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

The Resilient Prairie

An interesting thing happened in the Fall of 2012, after one of the hottest and driest summers on record – the prairie bloomed.  The historic drought was harsh and many plants that were borderline hardy in Kansas were lost, but very few of the wildflowers and grasses of the prairie were lost.  Asters, blue sage and goldenrods bloomed in spite of the brutal summer conditions.  The native grasses, though much shorter, survived.

This was a great lesson about one of the ultimate surviving landscapes—the prairie.

Blue Sage (Salvia azurea)

Kansas has some of the largest expanses of the tallgrass prairie in the United States.  Less than four percent of the original North American prairie land is left.  This sea of grasses and wildflowers survives floods and drought, high and low temperatures, grazing, fire and many invasive species.  The deep roots and adaptability make it one of the most resilient landscapes in the world.

Liatris and Indian grass in the Prairie Window Project

This prairie ecosystem manages heat and drought through adaptation.  The deep roots absorb water that other shallow-rooted plants can’t touch.  Plants go dormant during drought to conserve water and maintain growing points just at or below the soil surface.  Once conditions improve, these plants begin to grow again.  Leaves are shiny or have tiny hairs to reduce water loss.  Grasses stay shorter and produce fewer seeds.

Each of these adaptations help the prairie plants survive and use less water.  This diverse ecosystem is resilient – more resilient than many other landscapes and certainly more resilient than a typical lawn.  It provides habitat for wildlife and food and nectar for pollinators.  It is a self-sustaining environment that persists through harsh conditions.

Reconstructed Prairie at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains

Those drought years gave us a chance to evaluate what we are doing with our own landscapes and to take a look at the types of plants that will actually grow here with minimal time, water and maintenance.  It provided an opportunity to select new plants that can tolerate adverse weather conditions.  More and more Kansans are choosing plants like little bluestem, switchgrass or prairie dropseed.  Gardeners are filling up their landscapes with wildflowers such as coneflowers, penstemon, blazing stars, goldenrods, asters and milkweeds in smaller “pocket” prairies.  These micro-prairies have all the ornamental qualities of a larger prairie, but on a much smaller scale.

Nature is a good teacher.  These plants, which survived and even bloomed after one of the driest summers in recent memory, are amazing.  I knew that prairie plants were tough, but that season made me take notice.  It made me rethink my own perceptions of what is environmentally-sound landscaping.  We can create sustainable plant communities in our own small landscapes simply by copying what nature has done so successfully in creating the prairie. These are beautiful plants that are diverse in form, texture and color.  Plants that would work well in any sunny location.  The combinations are endless.

 

The prairie has a legacy of resilient beauty.  Embrace what is around you and create a sense of place in your own pocket of the historic prairie land.

Plant Profile: Dwarf false indigo (Amorpha nana)

When we think of shrubs that grow in the prairie, lead plant (Amorpha canescens) is the first one that comes to my mind.  Rightfully so, the soft gray foliage and lavender flower spikes are a must for any summer prairie garden.  However, its lesser known cousin, dwarf false indigo (Amorpha nana) is blooming now in the Arboretum.  It makes you stop and take notice.

Dwarf false indigo can be found growing in the mixed-grass and shortgrass prairies throughout the Great Plains. In Kansas, I have seen it growing wild in Clark county.  It is not as widely distributed as lead plant, but I have found it to be quite adaptable.  It thrives in dry, open locations with plenty of sunlight.  Here in the Arboretum, it blooms in May but I have seen it bloom as late as mid-June.

The deep magenta flowers of dwarf false indigo have a sweet aroma like honey.  Each terminal flower cluster is covered in reddish-orange pollen that pollinators love to gather.  The flowers stand out against the bright green leaves.  This prairie shrub should not be pruned in the spring.  It blooms best from previous year’s growth.  A variety of pollinators flock to the fragrant blossoms, but the Silver Spotted Skipper butterfly use the soft leaves as a food source.  After the blooms, the small green seedpods develop, but turn dark brown later in the fall.

The name nana, meaning dwarf in Latin, refers to the shrub’s diminutive size, which ultimately reaches two feet tall.  While short, the deep tap root and finely textured leaves make it extremely drought tolerant.  Plant it en masse or along a border edge so you can enjoy the sweet fragrance of the flowers.  It prefers a well-drained soil, including clay and rocks.

Companion plants for this versatile shrub would be little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), evening primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa), bottlebrush blazing star (Liatris mucornata), aromatic aster (Aster oblongifolius), shortstem spiderwort (tradescantia tharpii), narrowleaf coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia) and butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa).  This shrub deserves a place in your sunny prairie garden.

Join Us on Friday, May 12.

Dyck Arboretum of the Plains is offering a free wildflower to the first 25 families or individuals who obtain a new or renewed membership on Friday, May 12, for National Public Gardens Day!

We will also have FREE ADMISSION to the gardens for the day, and coffee and refreshments in the Visitor Center from 9-11 a.m.

THANK YOU TO EVERYONE WHO SUPPORTS THE DYCK ARBORETUM OF THE PLAINS!

How to Create a Beautiful and Sustainable Garden

With growing season and FloraKansas on the horizon, we have been asking a few questions of ourselves over the past few months about native plants. Certainly, we have seen the benefits of using native plants in the Arboretum and at our homes, but what would it take to convince someone to install them in their yard who has never tried them or is unfamiliar with them?  What would it take to begin to change their minds?

We keep coming back to this idea of beautiful AND good.  Aesthetics are important and we all want attractive landscapes, but so is this feeling that what we are doing is good for everyone and everything.

Beautiful orange flowers of Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

It can be intimidating to change the way you garden or landscape.  Choosing plants just because they are visually appealing simply isn’t a good enough reason anymore.  Creating a habitat using plants that are adapted to your site is a far better approach to landscaping.  Designs that have attractive combinations of wildflowers, grasses, shrubs and trees may initially capture our imaginations, but more and more people are wanting these plants and their landscapes as a whole to provide additional benefits.   Our gardens must now not just look good, but also do double duty to provide for pollinators, attracts birds and other wildlife, develop habitat and positively impact the environment.

The evidence that making such a change will really make a difference in our lives and in our gardens begins with the first native plant.  I have seen it time and again – if you plant them, they will come to your garden.  If you plant milkweeds, the monarchs will find them; if you plant penstemons, the bumble bees will find them; and if you plant asters, a flock of pollinators will cover them in the fall.  It sounds so simple, but it is indeed true.  These plants need the pollinators and the pollinators need these plants.  The significance of planting your first wildflower can be both beautiful and good.

If you want to be part of the solution and do your part for nature by reducing water usage and eliminating chemicals, attracting countless forms of beneficial wildlife including butterflies, hummingbirds, and pollinators, cleaning storm water runoff, and having a beautiful landscape, start with a few native plants. Each of us CAN have a positive impact.  We are stewards of these ecological, environmental, and sustainable gardens. An aesthetically pleasing landscape can also be functional and serve a variety of purposes.

Steps to a beautiful and sustainable landscape

  1. Evaluate your landscape
  2. Plan, plan, and plan
  3. Define your edges
  4. Choose the right plants that match your site
  5. Establish plants correctly
  6. Observe Best Management Practices
  7. Enjoy!

 

Home landscapes can be transformed using native plants so that they are sustainable, easy to maintain, and beautiful.  To start planning your native plant garden, be sure to attend our FloraKansas Spring Plant Sale and look over our 2017 plant list.

Be A Good Host for Insects

Monarch ovipositing on common milkweed (April 9, 2017).

There are many positive things that can be said about insects. They are important to healthy ecosystems. If you have any appreciation for wildlife of any kind in Kansas, you have insects to thank. Aside from a handful of pests they are beneficial to humans as well. Click HERE to see an earlier blog post on why I am in awe of insects.

Many insect species require a specific host plant or group of plants to feed their young. Therefore, it should be no surprise that greater plant diversity leads to greater insect diversity and ultimately a greater abundance of wildlife. I like to see more biological diversity in urban landscapes and this is why my landscaping tendencies trend towards more plant diversity rather than less.

Butterfly enthusiast and master gardener Lenora Larson gave us this similar message last month at our March winter lecture. She highlighted more than two dozen species of butterflies and moths that folks can easily attract to their landscape with specific host plants. A summary of her presentation, host plant and butterfly species lists, and helpful references can be found HERE.

Monarch egg on common milkweed (April 10, 2017).

Monarch Update

A little over a week ago on April 9, I saw my first couple of northerly migrating monarchs of the season. There were many other reports of first of season monarchs reported that weekend as well. In the week since, newly emerged milkweed shoots more often than not are found hosting one to six monarch eggs each. Yesterday on April 18, nine days after the first monarch siting, I observed the first two hatched caterpillars. More on the plight of the monarch and why we are so carefully observing this progress can be found HERE in an earlier blog post.

Newly hatched monarch caterpillar on common milkweed (April 18).

We’ll be touting at our spring plant sale the many benefits of gardening with Kansas native plants. Attracting insects and biological diversity to your landscape is one of those many benefits.

Add Your Piece to the Patchwork of Prairie Gardens

We are experiencing a paradigm shift that is sweeping across the country.  People are becoming increasingly aware of the natural world and their ability to impact it.  If we begin establishing landscapes that appeal to us aesthetically, but benefit wildlife ecologically, we can have the best of both worlds.

Each of us has the opportunity to develop a native wildlife habitat, to design your garden in such a way that attracts pollinators and wildlife, and to create a safe space for depleted and endangered native bees and Monarchs to find the food they need to survive.  This is a small way you can show you care.  It is one way you, along with others in your neighborhood, can develop prairie gardens that are refuges for these beneficial insects.  Even a small garden can have an impact.

(If you are interested in or are searching for native plants, peruse our 2017 Native Plant Guide and Plant List and plan to attend our 2017 Spring FloraKansas Plant Sale.)

Monarchs

Statistics show that the monarch butterfly population in North America has declined by over 90% in just the last 20 years.  This is disheartening.  One of the biggest factors in monarch decline is the increasing scarcity of its only caterpillar host plant: milkweeds. Monarchs can’t successfully reproduce, or migrate without milkweeds, resulting in the species decline. If you plant even a few milkweeds in your own garden, you can help reverse the fortune of these beautiful insects.  You can be part of the ultimate solution, which is to provide the plants monarchs need for their life cycle.

Pollinators

The plight of the honey bee and the loss of entire hives has garnered nationwide attention.  However, many of our native bee populations are in danger too.  Scientists continue to track dwindling populations of native bees, including the possible extinction of some species.  The native pollinators are key components of a healthy ecosystem.  The use of pesticides and insecticides, habitat loss, along with the introduced diseases threaten their lives.  These bees often lack season-long food sources, which is obviously important to their vitality.

Bumblebee on Echinacea purpurea – photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

Many different pollinators face these realities.  Native plants can help us alleviate some of the problems they face.  Native plants have the ability to grow in our soils, are adapted to the climate, look attractive, control erosion, create beneficial habitat and are the preferred food source for many of these pollinators.  By establishing prairie gardens that use native prairie plants, we can improve their plight in this world.  Recognizing that we can make a difference should be motivation to at least begin to help them.

Stewardship and conservation can start with our gardens.  Despite size limitations, these prairie gardens are an important part of conserving the prairie and the wildlife that depend on them.  You might be surprised how much your garden can do to reverse some of these trends.  Imagine your garden combined with hundreds of other small prairie landscapes.  True, it is not the expansive prairies of the past, but it does make a difference.  Your garden can be a piece of the patchwork of prairies.

Partner Perennials

As the weather warms up and perennials begin to sprout I find myself in the gardening mood! Whether filling in gaps in an existing garden bed or planting up a new area, knowing which plants will look best together can be a sort of guessing game. But a fun one! When I start getting too many ideas about what plants to pair up, I put pencil to sketch pad and doodle my ideas into reality.

There are countless unique, easy combinations for every situation that can incorporate natives, exotics and even our old garden favorites. Maybe you can use some of my recent sketches, maybe they will inspire you to draw up some of your own!

For the Shady Place

Try partnering bright colored blooms together and using leaf color that adds contrast. For example, using light greens behind darker greens can add depth and interest to an area that is only foliage. You can use striped hostas (Liberty, June Spirit, Brother Stephan) to liven up a dark area and use lowgrowing spreaders as ground cover between them (Ceratostigma plumbagnoides, Gallium odoratum) In my shade garden at home I already have some hostas planted, so I am thinking of filling in around them with some native Silene stellata (Starry Champion) and some non-native Epimedium rubrum (Barrenwort). Waldesteinia fragoides (Barren strawberry) might be the perfect ground cover to suppress weeds around it all. The purplish hue of the epimedium blooms will work well with the yellow of false strawberry since they are complementary colors (situated opposite each other on the color wheel).

If you have a shady spot, try planting fillers between hostas to add interest and texture.

 

Epimedium rubrum By Salicyna (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Silene stellata at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Silene_stellata_flowers.jpg
Barren Strawberry by User:SB_Johnny (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

 Good pairings for part sun areas:

Solidago rigida (Rigid Goldenrod) + Anemone ‘Pink Kiss’ (Pink Snowdrops)
Heuchera ‘Fire Chief’ + Carex pennsylvannica (Pennsyvannia Sedge)
Asarum canadense (Wild Ginger) + Matteuchia struthiopteris (Ostrich Fern)

 

For the Hottest Hot Spot

What plants can partner together to beat the heat? A dry, hot spot is a perfect place for mixing native grasses and wildflowers that have evolved in the prairie sun. For a rock garden or sunny burm, try this combination of Eryngium yuccafolium (Rattlesnake Master) and Eryngium planum (‘Blue Glitter’ Globe Flower) that will complement each other’s whimsical, spherical blooms. Sporobolis heterolepis (Prairie Dropseed) and Delosperma (‘Firespinner’ Creeping Ice Plant) will fill in around the base of the taller plants. Not only are the Eryngiums major pollinator magnets, they are also long lasting cut flowers! The bright orange-red blooms of the ice plant will warm up the cool hues of the eryngiums.

A mixture of grass, upright specimen plants and crawling ground cover will create a nice balance

Other suggestions for full sun pairings:

Achillea ‘Moonshine’ (Yellow Yarrow) + Callirhoe involucrata (Poppy Mallow)
Rudbeckia missouriensis (Black Eyed Susan) + Helenium ‘Salsa’ (Sneezeweed) + Sedum ‘Lidakense’

If You Need Some Height…

Perhaps growing along a fence or forming a border between yards, tall plants provide structure for the garden. A columnar grass species like Panicum ‘Northwind’ (Switchgrass) or Miscanthus (Silvergrass) can be the eyecatching backdrop for other perennials. They also provide support to tall flowers that might otherwise flop over when they reach their mature heights. Planting Veronicastrum ‘Lavender Towers’ (Culver’s Root) or Eupatorium maculatum (Joe Pye Weed) between tall, strong stemmed grasses can keep them upright in a stiff prairie wind. The sketch below shows a shorter variety of Joe Pye called ‘Baby Joe’ situated between some Miscanthus grass with Scabiosa (or, just as well suited, Knautia) growing wispily in front.

For an area that can use some height, install some Miscanthus grass for a big effect in fall.

 

Eupatorium (right) by Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Blue Scabiosa by By Xemenendura (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Tall grass that will support tall flowers:

Andropogon gerardii (Big Bluestem) + Coreopsis tripteris (Tall Coreopsis)
Calamagrostis acutiflora (Karl Foerster Grass) + Salvia azurea ‘Grandiflora’ 

 

Partnering plants is the fun part of perennial gardening – let your imagination go wild! Use the color wheel to make the most of your pairings and pay close attention to foliage shape and texture to achieve a harmonious look. If you think some of the plants in this post will work well in your yard, come to our FloraKansas Plant Sale April 28th – May 1st!  This is our largest fundraiser of the year, and your purchase makes educational programming and the management of Arboretum grounds possible.