Shade Plants in Their Natural Habitat

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!

Devil’s Lake State Park offers well kept hiking trails, rock climbing and water recreation.

Jack-in-the-Pulpit

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.

Arisaema triphyllum, Jack-in-the-Pulpit

Ferns

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.

The dots on the underside of the fern frond are spore clusters called ‘sori’.

Coral Berry

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.

June Prairie Blooms

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

The vibrant pink disco balls of catclaw sensitive briar stand out in the landscape.

Narrowleaf Coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia)

Narrowleaf Coneflower

Leadplant (Amorpha canescens)

The silvery green foliage and dark purple blooms of leadplant are striking in the landscape.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

Millions of these bright yellow blooms dot the prairie hillsides.

Bee balm (Monarda fistulosa)

These flowers are a favorite of many pollinators.

Prairie Coneflower (Ratibida columnifera)

Columnar coneflower reaching for the sky

Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) Photo by Brad Guhr

Sullivant’s Milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii)

Large pink clusters of blooms on Sullivant’s Milkweed Photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

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.

Kansas Native Ferns

At FloraKansas Native Plant Festival our customers were surprised to see we offer Kansas native ferns. Perhaps they were surprised to hear Kansas even had native ferns! With our hot, dry summers and deep-freeze winters, Kansas does not seem like hospitable environment for delicate, shade loving plants. However, we have several naturally occurring fern species in the state that are hardier than you might think. They are fascinating to observe growing in the wild, but also make excellent additions to your shade garden.

Royal Fern

Osmunda regalis var spectabilis


According to fossil records, the royal fern family (Osmundaceae) dates back about 365 million years. 3 to 4 feet tall (shorter in poor, drier soil), this fern becomes a large and impressive specimen in the shade garden. O. regalis var spectabilis grows happily in the far eastern part of Kansas and throughout the eastern third of North America. Royal fern has attractive bright green foliage and rust colored spore plumes. It prefers moist, somewhat acidic soil and shade though it can handle sun if the soil is kept wet. This fern can live up to 100 years if planted in the right location!

Royal fern is an easterly species, occurring from the Ozarks through the southeastern US and north into eastern Canada.

Christmas Fern

Polystichum acrostichoides

This festive native fern grows in far southeastern Kansas. According to Missouri Botanical Garden, it “…typically grows in a fountain-like clump to 2′ tall and features leathery, lance-shaped, with evergreen (green at Christmas time as the common name suggests) fronds.” If you love boston ferns but want something perennial, this is a great option. When planted in an average moisture, shaded area it will spread slowly to form a colony.

If you are up for some botanizing, head to these southeastern counties in moist, partially wooded areas to catch a glimpse of these ferns.

Sensitive Fern

Onoclea sensibilis

Onoclea is unique native fern, with arching fronds and oblong, creeping rhizomes. Getting its name from sensitivity to frost, O. sensibilis is surprisingly hardy. It can easily survive the cold dry winters in Kansas, Nebraska and even the Dakotas. This species is native to the eastern half of North America as well as far eastern Russia and China. According to Wikipedia, you can help your ferns survive the winter by leaving dried fronds on the plant instead of clearing them away.

There are many more native ferns I could include here, from the marginal woodfern found in Wilson, Elk, and Greenwood counties to the tiny rock ferns growing among the monoliths at Rock City in Minneapolis, KS. Get out and do some fern hunting, or buy a few at our fall sale to enjoy for years to come.

Fungus Among Us

Working on the Arboretum grounds means I have the joy of interacting with native plants and animals every day. I get to watch newly-planted trees sprout their first leaves and newly hatched goslings sprout their first feathers. I see migratory birds on their way north and south, caterpillars turning into butterflies, spiders wrapping up their breakfast of grasshoppers, and the cozy tunnels made by fastidious skunks and armadillos. But by and large my favorite living thing to observe here at the Arboretum is fungus.

That’s right – that crusty yet slimy, multicolored, spore-producing stuff that grows quietly all around us.

If you want to acquaint yourself with the world of mushroom identification, buy yourself a small, simple guide to get started. I got this handy book for only $2 at the UW Madison Arboretum gift shop and have found it very useful for beginners.

Fungi is a much misunderstood life form (and no, I am not just talking about my coworkers Brad and Scott, fun guys though they are!). While people often come to visit Dyck Arboretum to watch birds or spot their favorite wildflowers, I have yet to hear anyone shout in delight, “Guys, look over here! A stinkhorn mushroom colony!” And such a shame – I have seen so many weird and wonderful fungus (and fungus-like) creatures at the Arb that I can’t help but be enthralled by them.


In our Prairie Window Project the dense mat of grasses and plant debris create a rich environment for fungus. These tiny mushrooms, only the size of dimes, were scattered throughout a ten-foot square area.

Plant or Animal?

Perhaps you noticed I used the word ‘creature’ for fungi in the above paragraph. Aren’t mushrooms just strange, fleshy plants? No. Technically speaking, a fungus is genetically more similar to you and me than it is to a plant. In scientific nomenclature, fungi occupy their own Kingdom (there are 6 major Kingdoms of life, for animals, plants, bacteria and so on). Fungi do not photosynthesize like plants, and cannot make their own food (autotrophy). Like us, they must feed on other organisms to survive (heterotrophy). Fungus do not have roots, stems or leaves, and do not store energy as a starch like plants do. They reproduce by releasing spores into the environment, or by simply breaking apart (fragmentation) or budding (growing a clone).

I spotted these beautiful shelf fungi growing on a fallen log at UW Madison Arboretum.

What am I Looking At?

The first step into nerding out over fungus is to classify your observations. It is a tricky job, and scientists today are still in a tizzy about the genetic ancestry of fungus. For the layperson, let’s stick to the basics: yeasts, molds, and mushrooms are all types of fungus. Mushrooms are perhaps the most charismatic and well known fungi – shelf-like, gelatinous, or toadstool shaped, they spring up seemingly overnight. What we see as a ‘mushroom’ is only a small part of the organism, just the fungus’s reproductive organ. The rest of it exists as a massive web of string-like hyphae in the soil or decomposing wood.
There are several trees around the Arboretum in various states of natural decay sporting impressive shelf fungi. (Or perhaps they are spore-ting it?) But don’t be fooled – lichen, commonly found growing on trunks and tree branches, is NOT fungus. It is actually a combination-creature; algae, cyanobacteria, and fungus all sharing a body to create a new being, with an endless array of forms.

I see some flat grey lichen growing here, but I can’t tell if these charming little white growths on our Prunus virginiana are lichen or fungus – they cling like lichen but the sort of soft, furry characteristic of fungus. Perhaps a reader can help me out on this one!

Where to Look

People may assume Kansas is not a good place to find fungus – much too dry and hot. Not only do we have some delicious edible mushrooms growing wild in Kansas but a plethora of other fun-to-hunt (but potentially toxic!) fungus. In fact, they grow almost everywhere on the planet and have countless forms, colors, and methods of life. Scientists only know of 120,000 species, but estimate there are millions more waiting to be discovered.
To find your first fungus, search around decaying wood piles or heavily mulched garden beds. Check carefully and often around tree stumps; different mushrooms will feed on the rotting roots at different stages of the decay.

This red-belted bracket fungi (maybe Fomitopsis pinicola?) formed on the trunk of a long dead redbud tree near our parking lot. This beauty was almost 12 inches across!

On your next visit to Dyck Arboretum, be sure to get a peek at some magnificent fungi on our grounds. Hunting for fungus, in all its forms, is a meaningful way to interact with nature and build a relationship of wonder and respect for the land we live on.

Waking Up: The Exciting Life of Buds

The landscape may still be dominated by the browns and tans of winter, but inside the greenhouse is a different story -oodles of green buds bursting out of dormancy, waking up to warm, humid air! It’s refreshing to spend time around these green little beauties, and it is an indicator that plants outside will soon be doing the very same thing.

Buds excite us for many reasons. They portend flowers and color, and the lush greenness to come. But they also are a signal of life! Life after the cold winter months, life after dormancy – a breaking forth from a long sleep, part of the natural cycles of activity and inactivity that we all experience.

Beyond metaphor, their botany is just plain cool! Here are a few things to know about the buds emerging on your landscape plants at home.

Salix Mt. Asama is an early bloomer. It’s bright yellow and pink pollen clusters are showy, suspended on fuzzy, whimsical silks.

What is a Bud?

A pal? A friend? I certainly see them that way! But scientifically speaking, a bud is an embryonic shoot just above where the leaf will form, or at the tip of a stem. As I previously covered in my November post on pruning, there are lots of different types of buds: terminal buds (at top of stem), lateral buds (on sides of stem, producing leaves or flowers), dormant buds (asleep and waiting for spring), and many more.

Buds can be classified by looks or location.
By Mariana Ruiz Villarreal LadyofHats [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

‘Confetti Cake’ hellebore has a pure white flowerbud, but when it opens will be spotted with dark purple.

Bud Beasties

Inspecting your buds is important to stopping a potential problem. The first thing to inspect for is aphids. Buds are succulent little treats for these pests, and have less waxy protective coating than mature leaves, making them an easy target. Often the buds won’t show much damage until you have a nasty infestation, so inspecting buds early is key. Be sure to look on the inner folds of the bud if possible, as aphids are quite good at hiding themselves.

Ogon spirea blooms earlier than other spirea, long before it has fully leafed out. The flowers are white with yellow centers and closely clustered together, making a nice effect in the spring landscape.

Health Check

Even if you see buds on your trees, shrubs and outdoor plants, that may not be an indication that everything is A-OK. All too often I see lots of buds on my potted shrubs only to find out that they are dead – by pressing gently on them, they easily break off and reveal dead wood at the wound. If you have any doubt about the hardiness of a shrub or perhaps neglected your winter watering schedule, take a close look at the buds. Buds that are soft and mushy or dry and brittle are a bad sign, and may indicate dead wood that needs trimming back this year. Firm buds that don’t break off at a light touch, be they green or still brown, usually mean they are alive and waiting to spring open.

I’m dismayed that FloraKansas Plant Festival is still months away – so many early blooming plants are at their best right now, budding out and coming alive! Come visit the Arboretum and enjoy all the buds (and bulbs!) that are waking up!






Know Your Native Plant Families

As we approach our Native Plant Landscaping Symposium on February 24, where speakers will tell stories about their favorite native plants, they may make reference to using certain families of plants. Thinking about the organization of plants in this way makes landscaping with native plants even more interesting.

In a way, native plants are like people. The closer people are in genetic relation to each other, the closer they resemble each other. Family members share skin color, body type, hair texture, and facial features. While a unique name is given to each person to recognize their individuality, part of that name is kept the same and recognized both with close and distant relations. These closely-bonded people develop similar habitat preferences and interact with their environment in similar ways.

In 1758, Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus developed a Latin naming system for plants and animals. Each plant or animal was given a “genus” (generic name) and “species” (specific name). Plant families include genetically related plants share floral structures, leaf arrangements, and stem shape. Multiple genera can make up a family. Along with the scientific name, people have also given each plant species many common names or nicknames.

Asclepias incarnata, otherwise known as swamp milkweed or marsh milkweed, is a member of the DOGBANE FAMILY.

For example, plants in the DOGBANE FAMILY have five-parted flowers, opposite leaves, and a milky juice in the stems and leaves with a bitter-tasting, toxic compound that protects the plants from being eaten by insects (excluding monarch butterfly larvae). In this family, the milkweed genus (Asclepias) has 22 different species in Kansas. You may not recognize from their common names that butterfly milkweed and green antelopehorn are related, but when you see their Latin names, Asclepias tuberosa and Asclepias viridis, you will know better.

Kansans have many good reasons for landscaping with native plants. Some of the best benefits are: 1) they provide natural beauty throughout the seasons, 2) they attract pollinators and other wildlife that are part of the food chain, 3) they offer drought-tolerant, environmentally-friendly plants to work with, and 4) they represent our state’s rich prairie natural heritage. By learning more about native plant families, you can add more diversity to your garden, creating a wider range of habitat for wildlife.

Additional plant families commonly found in the prairie, which are well represented at our plant sale, include:

SUNFLOWER FAMILY

Includes the largest number of species in the prairie; many flowers or “florets” in one head with both inner disk florets and outer ray florets.

Echinacea pallida, otherwise known as pale purple coneflower, is a member of the SUNFLOWER FAMILY.

BEAN FAMILY

These “legumes” have a distinctive five petal flower, form bean pods, and fix nitrogen into the soil thanks to special bacteria living on the roots.

Baptisia australis, also known as blue wild indigo or blue false indigo, is a member of the BEAN FAMILY.

MINT FAMILY

These plants have square stems and opposite leaves that create aromatic oils. Most garden herbs are in the mint family.

Salvia azurea, also known as blue sage, is a member of the MINT FAMILY.

GRASS FAMILY

Flowers are colorless and wind pollinated, and stiff fibrous stems help carry fire when dormant. Most agricultural crops are in the grass family.

Schizochirium scoparium, also known as little bluestem, is a member of the GRASS FAMILY.

 

Each summer at our Earth Partnership for Schools Institute, we begin our week-long K-12 teacher training with an introduction to plants through an exercise called “Plant Families”. This is a great way to give some organization to the understanding of how plants are named and classified. I think you will enjoy having access to this resource – check it out and have fun while learning your plant families! (Plant Families EPS Curriculum Activity)

Teachers examine grass flowers while learning about plant families.

 






Old Wood, New Buds: A Pruning Guide

Though true winter approaches, there are still a few warm, sunny days ahead to be filled with raking leaves and garden clean-up. Here at the Arboretum we leave our perennial gardens uncut through the winter to create winter habitat and protect the soil, but just like you, we are plenty busy piling up leaves and preparing our Christmas decorations. If the weather is truly obliging, you may even be tempted to bust out your pruning shears and neaten up your trees and shrubs. Less work waiting for you in spring, right? But be warned, overzealous and untimely snipping could cost you! Below is a seasonal summary of pruning information compiled from the four corners of the web, along with a botany primer on buds  and the old wood/new wood conundrum.

20150429Syringa vulgaris2

Don’t lose your lilac blooms, prune at the perfect time! Photo by AnRo0002 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

When to Prune What

The truth is, most plants don’t need much pruning. Pruning should never aim to distort the shrubs natural figure, only enhance its shape and thin branches to ward off disease and breakage. Gardeners often ask me when to prune their (insert flowing shrub here) for the best bloom – the truth is, I don’t have all that knowledge locked in my brain! I often whip out my phone to research the specific plant and find out if it blooms on new growth or last years wood. If a plant flowers on last years wood, pruning in winter or spring means you will cut off all the already produced dormant flower buds and greatly reduce or eliminate the coming year’s bloom. Here is a run-down of when to give some common landscape plants a haircut.

Crypemyrtle (Lagerstroemia) blooms on new growth, prune in late winter before it leafs out to get a good view of the form

Lilac (Syringa) – blooms on last years wood, prune immediately after flowers have faded, before next years buds form.

Butterfly bush (Buddleia) – blooms on new wood, so prune/shape in early spring

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus) – blooms appear on new wood, prune in late winter/early spring

Hydrangeas – very tricky, as not all grow the same! Cut back H. paniculata and H. arborescens in late winter; they bloom on new wood. H. macrophylla and H. quercifolia bloom on last years wood and can only be trimmed immediately after their blooms fade.

**A great in-depth guide to evergreen pruning can be found HERE from Morton Arboretum. But if you just want the quick dirt…

Pines – early spring just as new growth begins, but not before.

Spruces, Firs – early spring before new growth begins

Juniper, Arborvitae, Yew – late winter or early spring before new growth begins

Europaeische Eibe European Yew rot red arillus fruit frucht Taxus Baccata

Yews (Taxus) can generate growth on new or old wood, so they can tolerate heavy pruning and shaping in the early spring, then again in June if needed. Photo By Philipp Guttmann (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Know Before You Cut

Surgeons go through years of rigorous schooling before they make a single cut, so why don’t we spend a few minutes learning about buds and shoots before the amputations begin, eh?
A bud is an embryonic shoot just above where the leaf will form, or at the tip of a stem. There are lots of different types of buds: Terminal buds (primary growth point at top of stem), lateral buds (on sides of stem that produce leaves or flowers), dormant buds (asleep and waiting for spring, shhh!), and many more.

Buds can be classified by looks or location.
By Mariana Ruiz Villarreal LadyofHats [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In light pruning, such as pinching or heading, cut just above the bud at a 45 degree angle. Lowes has a great guide on the 4 types of pruning, and a very helpful graphic seen below. A cut too far above or below the bud may result in die-back and withered stems.

This angle is optimal for encouraging grown and also hiding your cuts. Graphic from Lowes.com, https://www.lowes.com/projects/gardening-and-outdoor/prune-trees-and-shrubs/project

Cutting directly above the bud tells the plant to release hormones signalling the bud to break dormancy and sprout! Learning about the process of plant dormancy can ensure we aren’t wounding plants at vulnerable times, The Spruce has a great article on this here.

Research first, then cut carefully, friends!






Are Bulbs Good for Pollinators?

My volunteers and I have been spending many hours this fall planting daffodils and tulips around the Arboretum grounds. All told, we will have nearly 800 new blooming bulbs coming up next spring, down a bit from the 1000 we planted last year.

One afternoon my colleague Brad Guhr posed an important question:
“Are bulbs useful to spring pollinators?”

We all love the aesthetics of fat yellow daffodils and spritely crocus, but I had never considered whether they served an ecological purpose. Supposing (incorrectly) that most bulbs I order are native to the Netherlands, what good would they be to our local pollinator population?
I have now been down the rabbit hole of research and will summarize here how bulbs affect pollinators, which bulbs attract them and proper bulb planting technique.

Tulip humilis (aucheriana) is a wild-type tulip that does well in gardens and meadows alike.
By Bernd Haynold – selbst fotografiert – own picture, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4767022

Bulbs and Bugs

Long before people started admiring their blooms, most of our favorite bulb flowers were being visited by pollinators. Such is not the case for today: modern hybrids selected for the biggest bloom and brightest color sometimes become less useful to pollinators. Flowers that have been distorted too far from their original form may have less nectar or be entirely sterile, rendering them useless as a food source. Hybridization can also sacrifice the flower’s strong scent, leaving aroma-sensing pollinators (like nocturnal moths) lost without lunch. As humans try to improve flowers for our own eye, we  inadvertently disrupt their role in nature. Insects and flowers have an important relationship directly related to the flower’s form. If it changes drastically, certain insects may no longer be able to reach the nectar. Because of this, avoid buying highly modified ‘double’ and ‘triple’ bloomers or extra-petaled flowers that will likely inhibit a pollinator’s ability to feed.

Narcissus poeticus, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=907

Best Bulbs

Though we may associate the bulb trade with Holland, the native range of daffodils is the Iberian Peninsula and tulips grow wild in Turkey and Central Asia. Crocus were originally native to southern Europe, the Middle East and western China. There are some bulbs native to North America, such as Claytonia virginica and Mertensia virginica as well as the trout lily, but they are too often upstaged by fancy exotics. This link offers great options for North American native bulbs that will benefit you and the ecosystem. If you aren’t ready to give up your tulips and daffodils, never fear! By choosing unhybridized species, the flower retains its pollen and nectar, supplying much needed early spring feeding for hungry pollinators. Crocus, species-variety Tulips and Muscari all are well-loved by hungry bees waking up from their long hibernation as well as wild type daffodils such as Narcissus poeticus or N. jonquilla.

A bee visiting a purple crocus flower.
CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=660234

Claytonia is a lovely North American native. By Dcrjsr (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Planting Tips

The first step to proper planting is identification – is what you are holding truly a bulb? Corms, tubers, rhizomes and true bulbs all fall under the category “geophyte” (a perennial that stores its food underground). Many rhizomes would not like to be buried as deep as a bulb but corms can be treated much the same. Sorting out the technicalities will ensure correct planting and big blooms!
When planting true bulbs, depth is essential. In general, plant bulbs 2 or 3 times as deep as its height. Example: a 2 inch tall daffodil bulb should be planted 6 inches deep. Digging too shallow is better than planting too deep since many bulbs have contractile roots. Over time, these specialized roots will pull it down to optimal depth. Planting root side down/pointed side up is always best, but if the bulbs are too odd-shaped to tell, plant them sideways to be safe. Thanks to geotropism, a plant’s ability to sense gravity and grow accordingly, they will eventually right themselves.

Bees love Fritillaria meleagris, a dainty and unique bulb native to Europe. By Пономарьова Алевтина (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

So, after much scouring of the internet it seems there is no straightforward answer to Brad’s question. Many highly hybridized bulbs do not benefit pollinators, but other heirloom or species varieties certainly do. To benefit early spring pollinators in your bulb garden, install a few North American species or try to find unhybridized varieties that retain their full species name and their ecological importance. Get out your sweaters and garden gloves, now is the time to get digging!






Roadside Beauty: What are you seeing?

Fall is the season of change. The verdant green of the prairie melts to lifeless, barren forms – a stark contrast to the landscape that once looked so alive. But for now, as change happens, we are blessed to partake in hues and colors of striking beauty. Trees explode with vibrant shades of orange, red and yellow. Native grasses develop vivid colors and attractive blooms. Asters, goldenrods and sunflowers speckle the horizon.  It is the crescendo of the whole year.

Maybe you have noticed these dramatic changes happening, too. Plants that once blended into their surroundings are suddenly visible. It’s as if someone turned a light on them. Even the prairies and roadsides display beautiful shades of gold, purple, apricot, olive, and copper with autumn wildflowers, shrubs, and curling, rustling grasses. Here are a few that I have seen lately along the roadsides of south-central Kansas.

Sumac

There is no other shrub that signals fall more than sumac. The blood red leaves and clusters of seeds are striking. They are like beacons along the roadsides. If only we could advertise with these shrubs, because they catch my eye every time.

Dogbane

This close relative of milkweed has so much going for it. Dogbane is host for many insects. In fact, the US Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA NRCS) ranks Dogbane’s value to pollinators as ‘very high’. Dogbane typically grows two to three feet tall and develops into larger colonies. Right now, they are a bright yellow, which makes them stand out even more. Even the common milkweeds have turned a nice golden color.

Big bluestem

The “King of Grasses” is big and bold. The reddish purple stems begin to change and set the landscape ablaze with their intense colors. Look for the distinctive “Turkey Foot” seed head, too.

“I took a long walk north of the town, out into the pastures where the land was so rough that it had never been ploughed up, and the long red grass of early times still grew shaggy over the draws and hillocks. Out there I felt at home again.” -Willa Cather, My Antonia

Switchgrass

There are a number of outstanding native grasses that provide late season interest, but Switchgrass Panicum virgatum is one of the more common grasses in roadside ditches. It grows to a height of 3-6 feet and turns orange, yellow and fiery red-tipped shades in the fall. The persistent airy blooms and attractive fall colors make this an attractive grass in the landscape.

Osage orange

This tree is along many roadsides in south central Kansas. It is still incredible to see those huge hedge apples dangling from the branches and scattered on the road. The tough demeanor of this tree including its thorns made it ideal as a living fence. Many were planted during the Dust Bowl days as part of WPA projects to prevent soil erosion in the Great Plains states.

Heath aster

Asters are the grand finale to the prairie garden. Heath asters are one of the last asters to bloom. The diminutive white flowers cover the entire plant, making them look like snow mounds in the prairie. They are one of the last great feeding opportunities for bees, butterflies, and other pollinators before they migrate or go dormant for the winter.

Although each season is different, autumn is a very special time. Life has come full circle, from spring through summer and ultimately ending in the fall. It is the perfect time to enjoy all that is changing around us. It is a time to take in sights, sounds and smells of the prairie and connect anew with the natural world.

Bonus Plant: Pink smartweed

Pink smartweed is prolific, growing wild in nearly every roadside ditch. The bright pink flowers and red stems are very striking. They thrive in damp or wet sites, but it is an annual. If you want some for your landscape, collect the seed after the pink flowers fade.






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.

 

14712624_10154681756393793_4376866196110991019_o

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!

14753477_10154681754648793_2785310083609724848_o

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!