Have You Ever Wondered What The Tallgrass Prairie Was Really Like?

In late September, I was at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve near Strong City, KS.  It was a great experience.  The Flint Hills were in bloom with wildflowers and the grasses were adorned in their autumn glory.  I walked to the top of the bluff on the Southwind Nature Trail and looked to the west.  It is a magnificent sight to behold.  The rolling hills covered with amber grasses were stunning.  I stood there for quite a while taking in the sights and sounds of the tallgrass prairie.


It made me think about the prairie and imagine what it must have been like in the early 1800s – to look at this “sea of grass”  moving and waving in the wind stretching as far as the eyes could see.  The Flint Hills offer us just a glimpse of what The Great Plains used to be. They show us how much we have lost.


These enormous plains with grass up to a horse’s belly or higher were extraordinary.  Early settlers and explorers tried to describe what they saw.  Here are some of their descriptions:

…we walked on over a Ridge came to high large prairies and hills.  We walked on found some cherries near a handsome Spring River and named cherry Run at which we drank at the forks then followed it or one branch to the head which came out of a ridge which joins the prairies, and went up on a high Ridge of prairie where we could See all around for a long distance in the open prairies or as far as our eyes could behold, and on the opposite Side of the Missouris we saw a large and extensive prairie which looked very handsome,…”  The Journals Sergeant John Ordway Kept on the Journey of the Corps of Discovery, July 15, 1804.


“I felt motion in the landscape; in the fresh easy blowing wind, and in the earth itself, as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping, galloping…” —Willa Cather, My Antonia, 1918


…boundless and beautiful / For which the speech of England has no name– / The Prairies…

…Fitting floor / For this magnificent temple of the sky…

– William Cullen Bryant (1866, “The Prairies,” D. Appleton, New York, NY)



“Elysian (heavenly)  fields of tremendous areas of luxuriant grass” (Fremont 1845)


I would encourage you to visit the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.  Sure, it is not the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone, but it is unique to our part of the world.  It highlights an ecosystem that is nearly gone, but worth saving.  It made me more aware of how quickly something can be lost.  I can still hear the birds, feel the wind on my face and picture the hills of grass spreading into the distance as I stood on that overlook.  It was a snapshot of the prairie that will stay with me forever.

Three Reasons I Am Intrigued by the Monarch Migration

Last week (late September) the Monarchs began to congregate in the arboretum.  There are hundreds of them hanging from the branches in the hedgerow of our amphitheater.  They are pooling here until the next north wind can help push them south.


In the last few years, we have only seen a handful in the arboretum during their annual migration.  When I first started working here many years ago, they would cover the trees, turning them orange and black.  We have certainly seen the decline of the population since then, but I am hoping the Monarchs hanging from the trees today signal a turn-around of the decrease encountered since the 1990s.

It is a wonderful and exciting sight to see so many of them.  I could spend hours watching the Monarchs.  They are mesmerizing, thought-provoking and captivating all at the same time.  Here are three reason why they intrigue me so much.

1. They are delicate but strong.

How can something so beautiful and fragile make the nearly 2000 mile journey from Canada to central-Mexico?  Every autumn, millions of monarch butterflies survive this incredible journey.  From start to finish it takes them two months to make the trip.  These delicate monarch butterflies are a marvel of nature.   We admire their beauty and endurance.  If you really think about it, the migration is one the most amazing in the natural world.


2. They love milkweeds and find them in the landscape.

I have heard that Monarchs can smell milkweeds from over two miles away.  It may be from even further away if the milkweed population is large.  Wow, do they have good senses, but their survival depends on them finding milkweeds.

Monarchs use receptors on their antennae to “smell” the milkweeds in your landscape.  As they get closer to the plants, sight takes over to land on the actual plant.  They make the final assessment of the plants with receptors on their feet. So more milkweeds in your landscape will only increase the odds of attracting Monarchs to your garden.


Baby Monarch Caterpillar


3. They use the winds to aid their migration.

As they have been resting and waiting at the arboretum this week, the Monarchs have been feasting on the wildflowers in bloom such as asters, goldenrods, and sunflowers.  I anticipate their departure as soon as the next north wind comes sweeping down the plains.

LateSummerFlowers-2008_ 048

They use the updrafts called “thermals” and prevailing winds to their advantage, much like migrating birds, to preserve energy.  Their flapping wings can propel them southward at speeds ranging between 10 to 25 miles an hour.  Monarchs can travel 50-100 miles per day to complete the two months journey.  There will be time to rest when they finally make it to the warm Central Mexican Oyamel fir forests in the Michoacan hills.

The annual Monarch migration is a magical event.  These winged wonders captivate my/our attention every year.  How can something so small go so far?  It is truly extraordinary how they flutter all the way south.  They are worth saving.  Join me in planting milkweeds and establishing the habitat sanctuaries they need.  We can all be part of the solution.

Asters: Autumn’s Crescendo

Mention fall blooms to most gardeners and they think of chrysanthemums.  Blooming in September and October, “mums” are the major source of color in most late-season gardens.

Another group of fall-bloomers that are just as attractive, but not as well-known, are the asters.  Asters are related to chrysanthemums (both are in the Sunflower Family) and have similar daisy-like flowers.  Like chrysanthemums, asters also come in a wide variety of sizes and colors and are perennial, meaning they come up year-after-year.  There are several native asters in the collections of the Dyck Arboretum and these are discussed below.

The New England aster (Aster novae-angliae) occurs in eastern Kansas.  One of the taller species, this plant may reach three to four feet in height.  The flowers are generally a shade of purple in color, although pink and white-flowered forms have been found.  ‘Purple Dome’, ‘Hella Lacy’, ‘Alma Potschke’ and ‘Vibrant Dome’ are good varieties for the garden.

LateSummerFlowers-2008_ 044

New England Aster with Monarch

The sky blue aster (previously Aster azureus, now Aster oolentaniensis) grow two to three feet tall and has a bright blue flower.  Also occurring in eastern Kansas, this species in particularly useful as a garden plant because it can tolerate dry shade.  ‘Bluebird’ is a nice selection.

The aromatic aster (Aster oblongifolius) grows further west than the previous species, and is a more drought-tolerant plant.  Its name alludes to its fragrant purple flowers and pungent foliage when bruised.  This species grows about two foot tall.  We have ‘Dream of Beauty’ (short with pink blooms), ‘October Skies’ (2’ x 2’ with light blue flowers)  and ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ (3’ x 2’ with light blue flowers).

Aster October Skies

Aster oblongifolius ‘October Skies’

The heath aster (Aster ericoides) has the smallest flowers of any in the group, but it produces them in large enough numbers to make an impressive show.  In the late summer, it is covered with tiny white daisies.  Typically, it grows to two feet tall.  This adaptable plant occurs throughout much of Kansas.  ‘Snow Flurry’ is a groundcover form only reaching 6-8 inches tall.

Fendler’s aster (Aster fendleri) is the smallest of all the Kansas asters, only reaching about eight inches in height.  Occurring in central and western Kansas on dry, rocky prairie, it is probably the most drought-tolerant of our native asters.  In September these low plants are literally covered with lavender daisies.  The variety ‘My Antonia’ would make a nice addition to a xeric garden.

A few varieties for shade would be White Woodland Aster (Aster divaricatus ‘Eastern Star’) which makes a great groundcover with white blooms and mahogany stems.  It only reaches 12 inches tall.  The other woodland aster is Blue Wood Aster (Aster cordifolius) which is taller (3’ X 3’) with loads of tiny light blue flowers.

white wood aster

White Woodland Aster

In addition to being appreciated by humans, many asters also attract many different pollinators including Monarchs.  Planting asters is a good way to bring these beautiful creatures into the home garden.

Of the asters described above, only New England aster is widely available for purchase.  We carry many of these asters at our FloraKansas plant sales.  The others can be obtained from mail-order nurseries that specialize in wildflowers.

These native wildflowers are good examples of plants that are not only beautiful and useful, but also hardy and adapted to our climate and growing conditions.  In my opinion, you should give them a try.


Osage Orange: A Historical Living Fence

It is so common around this part of the country that we take it for granted, but the Osage Orange (Maclura pomifera) is a very special tree, valuable to both farmer and wildlife, and integral to the agricultural history of Kansas.

Osage Orange, of course, is the tough, thorny tree of Central Kansas hedgerows.  To many people, it’s also known as hedgeapple, or simply hedge.  It grows so well here, even escaping out into fields and wood lots, it seems that it must have been here before the pioneers arrived.


Osage Orange Hedge


Actually, Osage Orange did not occur naturally in Kansas: its original range was limited to parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana until it was brought in for windbreaks and living fences in the 1880s.  At that time, many miles of hedge were constructed by planting thousands of young Osage Orange trees closely together in a line.  Many hedgerows still can be seen dividing fields and pastures today.

Once established, the thorny young trees were pruned to promote thick, bushy growth.  The term “Horse high, bull strong and hog tight”, used to describe the Osage Orange, simply means that the hedge rows were pruned so that they were tall enough that a horse would not jump it, stout enough that a bull would not push through it and woven so tightly that even a hog could not find its way through.  Hedge is tough!


Hedge thorns


When barbed wire was invented, the hedge fences were torn down or left to grow on their own as shelterbelts, field borders and windbreaks.  Along with its attributes as a hedge, Osage Orange has long been valued for the strength and durability of its wood.  Ironically, barbed wire is usually tied to a hedge post to make pasture fences.

The Osage Indians, from which the tree’s name is derived, were noted for using the wood to make bows.  It is reported that Osage Orange bows were so highly regarded by Indian tribes to the north that they were willing to offer a horse and blanket in trade for one.

Anyone who has ever been around the trees in the fall is familiar with their “oranges” (or “apples”). These softball size fruit are produced on the “female” trees, while “male” trees have only pollen producing flowers and do not bear fruit.

Available Osage Orange (Maclura pomifera) cultivars include ‘Wichita’ and ‘Whiteshield’ (vase-shaped). Use fruitless and thornless cultivars only.



This common tree is often overlooked, but is a valuable and iconic component of our Kansas landscape. The resilient Osage Orange holds the soil well, and provides cover for wildlife and a windbreak against strong winds. Though it may not function as a fence for modern farmers, its presence here reminds us of the ingenuity and tenacity of our farming ancestors on the Great Plains.


Connecting People with the Prairie

One of the most important components of our mission is connecting people with the prairie. We try to accomplish this in a number of ways, such as through educational programs, plant sales, tours and the Earth Partnership for Schools program.  There is a feeling of value, necessity, stewardship and even urgency to establishing a native plant wildlife garden.  The arboretum is a model of this type of landscaping using prairie plants.  It is our hope that visitors and members desire to learn more about the prairie ecosystem and/or see our displays and decide to follow our example by starting a prairie garden of their own.

One place to begin is to try a few native plants from our FloraKansas fall plant sale.  You can start by transitioning the land surrounding your home to native plants.  Believe it or not, even a small garden can make a difference.  You will be amazed what happens by adding just a few wildflowers to your landscape.  It will be a prairie oasis of beautiful plants that will provide habitat to a variety of pollinators and other wildlife.

Help the Monarchs by planting one of these milkweeds available at the sale.

  • Common milkweed-Asclepias syriaca
ArbFlowers 220

Common milkweed

  • Butterflyweed-Asclepias tuberosa


  • Swamp Milkweed-Asclepias incarnata
ArbFlowers 329

Swamp milkweed

  • Green Antelope Horn-Asclepias viridis
  • Whorled Milkweed-Asclepias verticillata
  • Sullivant’s Milkweed-Asclepias sullivantii


Plant a tree this fall.  Here are the trees available at the sale.

  • Downy Serviceberry-Amelanchier arborea
  • Pawpaw-Asimina triloba
  • Pecan-Carya illinoinesis
  • Shagbark Hickory-Carya ovata
  • Mockernut Hickory-Carya tomentosa
  • Chestnut-Castanea mollissima ‘Bond Orchard Selection™20817’
  • Redbud-Cercis canadensis
  • Yellowwood-Cladrastis kentukea
  • Eastern Wahoo-Euonymous atropurpurea
  • Black Walnut-Juglans nigra ‘Orchard Selections’
  • Eastern Hophornbeam-Ostrya virginiana
  • Black Cherry-Prunus serotine
  • White Oak-Quercus alba
LateSummerFlowers-2008_ 002
White Oak
  • Bur Oak-Quercus macrocarpa
  • Chinkapin Oak-Quercus huehlenbergii
  • Dwarf Chestnut Oak-Quercus prinoides
  • Shumard Oak-Quercus shumardii
  • Post Oak-Quercus stellata
  • Sassafras-Sassafras albidum


Do you have shade?  Choose from some of these shade-loving perennials.

Woodland Phlox-Phlox divaricata

Greenhouse.4.20.2015 (9)

Woodland Phlox

Wild Columbine-Aquilegia canadensis

Native Columbine

Native Columbine


Does your landscape attract garden friendly wildlife? Do you implement good land management practices such as using less water, spreading less fertilizer, applying little or no insecticides?  Utilizing wildflowers and grasses from the prairie in your landscape will foster a sustainable future for us and the world around us.  Be part of the conservation movement.  Imagine your native prairie garden combined with other native landscapes in our area providing food and habitat for a host of wildlife.  It will make a difference.

Silphiums: Four Pillars in the Tallgrass Prairie

2015 seems to be the year of the genus Silphium in the arboretum.  In recent years, I can’t remember them looking so bright or growing so tall.  With the spring and summer rains these sun-loving, yellow-flowered plants have reached a new level.  In fact, they are among the tallest plants of the prairie in late summer and autumn. We grow and sell four species: Prairie Dock, Silphium terebinthinaceum; Cup Plant, Silphium perfoliatum, Compass Plant, Silphium laciniatum; and Rosinweed, Silphium integrifolium.  Each of these are distinct and easily identified by their unique leaves.


Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum)

I call this the Hosta of the prairie. It almost has a tropical-look to it, with large rough leaves up to one foot wide and two foot long.  It will make a statement in the landscape, but give it plenty of room and keep it away from walkways, because the long stems tend to arch over the path.  Individual clumps can become large over time reaching six feet in diameter.  The yellow flowers develop in mid-August atop tall leafless stalks.  This member of the tallgrass prairie is one of my favorite wildflowers.  In my opinion, Prairie Dock is a must in your wildflower garden.

Dyck Arboretum Blog: Silphiums, Prairie Dock

Prairie Dock

Dyck Arboretum Blog: Silphiums, Prairie Dock

Prairie Dock with Missouri Black-eyed Susan


Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum)

A natural bird bath in the landscape.  Each pair of leaves clasps around the stem forming a small basin.  When it rains, these crude cups fill with water that is then available to wildlife.   They stand tall in the landscape and therefore work well as a screen.  I have also used them as a dark green background for other shorter perennials like black-eyed Susan, and gayfeather.  The yellow blossoms can be seen starting in July and are visited by a host of butterflies.  Later, birds cherish the seeds.   Cup Plant thrives in heavier clay soils or even wet conditions.  It will be happy in any setting if given ample sunlight.

Dyck Arboretum Blog: Silphiums, Cup Plant with water

Cup Plant with water

Dyck Arboretum Blog: Silphiums, Cup Plant Flower

Cup Plant Flower


Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum)

Do you need directions?  This is the plant that can help.  The interesting basal leaves look like flat hands.  Those lower leaves usually orient themselves north-south to minimize exposure to the intense summer sun, hence the descriptive common name.  These extremely tall (up to ten feet) wildflowers are found in prairies and glades throughout the eastern third of Kansas.  Each stem is covered with tiny white hairs that give it a rough, bristly feel.  The bright yellow flowers emerge along the upper parts of the plant in summer.  Split or broken stems exude a clear sticky resin much like pine sap.  Native Americans used this resin as a mouth-cleansing chewing gum.  I think I will stick with Trident®.

Dyck Arboretum Blog: Silphiums, Compass Plant

Dyck Arboretum Blog: Silphiums, Compass Plant

Compass Plant Leaf

Rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium)

Rosinweed is shorter, but just as tough as the other Silphiums.  Again, the name describes the resin exuded if the stem is bruised or broken.  The golden yellow flowers that mature at the top of the stems are beautiful in the summer.  It is a pollinator magnet, attracting bees, butterflies and even hummingbirds to the flowers.  It becomes a natural bird feeder in the fall and winter as the seeds are devoured by birds.  It is quite drought tolerant once established and is at home in a wide variety of soils.

Dyck Arboretum Blog: Silphiums, Rosinweed



While each of these wildflowers are unique in appearance, especially as you look at the leaves, they all have that “clear, sticky juice” that exudes if the stem is damaged.  I love them in the landscape, but they need room because they grow so tall.  They are great in prairie settings or areas on the periphery of your yard.  You can’t go wrong – just give them plenty of sunlight so the sunflower-like blooms can brighten your summer landscape.

Each of these plants can be purchased at our FloraKansas Fall Plant Sale, September 11 to 13.

Six Lessons I Learned from the Farm

Over the past several months, I have been reflecting on my time growing up on our farm and how those experiences prepared me for the work at the arboretum.  It is a privilege not everyone has the opportunity to experience and was a time in my life that I have taken for granted.  There was always something to learn, always something to do, whether for work or play.  Inherent danger lurked around every corner or piece of equipment.  There was planting, growing, and harvesting.  Experiencing those things were the best childhood times. They were so simple – at least that’s how I perceived them.


Here are some lessons I learned from the farm:

  1. Work hard at whatever you do. Then enjoy the fruits of your labor.
  2. Always beware of danger.
  3. The product is a result of planning, timing and a little luck.
  4. The land is a finite resource and should be cared for properly.
  5. Never give up, but persevere through challenges.
  6. Problems can be solved with a little creativity, a little ingenuity, a little time, a little common sense and/or maybe even a little bailing wire.

Certainly, there are more lessons than these six that I took from my time on the farm.  I was always exposed to something new.  A new way to plant, a new way to grow, a new way to harvest.  Sometimes there was pain that resulted in growth.  I don’t farm anymore – at least not on that level – but those experiences shape how I work and play today.  They even shaped how I think about the land and maybe even helped develop my “land ethic”.  I think each of us has formative moments in our lives that change us.  What are those moments for you?  Do those highlights impact who you are today?  It’s something to think about.


Three Native Sedges Made for the Shade

One of the toughest areas to grow plants is in dry shade.  There is a smaller plant palette that grows in these harsh conditions compared to more sunny locations in your yard.  Root competition really limits what will do well under the trees.  While most home landscapes have at least one area that is either partially or fully shaded throughout the day, it can be difficult finding native alternatives to the standard plants like hostas chosen for these shady niches.

There are a few native plants that will thrive in this tough environment.  Here are three native sedges that are worth considering.

Appalachian Sedge – Carex appalachica

An exciting native sedge that works well in mass plantings (one to two foot spacing), along shady slopes and “no mow” lawns.  It is gaining in popularity because it is so easy to grow.  We have carried it the last few years at our plant sales and customers who have tried it come back wanting more.  It forms a true clump with narrow leaves only getting 6-8 inches tall.   Each clump spirals upward as each blade intermingles with the others.  It is a shade to part sun-loving sedge that is quite appealing.

Carex appalachica Photo Courtesy Hoffman Nursery, Inc.

Carex appalachica        Photo Courtesy Hoffman Nursery, Inc.

Bristle-leaf Sedge – Carex eburnea

This fine-leaved sedge makes an excellent ground cover or lawn alternative for that shady spot.  The fountain-like clumps of dark green foliage are soft to the touch.  It stays short only reaching 6-12 inches.  Over time, the individual tufts will grow together forming a thick sod.  In the fall, the clusters turn a nice tan.  It appreciates sharp drainage, but not too much sun.  Plant them in mass for dramatic effect.

Carex eburnea Photo Courtesy Hoffman Nursery, Inc.

Carex eburnea      Photo Courtesy Hoffman Nursery, Inc.

Pennsylvania Sedge – Carex pensylvanica

This sedge is tough.  It spreads by runners forming a dense mat after several years.  This quality is why many use it as a great lawn substitute for the shade.  The fine textured leaves are soft under your feet, too.  It is most effective when planted in mass.  You will appreciate its drought tolerance and resilient nature once it is fully established.

Carex pensylvanica  Photo Courtesy Hoffman Nursery, Inc.

Carex pensylvanica        Photo Courtesy Hoffman Nursery, Inc.


See, there are some plants that flourish in the shade of trees. They even mix well with many other types of woodland wildflowers such as woodland phlox, columbine, wild geranium, and golden ragwort, and Short’s Aster.  You can find these companion plants along with the aforementioned sedges at our FloraKansas Fall Plant Sale.  Each of these low-growing sedges are delicate with arching leaves that are very appealing as ground covers.  In my opinion, they are definitely worth trying.


Which Trees Should I Plant in Kansas?

The best time to plant trees and shrubs is in the late fall and early winter before the ground freezes. With proper watering and maintenance, newly established plants will get settled and acclimated to their new environment.  By developing roots this fall, these plants will increase their chance of survival through the first growing season next year.

The Hesston City Tree Board did a street tree inventory several years ago for the entire city and found that there are too many Silver Maples, Siberian Elms, and Pin Oaks.  These three species represent 31% of the town’s total tree population.  The recommended percentage of any one tree would be less than 5% of the total population.  Insect and disease problems can decimate a single species (such as Dutch elm disease in American elms or pine wilt in Scotch Pine).  Tree planting diversity by the citizens of Hesston can help improve the overall make up of the population and bring it back into balance.

At the time of this survey, the City of Hesston and the Tree Board developed a five year planting strategy to promote diversity for future planting.  This strategy was intended for Hesston, but will work for nearly every community in the state.  Some of their recommendations and mine are contained in the following list.  These trees are native to eastern or central Kansas and adaptable to most of the state.

Which trees should I plant in Kansas? Try a few of these:

Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) – A very large broad spreading tree (70’ x 70’) with long smoothly lobed leaves.  Mature trees come alive in the fall with squirrel activity as the acorns mature.  Excellent as a shade tree, but give it space.

Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra) A large tree (60’ x 60’) with a rounded growth habit in youth and maturity.  The seven to eleven lobed lustrous dark green leaves turn a russet-red in fall.

Shingle Oak (Quercus imbricaria) – Pyramidal in youth and eventually becoming broad and rounded at maturity (50’ x 50’).  The leaves are unlobed and lustrous dark green, turning yellow brown to russet-red in fall.  Leaves are persistent though winter.

Shingle oak

Shingle oak

Post Oak (Quercus stellata) – A dense-rounded tree (40’ x 40’) with shiny green leaves that are roundly lobed.  Hard to find in the nursery trade, but worth the effort.

American Linden, Basswood (Tilia americana) – A very large (60’ x 60’) upright pyramidal to broadly open tree.  The gray smooth bark, fragrant creamy-yellow flowers in late spring, and dark green leaves make American Linden a nice choice as a shade tree.

Sugarberry (Celtis laevigata) – A hackberry with smooth gray bark and large (40’ x 40’) rounded growth habit.  Fruits have a sweet date-like taste and are loved by birds.

Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) – Widely adapted to many areas throughout the state, hackberrys can withstand all Kansas can throw at them.  Upright to pyramidal in habit (40’ x 40’) with rough deeply furrowed plate-like bark.  It is a larval food source for the question mark, comma, hackberry, tawny emperor, snout, and morning cloak butterflies.

Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) – Very adaptable to a wide range of soils from wet to dry.  It has an open irregular crown (50’ x 40’) with large heart-shaped leaves.  The flowers, which appear in May and June, are quite showy.  Worth growing, even though it is thought of as a messy tree that drops its leaves and seed pods.  Don’t all trees do that?

Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) – Tough oval rounded tree (40’ x 35’) with fragrant white blueberry-shaped flowers in May and June.  The real treat comes in the fall when the edible fruit ripens and the foliage takes on colors of yellow to reddish-purple.

American Hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) – Rare in the nursery trade, this tree deserves to be used more because it makes a great street tree.  Pyramidal in youth becoming rounded with age (25’ x 30’), it has deep green, sharply serrated leaves that turn yellow-brown in fall.

American Hophornbeam

American Hophornbeam

These trees are examples that will increase the tree diversity in your neighborhoods and landscapes.  For more information on these or other trees for your area, contact your local tree board, local horticulture extension agent, or visit the arboretum.  We have examples of many of these trees growing at the arboretum.  I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.

Remember – diversity is the key to success!

Where Have All the Conifers Gone?

The Kansas landscape can be stark and lifeless at certain times during the year.  In the winter, the hues of brown are seen everywhere from the leafless deciduous trees to the native grasses in the prairies and ditches.  This harsh landscape is only broken up or punctuated by evergreens.

During the growing season, they melt into their surroundings, but are exposed as the landscape changes in the fall and winter.  Early settlers noticed their green forms and incorporated them into shelter belts and home landscapes to breathe warmth and life into a drab and dreary panorama.

Sadly, these conifers (cone-bearing seed plants) are under siege.  They are being decimated by a variety of diseases that really have no reliable cure.  Whole shelter belts have been lost to this onslaught.  Trees that are 50-100 years old are gone in just a few years.

Even here at the arboretum we have felt the pain of losing evergreen trees.  35 years ago, when the arboretum was originally planted, these diseases were not known and certain conifer varieties were readily available and a more diverse plant selection was not installed.  But those species have not proven resistant to disease, so we now have holes in our landscape where mature trees have died.

Taylor Juniper (foreground) Canaertii Juniper (background)

Taylor Juniper (foreground)
Canaertii Juniper (background)


So what is the solution?  I think that the final solution is diversity in the landscape.  Just like you diversify your stock portfolio to spread out risk, we need to diversify the evergreens and conifers we include on our land and around our homes.  Whole shelter belts have been lost because they included only a few species.  Once infected, the diseases spread through the whole line of trees and result in large holes that are filled with other non-desirable species.

The extension service suggests that diseased and dead trees be removed immediately and destroyed either by fire or chipping.  The stumps also need to be removed to a depth of at least 6 inches below the surface.  Pathogens that spread the diseases overwinter in the dead trees and emerge or are released by April to infect other hosts.

Southwestern White Pine

Southwestern White Pine


The arboretum has been experimenting with a few conifer species that seem to be hardy and less susceptible to disease.  They are Upright Chinese Juniper (Juniperis chinensis), Easter Red Cedar (Juniperis virginiana), which is the only evergreen native to the state of Kansas with cultivars ‘Canaertii, and ‘Taylor’, Black Hill Spruce (Picea glauca var. densata), Southwestern White Pine (Pinus strobiformis), Pinyon Pine (Pinus edulis), Lacebark pine (Pinus bungeana), and Arizona Cypress (Cupressus arizonica).  This list is not extensive.

Pines like Ponderosa (Pinus ponderosa), Austrian (Pinus nigra) and Scotch (Pinus sylvestris) have been taken off the recommended tree list because they are so prone to disease.  I would highly encourage you to visit the Kansas Forestry Service website at www.kansasforests.org .  Once there choose your region to view a full list of recommended trees for your area along with other informative publications.

Arizona Cypress

Arizona Cypress

Arizona Cypress

Arizona Cypress


Full descriptions of these trees can be researched on the internet or you can come to the arboretum and view them in person.  For certain species the time will come when they are completely eliminated from the landscape barring a cure.  Healthy trees need to be properly pruned and given plenty of air circulation.

You can do everything right and still lose a tree.  Replant with a diverse variety of species so your whole landscape will not be open to widespread devastation again.  There will be other diseases that come, but diversity will give you the edge.