December in Kansas is the time to enjoy textures in the landscape and appreciate dormancy. These textures have been present during earlier months, but they have been obscured by the bright, colorful eye candy that more dominantly draws our attention.
The waning purples, yellows, reds, and greens of fall have served their purposes of pollinator attraction and energy production and finally given way to the variously rich shades of brown in winter. These remaining warm hues of frugal colors make shapes and textures stand out more prominently in the prairie against itself and the sky.
The previously perfect ovals of grey-headed coneflower seed heads, slowly release their grip on propagules, only to uncover another perfect oval.
The white hairy pappus of a variety of grasses, asters, and goldenrods, which will eventually carry away its host seed in the wind like a parachute, is particularly eye-catching in the way it reflects light while held on winter stems.
From a prairie management perspective, wintertime is the best time to see and root out invading tree stems with their obvious coarse textures that are otherwise hidden by greenery.
The past twelve months have been filled with personal challenges for me and I have not always been thankful for the many blessings in my life. Often we look at the problems we are dealing with, but neglect to see and be grateful for the gifts we have been given.
The other day I found this poem and it was a good reminder to me to not let the cares of this world keep me from being thankful. I am thankful for the relationships I have with family and friends. I am thankful for the people we serve. I am thankful for the work I do, and the beauty all around me. Trials can be turned to gratitude if we change our attitude.
We walk on starry fields of white And do not see the daisies; For blessings common in our sight We rarely offer praises. We sigh for some supreme delight To crown our lives with splendor, And quite ignore our daily store Of pleasures sweet and tender.
Our cares are bold and push their way Upon our thought and feeling. They hang about us all the day, Our time from pleasure stealing. So unobtrusive many a joy We pass by and forget it, But worry strives to own our lives And conquers if we let it.
There’s not a day in all the year But holds some hidden pleasure, And looking back, joys oft appear To brim the past’s wide measure.
But blessings are like friends, I hold, Who love and labor near us. We ought to raise our notes of praise While living hearts can hear us.
Full many a blessing wears the guise Of worry or of trouble. Farseeing is the soul and wise Who knows the mask is double. But he who has the faith and strength To thank his God for sorrow Has found a joy without alloy To gladden every morrow.
We ought to make the moments notes Of happy, glad Thanksgiving; The hours and days a silent phrase Of music we are living. And so the theme should swell and grow As weeks and months pass o’er us, And rise sublime at this good time, A grand Thanksgiving chorus.
– Ella Wheeler Wilcox, 1896
HAPPY THANKSGIVING FROM YOUR FRIENDS AT THE DYCK ARBORETUM OF THE PLAINS!
Life flies by for all of us and it is easy to miss or forget what happens in a given month. When reviewing recent photographs on my phone, I was pleasantly reminded of all the richness that happened over the last four weeks or so. October in Kansas is that great fall transition period between summer and winter, hot and cold, green and brown, and fast and slow when there is SO MUCH to see. For those that feel that they endure the extremes of Kansas to revel in the moderation that comes with fall, October is your time.
I was reminded from these photos of our Dyck Arboretum of the Plains mission – cultivating transformative relationships between people and the land. Let’s review in the following photos the richness that can be found in that interface between the plants/wildlife of Kansas and the people that enjoy this place in October.
October 1 brought a monarch “fallout” when their migration was interrupted by strong south winds. They momentarily took a break from their journey and sought shelter in our Osage orange hedge row.
Local monarch enthusiast, Karen Fulk, took advantage of the fallout to capture and tag monarchs with identification numbers that help other monarch observers in Mexico or elsewhere to better understand the speed and location of their migration.
Santa Fe Middle School students from Newton were able to witness the end of the monarch fallout on October 2 and also enjoyed various activities on the Dyck Arboretum campus that included insect collecting, plant sampling and measuring tree height. The Dyck Arboretum’s Kansas Earth Partnership for Schools (EPS) Program curriculum has a lesson that teaches students how to measure tree height with five different methods including estimation, shadows, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry.
On October 6, former and current Dyck Arboretum board members hosted tours of their homes and land near Hesston for Arboretum Prairie Partners. Lorna and Bob Harder gave a tour of their solar photovoltaic-powered home and surrounding prairie landscape and LeAnn and Stan Clark hosted everyone for dinner on their patio surrounded by extensive native plant landscaping.
Hesston Elementary students took a field trip to the Arboretum on October 10 to conduct a leaf scavenger hunt, learn about monarch migration, observe different seed dispersal mechanisms and study insect diversity in the prairie.
Earhart Environmental Magnet Elementary in Wichita, a Kansas Earth Partnership for Schools participating school, engages their students in environmental education with hands-on activities such as beekeeping. Students tend the bees, grow and maintain native plant gardens as nectar sources, and regularly camp on their grounds to learn more about the natural world around them.
On October 17, Walton Elementary (another Kansas EPS School) students came to the Arboretum to collect seed and study how seeds disperse. They each had a target plant they were searching for and from which they were aiming to collect seed. They did the same last year, germinated the seed in their greenhouse over the winter, and had a successful native plant sale in the Walton community.
Bethel College environmental science classes visited the Arboretum on October 24 to learn about the native plants and wildlife of Kansas, natural resource management, and ecological restoration. When students become interested in and well-versed about the natural world around them, they will turn into more informed and better-educated environmental decision-makers of the future.
Part of establishing a rich sense of place for people in any one location involves not only natural history connection cultural enrichment through the arts. The Dyck Arboretum’s Prairie Window Concert Series (PWCS) features eight live music performances each season. Our 2019-20 season was kicked off with October bookend performances featuring Mark Erelli on September 29 and recently The Steel Wheels on October 26.
On October 29, a stunning cold front rolled through Kansas and chilling temperatures caused delicately-held leaves on trees like ash, maple, Osage orange, and ginko to fall within hours. Social media posts were featuring leaves dropping quickly that day all over Kansas to make for a memorable fall day.
The 2019 Eco-Meet Championships will be held at Dyck Arboretum in early November. In late October, organizers and high school teams from around the state were visiting the Arboretum to prepare for the big event. The competition will allow some of the brightest science students from around the state to showcase their knowledge on subjects including prairies, woodlands, entomology, and ornithology.
The cold nights and relatively warm days of late October have allowed the grass and tree leaves to show off their bright colors that have been hidden all growing season by the green pigments of chlorophyll. Seed heads are opening and dispersal mechanisms that catch the wind or lure animals are on full display. Good ground moisture and warm temperatures are still even allowing for a bit of late-season flowering from some species.
I’ll leave you with a video (sorry for the terrible camera work) of one of my favorite sights of every October – when the aromatic asters are in full bloom and late-season pollinators belly up to the nectar bar on a warm fall day. Enjoy.
It is time to give some props to the plants that don’t always play nice in the urban landscape. Over the past month, I have enjoyed finding value in the undesirables.
In recent years, we have culled tall and aggressive native plant species from our plant sales because they become weedy and dominant in small manicured gardens. They out-compete shorter, slower-growing species for which we also find value. But even though some of these species may be landscape bullies, they still provide nectar for pollinators, food for seed eaters, vegetation for host-specific insect larvae, and beautiful flowers to please the human eye.
In some of the low-maintenance habitat areas here at the Arboretum, I’ve been recently admiring the profuse blooms and insect-attracting abilities of the following species:
Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis),
western ironweed (Vernonia baldwinii)
tall joe-pye weed (Eupatorium altissimum),
brown-eyed susan (Rudbeckia triloba),
tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum),
common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca),
compass plant (Silphium laciniatum)
prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum)
Maximillian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani)
While I would not recommend these plants for the more manicured parts of your yard where you weed, mulch, and tend for a tidier look, consider these “undesirables” for more wild places around you. You will only find a couple of these species for purchase at our plant sales. But you can find all of them in the landscapes around our grounds and I will be happy to pick some seed for you to take home and disperse in your wild places. The insects and greater ecosystem around you will benefit!
One of my favorite past times during the fall season is watching pollinators work on the many wildflowers in bloom. This morning there were dozens of different pollinators crawling all over the white flowers of Tall Boneset (Eupatorium altissimum). It had everything from small flies to larger wasps to different bees and even a few butterflies. They were all living harmoniously together atop this one plant. It was fun to watch and listen.
That was one plant. Imagine how many plants are needed to sustain these pollinator populations. With documented losses of habitat nation wide and documented losses of milkweeds (host plants of the migrating monarchs), what should our strategy be to help the plight of pollinators?
It’s important to realize that we all need to participate and understand that the choices we make in our landscapes can make a difference. Yes, our landscapes can help pollinators no matter the size. This one boneset plant was found by dozens of pollinators. Sure – we will never replace the pristine prairies that once were here, but our smaller green spaces can still help support an abundance of wildlife.
Here are six ways you can help increase declining populations of pollinators, including bees and monarchs:
1. Plant Pollinator-Friendly Plants
It goes without saying that pollinators need blooming plants and the plants need the pollinators. Having a diverse set of native plants in your landscape will be a good start to attracting pollinators to your yard.
Certainly, milkweeds are the best wildflowers for attracting monarchs to your yard. We have seen several already migrating through on their way south, and some have been depositing eggs on our common milkweed plants. The wildflowers are the buffet these pollinators need for their survival. (Peruse our nativeplant listand sample landscape designs for some inspiration.)
2. Plant with a Succession of Blooms
I 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. This approach mimics the natural prairie and the changing seasons.
3. Create Habitat in your Yard
Layer trees and shrubs along with wildflowers and grasses. These plants provide shelter from the wind as well as nesting sites and food for birds, butterflies, and bees. I like to leave old logs and small brush piles so these pollinators can overwinter in my yard. Remember, even a small garden can have a tremendous impact.
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.
6. Learn About the Plight of Endangered
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 life cycle? 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. And, of course, MonarchWatch.org is a great resource.)
When it comes to
supporting the life cycle of pollinators, you can be part of the
solution. Native wildflowers are the best option to help them
prosper. You will be amazed when you introduce just a handful of
wildflowers to your landscape. If you plant them, pollinators will come.
The other day, I was reading an interesting article about modeling sustainability in our landscapes. This particular article focused on botanical gardens and their importance as models for sustainable practices and stewardship of the land. Obviously, it made me think about our own landscapes here at the Arboretum, how we manage and maintain them and how we can help encourage conservation and stewardship of our lands, waters and wildlife. It also made me keenly aware of my own feelings toward stewardship. How do I share my empathy for the land or my belief that the land is worth saving?
What’s your personal land ethic?
Certainly, a land ethic is a very personal thing. Stewardship is about a person’s relationship to the land. It’s about what you believe on the inside. What I am willing and able to do right now regarding stewardship of the land in my little corner of the world, is quite different from what my neighbor is able to do, or even what you, the reader, are able to do. We may feel driven to make drastic changes right now, but others may see those changes as excessive and unimportant in light of other issues they are currently dealing with.
I am reminded of a quote from Aldo Leopold from A Sand County Almanac:
“Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and aesthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
Each of us has some sort of land ethic. Whether or not we can articulate it to someone else is another thing.
The stewardship spectrum
I like to think of stewardship on a horizontal plane. On the one end of the spectrum are those who hold a deep reverence for the land. They are compelled to actively incorporate practices into their lives, such as using native plants, harvesting rainwater, reducing/eliminating the use of pesticides and herbicides, mulching, creating habitat for wildlife, and other sustainable actions. They are caretakers of the land.
On the other end of the horizontal plane are the novices. These are the folks who want to do the right thing, but they don’t know how to get started. This end also includes someone with a pristine lawn and tidy flower beds. There is nothing wrong with this type of landscaping — remember that a land ethic is a very personal thing. This landscape reflects their beliefs about how a landscape should look.
Those of us who see the value and beauty of a native landscape have the opportunity to model a paradigm shift in landscape practices and show a different land ethic that can be beautiful in its own way.
Developing a connection to the land
So how do we move people along this horizontal plane from novice steward to sustainable steward of the land? Whether here at the Arboretum or in your own back yard, the more people who see and experience nature up close, and connect with the land, the more progress will be made.
This connection with the land is important. A deeper connection results in a deeper empathy for the world around us. Change starts at home in your own landscapes by modeling your convictions.
“Conservation can accomplish its objectives only when it springs from an impelling conviction on the part of private landowners.”
– Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
People will want to change when they see change is possible. If they see stewardship modeled for them, they will begin to embrace this change in their own feeling about the land. To care for the land, people must see that the land is worth saving.
Those of us who see that stewardship is possible need to: model it for others, share it with others, help others, and support others as they gain understanding and confidence on their own stewardship journey.
“ A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land. Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal. Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.”
When I recommend native plants for a particular landscape, I’ve learned to focus on the fact that people and the insects they are hoping to attract are conditioned to desire seeing a concentration of blooms with decent repetition. Some of the fascinating parts of landscaping with native plants are that they also have interesting features regarding their vegetation, seed pods, relationship to insects as host plants, and natural/cultural history stories that accompany them as Kansas native plants as well. But first and foremost, their flowers are what most intrigue the masses.
A Long Growing Season in Kansas
The challenge when landscaping in Kansas is that our growing season is long, spanning 7 to 8 months, generally from March to October. A given landscape only has so much space for plant repetition and one has to choose which plant species will be planted in big numbers to have a concentration of color when desired. With a school planting, for example, I will mostly choose species that bloom in either April-May or August-September when students will see and enjoy them.
When you plant just a handful of species with big numbers of each for a few different times of focused colorful brilliance, you look like a genius during those times of flowering. Each perennial species, however, blooms for only a couple of weeks or so. When the plants are not blooming, critics of native plantings may label your garden as “too wild” or “dead-looking” when vegetation begins to senesce. These folks are not too forgiving of the fact that perennial plants must first build vegetation before they can flower. and then invest energy in building roots so they can come back again next year. So, one needs to find a reasonable balance between sufficient repetition of a given species and making sure there are enough species to provide blooming overlap throughout the growing season.
Prominent Prairie Grasses in July
This concept of concentrated flowering, or lack thereof, is on my mind every July when the Kansas temperatures are hottest and the well-adapted warm-season prairie grasses that are a significant part of the prairie matrix begin to shine. Grass flowers are wind-pollinated and understandably not investing in colorful flowers with a design to attract pollinators. It always seems to me that prairies in July are dominated by green, and that any blooming non-grass flowers stand out.
Inspiration of High Elevation Wildflowers
My family and I usually get away for vacation to Colorado or somewhere west of Kansas to enjoy different landscapes. These trips usually take us to areas with higher elevations, cooler air, and snow-melt streams. Above 5,000 feet in elevation, these areas have much shorter growing seasons, roughly half of that in Kansas. This phenomenon concentrates the flowering of available species into a tighter window of opportunity causing many blooming occurrences to overlap. Since late July is the center of that growing season, the wildflowers are often at their peak during our visits.
During our last two July vacations to Montana’s Glacier National Park (GNP) and Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) in 2018 and 2019, respectively, we witnessed especially lush displays of wildflowers that made hikes for me most enjoyable. The following photo collage includes species observed on mountain trails that made me pause and take note. They each have similar-looking close relatives in Kansas.
While I know that most mountain wildflowers won’t survive in Kansas, I am still inspired by them. I observe their site-specificity with regard to moisture/light, what wildlife they attract, and their growth form — often including many plants of one species creating a concentration of color. Our upcoming Fall 2019 FloraKansas Plant Festival will offer many native species that thrive in our Kansas climate and soils. Plan to peruse the options, see what catches your eye, plant them in repetition, and be inspired.
On vacation in early July, some friends and I explored Devil’s Lake State Park, Wisconsin. Rocky and rainy, with lushly forested slopes, it is a very different landscape from my beloved Kansas. While hiking I saw many of my favorite shade plants living in situ, outside the confines of our carefully cultivated gardens. To spot them in their natural habitat is always a thrill!
Jack-in-the-Pulpit was growing along the hiking path ringing the lake. Easy to confuse with poison ivy because of its three leaves, colonies of them grow in part sun locations. In early spring their fluted blooms appear, inconspicuous in yellow and brown. In hot locations they will conserve their energy and go dormant for the summer.
Ferns were growing out of every crag, reaching their delicate fronds upward. Kansas does actually have many of our own native ferns, but they are much harder to find than those in wetter climes. I was really having a hard time keeping up with our hiking group because I was so fascinated by the diversity of ferns around us! I saw christmas ferns, lady ferns and wood ferns all in less than a mile’s walk.
I also saw groups of coral berry (Symphoricarpos) growing in the understory, their fruits shining in the dappled light of afternoon. There are lots of cultivars of this plant quite suitable for sunnier locations. They make wonderful bushes for foundation plantings or filler amongst other shrubs.
Luckily you don’t have to go all the way to Wisconsin to see these beauties. All the plants listed in this post will be available at our fall FloraKansas Native Plant Festival fundraiser! Call or email Arboretum staff for more information.
This humble family survives the open plains and thrives in niches that others are too flamboyant to endure. Their incredibly deep roots protect them from drought, and their tall silica-rich stalks scatter the next generation.
Though often thought of as a backdrop for peaking wildflowers, grasses are actually flowering plants themselves. They evolved to stand and spread under vast, harsh skies. While their fraternal twin the orchid family grew alluring petals and fragrances, the grasses grew into tall and limber pollen casters. Well after the first flowering plants and more recently than the dinosaurs, grasses diverged from other buds as minimalists.
They found resilience in simplicity.
Without a need to attract insects to jumble their genes, grasses didn’t have to spend masses of energy on lavish pageantry. They dug their roots in deeper, grew a few more stickers, and when grazers or burns mowed them down, they came back sprawling.
Their flowers stayed small and muted. They lost their petals and rearranged their bracing bracts into something more hardy. When pastures bloom, their shy brilliance pokes out of camouflaged grains. They exist as rows of envelopes, smaller florets, braiding themselves into a diversity of branching inflorescence.
Grass flowers adorn themselves with what looks like a string of pollen-covered lanterns. From within, a curious set of small internal leaves will swell, pushing feathery stigmas and powdery anthers out of the floret.
Grasses are anemophilous, “wind loving.” Although their blooms are only half as vivid as their stalks, many make small colorful gifts to the breeze. The female pistil can come in silver, yellow or deep periwinkle, whereas the male anthers can flaunt yellow, orange, green, crimson and even lavender-purple.
You can see them displaying their small wares right now along the grounds of the Arboretum: blue grama, big bluestem and brome all in their summer suede.
Beginners to winners
Another reductionist adaptation is their use of spiny awls. You probably know them better as stickers. These extra bristles get caught in fur and socks to be pulled across the prairie. Some awls are bent, some are straight and some will even twist and untwist with fluctuations in humidity, screwing themselves into the earth.
They may have replaced fragrance for practicality, but ultimately it’s had major payoffs. Swaths of pasture persist through drought, fire and storm. Twenty percent of all wild plants in the Great Plains are grasses. Not only do their populations outnumber any other group of flowering plant, their distribution is sweeping. By weight they account for 70 percent of all crops.
Truly subdued prominence.
Resources: Barnard, Iralee. Field Guide to the Common Grasses of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska. University Press of Kansas, 2014
This past week I had the opportunity to trek into the Flint Hills. I always enjoy spending time immersed in a prairie setting. It makes me feel small in a great big world. It makes me keenly aware of the great diversity and complexity of the prairie ecosystem. It also reminds me how precarious these settings are and how important they are to our survival and the life cycles of so many different things. Here are a few of the prairie blooms I saw in June:
Catclaw sensitive briar (Mimosa quadrivalvis var. nuttallii)
Narrowleaf Coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia)
Leadplant (Amorpha canescens)
Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
Bee balm (Monarda fistulosa)
Prairie Coneflower (Ratibida columnifera)
Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Sullivant’s Milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii)
This is just a handful of flowers blooming right now in the Flint Hills. With all the rain, the prairies are lush and full of life. I would encourage you to take time to find a prairie near you, even our own Prairie Window Project, and enjoy our native habitat. I was amazed how alive the prairie was with sights and sounds of wildlife and pollinators. It was worth taking in the view of earth and sky.