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!

Blackbird Ribbons

I’ve been fascinated if not mesmerized recently with this phenomenon of blackbird “ribbons” flying across the sky. While they’ve become familiar to me during the winter in recent years, I’ve noticed them with much greater regularity this year. While the photos and video taken with my iPhone don’t do the phenomenon justice, they will at least give you some idea of what these ribbons look like.

Since early January I’ve seen good examples of this phenomenon perhaps 15-20 times. When I’ve seen them, they have either been flying east around 8:00 a.m. or flying west around 5:00 p.m. They range in density, usually stay within 100 feet of the ground, and stretch for miles. I’ve tried to do some sampling counts while watching them, often for a duration of 5-10 minutes, and figure they number easily in the tens to hundreds of thousands of birds – if not more – in these formations.

Whenever I’ve see them, I have not had binoculars with me and have been unable to get any positive species IDs. They seem to all be red-winged blackbirds, but I wouldn’t be surprised if grackles and/or starlings were in the mix. Local birding expert from Newton, Gregg Friesen, has spent time identifying species in blackbird flocks and says they commonly consist of 90 percent red-winged blackbirds, 5 percent brown-headed cowbirds and a mixture of starlings and the occasional Brewer’s blackbird.

Look closely to see the tens of thousands of birds in this photo.

Some plausible reasons for flying en masse like this might include protection from predators, higher probability of finding food, aerodynamic efficiencies in flight and more. But why the consistency of “punching the clock” with regard to time of day and direction? Does it have something to do with photoperiod? Perhaps they do it throughout the day and I’m only seeing them during my commute.

Some searching for information via the Web, the Kansas Bird Listserv, and my bird books, has turned up very little on this phenomenon besides that red-winged blackbirds like to flock in winter. I posted my inquiry to the Kansas Bird Listserv (a very knowledge-rich resource of birding enthusiasts from around the state) and got some insightful responses.

There is some interesting footage and information on the Web regarding starling murmurations that resemble these blackbird ribbons. Here is one such article made available by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. University of Kansas science educator, Brad Williamson, describes that the behavior and spacing of birds in these formations can be explained by simple rules in mathematical models that most likely relate to competitive advantages in finding food and protection from predators.

Educator Eugene A. Young from Northern Oklahoma College responded to my inquiry with the following: “Certainly there is strength in numbers, aerodynamics helps, but it appears the birds are usually flying from the roost to forage areas.  Once they get to these areas, they disperse into smaller flocks (100-10,000).  These flocks, as the crow flies, can travel 50 miles.  Once they are done foraging, they begin to gather in larger concentrations, and eventually make their way back to the roost.  And different lineages begin to accumulate along the route, eventually forming these long meandering lines of birds.  I suspect they use visual cues to find their way back and forth, thus the low flights.  But upon reaching the roosting area, they accumulate in staging areas before they go to roost.  Often this is wires, trees, bushes or on the ground, and huge congregations form.”

Eugene also confirmed that the timing of movement from roost to forage and back happens right around the time I was seeing this happen and that it relates to photoperiod. A related and informative article (Young, E. A.  2002.  Blackbirds Singing.  Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks Magazine, 59(2):2-6) can be found here.

This year at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains we are trying to be more in tune with phenology as we study the writings of Aldo Leopold. Observing this pretty amazing phenomenon has been just one of many ways I’ve been enjoying a connection with the natural world around me using phenology.

I’ll leave you with a fitting quote from the end of Eugene Young’s article…

“To appreciate the beauty of large blackbird roosts in Kansas is to recognize that large spectacles of animal life are becoming rare. Rather than to be deplored for their droppings and contentious odor, they should be applauded for their mere presence. Imagine what it would have been like to cross the Plains with the large bison herds, or never being out of sight of prairie dogs. What about the huge flocks of passenger pigeons that once flew across the Midwestern sky, with millions of pigeons from horizon to horizon? These moments are gone, lost forever, except for the thoughts and accounts left behind by those fortunate enough to bear them witness. Where can you see such phenomona today? Here in the Plains, but a few short months of the year!”

Symposium: Living the Land Ethic in Kansas

“All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts.The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants and animals, or collectively the land.” The Land Ethic, A Sand County Almanac.

When I think about what Kansas means to me, I think about the land. I think about the Kansas prairie; the soils that support it and the wildlife it supports. I think about the water that flows through it and I think about the sky above it. I think about the food it produces. You and I are important parts of this community too.

 

On Saturday, March 18, we will celebrate and learn more about these rich Kansas connections of the land including its soil, prairie, wildlife, and people, and how they all interact. An all-star cast of interpreters and stewards of Kansas (Rolfe Mandel, Craig Freeman, Michael Pearce, Jason Schmidt, Pete Ferrell, Brian Obermeyer, Erin Dowell, and Wes Jackson) will be assembled for our 11th annual spring education symposium.

 

 

 

We have an early bird discounted fee if you sign up by March 9. See the following link for more details. Come join us!

 

Symposium: Living the Land Ethic in Kansas

Observing Natural Cycles Around Us

We observed the winter solstice yesterday on December 21st. I shared my thoughts on this beloved time in a winter solstice blog post last year. Whether it is the rotation of distant planets, stars and moons around one another or the episodes of weather, plants and animals closer to home, observable natural cycles are abundant around us.

Phenology wheel – a collaborative nature journal

We will be focusing on the closer to home cycles for the coming calendar year at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains. Earlier this year I introduced the importance of “phenology” in a blog post. Now we are now ready to practice and enjoy this ritual in earnest over the coming year here on our grounds. We will be observing and documenting events related to weather, plants, and animals at Dyck Arboretum. With the help of visitors, we will record precipitation amounts, presence/absence of migrating bird species, notable events with other forms of wildlife, flowering and seeding of plants, and more.

We invite you to help us document these phenological events by recording your observations on a sheet in our Visitor Center entryway. At regular intervals, we will compile these observations and record them onto a large wall-mounted “phenology wheel”. The phenology wheel concept was created by Partners in Place, LLC. The idea has been promoted to teachers and students through our Earth Partnership for Schools Program here at Dyck Arboretum, and through the Earth Partnership Program founders at University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum. An example of what we have in mind was recently exhibited at the nature center for Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

Phenology wheel observations recorded at Miller Woods, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

Become a citizen scientist

So, help us fill up our very own phenology wheel in 2017 by activating your observational skills and recording your findings at Dyck Arboretum. Be observant, take photographs and share them with us, write descriptive notes, make drawings, bring in a leaf or flower if you’d like help with identification, note dates and weather conditions, and educate yourself by engaging with the natural world around you. Through your citizen science observations in 2017 and the display of this Dyck Arboretum phenology wheel, we will all benefit from your findings.

Burr oak through the seasons phenology wheel.

Why Do Plants Go Dormant in the Winter?

Winter is coming.  Trees, shrubs and other plants are slipping into hibernation, allowing them to survive the cold weather.  They have gone dormant as they wait to be renewed in the spring.  As cold temperatures set in, I have been wondering why plants go dormant.  Why is this period of waiting for spring so important for plant survival?

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What is the process of dormancy?

During the active months of growth (April-August), each plant is using the photosynthetic process to change carbon dioxide, water, and certain inorganic salts into carbohydrates. These are used by the plant or stored for use during the winter.  At the end of the season, plants begin to move these sugars and carbohydrates from the leaves down in the roots to nourish the plant for the winter months.  Plants are no longer growing.  In trees, the green chlorophyll is removed from the leaves often leaving beautiful pigments of red, orange and yellow that give them brilliant fall color.  Each plant is transformed differently in the fall, but ultimately dormancy is the way plants conserve energy by using the stored sugars and carbohydrates they produced during the growing season to survive the winter.

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What signals dormancy?

As plants grow, they are affected by temperature and sunlight.  These two forces act as signals to plants that winter is coming.  As the day length shortens, plants begin to slow growth and the dormancy process begins in each plant.  In spring, shorter nights encourage plants to actively grow. However, in autumn, longer periods of darkness (August-October) and typically cooler temperatures are obvious indicators to plants that winter is around the corner.

What would happen if plants didn’t go dormant?

Just like we struggle with cold weather, plants are the same.  If plants were actively growing during the winter, the water in the trunk, stems and leaves would freeze, causing tremendous damage to these structures.  We have seen the result of this on trees when there has been an early freeze before the trees are fully prepared for cold temperatures. The bark is damaged because water in the outer layers freezes and expands damaging the trunk of the tree.  Winter also has less sunlight for trees and plants to use.  Water becomes scarce with the ground frozen, making it difficult for plants to collect enough water to endure the cold weather months.  Dormancy is a mechanism vital to plant survival.

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Until we meet again…

Plants know that winter is coming.  The days get shorter and the nights get colder.  The beautiful colors of the grasses, shrubs and trees are slowly muted to browns, tans and grays.  The stark landscape is ready for a winter slumber.  Dormancy is waiting for next year, waiting for renewal, waiting for a fresh start. Plants are waiting for warmer days and waiting for the chance to come to life, adding beauty once again to our world.

With a Voice of Thanksgiving

For each new morning with its light, for rest and shelter of the night, for health and food, for love and friends, for everything Thy goodness sends, for flowers that bloom about our feet; for tender grass, so fresh, so sweet; for song of bird, and hum of bee; for all the things fair we hear or see, Father in heaven, we thank Thee! – Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Little Bluestem

Indian Grass

Indian Grass

Cheyenne Sky

Cheyenne Sky Switchgrass

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Monarch on New England Aster

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Arkansas Bluestar Fall Color

Sugar Maple

Sugar Maple

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Native Blackhaw Viburnum

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Luminary Walk – Photo by Tom Sawin

 

May you all be blessed throughout this holiday season.

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

 

Dogs at the Arboretum

Getting to be out and about on the Arboretum grounds every day is the best part of my job. I get to truly experience the weather and the change of seasons and to fellowship with our squirrels, turtles, spiders, and snakes (and this week, a opossum!). But best of all I get to greet our regular visitors as they make laps. We have quit a few hardy citizens who can be seen daily on our walking path, getting their dose of exercise at the Arboretum. I admire the fortitude of these walkers, joggers and scooters – but some of our most enthusiastic visitors are, of course, dogs.

Marty can always be spotted because of her bright pink harness

Marty can always be spotted because of her bright pink harness.

It’s a Dog-Sniff-Dog World

I am wholeheartedly a “dog person”. Big slobbery ones, little timid ones … I love ’em all! And it seems they love the Arboretum. We have a surprising amount of every-day dogs with very dedicated owners; on a good day at work I might get to pet 5 or 6 dogs before noon. Bugs to chase and hundreds of trees to sniff, it must be a dog paradise.

Sadie

Sadie

Gomez and DeeDee

Gomez and DeeDee, our favorite dachshunds

Safer than walking them along the street, the Arb is a walking oasis away from traffic. The cement paths help file their nails while they get their exercise, and they may even get to spot some geese landing in the pond or bunnies in the hedgerow.

Honey, sticking her tongue out at the camera

Honey, sticking her tongue out at the camera

The Rules

If you are walking your dog at the Arboretum, please be courteous to others who may not be as fond of dogs as I am and follow our doggie policies – Dogs MUST be on a leash at all times and kept under control. If your dog needs a place to run free, then we suggest a visit to the Hesston Dog Park or the Newton Dog Park. Also, you MUST clean up after your dog. We do not provide waste bags here, so be sure to bring one from home when you visit.

If you don’t pick it up, I will have to, and that diminishes my love for other people’s dogs just a little bit…

Missy the Shih Tzu

Missy the shih tzu

There are many more of my favorite Arboretum pooches that I couldn’t catch on camera – Comet the dalamation, Misty the schnauzer and Goldie the King Charles spaniel. I love that our doggie community is active and thriving and that these pups get to experience a bit of nature here at the Arboretum. If you plan to walk here regularly, consider getting a membership that helps fund our efforts to keep this place up-to-sniff for you and your dog. Admission is free with an annual membership (otherwise $2 per visit, which you can deposit at the donation pole along the path), and with it your pooch gets unlimited tummy scratches from the dog-crazy grounds manager.

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.

Autumn Prairie: Like Nothing I Have Ever Seen

“…the great grasslands—also known as the Great Plains and prairies—test a person’s fortitude as few other places do…Yet mysteriously, almost imperceptibly…the Great Plains and prairies grow on you.”  

– Daniel S. Licht, Ecology & Economics of the Great Plains, p. vii (1997, Univ. Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE)

If the prairie were a symphony, I would say it has been saving the best notes for the last.  The prairie has been telling a story with each movement leading us through the year.  It culminates with a crescendo leading to a fast paced ending.  Winter is coming and the prairie will sleep, but the last song it sings is glorious.  The hues of reds, yellows, and oranges of the autumn prairie are wonderful – even spectacular.

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The big bluestem changes to crimson.  Indiangrass in full plumage transforms to bronze and yellow.  The little bluestem turns to purples and reds.  As the sun sets, the rolling hills gently sway with the gentlest breeze.  These dramatic changes to the landscape each year grow on you.

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It has been an incredible year for the prairie.  It is so lush and full.  Abundant rain and moderate temperatures have allowed grasses and wildflowers to flourish.  Native grasses have reached new heights.  In fact, I have never seen them so ornate and luxuriant.  The prairie is truly breathtaking.

Take some time to absorb the beauty of the prairie this fall.  We may never see anything like this again for quite some time.  Stand among the grasses and be immersed in the beauty of the Kansas landscape.

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Take a trip into the Flint Hills and stand atop a rise looking across the plains.  Close your eyes and imagine an expanse of prairie unbroken as far as you can see – a “sea of grass”.  Drive along a local country road lined by native grasses.  Take in an amazing sun set with the prairie in the foreground.  It is a unique experience worth the effort every time.

No color photo or painting, no floral arrangement or pressed wildflower, nothing we take from nature can ever quite capture the beauty, the complexity or the “feel” of nature itself.

 

Woodland Botany and Ozark Rocks

On my recent trip through eastern Kansas and the Ozarks, I encountered a plethora of native plant life. I was excited to see some of the woodland species we offer at our plant sale in situ.

My traveling companions may tire of me identifying familiar species, but that doesn’t stop me! Though much of our focus here at the Arboretum is aimed at prairie species, our native woodland landscapes in the far eastern part of the state are just as interesting and diverse. When driving east, those small wooded areas are just the introduction to the vast forests of the Ozarks up ahead.

A Woodland Ecosystem

Photo found at USDA plant database by Thomas G. Barnes, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Barnes, T.G., and S.W. Francis. 2004. Wildflowers and ferns of Kentucky. University Press of Kentucky

Photo found at USDA plant database by Thomas G. Barnes, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Barnes, T.G., and S.W. Francis. 2004. Wildflowers and ferns of Kentucky. University Press of Kentucky

Woodlands support a very different set of flora and fauna. Birds, deer, and groundhogs are active in these forests, filling their own forest feeding niche. Tall canopy trees, such as maple and oak, provide the shade and protection that all species beneath them require to flourish. While hiking I saw some of my favorite under story trees – pawpaws (Asimina trioloba) along the stream banks at Petit Jean State Park (AR), sassafrass (S. albidium) at Ha Ha Tonka State Park growing in a clearing. Beneath the under story layer creep the shade-loving late-season flowers like woodland aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolius, S. laevis) and certain goldenrods (Solidago caesia, Solidago ulmifolia). I was delighted to see them blooming away, attracting pollinators to take their last gulps of nectar before winter. Ferns were abundant in the lowest areas of the forest where water collects and dew settles – the resurrection fern seen below can bring itself “back to life” after being without water for 100 years!

 

Resurrection fern or little gray polypody (Pleopeltis polypodioides) – taken near the natural stone bridge at Ha Ha Tonka State Park

 

Rocks, Crags, “Karst”

Traveling home through forested northern Arkansas and far southeast Kansas instilled new appreciation for the bald, rolling hills of the prairie we encountered closer to home. The steep hills (or mountains, as the natives may call them) and rock formations create a unique, rugged landscape that slowly mellows as you move westward into Kansas. The rocky habitat hosts pines and cedars that seem to grow right out of the solid rock walls. The karst topography of Missouri and Arkansas was fascinating! The lay of the land creates seasonal streams and caverns, even underground lakes. These formations are in part due to the chemical make up of soft and hard of rock which dissolve at different rates over time.

 

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The view from Whitaker’s Point down into Hawksbill Crag near Boxley, Arkansas. It’s an hour hike up to this rock, and so worth it!

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Some fellow hikers were kind enough to take a picture of us on Whitaker point.

 

Though we may not consider forests symbolic of Kansas imagery, the easternmost part of our state is home to woodland habitats which form a sort of gateway to the Ozarks. I enjoyed my trip and wish I could enjoy shady hikes and rocky crags every weekend. Luckily, we feature many of the woodland species in this blog post at our plant sale – I can plant a woodland garden of my own to enjoy a bit of eastern habitat… without planning another vacation!