An Annual Dilemma

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

Front walkway to Lenora Larson’s home

“Best Butterfly Godmother Possible”

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

Lenora Larson giving a tour of her garden

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

Lenora Larson’s Garden

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

Lenora Larson’s Garden

My Historical Context for the “Dilemma”

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

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

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

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

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

 

Using Annuals

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

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

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

Cosmos bipinnatus

Zinnia angustifolia – Profusion Orange

Nicotiana alata

Ricinus communis

Four O’Clock

Celosia cristata

Cleome spinosa

Impatiens balsamina

Tithonia rotundifolia

Verbena bonariensis

Lenora’s Self Sowing Annuals Guide

Photo Credits

Roadside Beauty: What are you seeing?

Fall is the season of change. The verdant green of the prairie melts to lifeless, barren forms – a stark contrast to the landscape that once looked so alive. But for now, as change happens, we are blessed to partake in hues and colors of striking beauty. Trees explode with vibrant shades of orange, red and yellow. Native grasses develop vivid colors and attractive blooms. Asters, goldenrods and sunflowers speckle the horizon.  It is the crescendo of the whole year.

Maybe you have noticed these dramatic changes happening, too. Plants that once blended into their surroundings are suddenly visible. It’s as if someone turned a light on them. Even the prairies and roadsides display beautiful shades of gold, purple, apricot, olive, and copper with autumn wildflowers, shrubs, and curling, rustling grasses. Here are a few that I have seen lately along the roadsides of south-central Kansas.

Sumac

There is no other shrub that signals fall more than sumac. The blood red leaves and clusters of seeds are striking. They are like beacons along the roadsides. If only we could advertise with these shrubs, because they catch my eye every time.

Dogbane

This close relative of milkweed has so much going for it. Dogbane is host for many insects. In fact, the US Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA NRCS) ranks Dogbane’s value to pollinators as ‘very high’. Dogbane typically grows two to three feet tall and develops into larger colonies. Right now, they are a bright yellow, which makes them stand out even more. Even the common milkweeds have turned a nice golden color.

Big bluestem

The “King of Grasses” is big and bold. The reddish purple stems begin to change and set the landscape ablaze with their intense colors. Look for the distinctive “Turkey Foot” seed head, too.

“I took a long walk north of the town, out into the pastures where the land was so rough that it had never been ploughed up, and the long red grass of early times still grew shaggy over the draws and hillocks. Out there I felt at home again.” -Willa Cather, My Antonia

Switchgrass

There are a number of outstanding native grasses that provide late season interest, but Switchgrass Panicum virgatum is one of the more common grasses in roadside ditches. It grows to a height of 3-6 feet and turns orange, yellow and fiery red-tipped shades in the fall. The persistent airy blooms and attractive fall colors make this an attractive grass in the landscape.

Osage orange

This tree is along many roadsides in south central Kansas. It is still incredible to see those huge hedge apples dangling from the branches and scattered on the road. The tough demeanor of this tree including its thorns made it ideal as a living fence. Many were planted during the Dust Bowl days as part of WPA projects to prevent soil erosion in the Great Plains states.

Heath aster

Asters are the grand finale to the prairie garden. Heath asters are one of the last asters to bloom. The diminutive white flowers cover the entire plant, making them look like snow mounds in the prairie. They are one of the last great feeding opportunities for bees, butterflies, and other pollinators before they migrate or go dormant for the winter.

Although each season is different, autumn is a very special time. Life has come full circle, from spring through summer and ultimately ending in the fall. It is the perfect time to enjoy all that is changing around us. It is a time to take in sights, sounds and smells of the prairie and connect anew with the natural world.

Bonus Plant: Pink smartweed

Pink smartweed is prolific, growing wild in nearly every roadside ditch. The bright pink flowers and red stems are very striking. They thrive in damp or wet sites, but it is an annual. If you want some for your landscape, collect the seed after the pink flowers fade.

End-of-the-Season Garden Checklist

It seems that fall has finally arrived.  Cooler north winds are blowing and the leaves are beginning to change on the trees. Things are winding down in the garden too, except the asters.  ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ aster, New England asters and ‘October Skies’ aster are fantastic this year. Pollinators are covering these nectar rich flowers during the warm afternoons. It is fun to watch so many happy pollinators in the garden. There is so much to love about the fall season.

Soon these flowers will fade and the growing season will officially come to an end. It will be time for the prairie to sleep. But before you put the tools away for the winter, there are a few things to take care of now to prepare your garden for next spring. Here is your Fall Garden Checklist.

Perennials

As a general rule, I leave perennials such as wildflowers and grasses stand through the winter. The forms and textures of plants such as little bluestem and switchgrass provide movement in the garden and should be left standing. Coneflowers, blackeyed susans and coreopsis are important seed sources for birds. The dark seed heads and stems look great with a back drop of little bluestem. I take note of plants that need to be divided and/or moved next February or March. Diseased plants with powdery mildew or rust should be removed. Those infected leaves will harm next year’s plants.

Coneflower seedheads next to little bluestem

Containers

Even the best container plants start to fade this time of year. The annuals, vegetables or herbs that have been growing in them can be discarded into the compost pile. Ceramic pots need to be emptied of the soil and put away in the garage for the winter. Removing the soil now will prevent cracking the pot with frozen soil. The soil in plastic pots can be left in them, but I like to move them to a place out of the sun so they don’t fade. If the soil is tired, plan on refreshing it by mixing with some new potting soil with it or adding some compost or perlite. A little preparation this fall will have your pots ready when spring arrives.

Lawns

This is an important time for lawn care. Obviously, the leaves that fall must be removed or composted into the lawn. More frequent mowing/composting can take care of a majority of the leaves, but if you have large trees the leaves must be removed. A large covering of leaves will smother your lawn. It is also an ideal time to fertilize cool season grasses. The nutrients will be taken up and stored in the roots for vigorous growth next year. If you have a warm season lawn such as buffalograss, now is the perfect time to control winter annuals such as henbit, dandelions and bindweed. Spraying with a broadleaf weed killer such as 2,4-D will clean up your lawn for next season. Be sure you’re using a spray that is labeled for buffalograss.

Buffalograss

Buffalograss in spring after fall application of Broadleaf weed control

Leaves

I purposely don’t remove some leaves in perennial beds to insulate the plants. In a shade garden, they are perfect as mulch. Just don’t let them get so thick that they smother out your woodland plants. Leaves make great compost that can be used in your garden or flower beds.

Annuals

I learned something new on our field trip to Lenora Larson’s garden. She has chosen annual varieties that self-seed, but that pollinators love. She lets the plants stand through the winter and then composts them into the soil where they grew last year. These composted plants are a fantastic mulch and add nutrients back to the soil. The next season, she lightly thins the plants that germinate and the cycle is repeated the next year. Her plants are thriving and she has very few problems with disease or insects. Her approach to landscaping with pollinator-friendly wildflowers, annuals, grasses and shrubs was stunning. I have never seen so many pollinators in such a small area. Her home was an oasis for pollinators.

Painted Lady Butterfly on Zinnia

Native Dakota Gold Helen’s Flower

Trees

This is the worst time of the year to prune trees. Trees are going dormant and pruning now will encourage new growth that will not get hardened off before cold weather. It is better to take notes of trees that need pruning and remove suckers or limbs when the trees are completely dormant in November through January. Pruning now will only weaken the tree and reduce its winter hardiness.

Bulbs

If you like the spring bulbs, now is the time to plant. I prefer bulbs that naturalize and come back year after year. Narcissus and species tulips are great spring bloomers. They require little or no care and reward us each year with bright blooms. These bulbs are the harbingers of spring. Now is also the time to put away tender bulbs such as cannas, dahlias, and gladioli. Allow them to dry for a few days before storing them in a cool, dry area away from sunlight.

Weeds

Remove weeds when they are young. Getting after them now and keeping your gardens and display beds free of winter annual weeds such a henbit will mean less weeding next spring. A little effort now will allow more time to enjoy your garden next spring.

Spring seems like it is so far away, but it will be here before we know it. By doing a few simple tasks in your garden this fall, you will save yourself time and effort next season. Why not put your garden properly do bed this fall so you can enjoy it more next year? It will be worth your time.

Predator Gardens

Pollinator gardens are the current craze, and rightly so! Pollinators of all shapes and sizes are desperately in need of good quality habitat. But it’s not all beautiful butterflies and buzzing bees – there are predator insects on the loose, patrolling your flowerbed for their next meal. These helpful arthropods can reduce the weeds in your garden and put a stop to those leaf eating larvae. Inviting certain predator insects to your yard can benefit your flowers and keep your little slice of the ecosystem in balance. Following are a few ways to start a predator garden and how it can benefit the rest of your landscape.

Beetle Banks

Photo from http://www.projectnoah.org/spottings/995056020.
The Pennsylvania ground beetle (Harpalus pennsylcanica) is found all over North America. It feeds on the seeds of ragweed and giant foxtail as well as the larvae of Colorado potato borer. What more could you want?

A great way to start a predator garden is by creating ‘beetle banks’. We all love the aphid eating lady beetle, but there are thousands of less charismatic species to be thankful for as well. Ground dwelling beetles can be a gardeners best friend by eating weed seeds, preying on slugs, snails, mites, and much more. You might not see them in action since many species are nocturnal. Planting raised berms/mounds of clump and tuft forming grasses such as Panicum, Tripsacum, or Sprobolous, invites ground-dwelling beetles to stick around. The uncut grasses keep them cozy during winter and the raised area helps keep them dry. I learned all about this technique at a Xerxes Society training day for farmers interested in beneficial insects. Beetle banks are being tested on the agricultural scale, but it works on the small scale too.

While this Panicum virgatum planting is wild and natural looking, a few clumps of an upright variety in your garden can be beneficial and still look groomed. Wikicommons public domain image at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AUSDA_switchgrass.jpg

Don’t Swat the Wasps

Your first instinct might be to knock down that wasp nest, but not so fast! Wasps are excellent predators who can rid your garden of hornworms, army worms, flies and crickets. Paper wasps and yellow jackets will package up the remains of these little pests and feed them to their young. Some wasps are so small they resemble a fly or mosquito, and these are likely a species of parasitoid wasp. These helpful friends lay their eggs inside tomato hornworms and aphids, immobilizing and eventually killing them. In fact, the University of Maryland extension called parasitoid wasps “the single most important biological control method gardeners have”. Adult wasps of all kinds mostly feed on nectar and can easily be attracted the same way as any other pollinator – by having season long nectar available in your native flower bed. Just be careful not to get too close to their nest, we all know how a wasp sting can smart!

Above, a paper wasp (Poliste fuscatus) feeds on horsetail milkweed nectar/pollen.

A Home For All Seasons

Depending on the size of garden/field you are trying to pest control, it can take years to establish a reliable predator population. Pollen/nectar producing flowers are the first part of attracting these helpers, but creating habitat is crucial to keeping them around. Along with beetle banks, blooming hedgerows or shrubby borders will provide summer nectar and winter shelter. Leaving your garden uncut through winter will make sure there are plenty of pithy stems where insects can overwinter. Reduce the amount of tilling every year to ensure that ground dwelling beetle populations aren’t decimated. And lastly, try to avoid the use of prophylactic pesticides such as treated seeds or broadcast/non-selective application. This will also kill the non-target species, such as the predator insects that might save you the cost of pesticide next season!

The Social Network for Plants

One of the landscaping trends for 2018 is the idea that plants are members of a complex social network. No, they are not on Facebook, Instagram or tweeting about the conditions on their side of the prairie, but they do grow best in a company of friends. I enjoy the idea that even though each plant is unique, they are part of interrelated communities. They complement each other and live in harmony, which makes them so much more resilient together than if they grow isolated and alone.

Plant communities in the wild

Nature is a great teacher. Look at wild plant communities. Whether a forest or a prairie, you will find plants growing harmoniously together. There aren’t any mulched areas between plants, but rather intertwining, interlocking and dense groups of plants growing side by side. A compass plant reaches up through tall grasses like big bluestem and indiangrass. The deep tap root punches through the fibrous roots of the grasses, and the tall grasses help prop up the compass plant’s long stems and keep them from flopping over.  If you plant compass plant in your landscape, plant it with these tall grasses. Plants grow in environments that suit their growth habit.

 

Butterfly weed is another great example. In the wild, it would get smothered and lost in five to six foot grasses, but you see it flourishing with shorter grasses like little bluestem, prairie dropseed and blue gramma. Grasses of similar height is what they prefer. The beautiful orange blooms are at the same height as the grasses. These plants also have similar sun, soil and moisture requirements, too.

Know more about the plants you grow

An understanding of plant communities and the preferences of individual plants will help direct your landscape design. This approach to landscaping forces you to become familiar with each plant, but rewards you with a successful landscape that mimics the communities on the prairie. By adapting your gardens to include groups of plants that naturally occur together and that match your own landscape, you will have a functional, low maintenance landscape that is ecologically responsible and beautiful at the same time.

Urban prairie photo courtesy Craig Freeman

 

This style of landscaping has caused me to reevaluate how I design new plantings. For instance, switchgrass, which is one of my favorite grasses, is a solitary grass in the wild. It forms large colonies with other wildflowers growing on the edges of these colonies.  Richard Hansen and Friedrich Stahl, in their book “Perennials and their Garden Habitat”, arrange plants according to their sociability level.  Plants like switchgrass or coneflowers at lower levels (1 and 2) are set individually or in small clusters. Plants like prairie dropseed or blue grama at higher levels (3 to 5) are set in groups of 10 to 20-plus, arranged loosely around the others.

By observing the different levels of plant sociability, it guides how you incorporate plants into your landscape. It is an ecological way to garden that focuses less on aesthetics and more on relationships of plants. Of course height, bloom time, texture and flower color are important, but they are not the most important consideration when planting. The main emphasis now is grouping plants together that thrive in the wild together.

So what does this look like practically in your landscape?

It looks like 10-20 coneflowers (level 2 plants) propped up with little bluestem, prairie dropseed and blue grama (level 4 plants). In the wild, you never see just coneflowers growing in large solitary groups together, but mixed with other wildflowers and grasses. Blue sage (level 2 plant) has a tendency to flop, but when combined with other taller grasses and wildflowers, its blue flowers are held at eye level. The taller, more upright plants or solitary plants in levels 1 and 2 need the level 3 to 5 plants to grow and spread around them. This interlocking matrix of plants covers every square foot of your garden. Weeds are crowded out and maintenance is reduced over time as these plants squeeze out unwanted species. You can now manage your plant communities as a whole rather than taking care of each individual plant.

Native prairie photo courtesy of Craig Freeman

 

I believe this approach to designing a landscape has many benefits. Using this approach, we will become intimately acquainted with the plants we grow and the social communities in which they thrive. This connection to our plants forces us to learn about them and more importantly to see them as individual pieces of a much larger collection of associated plants. It is a radical shift in how we design a garden. Plants are pieces that nature weaves together in ecological combinations. Nature is a great teacher.

We will be expanding on this idea of social networks in future blogs and landscape plans.  This is an exciting concept that will change how we garden in the future. It connects us to the land in so many different ways.

 

Sassy Sunflowers

Sunflower

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

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

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

Annual sunflower

 

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

Spreading rhizomatous roots of rigid sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus)

 

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

Willow-leaf sunflower (Helianthus salicifolius)

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

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

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

Rigid sunflower in Prairie Window Project

Rigid sunflower in Prairie Window Project

Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani)

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

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

 

Six Rewards of Native Plants

Native plants reward people and wildlife in many different ways.  They improve the environment, create a sense of place, restore a balance between plants and pollinators and you get to enjoy their natural beauty. Below is a quick list of six good things native plants do and provide.

They are a good value for your money.

Having just finished the fall plant sale, we hear over and over the value of native plants. If matched to the site, they are resilient, quick-growing and long-lived.  They persist and thrive, which saves money since you seldom need to purchase replacements. These plants are adapted to our climate extremes.  Their deep roots, habits and forms quickly fill up your garden space, adding interest throughout the seasons.

Pollinators will love your plants and you.

With all the talk about pollinator declines including monarchs, don’t you want to help in any way possible? The most obvious way that you can help is by planting the native wildflowers they need for survival. Whether milkweeds for monarchs or plants that provide food and shelter for these imperiled native pollinators, your yard can become an oasis.  Why not create a habitat where up close encounters with many different butterflies, bees, insects, and even birds, can be admired?

They are a versatile and diverse group of plants.

One of the amazing attributes of the prairie is its diversity. There are literally thousands of plants thriving in every possible landscape situation. Wet, dry, sun, shade, clay, sand and so on – there are a host of plants that will grow in your yard just as they do in the prairie.  That diversity allows you to match native plants to your own part of the world and successfully develop a landscape plan.

Native plants reduce maintenance.

Notice I didn’t say native plants require no maintenance? Even though native plants are drought tolerant and tough, they still require some maintenance each year in a landscape scenario. Again, think about a prairie. Native plants’ only requirements are to be cleaned off each spring before the next season’s growth. They survive pests and disease, require little or no fertilizing and demand extra water only during the severest drought. By spending less time maintaining your garden, it releases you from the obligation of burdensome yard work. Less time working and more time enjoying your landscape is always a good thing.

Native plants help with soil and water conservation.

The root systems of native plants are vital to soil and water conservation. Grasses such as big bluestem and switchgrass have fibrous deep reaching roots that hold soil tightly, keeping it from eroding into waterways. A dense, thick prairie of grasses and wildflowers will slow the movement of water, allowing more to infiltrate the soil too. Those deep roots also tap into moisture during dry periods. Drought resistant plants require little if any supplemental water which saves you money in the long run.

Enjoy the garden you created.

A prairie planting done right will offer you years of enjoyment. A habitat with attractive forms, textures and flowers that bloom at different times during the growing season will attract a host of pollinators and birds for you to watch. Those up close encounters will deepen your appreciation of these endangered species. Surrounding your home with native plants guarantees you’ll be rewarded time after time and year after year.  It is a reward to you, but a gift to the natural world too.

The Wildly Attractive Leavenworth Eryngo

Leavenworth eryngo (Eryngium leavenworthii)

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

The predatory spined soldier bug on Leavenworth eryngo

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

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

 

 

Plant Profile: Wild Senna, Senna marilandica

Sometimes there are plants that surprise you.  It’s not that they are doing anything new, but for some reason you notice them in ways you hadn’t before. This summer, for me that plant is wild senna. I have been gawking at it over the past few weeks and admiring its tropical look.

Our one wild senna plant has been putting on quite a show in the shade garden this summer. The bright yellow flower clusters are stunning. The fact that I missed them in past years makes me think that I am not very observant. These showy blooms are held atop the feathery, deep green, locust-like leaves.  The horizontal leaves help the flowers stand out even more.

After the blooms are spent, long narrow pods begin to develop and droop from the stems.  As the pods mature, small beans are held tightly inside.  Over time, the pods turn from green to brown and crack open, releasing the seeds.  These seeds are relished by many types of birds, including quail and dove.

Wild senna can grow up to six feet tall, but is typically only three to four feet. Plants have a loose, open, shrubby habit with several stems growing from a central point. It makes a fantastic accent plant or backdrop for shorter perennials in your native plant gardens.

Here at the Arboretum, it is happy in a spot that gets only partial sun.  In the wild, it grows in open woods and prairies with medium to wet soils.  It is a pretty plant that should be used more in the landscape.

One of its most important functions in the landscape is hosting a variety of pollinators. It is the host plant for Cloudless Sulphur, Orange-Barred Sulphur, Tailed Orange, Little Yellow, and Sleepy Orange Butterflies. Many different types of bees love the flowers, too.

This season’s display by just one wild senna plant has made me realize we should be using it more in our gardens. It is a great trouble-free choice as a taller accent plant, a native wildflower for your woodland edge or for a more formal cottage garden. It is a pretty plant that pollinators need.

 

Beetle Barrage

Green June Beetle in my garden

 

OK, “beetle barrage” may be a little over dramatic, since I’ve only witnessed a dozen or so of the startlingly large, shiny beetles in my yard. But by exhibiting a bumble bee flight pattern, buzzing sound, and a 3/4 to 1 inch long metallic-looking velvety green and brown body, they certainly caught my attention in a big way. I’ve never seen or noticed this beetle before, later identified as a green June beetle (Cotinus nitida) that is categorized in the Scarabaeidae or scarab family . For about ten days or so in late July, a small population hung around my home prairie garden in Newton on taller plants of annual sunflower and common milkweed (no apparent eating, mostly chillin’).

Green June Beetle in my garden

Their presence was a bit unnerving at first because I wondered if they were an invasive, non-native species. Mostly they reminded me of the smaller Japanese beetle, a serious pest of more than 200 food and landscaping plants throughout the Eastern United States that has exploded on the scene in recent years in the Western U.S. as well.

My temporary beetle anxiety was based on the fact that non-native species are a big problem in this country. Their exploding populations without natural controls/competition have displaced native biological diversity. In addition, the U.S. has spent hundreds of billions of dollars annually trying to fight the spread of these invasive species.

Some examples of animal and plant species wreaking havoc with ecosystems around the country include the following:

  • European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) and house sparrows (Passer domesticus) have homogenized bird life in many urban areas throughout the U.S.
  • Silver carp (Hypophthalmichthys molitrix) are spreading throughout major rivers of the Midwestern U.S.
  • Zebra mussels (Dreissena polymorphaare) are choking streams, lakes and reservoirs of the Northeastern U.S.
  • Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) has overtaken wetlands of the Northern U.S.
  • Sericea lespedeza (Lespedeza cuneata) has invaded many grasslands of the Eastern U.S.
  • Old world bluestems (Caucasian, Bothriochloa bladhii, and yellow, B. ischaemum) are invading grasslands throughout the Southern U.S.

Green June Beetle Larva. Photo by Clemson University USDA Cooperative Extension

But I was glad to learn that green June beetles are not an invasive problem. Their larval grub form grows to about 1.5″ and is distinctive for crawling on its back using stiff body hairs. The larval grub form of this beetle can be considered a pest when causing damage to the roots of turf grass, and the adults are attracted to rotting fruit. It is found throughout the Eastern United States. Nowhere did I find, however, that this species is a significant problem pest.

Green June beetle range map.

The whole experience of learning about this new (to me) insect bolstered my fascination with beetles. One of my favorite classes in graduate school was Introduction to Entomology. My professor for that class, Dr. Dan Young, was a beetle specialist, and he continuously touted the many interesting and important elements of this insect group. Beetles make up the largest insect order, Coleoptera, made up of about 400,000 species, and constitute almost 40% of described insects and 25% of all known animal life-forms; new species are discovered frequently. Beetles interact with their ecosystems in several ways. They often feed on plants and fungi, break down animal and plant debris, and eat other insects.

Photo by Margarethe Brummermann – Arizona, showing Arizona beetle diversity. The specimen two down and two over from the top left corner is a figeater beetle (Cotinis mutabilis), a close relative of the green June beetle.

The September Kansas State Fair is nearly upon us once again and one of my favorite features there is the 4-H building housing all the extensive, diverse, and beautifully displayed insect collections. Now I’ll have one more familiar species to spot in the green June beetle.