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

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

Garden Bullies

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

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

 

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

 

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

Weedy and Noxious

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

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

 

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

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

Extraterrestrial and Just Plain Weird

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

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

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

O Cedar Tree, O Cedar Tree

This past weekend I cut down a red cedar to use as my Christmas tree; just the right shape and size and with the right amount of character. I feel great about cutting one of these trees out of the wild (an Arboretum staffer condoning tree felling? Yes!). Red cedars are beautiful, strung with lights and tinsel, but they have become a real pest in the Great Plains ecosystem. Here are a few reasons to skip the plastic tree or spruce farm and simply cut yourself a cedar!

Any Christmas tree, cedar or artificial, can benefit from some ecologically conscious decorations. Dried grass and seed heads of prairie plants look magical amongst warm white lights, but are biodegradable.

Cedars have become invasive

Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) is native to Kansas and much of central and eastern North America. Native though they are, the USDA labels cedars as invasive, and rightfully so. Too many pastures and meadows are overgrown with cedars, choking out native grasses and wildflowers. Without natural wildfires and regular controlled burns, cedars have been allowed to flourish in places that historically would not have been suitable. The tallgrass prairie is one of the most rare and endangered ecosystems in the world, and the invasion of cedars upon open grasslands decreases species richness, changes soil composition and even threatens indigenous wildlife. If you are a landowner looking to do maintenance of your grassland or clear it of cedar trees, Dyck Arboretum can provide helpful information.

Trees and shrubs are overpopulating grassy landscapes. Randy Rodgers has a wonderful essay here on the impacts of trees encroaching on the prairie.

Cedars degrade the prairie ecosystem

Grassland dependent birds, insects and small mammals become displaced or outcompeted when red cedars populate formerly open land. The University of Nebraska has compiled a lot of data on this subject at The Eastern Red Cedar Science Literacy Project, where you can find informative and alarming tidbits like:

“Grassland birds are the most rapidly declining avian guild in North America (Fuhlendorf et al. 2012) and are rarely observed once juniper exceeds 10% of land cover (Chapman et al. 2004).” (Twidwell et al. 2013)

and…

“An increase in overstory cover from 0% to 30% red cedar can change a species-rich prairie community to a depauperate community dominated by 1 (small mammal) species, Peromyscus leucopus.” (Horncastle et al. 2005)

Endangered and vulnerable species like the American burying beetle and the greater prairie chicken are only further threatened by the turnover of grassland to cedar forests. Cedars do have redeeming qualities – winter shelter and forage for birds, drought tolerance and erosion control. Red cedars certainly have their place in a hedgerow or small grove, but should be carefully limited from spreading.

Cedar trees make prescribed burning  tricky and often exacerbate already dangerous wildfires by sending up massive flames. Overgrown cedar pastures are a serious fire risk, and may have been a factor in the 2015 Anderson Creek wildfire.

My coworker Brad has some great bumper stickers that encourage regular prescribed burns to prevent cedar overgrowth.

Cedars are a ‘green’ choice

For all the aforementioned reasons, cutting a cedar for a Christmas tree is already a very ecologically conscious decision. But there is more! Unlike plastic trees, cedars are biodegradable and can be used for firewood or garden mulch. Also note that conventional Christmas tree farms providing spruce or firs require lots of resources:

  • clearing/agricultural development of land
  • years of regular water input
  • pesticides to keep needles bug free
  • shipping and fuel costs to get the trees to distributors around the country

Why don’t we skip all that frivolous resource usage and cut down some of these pesky cedars instead? You can feel good about a tree that’s low on carbon waste but high in old-fashioned, folksy quality.

Get permission from a farmer, landowner or your county land management officials before you start cutting. They will likely be happy to get rid of one, and you may get it for free (more money for gifts, yippee!) and enjoy a lovely, cedar-scented home this holiday.

A Land Pilgrimage to the Home of Aldo Leopold

Canopy with pines planted by the Leopold family near the Shack

A pilgrimage is defined as a journey to a shrine of importance to a person’s beliefs and faith. A recent late-June trip to the Aldo Leopold Foundation in Baraboo, WI and the UW-Madison Campus and Arboretum in Madison, WI, was a land pilgrimage for me indeed.

The trip was spurred by the opportunity to give a couple of presentations at the Building A Land Ethic Conference at the Leopold Foundation. Aldo Leopold’s famous “land ethic” concept basically stated that people and land are of similar importance in a vibrant community.  The conference carried this theme consistently throughout its programming and especially focused on how we should seek to build bonds that heal our current urban-rural divide.

Leopold Foundation education buildings and reconstructed prairie

LEED certified buildings with solar panels and rain water collection aquaducts moving water to a rain garden

Meaningful symbolic artwork for the conference was a patchwork quilt, where seemingly useless fragments and pieces are bound together to form a rich, vibrant and very useful network.

2017 Building A Land Ethic Conference theme artwork

Stimulating lectures on land, water, art, and food, mini workshops about land ethic leadership, field trips to the Shack, and networking opportunities with people from around the world were all important parts of the conference.

“The Shack”, a dilapidated chicken coop turned into a weekend and summer getaway along the Wisconsin River in the 1930s and 40s is a centerpiece of the Leopold Foundation grounds.

The Leopold Shack: Except for some chimney repair, the Shack exists nearly as it did when Aldo Leopold died in 1948.

Aldo Leopold and his family camped, hunted, fished, played, cut wood, grew food, planted trees, and restored prairie at the Shack for more than a decade.

One of two saws likely used to cut “The Good Oak” (a chapter in A Sand County Almanac)

Aldo’s observations and writings were compiled into the book A Sand County Almanac and published in 1949, a year after Aldo died of a heart attack fighting a wildfire near the Shack. The Shack and grounds are now a National Historic Landmark and the eloquently written book featuring the Land Ethic has become one of the most famous pieces of literature in the conservation movement.

Memorial site where Aldo Leopold died fighting a wild fire

Family experiences at the Shack must have been foundational for Aldo’s five kids, because they all went on to earn advanced degrees and pursue careers related to ecology and conservation. Estella Leopold, now 90 years old and the only living Leopold child, recently wrote Stories from the Shack, a delightfully detailed set of memories from her childhood days along the Wisconsin River.

Estella Leopold recounts in her book many childhood memories around the construction and enjoyment of this fire place in the Shack.

For most of the people attending this 2017 conference (the majority were from outside of WI), the teachings of Leopold and the lessons from A Sand County Almanac have been profound. I studied botany and ecological restoration at UW-Madison 20 years ago and Aldo’s words were important in the development of my ideals, vocational directions, and views of how humans should care for the land. After reading A Sand County Almanac again this spring and just finishing Estella’s new book, I was eager to return to and soak up the stories and landmarks of the Shack again a couple of decades later.

The world’s second oldest reconstructed prairie – one of many Leopold Family labors of love undertaken while at the Shack

Aldo Leopold taught wildlife management in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at UW-Madison, the same college where I did my graduate work a half century later. A significant part of my botany, ecology, and plant propagation studies as well as work internships happened at the UW-Madison Arboretum where Leopold was the first research director. After the conference, I rounded out my Wisconsin pilgrimage with a quick trip to Madison to walk through campus, hike the prairies, savannas and woodlands at the UW-Arb, and spend a bit of time visiting old friends.

Curtis Prairie, the world’s oldest reconstructed prairie, at UW-Madison Arboretum

White wild indigo in Greene Prairie at UW-Madison Arboretum

Marsh milkweed and Ohio spiderwort in Greene Prairie at UW-Madison Arboretum

Eagle Heights Gardens near UW-Madison Campus – where Sara and I tended our first vegetable gardens

The iconic UW-Madison Terrace along Lake Mendota, one of the best places to enjoy Wisconsin’s finest food and drink offerings

To finish this story, I got back to Kansas just in time to join our Dyck Arboretum staff in hosting Aldo Leopold Biographer, Curt Meine, as our Summer Soirée speaker. Curt’s message about how Leopold’s land ethic ideals are fitting in Kansas today more than ever was a nice wrap-up to our year of events celebrating our 35th anniversary. He finished his talk with the following quote:

“I have purposely presented the land ethic as a product of social evolution because nothing so important as an ethic is ever ‘written’… It evolves in the minds of a thinking community.” The Land Ethic, A Sand County Almanac.

After this pilgrimage journey, now more than ever I look forward to carrying on this land ethic conversation with our local and wider thinking community.

Double rainbow in Madison. What I have found at the base of this rainbow is way more valuable than a pot of gold.

A Land Ethic is Alive and Well in Kansas

On Saturday, March 18, we held our 11th annual spring education symposium entitled Living the Land Ethic in Kansas, and learned how much we have to celebrate in Kansas. This symposium was many months in the making and it went smoothly thanks to our four staff, help from a number of board members, the assistance of many volunteers, and underwriting support from Kansas Humanities Council.

The speakers were top-notch and their messages were filled with immense knowledge and passion. Those among the 85 registered attendees were literate, engaged, and full of great questions. The homemade baked goods for breakfast, Lorna Harder’s venison stew for lunch, and nice day outside to enjoy during breaks all helped round out a perfect day.

Rolfe Mandel

Craig Freeman

Michael Pearce

Jason Schmidt

Pete Ferrell

Brian Obermeyer

Erin Dowell

Wes Jackson

I gave a brief introduction of how this symposium developed as part of our year-long Dyck Arboretum 35th anniversary celebration with a focus on Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic chapter in his famous book A Sand County Almanac. We then heard presentations about the essential Kansas natural elements of “The Land” from educators and writers, Rolfe Mandel (soils), Craig Freeman (vegetation), and Michael Pearce (wildlife) and how these elements are foundational to our Kansas natural history, agriculture/ranching-based economy, food systems, and land-based enjoyment and recreation. Land stewards Jason Schmidt, Pete Ferrell, and Brian Obermeyer told their stories of how being a land caretaker is not only a way to make a living but that it is part of a cherished way of life through which one strives to sustainably pass along stewardship responsibilities to future generations. Elementary school teacher, Erin Dowell explained how critical it is to instill a land ethic in our children that will be our future land stewards. And visionary, Wes Jackson, rounded out the day with a presentation about how we as agricultural agents must steward the land as part of a living ecosphere.

The day was filled with dialog and rich with a variety of science as well as humanities topics about the important interplay between the land and people. Thank you to all participants!

Seeds for the Future

The words “seeds for the future” are easy to use in abstract terms when talking about carrying out Harold and Evie Dyck’s long-term vision for an arboretum (35 years old and counting), or doing education activities with K-12 kids through our Earth Partnership for Schools Program. I use this phrase all the time.

But right now, I want to use those words in the literal sense.

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Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) seeds.

It has been a bountiful year for seed production in South Central Kansas. Oaks have had a mast year. Native shrubs are laden with fruits. Prairie wildflowers and grasses are full with ripe seeds. Seed production helps these plants have a future presence.

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Rigid goldenrod (Solidago rigida).

The ecological food web starts with plants as the producers. When this base plant layer of energy is healthy and diverse, the rest of the food web of wildlife it supports is more robust. Seeds are an important part of this food web. Insects are abundant this year. Birds, small mammals, amphibians, and reptiles are finding plenty of food as well. The following chart of rainfall totals from this summer (generated from Weather Underground data) shows why our native Kansas vegetation was so productive.

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Starting from Seed

A big focus of my first seven years at Dyck Arboretum was to reconstruct 12 acres of diverse prairie from seed as part of our Prairie Window Project. This process involved finding local remnant prairies, documenting their plant species, collecting and cataloging seed from April through November, cleaning seed, designing seed mixes, and planting. Developing this project engaged legions of volunteers, expanded our reputation as a prairie conservation resource, and diversified our educational outreach. We collected and planted a lot of seed during those years both mechanically and by hand. The resulting prairie is maturing nicely.

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Prairie wildflower and grass seed mix used for our first 2005 Prairie Window planting.

I often tout landscaping with native plants because of their year-round interest. They do offer aesthetically pleasing flowers during the growing season that appeal to the average gardener. But their interesting seed heads, dormant season vegetation, and myriad of changing colors and textures also provide habitat and landscaping value for wildlife and people through the fall and winter.

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Open pods of Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis).

A year of abundant seed production helps a prairie build up its soil seed bank. This is especially important on a site like this one with a seed bank dominated by annuals and non-native species from decades of agricultural use. Enhancing the abundance of prairie seeds in that seed bank will help add resiliency to this prairie in future years when drought or disturbance occur.

 

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Large flat seeds of compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) falling away from the seed head.

Seed Collection

I enjoy collecting seed. Walking a prairie with a rhythmic movement of hand to bag is therapeutic. I have never been a farmer, but, in a way, this process connects me to the harvest rituals of my ancestors who made their living in agriculture.

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Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis).

Time spent collecting prairie seed over the years and developing a mental image for certain targeted plants at different times of the year have helped me recognize many species in seed form almost easier than when they are in bloom.

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Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seeds ready to disperse in the wind.

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Some plants like purple conflower (Echinacea angustifolia) may even have more value to us in seed form. Echinacea seeds (three visible in middle of seed head) and roots have medicinal value as a pain killer and immune system booster. Chewing on a few seeds has a temporary numbing effect on your teeth and tongue.

 

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Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans).

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Seeds of native tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum) are held tightly now, but will loosen and fall away this winter.

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With a parachute-like pappus, Dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata) seeds are ready for a breezy liftoff.

Evolution of Seed Dispersal

Plants evolve with all kinds of seed dispersal mechanisms. Woodland plants develop tasty fruits around their seeds, spring-loaded propellers, and Velcro-like hooks and barbs that latch onto fur. Plants of the open prairie sometimes employ these kinds of mechanisms, but most simply take advantage of the abundant wind by growing hairs/wings that allow them to take flight. By scattering their seeds to other locations, plants help insure their presence in the future.

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Whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata).

May you find more enjoyment in the dormant vegetation and seeds persisting around you this fall and winter.

Embrace Thistles

I encourage you to embrace thistles. Our South Central Kansas native species are colorful and attractive to pollinators. With the abundance of precipitation we’ve received this year, it has been a great year for plant growth and flowering, and thistles have certainly been among the benefactors. Don’t be so quick to dig out every plant you find.

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Delaware skipper on tall thistle

Non-Native Thistles

Thistles are an often prickly topic and one to make many prairie landowners bristle. A number of thistle species are on the Kansas noxious weed list, including bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare), Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense), and musk thistle (Carduus nutans). So, it is no wonder, that the mention of these species makes us cringe.  When present on a site, they are often dominant and problematic.

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Non-native bull thistle

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Non-native bull thistle

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Non-native Canada thistle

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Non-native musk thistle

Native Thistles

There are, however, two native thistles found on our South Central Kansas prairies that often get a bad rap because they are confused with their noxious and more invasive relatives.  The native species, undulating thistle (Cirsium undulatum) and tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum) are the only thistles I have found on most South Central Kansas prairies I visit.  They have beautiful flowers and play an important role as a nectar source for many species of butterflies and other insects.  When in the peak of their respective bloom times, undulating and tall thistle flowers are hot spots for a host of insect pollinators, the predators that eat these insects, and birds (especially finches), who will later eat the seeds.

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Native undulating thistle

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Native tall thistle

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Contrast between green upper and white lower surfaces of native tall thistle leaves

The following table provides more information about the native and non-native species found in Kansas.  Thanks to Mike Haddock (http://www.kswildflower.org) for some of the photos and information compiled for this post.

thistledata

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Regal fritillary on tall thistle

The Prairie Paradox

“Reversing deforestation is complicated; planting a tree is simple.”

– Martin O’ Malley, Former Governor of Maryland and Mayor of Baltimore.

When I first read this saying, I automatically changed it in my mind.  I changed it to “reversing prairie degradation and loss is complicated; planting a wildflower is simple“.  Granted, we appreciate trees in Kansas. But more than trees, we need to plant prairie to reverse the losses to our signature landscape.  Only one percent of the original prairie remains—99 percent of prairies are gone.  The rich prairie land is now used to produce crops and raise livestock.  Only a few pockets of prairie still survive in their original form, including the Flint Hills.

I grew up on a farm and learned so much from farm life.  I know the value of the land.  I understand how hard it is to eke out a living working the land.  There is a richness of the soil precisely because it was once prairie.  Conservation of the soil is vital to the success of any farm.  Stewardship of the land is understood.  We can’t take the land away from the farmers and landowners, but we also can’t let the prairie disappear forever either.  We need the food that this land produces and we need to save this almost extinct ecosystem.  It is complicated on so many levels.

Big Bluestem growing in the Prairie Window Project

Big Bluestem growing in the Prairie Window Project

I believe the solution to the prairie paradox is to allow for and encourage individuals to make small steps, such as choosing to plant native wildflowers and grasses in our own yards and landscapes.  Just like remnant prairies that dot the landscape, our small gardens can have an impact.  This impact can be multiplied with each new wildflower and each new garden that is established.  By choosing to establish just a few native plants, we can begin the slow process of reclamation, rejuvenation and renewal of this lost landscape.  Large expanses of prairie are never coming back, but a patchwork landscape of our own native plants seems doable.

Larger prairie restorations are a challenge.  They can take years to get established and even then the results will almost always fall short of the original prairie.  I can remember looking at a prairie restoration in Wisconsin that had been seeded over 20 years earlier.  The guide noted that the prairie had just started looking like the original prairie.  It took that long to develop into something that resembled a true prairie.  I am not saying that we shouldn’t plant new prairie.  If anything, we should start now so the transformation can begin.  A “new prairie” does not develop overnight. It takes time and is complicated by so many different factors.  We should have realistic expectations and be patient.

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Burning the Prairie Window Project-Spring 2016

Even our Prairie Window Project is continuing to mature.  It is now nearly 10 years old.  We have worked hard to keep the trees and yellow sweet clover out of the prairie.  We planted the prairie with good diversity of wildflowers and grasses but even that is no guarantee of success.  The impact of farming on the land, weed competition with new native seedlings, management regiments and many other influences can have detrimental effects on a prairie reconstruction slowing the transformation.  These examples demonstrate how complicated it can be to change a farm field to a prairie.  It is costly, time consuming and unpredictable.

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Earth Partnership for Schools Native Planting

We should keep planting native plants because it is the right thing to do. Plant a prairie if you can.  Reclaim a prairie if you can.  The prairie ecosystem, unique to North America, is an important part of our natural heritage.  Native pollinators need these plants for their survival.  Native wildflowers and grasses create habitat for wildlife.  We should be aware of the many benefits of native plants.  Obviously, native plants are worth the effort.  Remember, planting a wildflower is simple –why not start today?

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This is a landscape worth saving!

Three Benefits of Native Plant Roots

The other day I was watching a show on television that was trumpeting the benefits of organic matter.  It really made me think.  I know organic matter doesn’t exactly get everyone fired up, but one comparison that was presented in this program really opened my eyes to the benefits of prairie plants to the soil.

They took soil samples from the edge of a field, which was untilled remnant prairie, and from the farm field itself.  The prairie edge had nearly six percent organic matter, while the field ranged from two to three percent organic matter.  That may not seem like a big deal, but the prairie provides tremendous improvements to the soil.  There is so much going on underground in a prairie.  Here is an explanation of what native plant roots do for the soil:

They add organic matter.

Organic matter is extremely important in a healthy soil.  It attracts microbes, earthworms, and fungi that bring the soil to life.  These organisms break down the thatch at the surface as well as the roots that die from year to year.

Organic matter reduces compaction, making the soil spongy and able to bounce back.

In addition, organic matter increases the water holding capacity.  It is said that for every one percent of additional organic matter, the soil can receive four percent more water holding capacity.  This is important through prolonged periods without rain.

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Western Kansas Prairie-Photo by Larry Vickerman

Organic matter helps prevent soil and wind erosion by binding sandy soil particles together.  This binding property of organic matter prevents caking, cracking, and water run-off that occurs when clay soils dry.

They add nutrients.  

The breakdown of organic matter consequently infuses minerals throughout the soil profile.  For every one percent of organic matter in the soil, it releases on average:

  • 20 to 30 lbs. of Nitrogen
  • 4 to 7 lbs. of Phosphorus
  • 2 to 3 lbs. of Sulfur

Organisms in the soil are vital in the decomposition process.  They help recycle the nutrients into forms that are readily available for plants to absorb through their roots.  It is a symbiotic relationship.  Other plants, like legumes (prairie clovers, lead plant and indigos), actively fix nitrogen from the air and add it to the soil.  These native plants live harmoniously together, forming a matrix of roots that keep giving back to the land.

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Purple Prairie Clover at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains

They improve soil porosity.

What we see above ground is only 1/3 of the entire prairie plant.  The roots are 2/3 of the plant and 1/3 of those roots die each year, adding organic matter to the soil and opening pores, so water can percolate deeply into the ground.  If you have a heavy clay soil, native grass roots can break through compacted soils.  It is rare to see standing water in a prairie because of the holes punctured deep into the earth by plant roots, allowing rainfall to be readily absorbed.

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The rich soils of the prairie that were broken for farming were a result of huge quantities of organic matter.  In some places in the Tallgrass Prairie, the top soil was over ten feet deep from centuries of organic matter decomposition.  Think of the prairie soil as a living organism that gives and takes and gives and takes.  It is true, prairies develop healthy soils.  Why not start bettering your own soil by growing a prairie?

Ragweed: An Annual Affliction

Achoo!

A couple of weeks ago, my son and I started to experience the annoyance of head, nasal, and throat responses to extra pollen in the air. I did some investigating of roadsides and sure enough, the ragweed was just starting to bloom and reported pollen counts were spiking. Kansans have really enjoyed relatively cooler temperatures and ample rainfall this summer. Our landscapes have been green and our gardens have been productive. With the good comes the bad…mosquitoes and ticks have been abundant and we should expect a monster ragweed season through the rest of August and September.

Plants with annual life cycles (as opposed to perennials or biennials) are the most productive airborne pollen sources this time of the year. Annuals complete their whole life cycle of germination, rapid growth, profuse flowering (the culprit in this story), voluminous seed production, and death in one growing season. Three of the the worst annual plant offenders for airborne pollen production this time of the year include common ragweed, giant ragweed, and sumpweed.

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Wind-pollinated common ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia).

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Wind-pollinated giant ragweed (Ambrosia trifida).

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Wind-pollinated annual sumpweed (Iva annua).

While ragweed season is the worst for me, I do often notice airborne pollen spikes of flowering elms and maples in early spring, cedars and wheat crops late spring, and sometimes even warm season prairie grasses in mid summer.

All flowering plants produce pollen, but wind-pollinated plants produce smaller, lighter pollen that use wind to migrate from male to female flowers…and unfortunately our nasal passages. Wind-pollinated flowers do not need to invest energy in expensive color (and nectar) to attract insects to move pollen, so their flowering often goes undetected by the human eye. A common misconception is that colorful, perennial flowering plants, including goldenrods and sunflowers blooming this time of the year, are causing us to sneeze. However, their flowers have heavier pollen, which are not carried in the wind, and which require an insect with a hairy body/legs to migrate to other flowers. Flowers with colorful petals are not our allergy nemesis.

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Insect-pollinated Missouri goldenrod (Solidago missouriensis) does not cause allergies.

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Insect-pollinated compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) and wind-pollinated giant ragweed.

Annuals including ragweed require disturbed, open soil to thrive. Although their pollen affects me, I am glad for the ecological role that annuals play in quickly establishing disturbed soil and minimizing erosion until long-lived perennials can establish and take their place. Most of our soil at Dyck Arboretum is tied up and covered with perennial native plants, and I actually had a hard time finding examples of annuals to photograph.

I’ll finish on one more positive note. Grains including corn, wheat, rice, oats, rye, barley, and others are all wind-pollinated plants too. I guess we should be thankful for the wonderful world of plants and what their sometimes annoying pollination mechanisms have to offer.

So, grab the tissues, nasal sprays, antihistamines and suffer through.

The Power of Many

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” ~ Helen Keller

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Consider the power of one vs. the power of many. The power of one may at first seem insignificant. However, with persistence, consensus-building, and sometimes even a little luck, that power can grow to many and build to a formidable presence.

A few examples of this in nature…

From one seed, a typical annual sunflower head produces hundreds and sometimes over 1,000 seeds depending on the species variety. A few plants in an area with open soil can quickly turn into an area dominated by this species over the next couple of years.

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One Canada goose only has so much energy to give while covering miles during migration to fight wind currents and arrive at its intended destination. But by flocking into a V formation in flight, each individual rotates through the more energy-intensive front position in a cyclical fashion, shares overall flight fatigue, and greatly boosts the efficiency and range of the whole.

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Photo by Hamid Hajihusseini – http://www.panoramio.com/photo/43585282

One by one, individual plants of hundreds of species of wildflowers and grasses took advantage of a favorable climate on the Great Plains after the last ice age 10,000 years ago. They extended their roots to a depth of 10 feet or more, produced flowers and distributed seeds, and filled new spaces as long-lived perennials. Prairie plant roots partially died and regenerated year after year after year, and in the process pumped loads of atmospheric carbon into a deep soil horizon, and created a long-lasting friable matrix that today helps produce food for the rest of the world.51EQ78HN2YL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_

While pondering these examples on a walk this morning, I tried to swat individual mosquitoes, only to be overwhelmed by the presence of a blood-thirsty mosquito CLOUD. I was reminded of the “success of many” concept in the book Gnats of Knotty Pine from my favorite children’s author, Bill Peet.

Last week, we finished our ninth annual Earth Partnership for Schools (EPS) summer institute. We were joined by 21 educators for this intense 40-hour workshop to learn how to engage K-12 children in the preparation, creation, maintenance, study and enjoyment of schoolyard prairie gardens. These individuals came with energy, passion, a willingness to learn, and 287 years of experience and expertise. (side note: this group fittingly helped a volunteer weed a large bed in about five minutes and conducted a big planting in about 30 minutes that would have taken our grounds manager all day!)

As during previous EPS summer institutes, spending a week with these people was a blast – exhausting, yet energizing, and ever so powerful for all involved on so many levels. They will return to school in the fall with detailed action plans, an expanded toolbox of curriculum activities, and a new appreciation for the success of project-based, hands-on environmental education.

I’m sure you will agree that every individual teacher has the power on his or her own to impact the lives of so many young people.  Together, this 2015 cohort has increased the number of EPS educators in Kansas to 194 teachers from 64 schools. These individuals, as a collective group, have reached over 21,000 students in the last eight years and that number will continue to grow.

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I’ll leave you with one final question. Between the bison and the grasshopper (pre-European settlement era when the bison were still common), which organism as a whole consumed more prairie biomass in a given year? I think you know where this is going…

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