exotic species native to Eurasia and Africa, but is now spreading aggressively over many parts of the US. So prevalent in some areas, it can lower the water table and deposit large amounts of salt in the soil.

Whether a plant is invasive or naturalizing, native or weedy, can often change based on who you are talking to. Some of these terms overlap in definition, leaving much to argue about. There is even scientific interest in finding a new way to classify these plants to help dispel the confusion. By educating yourself on correct classifications, you can help friends and neighbors understand why they shouldn’t plant invasives that ruin our wilderness. You can also help at our FloraKansas Plant Festival, teaching others that native plants are not just pretty ‘weeds’.

Imposter Plants: What it Means to Be Native, Part I

At every plant sale, the same questions come up year after year…

“Which of these are native plants?”
“What is native to Kansas?”
“Why are the same types of plants in the Native and non-Native section?”
“This is a weed, why would you sell this?”
…. and many more!

Our plant sale features many midwest natives as well as ‘adaptable’ plants that are not native but make nice additions to the garden.

The average gardener may feel bamboozled by the idea that there are ‘natives’ and ‘non-natives’, ‘naturalizers’ and ‘introduced exotics’. The public is not well informed of these terms, and many plants have become imposters – invasives masquerading as innocuous beauties and beneficial natives demoted to noxious weeds. Clear classifications reveal the history and behavior of a given plant, but only if we understand the terminology! I have compiled definitions of these terms to help everyday gardeners decode the complex plant lingo. Since there are so many terms to cover, I will split this topic into two posts! This post will cover natives, adaptables, nativars and naturalizers. Stay tuned for the next installment, which will define invasive, weedy, noxious, and exotic.

What is Native?

We must use the word ‘native’ in reference to a specific place or geographical region – Native to the Mediterranean, Native to Peru, or Native to the Great Plains. Otherwise, we could label all plants native to planet earth! In general, scientists consider a plant native to North America if it existed here before European settlement and occurred naturally here during its evolution. In other words, if it required human help to get here, it is not a native species.

At our plant sale, we stock plants that are native to the Great Plains and Ozark region. We sell plants native to Kansas and surrounding states, in order to 1) provide customers with plants that survive and thrive because they are well suited to this climate and 2) get as many plants as possible into home landscapes to support the pollinators and wildlife specific to our area.

Columbus may have thought he was ‘taking possession’ of a new land, but he was also devastating native plants and peoples. Secret stowaways are hiding in the folds of those funny outfits – non-native seeds stuck on clothes and shoes from back home. Europeans brought more and more foreign plant material to the continent with every new ship that arrived. By L. Prang & Co., Boston [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Adaptables and Nativars

At our plant sale, we also offer non-native plants that still perform well in our climate. We call them ‘adaptables’. Albeit a little vague, this means the non-native plant can survive in our climate and is an asset to the garden. Adaptables are often hybrid varieties of native plants. For example, Monarda fistulosa (bee balm) is a Kansas native, but Monarda ‘Cherry Pops’ is a hybrid of the New England species M. didyma. At the sale, we label such hybrids ‘adaptable’. They are relatives of our native species and perform well in the garden, but are not naturally found in Kansas.

Monarda ‘Cherry Pops’ is a showstopper, but this hybrid’s parents are native to New England. In Kansas it does well in part shade conditions that get average moisture. https://www.waltersgardens.com/variety.php?ID=MONCP

This particular adaptable can also be deemed a ‘nativar’ – a fancy term for a native plant that has been specially bred for certain traits. Monarda didyma is a New England native, but the variety ‘Cherry Pops’ is man-made from native parentage. Though not naturally occurring, botanists started with the native variety and selectively bred for vibrant color and prolific blooms. Nativars are beautiful additions to the garden and add exciting colors, but their lack of natural genetic diversity and sterility call into question their usefulness as habitat for wildlife.

The USDA Plants database is an excellent resource – search with botanical or common names to find out their native range and legal status.

Naturalized, But Still Not Native

If a plant falls under the classification ‘naturalized’, it is not and never was a native to the given area. You can identify a naturalized plant by three traits:

  1. It was introduced – brought here by humans, intentionally or unintentionally.
  2. It is well suited to the environment and can successfully reproduce on its own in the wild.
  3. Though it can escape into the wild, it does not upset natural populations.

A good example of this is the common dandelion. Though we think of this as a weed, (more about this tricky word in the next post!) it was intentionally brought over by Europeans as a medicinal plant. It did not require cultivation – reproducing quite successfully in the new world, dandelions are now just part of the landscape. Though it may be invading your lawn, it isn’t truly invasive because it’s not upsetting established populations of native plants. Though not native, it can still be useful! Dandelions are a food source for bees when other flowers are scarce and the leaves are relished by rabbits.

Rabbits love to forage on dandelions. Both of these species, rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) and dandelion (Taraxacum) have been spread around the world by human error.
By Gidzy [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Cold winter days are a good time to brush up on your botanical terminology and prepare for the planting season. In the coming weeks, part II of this post will discuss our less pleasant plant friends, the invasive, weedy, noxious and exotic. In the meantime, browse our Native Plant Guide for 2018 for native and adaptable plants available at the FloraKansas Native Plant Festival.

 

Little Known Natives

Our FloraKansas Plant Sale is the largest native plant sale in the state of Kansas. We do our best to provide a wide selection of native and adaptable perennials that will grow reliably, but will, over time, use less water and fertilizer. Using native plants in your landscape helps to build back some of the native habitat that our cities and neighborhoods have paved over and shoved aside.

While planning out our inventory for this year, I was struck by how many amazing North American natives we offer that get overlooked. Why are these dazzlers not flying off the shelves? I’d like to introduce our readers to some of these lesser-known native showstoppers.

Linum p. Lewisii– Flax

Linum, also known as blue flax, prairie flax, or Lewisii flax (named for Meriwether Lewis) is one of the few “true blue” flowers out there. It has dainty blooms on stout stems and thin, grey green foliage. According to the USDA link, it is native from Kansas to California and Texas all the way to the far reaches of Northern Canada. Linum does not tolerate prolonged wetness; good drainage and a somewhat rocky environment suit it well. At the Arboretum, we have a very old blue flax specimen growing out from between a couple of limestone slabs in a rockwall. It blooms every spring like clockwork!

Flax is a great native addition to any dry, full sun garden.

 

Ipomopsis aggregata– Scarlet Gilia (Biennial)

Beloved by hummingbirds, scarlet gilia is a dry-loving plant, native to the western half of North America. Just missing the western Kansas border, this plant makes its home in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and California – you can tell from that list that it likes a high-and-dry soil climate with excellent drainage. Gilia will likely do well in a sunny rock garden.

Scarlet Gilia has dainty red blooms but a tough, drought tolerant root system.
     Photo by Jerry Friedman (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Packera obovata– Golden Ragwort

Native from Kansas all the way to the Atlantic ocean, this woodland species is a colorful ground cover that spreads via seed or rhizome. It appreciates a shaded location, but is very low maintenance once established. Usually blooming mid-spring, it is a welcome sight for hungry pollinators!

Bright yellow flowers of Packera obovata, great for cutting!

 

Talinum calycinum– Rock Pink

Rock pink, also known as fameflower, is a sweet and petite succulent that loves hot sun. Native from Nebraska to Texas and Colorado to Missouri, this species loves rocky, gravelly soil and dry conditions. Brilliant purple flowers contrast with bright yellow stamens in the center. These look great next to low growing non-native companions such as hens and chicks, annual rose moss or ground-hugging sedums.

Talinum is a native succulent with wiry purple stems and bright blooms.    Photo by Corey Raimond (Largeflower Fameflower) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Stylophorum diphyllum– Celandine Poppy

Found mostly east of Kansas in Missouri, Kentucky, Indiana and Michigan, celandine poppy is a cheery yellow spring bloomer that often goes dormant during the hot summer months. It has lobed leaves and hairy stems which support large, yellow, poppy-like flowers.

Celandine poppy gives bright yellow blooms early in the growing season.       Photo by R.W. Smith, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

 

Carex brevior– Plains Oval Sedge

Okay, so this isn’t a blooming show stopper, but it is a must-have nonetheless! The weedy, invasive sedges give a bad name to the genus, but Carex brevior, and many other well-behaved sedges are superb for filling in gaps in the garden, creating a lush, verdant look. Deep green arching blades and a compact form make this sedge a hit in a part shade setting.

Berlandiera lyrata– Chocolate Flower

Chocolate flower is one of my personal favorite natives. It truly smells (and tastes?) like chocolate, a unique and tantalizing scent for your garden. Plant in large groups to maximize the visual impact and aroma. Also known as greeneyes or chocolate daisy, they are beneficial to pollinators and can grow in dry, shallow soil. They are native to Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado and New Mexico.

Chocolate flower is irresistibly cheery and smells uncannily like warm chocolate. Photo by Kaldari (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Spring is just around the corner – soon our greenhouse will be bursting with all these species and many more! Not sure how to incorporate these plants into your garden? Come to our Native Plant Landscaping Symposium to hear about the experiences and techniques of native plant gardening from beginners and veterans alike. I hope to see these beauties in more landscapes soon, for their own uniqueness and for their contribution to the ecosystem.