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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Embracing Prairie Burning

An important disturbance mechanism for prairie ecosystem health, a restoration ritual that connects a Kansan to its native landscape, and a series of sights, sounds and smells that both comforts and stirs heightened senses – prairie burning in the spring represents all these things to me.

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Ever since participating in my first prairie burns during graduate school in Wisconsin, where I was trained to safely conduct prescribed burns, I have held a great reverence and respect for this process of igniting the prairie. Prairies and a whole array of plants and animals became adapted to semi-regular lightning-set fires on the Central North American Plains since the last ice age approximately 10,000 years ago.

In the last couple of thousand years, humans have also been important vectors for bringing fire to the prairie and helping determine its geographic extent on the landscape. Native Americans used fire to clear safe zones for lodging, attract or direct wildlife for food, and celebrate cultural rituals. Their actions helped extend prairie further east into areas that have since reverted back to oak-hickory forests, as the Native American presence and their fire rituals were extinguished. European ranchers on the Plains hold a similar respect for fire and use it to help fatten cattle and control invading woody plants that would eventually shade out prairie grasses.

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Prairie fires in Kansas have been met with resistance. Increased human habitation and careless use of fire in untamed wild places puts residences more at risk and created an understandable fear of fire. Air quality problems affecting human health, due mostly to automobiles, power generation and industry in major metropolitan areas like Kansas City and most recently Wichita, are certainly not helped by spring prairie burns. Wildlife managers can cite that annual prairie burns in the Flint Hills have become too frequent for the success of grassland birds, including greater prairie chickens that require some residual cover for adequate foraging and nesting success.

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Kansas has a rich history intertwined with the prairie and Kansans embrace prairie as an important part of our cultural and natural history, our recreation through eco-tourism (state park use, hunting, fishing, birding, hiking, etc.) and our economy (ranching). Where prairie has been removed, it has left behind a legacy of some of the best agricultural soils in the world. While mowing does provide some of the benefits of fire, it does not provide all of them, and is more costly and time-consuming. We must find ways to utilize and implement prairie burning with greater safety, intelligence, and purpose.

Simply put, a culture that values prairie must also value fire.

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WARNING: The Monarch Butterfly is Threatened

Monarchs ingest toxic cardiac glycosides when their larvae eat milkweed leaves and advertise through their adult warning coloration: “look out for me…I’m poisonous!” The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may very soon be issuing its own warning on behalf of declining populations for this bright butterfly under the banner of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). A petition was submitted in August 2014 by The Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Food Safety, The Xerces Society, and Dr. Lincoln Brower to encourage listing of this species on the ‘threatened’ list. A ‘threatened species’ is one that is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.

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Dramatic Population Decline

The following graph (Graph courtesy of the Monarch Joint Venture) shows over the last 20 years the area of monarch overwintering colonies in the forests of Central Mexico, which is their only overwintering location.

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Figure from Monarch Watch

Their population trend of precipitous decline is discouraging. The part that is encouraging, however, is that we know exactly what the problem is – prairie habitat loss; specifically, the loss of milkweed (Asclepias spp.), the monarch host plant. Americans do not like to be restricted or forced to spend money on anything and a threatened listing under the ESA will do just that. It is my hope that we can avoid listing of the monarch butterfly and restore its population, but this will require both education and action. The action part is what I will address here. If you live in the following monarch corridor, you must take action now.

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Figure from Monarch Watch

What Can We Do?

It can be fun, easy, and rewarding to establish milkweeds and I challenge everyone reading this post to take personal action in increasing milkweed populations in the coming growing season. There are two easy ways to do this: 1) establish milkweed plants in the areas you landscape, and 2) distribute milkweed seed in a nearby unmowed area.

  • Plant Milkweed Plants – Landscaping with native plants is rewarding and South Central Kansans have eight commercially-available native milkweed species they can plant, including Asclepias incarnata (swamp milkweed), syriaca (common milkweed), A. tuberosa (butterfly milkweed), A. viridis (green antelopehorn), A. speciosa (showy milkweed), A. sullivantii (smooth milkweed), A. hirtella (prairie milkweed), and A. verticillata (whorled milkweed). These species can be purchased at the Dyck Arboretum of the Plains spring plant sale, Monarch Watch, and Prairie Moon Nursery. Plants establish and flower in the first year with proper care and provide beauty and insect nectar sources in addition to host plant larval food for the monarch.

Showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa)

  • Distribute Milkweed Seed – Surely you know a grassland area along a nearby creek or waterway, in a park, or along a roadside that gets mowed or burned only periodically to keep it free of trees. Collect some seed from a nearby prairie or even buy some seed of the species above from a native seed nursery (good sources include Prairie Moon Nursery and Missouri Wildflowers Nursery), get permission to plant, and distribute your milkweed seeds in the fall or early winter so that germination will happen and establishment will begin the following spring. Common milkweed ( A. syriaca) is the species most preferred by the monarch and is easiest to acquire and establish. Distributing seed is a very cost effective and easy way to establish milkweed were it doesn’t currently exist.

Common milkweed (Aslepias syriaca) with monarch eggs

Do you remember the massive flocks of the passenger pigeon? Of course you don’t – Martha, the last known individual died in 1914. Your grandparents or great grandparents, however,  may have been able to tell you first hand stories. First hand experiences with monarchs may be something we currently take for granted. If we don’t act now, these encounters with monarchs may be something our grandkids or great grandkids never experience. Don’t let this happen.

A Love for Water: Reflections on Water Supply

GerryEpp8

 

In spite of winter’s recent blast, I am feeling hydrophilic. It is true that I have a “strong affinity for water” as the definition goes. In a vocation working with water-dependent plants where Latin names are commonly used, the word “hydrophillic” (Latin hydrophilus, from Greek hydr- + -philos -philous) should be common vernacular.

It may seem silly to state this affection given that everyone knows human survival requires regular access to potable water. But it feels fitting to make this proclamation after experiencing a 2014 Kansas growing season of near average precipitation when rain fell regularly and nearly always when it seemed to be most needed. Our home lawn didn’t require much irrigation to keep from going dormant, our vegetable garden was especially bountiful, and the Central Kansas prairie was as lush and tall and colorful and productive with ripe seed as I have seen it in the last decade. With fresh memories of the scorching summers of 2011 and 2012, when heat and drought tested every Kansan’s resolve to maintain residency, I can definitely say that I…love…water.

 

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I just finished attending the first day of the Governor’s Conference on the Future of Water in Kansas, where newly re-elected Governor Sam Brownback committed that a big part of his second term will be dedicated to development and implementation of A Long-Term Vision for the Future of Water Supply in Kansas. Kansans are fortunate to have access to plentiful groundwater in the western part of the state and surface water in the east. At the moment, we are fortunate to regularly turn on the tap for a clean, seemingly limitless supply of water – a luxury that costs less than our phone bills, cable bills, and electricity bills, but is far more essential.

The introductory statement in the Governor’s document issues a warning: “The writing is on the wall and if we don’t act today, our future is bleak. The Ogallala Aquifer is declining faster than it is recharging. Reservoirs, which are critical water storage structures for much of our state, are filling with sediment. At this rate, with no changes in the next 50 years, the Ogallala will be 70 percent depleted and our reservoirs will be 40 percent filled with sediment.” Most of us haven’t experienced a Dust Bowl in our lifetime or don’t remember the one we did. Hopefully, we won’t experience one in our lifetime, but odds are increasing that we will.

 

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Wise Use of Kansas Water will be the topic of our Dyck Arboretum 2015 Spring Education Symposium. This symposium will explore the history of drought cycles on the Plains, the current status of our Kansas water supply, what steps are being taken to protect it, and offer ways we can better conserve it.

Stay tuned for more information. In the meantime, love water.

(Photos courtesy of Gerry Epp)