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.

How to Create a Rain Garden

During a typical rainstorm, water is removed from your roof through downspouts and drains. Then the water runs off your lawn, which may have been treated with pesticides and fertilizers.  This water and the oily street water are collected in the gutter.  All these pollutants in the water are carried into larger streams and rivers downstream.

Rain gardens address this problem at the source, your yard.  Though rain gardens are relatively new in the gardening world, they gained popularity after people began to realize the benefits of capturing and holding water on their property.  This water can be utilized and filtered by native plants, reducing the quantity of polluted water that ultimately reaches the drain.  Rain gardens work like a sponge, holding water, filtering the water and finally allowing it to slowly percolate down into the soil.

Here are the simple steps to create your own rain garden:

Choose a proper site

The most important step in creating a rain garden is determining where the water naturally flows.  You will also need to discover what type of soil you have, keeping in mind that sandy soils drain much faster than heavy clay soils.  You can create a smaller rain garden in sandy soil than if you have heavy clay soil.  A rain garden larger than 150 square feet will look intentional rather than plunked down in the middle of your yard. Make sure it is located at least 10 feet from the house foundation.

Determine the shape

After factoring in the existing landscape, choose a shape that adds aesthetic value to your property.  I like to lay out a garden hose to visually help me determine the proper shape.  It can be oval, long and narrow, kidney shaped or a combination.  Decide the shape of the rain garden that will fit your existing landscape.

Garden hose to determine shape of garden

Dig out the rain garden basin

Before digging, make sure you won’t encounter any utility lines. Contact (800) DIG-RITE so utility lines can be marked. A typical rain garden is four to 8 inches deep.  I like to create shallow drainage ditches from the downspouts to the rain garden to direct the water.

Rainwater diversion channels near the Prairie Pavilion

Choose appropriate native plants

A rain garden is comprised of three zones.  In the lowest zone, plant species should be selected that can tolerate short periods of standing water as well as fluctuating water levels and dry conditions.  Plants like sedges and swamp milkweed grow well in this zone. In the middle zone, vegetation will need to tolerate both wet and dry conditions.  And in the upper zone, along the outer edges of the berm, plants should be selected that prefer dryer conditions.  Plants like little bluestem, butterfly milkweed, and coneflowers will grow well along the edges. Once established, you will only need to water your rain garden during periods of extreme drought.

Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata

Mulch the garden

I like to apply one to two inches of wood mulch along the edges of the rain garden to control weeds and conserve water.  I use pea gravel in the bottom and sides of the garden because the wood mulch will float away during larger rain events.

Rain gardens are not only about controlling stormwater runoff from your yard, but also creating a habitat that adds aesthetic value to your landscape.  Imagine the cumulative effect a series of rain gardens will have within a community on water quality.  Creating a rain garden in your yard is another simple way to have a positive impact on the environment.

Do Native Grasses Help Pollinators?

I love native grasses.  Grasses make dramatic focal points when mixed into garden beds or planted individually.  They pull the landscape design together and provide movement within the garden.

Over the past 10 years, there have been some tremendous advances in landscape quality native grasses.  ‘Northwind’ switchgrass is a perfect example.  It offers great form, a tidy columnar habit, texture and ease of care.  It is a reliable grass with consistent qualities that can be counted on year after year in any sunny landscape.  In my opinion, ornamental grasses should be included in all garden designs because they are easy to grow and provide three seasons of interest.

Indian grass Sorghastrum nutans

Obviously, grasses are gaining in popularity, but one of their most important roles they play in the garden is often overlooked.  Grasses help balance the ecosystem by providing food, shelter, and nesting sites for many different pollinators along with birds and small mammals.  Pollinators need protection from severe weather and from predators, as well as sites for nesting and roosting.  By incorporating different layers of flowering plants and grasses in the landscape, pollinators can find the food and shelter they need for survival.   Pollinators use corridors of plants to safely move through the landscape and be protected from predators.

Over 70 different butterflies and moths depend on native grasses as part of their life cycles.

 

Big Blustem

Cheyenne Sky Switchgrass with Rigid Goldenrod

These grasses are important for adults but they also serve as larval hosts for butterflies and moths.   Many different butterflies lay eggs amongst the native grasses which larvae then utilize during their development.  Some species of bees need open ground to burrow into the soil, so leave small exposed areas of soil between your plants.  Even a small garden containing native species can make a tremendous difference for insect conservation.

Here is a list of native grasses and the pollinators that use them:

Big bluestem-Andropogon gerardii

Larval host for many species of butterflies (Delaware Skipper, Ottoe, Dusted Skipper, Beard-Grass skippers and Common Wood Nymph).

Buffalograss- Bouteloua dactyloides

Butterfly larval host for green skipper butterfly.

Switchgrass- Panicum virgatum

Larval host for skipper butterflies.  Overwintering host for bees and other pollinators.

Little bluestem-Schizachyrium scoparium

Larval host for many species of butterflies and moths (Ottoe Skipper, Crossline Skipper, Dusted Skipper, Cobweb).

Twilight Zone Little Bluestem Photo courtesy Walters Gardens.

Indiangrass- Sorghastrum nutans

Larval host for skipper butterflies.

Prairie Dropseed- Sporobolus heterolepis

Prairie Dropseed is of special value as nesting sites for bees.  Native grasses are the larval food plants of the Leonard’s Skipper.

Prairie Dropseed

Native grasses are attractive, low-maintenance additions to the landscape.  Once established, they help minimize erosion and increase organic matter in the soil.  Native grasses are also vital in the life cycles of many bees, butterflies and other pollinators.  Grasses provide the habitat for overwintering eggs, caterpillars and pupae of butterflies.  The thatch at the base of the grass clumps is ideal for protection from predators and cold weather.

There is a direct correlation between the decline of native grasslands habitats and the decline of many species of butterflies, bees and moths.  Habitat loss is not the only reason for the decrease in pollinators, but it is certainly a factor.  By planting native species of wildflowers and grasses in agricultural, suburban and urban settings, we can help to reverse the population decline.  Even though grasses don’t provide nectar, they are just as important in pollinator gardens as beautiful wildflowers.  So as you plan your pollinator garden, don’t forget to include some native grasses.

Planting for Pollinators

Last week, I was visiting with someone about pollinators or the lack thereof.  It seems that we had an initial flush of monarchs and other beneficial insects earlier this spring, but since then many of the pollinators have become scarce.  There are beautiful wildflowers in bloom but very little insect activity.  We have all seen the dramatic statistics tracking the plight of pollinators and their losses, so what is happening?

That is a difficult question, because there are often a combination of factors that are associated with the demise of many of the pollinators we take for granted.  Pollinators have been impacted by habitat loss, pesticides, pathogens, mites, invasive species of plants, parasites and an erratic climate.  Different species are affected by different forces, but overall the result is the same, fewer pollinators.

So what can we do to help pollinators?  Here is a list of ways that any gardener can have an impact.

Plant Pollinator-Friendly Plants

Certainly, milkweeds are the best wildflowers for attracting monarchs to your yard.  We have seen this throughout the Arboretum as caterpillars munch on the milkweed leaves.  Other blooming wildflowers offer their nectar to a host of insects.  The wildflowers are the buffet. I like to have members of the aster family such as coneflowers, asters, goldenrods, blackeyed susans and blazing stars.  (Peruse our native plant list and sample landscape designs for some inspiration.)

Tiger Swallowtail butterfly on a Gayfeather. Photo by Janelle Flory Schrock.

Plant for All Life Stages

We recommend planting wildflowers that bloom at different times of the year.  A mixture of wildflowers coming into bloom and going out of bloom throughout the year provides a ready food source for adults and their larvae.  This approach mimics the natural prairie and the changing seasons.  Maybe plant some dill or Zizia sp. for the swallowtail butterfly caterpillars.

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed. Photo by Brad Guhr.

Provide Habitat

When you design your landscape, remember to layer trees and shrubs along with wildflowers and grasses.  These plants provide shelter from the wind along with nesting sites and food for birds, butterflies and bees.  This created habitat is a safe environment for pollinators to find all they need including food, shelter and water.  Even a small garden can have a tremendous impact.

Bee Hotel. Photo by John Regier.

Provide Water

We all need water for survival.  Pollinators need it too.  A clean source of water such as a birdbath, basin, or hollow stone is enough water for pollinators.  These features also provide landing spots so that pollinators have a perch. Here are some great plants to complement your water feature.

Pearl Crescent Butterfly. Photo by Dave Osborne.

Reduce Chemicals

There is growing research on the detrimental effects chemicals have on pollinators.  Any time we can reduce or eliminate the use of chemicals in the landscape, we are impacting wildlife in a positive way.  Allow insects to control unwanted pests.  Be willing to accept a few damaged plants, knowing that by not spraying you are saving much more in the long run.

Bumblebee on Echinacea purpurea. Photo by Janelle Flory Schrock.

Learn About the Plight of Endangered Pollinators

There is so much to learn about each type of pollinator.  When are they out in the garden?  What do they need to complete their lifecycle?  Where do they migrate or how do they overwinter?  We have so much to learn about these important insects. (One good resource for this is this book, by Heather Holm, which we often carry in our gift shop. Check out MonarchWatch.org or the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation for great resources.)

Gray hairstreak on Eryngium leavenworthii. Photo by Brad Guhr.

Pollinators live perilous lives.  Their very existence hangs by a thread.  We need them for the food we eat.  Plants need pollinators for their survival.  So much depends on these tiny little insects.  As gardeners, we can support the life cycles of pollinators by including a wide variety of plants in our landscapes. Native wildflowers are the best option to help them prosper.  They need our help and you can be part of the solution.  You will be amazed at how many pollinators you will see when you introduce just a handful of wildflowers to your landscape.

Insectopia

With all the beautiful blooms around the Arboretum these days, the bugs are on a feeding frenzy! I have been having a blast snapping photos of all the active insects with my new camera gadget – a clip-on macro lens that attaches to a phone camera. My iphone can now get incredibly close and detailed shots of the tiniest insects. This handy tool is inexpensive and invaluable for bug-crazy individuals like me. I got mine courtesy of a Xerces Society pollinator workshop back in April.

Can you identify these Kansas insects? (without reading the captions first!)

Grey Hairstreak on Wild Quinine flowers (Strymon melinus on Parthenium integrifolium) with outstretched proboscis!

Goldenrod Soldier Beetle (Chauliognathus pennsylvanicus) dipping his head into the flower cup of Indian Hemp Dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum). Notice the long segmented antennae and claws on the feet for climbing.

Carpenter bee (Xylocopa sp.) on Purple Prairie Clover (Dalea Purpurea) with pollen on his hairy legs.

Large Milkweed Bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus) on the underside of a fuzzy Common Milkweed leaf (Asclepias syriaca)

Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) resting on limestone near the greenhouse, probably on his way back to the pond.

 

The lens even allows me to take videos –
watch as a paper wasp forages on horsetail milkweed flowers and the pollen-covered bee in the picture above enjoys a snack on some purple prairie clover.

If you want to bee an insect expert, get one of of these lenses for yourself and snap away! They are useful as educational tools or for taking detailed pictures to help you and your extension agent identify particular garden friends or pests. When you visit our grounds to see these beauties for yourself, be sure to check the gift shop for a wide selection of children’s books and as well as adult field guides that focus on insects found in Kansas.
Find more goregous shots of Dyck Arboretum flora and fauna on our Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/explore/locations/255013257/dyck-arboretum-of-the-plains/

Plant Profile: Prairie Clovers

Daleas – now called Petalostemons and commonly known as prairie clovers – is a genus in honor of Samuel Dale, an English botanist (1659-1739).  Sixteen taxa of these hardy legumes are listed in the Flora of the Great Plains.  Few prairie clovers are cultivated, yet they offer splendid summer blooms and interesting, often fragrant foliage.

Purple Prairie Clover

Here are some prairie clovers we have used in the Arboretum:

Petalostemon aurea  – Golden prairie clover

This herbaceous perennial grows 12-30 inches tall.  Its many flowers are on a dense ½ -3 inch long spike.  The specific epithet aurea, derived from the Latin aurum meaning gold, refers to the yellow flower that blooms in June through September.  Golden prairie clover is native to the western two-thirds of Kansas, especially on gravelly ridges and rocky slopes.

Golden prairie clover

Petalostemon candida – White prairie clover

The specific epithet candida refers to the shining of pure white flowers, which appear in mid-June through July.  This species ranges from 12-36 inches tall and can be found growing in the eastern half of Kansas.  Because it is palatable to livestock, overgrazing can cause the elimination of the species from a range.

A honey bee on white prairie clover

Petalostemon multiflora – Round-headed prairie clover

This plant puts on a prolific flower display of white flowers from mid-July to early-September.  The foliage is also quite fragrant, producing a tangy-sweet aroma when crushed.  This species ranges from 12-24 inches tall.  It is infrequent to locally common on dry rocky prairies and roadside banks in the eastern portion of the state and is selectively grazed by livestock.

Round-headed prairie clover

Petalostemon purpurea – Purple prairie clover

This species produces fragrant purple flowers in June and July.  The finger-like foliage and upright habit make this prairie clover one of the best for the prairie garden.  The plants can be 6-36 inches tall depending on the variety and can be found in most prairie types in the eastern two-thirds of Kansas.  Like P. candida and P. multiflora, this species is palatable to livestock.  It is an important component of the prairie hay, is rich in protein, and nutritious to cattle.  It can become rare in heavily grazed pastures.

Petalostemon villosa – Silky prairie clover

This species ranges from 6-18 inches tall with lavender to pink flowers in June through August.  The leaves are covered with soft silky hairs, giving the plant a silvery sheen.  You can find this prairie clover on sandy soils south and west of the Arkansas River in Kansas.

 

Uses

Petalostemons have other uses besides being ornamental and planted in your prairie gardens.  No matter your soil type, there is a prairie clover for your garden.  Pollinators flock to the compact flower cones of these hardy wildflowers.  Melvin Gilmore, in his book Uses of Plants by the Indians of the Missouri River Region, says that these prairie clover leaves were sometimes used to make a tea-like drink.  The root was commonly chewed for its pleasant taste. The tough elastic stems were used to make brooms.  Sometimes the pulverized root was put into hot water and drunk to ward off disease.

These are past uses. I would highly discourage you from using these plants medicinally.  Just enjoy these tough wildflowers in your prairie garden.  Once established, they will prosper with little or no care.

Dalea candida