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!

Embrace Thistles

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

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Delaware skipper on tall thistle

Non-Native Thistles

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

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Non-native bull thistle

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Non-native bull thistle

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Non-native Canada thistle

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Non-native musk thistle

Native Thistles

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

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Native undulating thistle

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Native tall thistle

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

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

thistledata

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Regal fritillary on tall thistle

A Weed By Any Other Name

Here at the Dyck Arboretum it can be a tricky task deciding what is a weed to be pulled and what should be allowed to grow on. Many of our beloved volunteers look to me for guidance when they encounter a plant that looks out of place. What is a weed here?

Many wonderful prairie plants carry the misnomer of “weed”, such as butterfly weed, iron weed, and milkweed. These are plants that may or may not need to be pulled, depending on where they are located. I consider a few factors: does the plant belong here or fit the theme of that garden bed? Is it annual or perennial?  Will it become invasive? Is it part of a plant family that is notorious for colonizing? …and so on. Weeding will become less of a guessing game when you learn to identify some native species and  particularly those nasty exotics.

While the name ‘milkweed’ might cause you to shun this plant for your garden, think before you pull! In the right area, milkweeds may be a perfect addition. They will bloom for several weeks and add a bit of important monarch habitat to your backyard. Photos from Dyck Arboretum.

 

“Where do they come from and how can I beat them?”

Just when you think you have weeded every last square inch of your garden, here they come again.  The seed bank – dormant seed that exists in the top soil – will continue to produce more weeds as long as conditions are favorable. Seeds can lay dormant in the soil for long periods of time, waiting for adequate moisture and light levels. Bindweed seed can remain viable in the soil for up to 50 years! The seed bank is created by last year’s mature weed seeds, bird droppings, hay/manure used for mulching, and seeds carried on the wind. The good news? With regular weeding and mindful practices you will decrease your weed seed bank every year. That means pulling weeds before they seed, using carefully sourced mulch material, and disturbing the soil as infrequently as possible to reduce the amount of dormant seeds awakened by light and oxygen.

Some weeds are obvious

Bindweed with it’s morning glory bloom, Siberian Elm saplings with their small serrated leaves, and prostrate spurge with its circular, flat habit all send up the red flag. These kinds of plants look out of place right away because they lack charisma and often grow in inhospitable areas. (i.e. in driveway cracks and gravel, climbing up stems of other plants).

Some weeds are ambiguous

Virginia creeper vine seems to crop up everywhere, and are very decorative if left to grow in a good spot. But they can also be aggressive when not trimmed regularly. Similarly, a mulberry sprout (which tend to come up just about everywhere a bird flies over), could be left to grow into a nice fruiting tree if you are prepared for the berry-mess and seed spread. Plants like ironweed and Illinois bundleflower seem to pop up everywhere and, though they can be aggressive spreaders, they are also quite attractive.

Ironweed (Vernonia sp.) may at first appear as an intruder, but it produces a colorful, longlasting bloom and is a favorite of swallowtails and many species of bees.

Ironweed (Vernonia sp.) may at first appear as an intruder, but it produces a long lasting bloom and is visited by many species of bees. Photo from Dyck Arboretum.

Some weeds are not weeds at all

I always advocate for leaving milkweed in the garden as habitat for monarchs. Lucky you if a few come up!  Other species like purple poppy mallow and wild petunia that may appear weedy at first actually make well behaved native specimens. These species bloom all summer long and are extremely drought tolerant.

 

While you pull and pluck away at the weeds in the garden, remember the wise words of the poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox – “A weed is but an unloved flower”. Although weeding is the tedious task all of us gardeners must endure, you can make it easier and more productive by knowing the difference between potential friend and foe.

 

 

A Tale of 3 Prairies

In the past few weeks I have had the good fortune to visit several different prairies, each under different circumstances, all of them delightful in their own way. Here’s a tale of 3 prairies for you, in hopes you become inspired to visit these places as well!

Willa Cather Memorial Prairie

Webster Co., Nebraska

Willa Cather Memorial Prairie near Red Cloud, NE.

Willa Cather Memorial Prairie near Red Cloud, NE.

I had just finished up the last few pages of Cather’s well-loved novel My Antonia as we rolled into the city of Red Cloud. A friend and I made a day trip to Webster County to take in the sights and sounds of Cather’s world, including this prairie just west of town which may have been the inspiration for some of her famous descriptions of plains life. If you are a lover of the prairie, you need to put Willa Cather’s work on your reading list immediately, then scurry up to Nebraska and tour her hometown, Red Cloud, (renamed “Black Hawk” in My Antonia) which is also the home of the Willa Cather Foundation. There you can have a personalized tour of her childhood home, church, and neighborhood along with the opera house and historic bank building, all still in turn of the century style. While hiking in her short, windy memorial prairie I saw lots of familiar species – silver sage (Artemisia ludoviciana), purple poppy mallow (Callirhoe involucrata) and little bluestem (Schizachrium scoparium).

 

Tall Grass Prairie

Chase Co., Kansas

View west from our seats. Who would want to watch the musicians when you can gaze at this?

View west from our seats. Who would want to watch the musicians when you can gaze at this?

We were far from the stage but we could hear them perfectly!

We were far from the stage but we could hear them perfectly!

I wasn’t planning on going to the Symphony in the Flint Hills, but through the kindness of an acquaintance two tickets fell into my lap, free of charge. So with lawn chairs in tow my date and I headed out to a pasture near Clements, KS in Chase county. There was delicious BBQ to be had and an art gallery and information tent to peruse before and after the concert. The music was provided by the Kansas City Symphony; gorgeous selections were wonderfully preformed, including American folk tunes and well known tracks from Dances With Wolves and Indiana Jones. Top it all off with a live cattle drive on the hill behind the stage and the music bouncing off the hills around you, it was the perfect afternoon. The weather even cooperated – I never broke a sweat! The prairie was looking lush from recent rains; I couldn’t help but geek out on the species I recognized on the 3/4 mile walk back to the car – blue false indigo (Baptisia australis) and spider milkweed (Asclepias viridis). Save up some cash and treat yourself to this art-filled prairie experience next year!

Maxwell Wildlife Refuge

McPherson Co., Kansas

During the EPS week here at the Arboretum, I had the privilege of chauffeuring some of the participants on their field trip to Maxwell Wildlife Preserve. A good day at work, to be sure! It’s a beautiful expanse of preserved prairie that is home to Elk and Bison.

View near the Maxwell observation tower.

View near the Maxwell observation tower.

The walled trailer we were riding on let us get extremely close to the bison without the danger. Incredible viewing!

The walled trailer we were riding on let us get extremely close to the bison without the danger. Incredible viewing!

There were too many calves to count, perfect timing for our group.

Calf and mother stick close together.

The tour guides were charismatic and knowledgeable, providing a history of the refuge and a natural history of the land. The prairie there is healthy and diverse, giving us a look at butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), lead plant (Amorpha canacens), goats rue (Tepherosia virginiana) and rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium).

Each prairie region has its own unique charms, from thick tall grass areas in the east to short and scrubby land in the west – Carve out some time this summer to visit and compare!

How Do You Learn About Native Plants?

This weekend, I did some reflecting on the past 19 years I have spent at the arboretum.  I thought I knew so much when I was hired as the horticulturist. After all, I had just graduated from Kansas State University with a horticulture degree.  There wasn’t anything I didn’t know. But after the first week, I was in over my head.

It was July in Kansas. Need I say more?

One of the first things I quickly realized was that I knew virtually nothing about native plants.  I had learned about a few native trees and shrubs in my college classes, but I couldn’t identify more than five wildflowers.  My learning curve was steep those first few years.  I was going to sink or swim at this new job by how much I knew about native plants.  So I set out to learn all I could about the plants that grow on the prairie.

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Bison-Photo by Craig Freeman

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Finney County KS-Photo by Craig Freeman

The most formative experiences that I had were the many seed collecting field trips we made throughout the state.  It was so enlightening to see the plants growing in their natural environment.  Those memories guide how I design gardens today.  I became familiar with the plants, but more importantly I learned where they like to grow and who they like to grow with.  Just like us, plants need to be in communities that are vibrant, healthy and sustaining.   Native plants rely on each other.  High quality prairies and even gardens have communities of plants that live harmoniously together.

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Logan County, KS-Photo by Craig Freeman

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Chalk Formations-Photo by Craig Freeman

Collecting seeds forced me to learn the scientific names of the plants.  Each seed had a specific set of conditions that it must be subjected to in order for germination to occur.  This too was a fascinating process that required me to learn.  It was extremely rewarding to take some seed from the wild and get it to germinate in the greenhouse and ultimately place a new plant for the seed we collected into the arboretum for others to enjoy.

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Cimarron National Grassland-Photo by Craig Freeman

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Rocktown Natural Area-Russel County-Photo by Craig Freeman

I read catalogs and books about native plants.  I grew, planted and killed several native plants in an attempt to continue that learning process.  I moved plants that were not happy to other areas in the garden where they began to thrive.  These exploratory trips – we called it “55 mph botany” – helped me hone my identification skills as we traveled many of the back roads of Kansas in search of unique native plants.  Each of these experiences influence plant choices, mixtures and sequences in landscape plans.  As native plants have become more mainstream, more information is available.  Naturally, I am still learning.

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Flint Hills-Photo by Craig Freeman

I say all this to encourage gardeners, specifically native plant enthusiasts, to learn everything you can about at least 25 plants that will grow well in your landscape.  From those, there is nearly an infinite number of plant combinations.  By matching plants to your sight, the guess-work has been taken out of the equation.  This will increase your successes and diminish your failures.  If the plants are happy, they will take care of themselves. And that will increase your enjoyment while greatly reducing your upkeep and maintenance.

Challenge:  Start with learning about 10 native plants, eight wildflowers and two grasses.  As you learn about these plants and incorporate them into your garden where they like to grow, I believe you will be rewarded in time with a landscape that works for you, not against you.   You will have a community of plants that flourish together.

Let the learning begin!

Catkins: Spring’s Botanical Wonder

Sneezing, coughing, watery eyes – everyone is complaining about allergies this time of year, the Arboretum staff included. Many people point the blame at any pretty flower they see in early spring, such as Bradford Pear blossoms (Pyrus sp.), redbuds (Cercis sp.) or daffodils (Narcissus sp.). But it is likely to be less obvious blooms causing your sniffles – catkins. The trees are chalk full of these inconspicuous, pollen-spraying fiends! I’ll have to put aside my animosity for them and their disastrous effect on my sinuses while I explain their fascinating botany…but I’ll have to blow my nose first.

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Catkins at the Arboretum now! From left to right, willow (Salix), alder (Alnus) and aspen (Populus)

Structure and Function

Catkins are flowers adapted to be pollinated by wind, which is known as anemochory. (Pollinated in water? Hydrocory. Pollinated by birds? Ornithochory. You get the idea.) Their dangling habit is part of this adaptation, and pollen is released from male flowers when wind causes them to shake. These worm-like blooms are actually hundreds of tiny flowers strung together.  Each catkin is either male or female, but both sexes may or may not be carried on the same plant. If a single plant produces both male and female catkins it is considered ‘monoecious’. Some tree and shrub species have separate sexes and produce only male or female flowers on a single plant, meaning they are ‘dioecious’.

Salix caprea flower stages – male catkin (I) and female catkin (III), ovary cross section (V)

No Beauty Queen

In general, the prettier the flower the less likely it is to be pollinated by wind. The striking white pear trees blooming now are mostly pollinated by bees, and therefore not the cause of wind-born pollen allergies. If the flower is colorful and attractive it is probably luring in winged creatures to carry it’s pollen becuase the grains are too heavy to be carried on the wind. Catkins are not burdened with the task of being beautiful – they don’t have to attract a subjective eye for pollination. But in the plant world, if you can’t be pretty then you must be prolific! These little flowers release enormous amounts of pollen onto the breeze, with little chance that any of it will serendipitously land on the female of the corresponding species. Not only does the pollen grain have to float its way to the opposite sex, but it must then land exactly on the tiny stigma, the pollen receptacle atop the female flower, to produce pollination. What a feat! With such slim odds, it is no wonder that these trees produce prodigious amounts of pollen, much to the dismay of allergy sufferers.

Left , ragweed pollen (Amrbosia) Right, Hazel pollen (Corylus). Hazel trees produce catkins. Ragweed does not, but the pollen is so annoying I thought everyone should know what it looks like.

Left , ragweed pollen (Amrbosia) Right, Hazel pollen (Corylus). Hazel trees produce catkins. Ragweed does not have catkins, but the pollen is so annoying I thought everyone should know what it looks like.

 

Whether their pollen ends up in your nose and eyes, or the catkins themselves fall wet and soggy on your windshield, try not to loathe them too much – they are just another of nature’s incredibly well-designed survival mechanisms, and all your sneezing is just a sign that spring has arrived!

 

Attributions:
Wikimedia public domain images
Salix flowers – By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
https://archive.org/stream/textbookofstruct00thom/textbookofstruct00thom#page/376/mode/1up

Ambrosia pollen – By Nikita Karasik (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Corylus pollen – By Doc. RNDr. Josef Reischig, CSc. (Author’s archive) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Ragweed: An Annual Affliction

Achoo!

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

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

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Wind-pollinated common ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia).

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Wind-pollinated giant ragweed (Ambrosia trifida).

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Wind-pollinated annual sumpweed (Iva annua).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A New Must-Have Plant Identification Book for Kansas

Oenothera macrocarpa (MO evening primrose) - photo by Michael John Haddock

Oenothera macrocarpa (MO evening primrose) – photo by Michael John Haddock

For 35 years, Janét E. Bare’s popular book Wildflowers and Weeds of Kansas has been one of the standards for plant identification in Kansas. When I moved back to Kansas in 1998 with a fresh botany/ecology degree, a new job in environmental consulting that required plant identification, and a desire to know the name of every plant I could find, I knew that Bare’s hardback book with mostly black and white photos had to be in my library. The going rate for this 509-page out-of-print book was around $100 at the time and I felt lucky to find a nice copy at a used book store in Kansas City for $50.

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For Kansas, I have collected to date what I consider to be fourteen helpful plant identification resources (see list below). In addition to Bare’s multiple decades standard, they include a number of good paperback books with color photos, some with line drawings and county maps, and the behemoth 1402-page hardback resource Flora of the Great Plains as the most comprehensive, but very technical resource without photographs. For years, I carried a bulky collection of these books in a backpack and always had the rest close at hand back at the car or office.

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Allium stellatum (pink wild onion) – photo by Michael John Haddock

Thanks to a new publication by University of Kansas Press, however, wildflower identification in Kansas just became much easier. Janét Bare teamed up with two of the most talented botanists in the state, Craig C. Freeman and Michael John Haddock (both with publications of their own – see below) to produce the updated Kansas Wildflowers and Weeds, a must-have resource for plant enthusiasts.

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Zizia aurea (golden alexanders) – photo by Michael John Haddock

As the dust jacket states, “For purposes of identification, conservation, study, or the simple pleasure of thumbing through, it is a resource without parallel.” It has 742 color photographs, up-to-date nomenclature, taxonomic descriptions and a dichotomous identification key, and interesting information with regard to habitat, commonness, moisture preference, phenology, ecology, herbal/medicinal traits, DNA and more. My one critique of the book is that it does not include helpful county presence maps (only has region presence codes), but I’m sure the authors considered this and figured that including these maps would add even more pages and size to an already large 518-page resource.

Haddock KWW 3c

This book has descriptions for 1,163 species of wildflowers and a handful of woody plants (an increase from 831 species in Bare’s earlier book) and covers roughly 56 percent of the state’s native and naturalized flora. It could be labeled both a coffee table book and a comprehensive field guide. (To get a copy signed by Haddock, come to our Summer Soirée on June 28.)

Glandularia canadensis (rose verbena) - photo by Michael John Haddock

Glandularia canadensis (rose verbena) – photo by Michael John Haddock

Put this new book in your backpack along with Iralee Barnard’s new grasses resource and H.A. Stephen’s woody plants book (see list below), and you should be able to identify most common plants found on an outing in Kansas.

SideBySideBooks

 Happy botanizing! ~Brad


 Helpful Plant Identification Books

(in addition to the new Kansas Wildflowers and Weeds by Haddock, Freeman, and Bare)

Atlas of the Flora of the Great Plains
Great Plains Flora Association
Iowa State University Press, 1977

Field Guide to the Common Grasses of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska
Iralee Barnard
University Press of Kansas, 2014

Field Guide to the Common Weeds of Kansas
Prepared by T. M. Barkley
Kansas Agricultural Experiment Station and Division of Biology, Kansas State University
Kansas Agricultural Experiment Station contribution number 82-547-B
University Press of Kansas, 1983

Flora of the Great Plains
Great Plains Flora Association
T.M. Barkley, Editor
University Press of Kansas, 1986

Kansas Grasses
Clenton E. Owensby
Kansas Publishing Inc., 2004

Kansas Prairie Wildflowers
Clenton E. Owensby
Iowa State University Press, 1980

Roadside Wildflowers of the Southern Great Plains
Craig Carl Freeman and Eileen K. Schofield
University Press of Kansas, 1991

Sedges: Carex
Roberts H. Mohlenbrock
Southern Illinois University Press, 1999

Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines in Kansas
H.A. Stephens
University Press of Kansas, 1969

Weeds of Nebraska and the Great Plains
James Stubbendieck, Geir Y. Friisoe, and Margaret R. Bolick
Nebraska Department of Agriculture, 1994

Wildflowers and Grasses of Kansas: A Field Guide
Michael John Haddock
University Press of Kansas, 2005

Wildflowers and Other Plants of Iowa Wetlands
Sylvan T. Runkel and Dean M. Roosa
Iowa State University Press, 1999

Wildflowers and Weeds of Kansas
Janet E. Bare
Regents Press of Kansas, 1979

Wildflowers of the Tallgrass Prairie: The Upper Midwest
Sylvan T. Runkel and Dean M. Roosa
Iowa State University Press, 1989

 

Fremont’s Clematis: A Rare Beauty

The other day, I began transplanting seedlings of Fremont’s Clematis for our FloraKansas spring plant sale.  I was thrilled that we actually will have some to offer this year.  In the past, we have struggled to achieve germination, but this year we have been successful.

Fremont's Clematis Seedlings

Fremont’s Clematis Seedlings

The seed from which these plants germinated was collected last summer, as our staff took a detour on our way back from a retreat at the Flinthills Discovery Center in Manhattan.  The seed germinated last fall and overwintered in the seedling flats.  Over the past few weeks they have really come to life and it was time to move them before their taproot grew too large.

Fremont’s Clematis, or Clematis fremontii, a rare prairie native from Kansas and Nebraska, is quite different from the traditional climbing clematis species.  It forms a small bush that is covered in spring (late-April) with sugar-bell shaped flowers of purple and white.  Each flowers curls at the end.  The oval leaves are leather tough and covered with fine hairs, almost fuzzy in appearance.  These plants, once established, are resilient.  They develop into large clumps.  We have had several plants in the same spot for over 15 years, in one of the xeriscape beds just outside the Visitor Center entrance.

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Fremont’s Clematis loves sun.  We collected the seed from plants on a rocky hillside in central Kansas.  They are thriving in that windswept exposed prairie.  If they are thriving there, then all they need is plenty of sunlight (at least 6 hours) and a well-drained soil.

I always look forward to their arrival in spring.  They are one of the first plants to emerge and bloom in our rock garden here at the arboretum.  If they are happy, they will give you years of consistent beauty. Be sure to come early to the FloraKansas Plant Sale and get some while they are available!

 

WARNING: The Monarch Butterfly is Threatened

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

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Dramatic Population Decline

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

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Figure from Monarch Watch

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

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Figure from Monarch Watch

What Can We Do?

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

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

Showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa)

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

Common milkweed (Aslepias syriaca) with monarch eggs

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