The Wildly Attractive Leavenworth Eryngo

Leavenworth eryngo (Eryngium leavenworthii)

During the last week, the stunningly-brilliant display of blooming Leavenworth eryngo (Eryngium leavenworthii) near the Dyck Arboretum Visitor Center has been extremely eye-catching. Given the number of attracted pollinators, I have to wonder if Leavenworth eryngo doesn’t look to them like a neon lights spectacle similar to what we might observe at the night time Las Vegas Strip.

On two plants of blooming Leavenworth eryngo (also appropriately called purple pineapple), I have seen butterflies (18 painted ladies at once!), moths, bees, bumblebees, flies, crab spiders, soldier bugs, ants, grasshoppers, and a variety of beetles. The color and nectar combination of this plant must be simply irresistible to pollinators. The following video gives a glimpse of the immense activity happening right now.

 

Eryngium leavenworthii grows most abundantly in the southeast quarter of Kansas and can be found in dry, rocky prairies, open woodlands, and waste areas on limestone or chalk soils. I’ve collected seed in the Flint Hills only 30 miles from Hesston.

Leavenworth eryngo complemented by dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata) in the foreground and golden valerian (Patrinia scabiosifolia)

Leavenworth eryngo is an annual in its life cycle. It is programmed to put most of its energy into flowering and producing seed, and is not held back by having to produce a root system to help it survive another year. Nobody here remembers how it got established in our display beds, but it can now be found growing in more places each year as the seeds are dispersed.

While it resembles, a spiky thistle to some, it is in the parsley family. As Mike Haddock describes on his website Kansas Wildflowers and Grasses, Leavenworth eryngo was named for its discoverer, Melines Conklin Leavenworth (1796-1862), an explorer, army surgeon, and botanist.

The predatory spined soldier bug on Leavenworth eryngo

On the eve of our fall FloraKansas plant sale (September 8-10), we at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains are big promoters of perennial native plants that are adapted to our Kansas soils, climate, and pollinators. We sell natives that thrive alongside Leavenworth eryngo. However, as an annual, this plant is best established by distributing its seed in the fall/early winter. The cold/wet conditions of winter will prepare it for germination in the spring.

After this plant has become dried up and brown later this fall, we will collect seed and grow some for next year’s spring sale.  We believe that all our native plant enthusiast members would enjoy the aesthetic and ecological benefits of annual Leavenworth eryngo growing and spreading in their landscape.

 

 

Plant Profile: Letterman’s Narrowleaf Ironweed (Vernonia lettermanii ‘Iron Butterfly’)

In the late summer and early fall, it is a good time to evaluate how your landscape has performed.  What plants have thrived and which plants have disappointed you? I take notes of these plants and plant more of the good ones and fewer of the bad ones. Fall is a great time to plant just about anything and to fill some of those holes in your landscape. I would also think about moving the under-performing plants to a more ideal location. You can move them next March or April.

One of the plants that has done well again this year in the Arboretum is Letterman’s Narrowleaf Ironweed. It is a reliable drought-tolerant wildflower that requires little to no extra irrigation.  In fact, too much water makes it floppy and unhappy. Plants like that are rare and should be utilized more, in my opinion.

Right now, in late August, it is covered with exploding deep purple flowers atop the sturdy upright stems. The narrow leaves whorled around the stem remind me of narrowleaf bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii) , except these are even more narrow. These leaves combined with the attractive frilly flowers give it a soft, pleasing texture.

Ironweed is named for its tough stem. Iron Butterfly Ironweed is the diminutive cousin of the pasture ironweed. Typical prairie ironweed is coarse and tall, but Letterman’s Narrowleaf ironweed is more refined. The parent species Vernonia lettermanii is quite rare and can be found in Arkansas and Oklahoma.

In late summer, the flowers are just what butterflies and other pollinators need as they migrate or prepare for winter. The flowers are swarmed with all sorts of butterflies, skippers, moths, and bees. In the Arboretum, we plant them in sunny gardens with medium to dry soil. They can take some shade, but have a tendency to flop.

Vernonia lettermannii ‘Iron Butterfly’ is a lovely accent plant for your wildflower garden. It combines well with native grasses such as little bluestem and prairie dropseed.  Black-eyed susans, coneflowers, asters and goldenrods grow in harmony with narrowleaf ironweed.  If you need a tough plant for that scorching hot place in your yard, give it a try. I think you will be pleasantly surprised. We will have this wonderful plant along with many other wildflowers, grasses, shrubs and trees at our fall FloraKansas plant sale.

Vernonia lettermannii ‘Iron Butterfly’ is one of Piet Oudolf’s “Must Have” plants. I agree that it is a garden-worthy plant.

Plant Profile: Wild Senna, Senna marilandica

Sometimes there are plants that surprise you.  It’s not that they are doing anything new, but for some reason you notice them in ways you hadn’t before. This summer, for me that plant is wild senna. I have been gawking at it over the past few weeks and admiring its tropical look.

Our one wild senna plant has been putting on quite a show in the shade garden this summer. The bright yellow flower clusters are stunning. The fact that I missed them in past years makes me think that I am not very observant. These showy blooms are held atop the feathery, deep green, locust-like leaves.  The horizontal leaves help the flowers stand out even more.

After the blooms are spent, long narrow pods begin to develop and droop from the stems.  As the pods mature, small beans are held tightly inside.  Over time, the pods turn from green to brown and crack open, releasing the seeds.  These seeds are relished by many types of birds, including quail and dove.

Wild senna can grow up to six feet tall, but is typically only three to four feet. Plants have a loose, open, shrubby habit with several stems growing from a central point. It makes a fantastic accent plant or backdrop for shorter perennials in your native plant gardens.

Here at the Arboretum, it is happy in a spot that gets only partial sun.  In the wild, it grows in open woods and prairies with medium to wet soils.  It is a pretty plant that should be used more in the landscape.

One of its most important functions in the landscape is hosting a variety of pollinators. It is the host plant for Cloudless Sulphur, Orange-Barred Sulphur, Tailed Orange, Little Yellow, and Sleepy Orange Butterflies. Many different types of bees love the flowers, too.

This season’s display by just one wild senna plant has made me realize we should be using it more in our gardens. It is a great trouble-free choice as a taller accent plant, a native wildflower for your woodland edge or for a more formal cottage garden. It is a pretty plant that pollinators need.

 

New Shrubs, Big Color

Each year Scott and I scour catalogs and websites to find new and interesting plants to offer at the spring and fall FloraKansas plant sale fundraisers. New shrub varieties are, in my opinion, the most fun to hunt up. We are looking specifically for species that have some, if not all, of the following qualities: attractive habit, beneficial to wildlife/pollinators, heat and drought tolerant, good performance record, unique or unavailable in our area, or important for conservation.

I am so excited about the new plants available at the upcoming fall sale, I can’t help but share a few with you early! Enjoy some quick profiles about my favorite new shrubs as well as companion plant suggestions to help blend them into your landscape. Some of these are completely new to us, and others are simply better performing varieties of our old favorites.

Tandoori Orange has stunning fall color and beautiful berries, offering multi-season interest. Photos courtesy of Proven Winners – www.provenwinners.com

‘Tandoori Orange’ viburnum

This viburnum will be a big hit as a garden border plant. It has all the qualities we love in a viburnum (shade tolerance, deer resistance, attractive leaves), but it is the first to boast a true orange berry and leaf in fall. The ripe, peachy-orange berries add mid-summer interest and the white spring bloom is not to be missed! At 6-8ft tall it is suitable as a hedge, privacy screen or back-of-the-garden border. To ensure fruit production, plant ‘Cardinal Candy’ viburnum nearby for pollination.

Companion plant:
 The bright yellow fall foliage of Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) offers a stunning contrast to Tandoori Orange. They both produce berries that are edible to birds, turning your yard into a bird banquet banquet hall!

 

The red berries of ‘Berry Poppins’ coupled with red leaves and twigs of ‘Red Rover’ create quite a show in late fall and winter. Photos courtesy of Proven Winners – www.provenwinners.com

‘Berry Poppins’ deciduous holly

Just as cute as its name, this dwarf holly, only 3-4 feet tall, is easy to plunk into the landscape in any open space. Its habit of heavy fruiting gives a great winter show when other things in the garden are brown and dormant. The berry-laden branches are great for cutting, and for making crafts and Christmas decorations pop. Plant in full to part sun and with a pollinator plant such as ‘Mr. Poppins’ to ensure fruit production.

Companion plant: Red Rover dogwood (Cornus sp.) brings another pop of red with its bright, fiery twigs in winter. Very upright and structured, it’s a great partner to the similarly shaped holly.

 

Pugster Blue butterfly bush and ‘Gone with the Wind’ Dropseed mix well because of their similar habit but contrasting leaf shape. Photo courtesy of Proven Winners – www.provenwinners.com (left) and Walters Gardens, Inc. (right).

‘Pugster Blue’ butterfly bush

This one has my hopes up as a replacement for some other underwhelming dwarf buddleias out there. All too often the bush’s diminutive size also means smaller blooms – not for Pugster! Big true-blue blooms don’t quit until frost on a plant that only grows 2ft tall. Perfect for a tight spot that needs big color and butterfly appeal.

Companion plant: Prairie Dropseed ‘Gone with the Wind’ (Sporobolus heterolepsis) complements and mimics the compact, rounded shape of this butterfly bush. Sporobolus heterolepsis adds tremendous movement and texture to any garden. Surrounding ‘Pugster Blue’ with this grass or mixing them together in a border will create a natural, flowing aesthetic.

Come visit us at the September plant sale fundraiser and get a peek at these unique plants. Fall is an ideal time for planting; your new shrubs will thank you for the cool autumn temperatures during their establishment. Arboretum staff will be available to make suggestions, helping you find the best fit for your landscape.

Plant Profile: Prairie Clovers

Daleas – now called Petalostemons and commonly known as prairie clovers – is a genus in honor of Samuel Dale, an English botanist (1659-1739).  Sixteen taxa of these hardy legumes are listed in the Flora of the Great Plains.  Few prairie clovers are cultivated, yet they offer splendid summer blooms and interesting, often fragrant foliage.

Purple Prairie Clover

Here are some prairie clovers we have used in the Arboretum:

Petalostemon aurea  – Golden prairie clover

This herbaceous perennial grows 12-30 inches tall.  Its many flowers are on a dense ½ -3 inch long spike.  The specific epithet aurea, derived from the Latin aurum meaning gold, refers to the yellow flower that blooms in June through September.  Golden prairie clover is native to the western two-thirds of Kansas, especially on gravelly ridges and rocky slopes.

Golden prairie clover

Petalostemon candida – White prairie clover

The specific epithet candida refers to the shining of pure white flowers, which appear in mid-June through July.  This species ranges from 12-36 inches tall and can be found growing in the eastern half of Kansas.  Because it is palatable to livestock, overgrazing can cause the elimination of the species from a range.

A honey bee on white prairie clover

Petalostemon multiflora – Round-headed prairie clover

This plant puts on a prolific flower display of white flowers from mid-July to early-September.  The foliage is also quite fragrant, producing a tangy-sweet aroma when crushed.  This species ranges from 12-24 inches tall.  It is infrequent to locally common on dry rocky prairies and roadside banks in the eastern portion of the state and is selectively grazed by livestock.

Round-headed prairie clover

Petalostemon purpurea – Purple prairie clover

This species produces fragrant purple flowers in June and July.  The finger-like foliage and upright habit make this prairie clover one of the best for the prairie garden.  The plants can be 6-36 inches tall depending on the variety and can be found in most prairie types in the eastern two-thirds of Kansas.  Like P. candida and P. multiflora, this species is palatable to livestock.  It is an important component of the prairie hay, is rich in protein, and nutritious to cattle.  It can become rare in heavily grazed pastures.

Petalostemon villosa – Silky prairie clover

This species ranges from 6-18 inches tall with lavender to pink flowers in June through August.  The leaves are covered with soft silky hairs, giving the plant a silvery sheen.  You can find this prairie clover on sandy soils south and west of the Arkansas River in Kansas.

 

Uses

Petalostemons have other uses besides being ornamental and planted in your prairie gardens.  No matter your soil type, there is a prairie clover for your garden.  Pollinators flock to the compact flower cones of these hardy wildflowers.  Melvin Gilmore, in his book Uses of Plants by the Indians of the Missouri River Region, says that these prairie clover leaves were sometimes used to make a tea-like drink.  The root was commonly chewed for its pleasant taste. The tough elastic stems were used to make brooms.  Sometimes the pulverized root was put into hot water and drunk to ward off disease.

These are past uses. I would highly discourage you from using these plants medicinally.  Just enjoy these tough wildflowers in your prairie garden.  Once established, they will prosper with little or no care.

Dalea candida

Plant Profile: Shortstem Spiderwort (Tradescantia tharpii)

Garden centers and nurseries carry more native plants each year, because gardeners have caught on to the many benefits that native perennials – such as milkweeds, coneflowers, blazing stars, black-eyed susans, and penstemon – provide aesthetically and environmentally.  One of the best native plants for early spring bloom is spiderwort.  They are fantastic in the gardens right now.  Native spiderworts are excellent alternatives for naturalized or xeric plantings.  Ohio spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) is the most common, prevalent in much of the Great Plains and eastern United State.  It reaches three feet and has striking blue, rose or white flowers.  Its cousin, shortstem spiderwort (Tradescantia tharpii) is not as common, but has more ornamental characteristics and growth habit.  It exhibits excellent drought tolerance with minimal maintenance requirements.

Shortstem spiderwort’s low growth habit and diverse flower colors make it a welcome addition to the front of any rock garden or perennial border.  It is a prolific bloomer, covering itself with large three-petaled flowers in April and May.  At least three distinct flower colors exist in our plantings, purple, blue and rose.  I use this plant along the front of our perennial beds with summer and fall blooming perennials, because it does go dormant during the summer as a natural defense against the heat.  I remove the brown leaves in the early summer and it greens back in late August as a rosette of hairy, pointed leaves.  With proper planning, shortstem spiderwort gives the landscape an exotic—yet native and hardy—spring component.  Honeybees and bumblebees flock to the flowers.  The diversity of pollinating insects that this plant attracts is a joy to watch.

Tradescantia tharpii reaches a mature height of 12 to 15 inches and 15 to 18 inches wide in full sun.  This species is multi-stemmed, forming a dense mound of green foliage.  Leaves are linear-lanceolate, pubescent, giving a whitish cast, and have red translucent margins.  The seed heads all seem to dry at the same time so seed collection is made easy, unlike Ohio spiderwort where the seeds ripen over an extended period.  Seeds are oblong, gray and compressed about one eighth of an inch long.

 

It prefers a well-drained soil, but it can adapt to moister locations as long as there is ample drainage.  I have grown it for years in a gravel-amended sandy loam soil with no problems; plants in heavy clay or sites with poor drainage resulted in slow plant growth.  This is one plant that thrives on neglect, as long as it is properly sited.  Established plants are long lived.  Plants in the Arboretum have been growing in established beds for up to ten years.

I have not observed any disease or insect problems.  In the fall and winter, however, rabbits will eat the rosette of leaves, stunting the spring growth.

You can find this plant at our spring and fall sales or produce it through seed propagation.  A warm, dry treatment before sowing the seed in a mixture of coarse perlite and potting soil gives the best germination.  Germination should occur in about 7 to 15 days.  Divisions of existing plants can be taken every two to four years depending on lateral growth.

Photo courtesy of Craig Freeman

For the native plant enthusiast who wants to view this plant in a natural setting, Tradescantia tharpii can be seen growing on clay, sand or rocky soils in prairies and open woods.  Native from central Kansas to southwest Missouri and south into northern Texas, it is essentially restricted to the Great Plains.

Plant Profile: Dwarf false indigo (Amorpha nana)

When we think of shrubs that grow in the prairie, lead plant (Amorpha canescens) is the first one that comes to my mind.  Rightfully so, the soft gray foliage and lavender flower spikes are a must for any summer prairie garden.  However, its lesser known cousin, dwarf false indigo (Amorpha nana) is blooming now in the Arboretum.  It makes you stop and take notice.

Dwarf false indigo can be found growing in the mixed-grass and shortgrass prairies throughout the Great Plains. In Kansas, I have seen it growing wild in Clark county.  It is not as widely distributed as lead plant, but I have found it to be quite adaptable.  It thrives in dry, open locations with plenty of sunlight.  Here in the Arboretum, it blooms in May but I have seen it bloom as late as mid-June.

The deep magenta flowers of dwarf false indigo have a sweet aroma like honey.  Each terminal flower cluster is covered in reddish-orange pollen that pollinators love to gather.  The flowers stand out against the bright green leaves.  This prairie shrub should not be pruned in the spring.  It blooms best from previous year’s growth.  A variety of pollinators flock to the fragrant blossoms, but the Silver Spotted Skipper butterfly use the soft leaves as a food source.  After the blooms, the small green seedpods develop, but turn dark brown later in the fall.

The name nana, meaning dwarf in Latin, refers to the shrub’s diminutive size, which ultimately reaches two feet tall.  While short, the deep tap root and finely textured leaves make it extremely drought tolerant.  Plant it en masse or along a border edge so you can enjoy the sweet fragrance of the flowers.  It prefers a well-drained soil, including clay and rocks.

Companion plants for this versatile shrub would be little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), evening primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa), bottlebrush blazing star (Liatris mucornata), aromatic aster (Aster oblongifolius), shortstem spiderwort (tradescantia tharpii), narrowleaf coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia) and butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa).  This shrub deserves a place in your sunny prairie garden.

Join Us on Friday, May 12.

Dyck Arboretum of the Plains is offering a free wildflower to the first 25 families or individuals who obtain a new or renewed membership on Friday, May 12, for National Public Gardens Day!

We will also have FREE ADMISSION to the gardens for the day, and coffee and refreshments in the Visitor Center from 9-11 a.m.

THANK YOU TO EVERYONE WHO SUPPORTS THE DYCK ARBORETUM OF THE PLAINS!

Partner Perennials

As the weather warms up and perennials begin to sprout I find myself in the gardening mood! Whether filling in gaps in an existing garden bed or planting up a new area, knowing which plants will look best together can be a sort of guessing game. But a fun one! When I start getting too many ideas about what plants to pair up, I put pencil to sketch pad and doodle my ideas into reality.

There are countless unique, easy combinations for every situation that can incorporate natives, exotics and even our old garden favorites. Maybe you can use some of my recent sketches, maybe they will inspire you to draw up some of your own!

For the Shady Place

Try partnering bright colored blooms together and using leaf color that adds contrast. For example, using light greens behind darker greens can add depth and interest to an area that is only foliage. You can use striped hostas (Liberty, June Spirit, Brother Stephan) to liven up a dark area and use lowgrowing spreaders as ground cover between them (Ceratostigma plumbagnoides, Gallium odoratum) In my shade garden at home I already have some hostas planted, so I am thinking of filling in around them with some native Silene stellata (Starry Champion) and some non-native Epimedium rubrum (Barrenwort). Waldesteinia fragoides (Barren strawberry) might be the perfect ground cover to suppress weeds around it all. The purplish hue of the epimedium blooms will work well with the yellow of false strawberry since they are complementary colors (situated opposite each other on the color wheel).

If you have a shady spot, try planting fillers between hostas to add interest and texture.

 

Epimedium rubrum By Salicyna (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Silene stellata at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Silene_stellata_flowers.jpg
Barren Strawberry by User:SB_Johnny (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

 Good pairings for part sun areas:

Solidago rigida (Rigid Goldenrod) + Anemone ‘Pink Kiss’ (Pink Snowdrops)
Heuchera ‘Fire Chief’ + Carex pennsylvannica (Pennsyvannia Sedge)
Asarum canadense (Wild Ginger) + Matteuchia struthiopteris (Ostrich Fern)

 

For the Hottest Hot Spot

What plants can partner together to beat the heat? A dry, hot spot is a perfect place for mixing native grasses and wildflowers that have evolved in the prairie sun. For a rock garden or sunny burm, try this combination of Eryngium yuccafolium (Rattlesnake Master) and Eryngium planum (‘Blue Glitter’ Globe Flower) that will complement each other’s whimsical, spherical blooms. Sporobolis heterolepis (Prairie Dropseed) and Delosperma (‘Firespinner’ Creeping Ice Plant) will fill in around the base of the taller plants. Not only are the Eryngiums major pollinator magnets, they are also long lasting cut flowers! The bright orange-red blooms of the ice plant will warm up the cool hues of the eryngiums.

A mixture of grass, upright specimen plants and crawling ground cover will create a nice balance

Other suggestions for full sun pairings:

Achillea ‘Moonshine’ (Yellow Yarrow) + Callirhoe involucrata (Poppy Mallow)
Rudbeckia missouriensis (Black Eyed Susan) + Helenium ‘Salsa’ (Sneezeweed) + Sedum ‘Lidakense’

If You Need Some Height…

Perhaps growing along a fence or forming a border between yards, tall plants provide structure for the garden. A columnar grass species like Panicum ‘Northwind’ (Switchgrass) or Miscanthus (Silvergrass) can be the eyecatching backdrop for other perennials. They also provide support to tall flowers that might otherwise flop over when they reach their mature heights. Planting Veronicastrum ‘Lavender Towers’ (Culver’s Root) or Eupatorium maculatum (Joe Pye Weed) between tall, strong stemmed grasses can keep them upright in a stiff prairie wind. The sketch below shows a shorter variety of Joe Pye called ‘Baby Joe’ situated between some Miscanthus grass with Scabiosa (or, just as well suited, Knautia) growing wispily in front.

For an area that can use some height, install some Miscanthus grass for a big effect in fall.

 

Eupatorium (right) by Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Blue Scabiosa by By Xemenendura (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Tall grass that will support tall flowers:

Andropogon gerardii (Big Bluestem) + Coreopsis tripteris (Tall Coreopsis)
Calamagrostis acutiflora (Karl Foerster Grass) + Salvia azurea ‘Grandiflora’ 

 

Partnering plants is the fun part of perennial gardening – let your imagination go wild! Use the color wheel to make the most of your pairings and pay close attention to foliage shape and texture to achieve a harmonious look. If you think some of the plants in this post will work well in your yard, come to our FloraKansas Plant Sale April 28th – May 1st!  This is our largest fundraiser of the year, and your purchase makes educational programming and the management of Arboretum grounds possible.

Growing Berries in the Backyard

Berries are my favorite addition to the production garden – they are the perfect topping for ice cream and yogurt and make delicious pies! But they can be expensive to source from the grocery store and certain types are nearly impossible to find. Why not grow your own? Many types of raspberries, strawberries, gooseberries and currants are adaptable to Kansas, flourishing under the right conditions. If you don’t have space to create a vegetable garden, no worries – berry plants can mix into the perennial borders and become a productive (and delicious!) part of your landscape for you and for the wildlife.

Raspberries

Rubus idaeus, red raspberries, got their initialized name from Mt. Ida in Turkey, where the citizens of ancient Troy dined on them. Since that time they have spread throughout the world because of their sweetness and adaptability. These delicious little morsels do not naturally flourish in the harsh Kansas climate, but with a little human attention they can produce a summer full of fruit for you.

Wild red raspberries. Photo by mako from Kangasala, Suomi (Finland) (wild raspberries) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Plant your canes in a spot with full sun (some shade acceptable during the hot hours) and good drainage. Protection from the hot south wind will ensure it doesn’t scorch in our blistering summer. ‘Heritage’ variety red raspberry has a reputation for bountiful crops and first year success. It is everbearing, meaning that it produces two crops – one in mid-July and another in September. ‘Fall Gold’ yellow raspberry also bears two harvests: in fall and then the following spring on the same canes. Gardeners love its unique color and light flavor. Some raspberries are self-supporting, but most benefit from some type of staking.

Currants and Gooseberries

Currants and gooseberries are part of the Ribes genus, some of which are native to Kansas. Ribes ordoratum (golden currant) is commonly found in thickets and near streams, bearing delicious wild fruit great for canning. These wild types can be grown in the landscape for their berries, wildlife appeal and ornamental value. I discovered cultivated red currants while traveling in France; they are a staple of a French breakfast table, irresistible in jams and sauces. ‘Red Lake’ is a type that grows well here in Kansas, with bountiful bunches of marble-sized red berries. Plant in neutral pH soil and don’t keep their feet wet for extended periods of time.

Red currants ripe for the piking! Photo by Idalia Skalska (http://idalia.pl/) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The greenish-pink gooseberries sport characteristic veins/stripes and a sour taste. Photo by Nadiatalent (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Gooseberries are very hardy, long-lived and have a bramble-type habit. Thorny and thick, they make a great border plant. The berries have light colored ‘veins’ showing through their translucent skin. With a tart, rubarb-esque flavor they go well as a crumble topping or baked into pies and meat sauces.

Strawberries

Everybody’s favorite mid-summer treat, strawberries, are easy to establish and spread via runners to increase yields year after year. A raised bed is a common way to grow strawberries, helping with weed management and containment. A layer of straw or mulch around new plants will aide in retaining soil moisture. If you have no room for a raised bed area, don’t fret! Strawberries are happy to live in the perennial garden and crawl around the bases of taller plants – they will behave as a ground cover (suppressing weeds!) and benefit from the light shade cast by the flowers above them. Some varieties are bred specifically to grow in a patio pot and produce vigorously. ‘Tristan’ and ‘Ruby Ann’ are examples of this type. They always provide me with a midday snack in the greenhouse!

Serviceberry (left) and Elderberry (right) in bloom. From https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sambucus_nigra-Busch.jpg and By peganum from Small Dole, England (Amelanchier x grandiflora Cole’s Select) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Elderberries, Chokeberries, Serviceberries

Lesser known or wild-type berries are just as nutritious, but require less maintenance. These berries all taste best after some type of processing (cooking, freezing, juicing, etc). All three of the following berry-producers bear stunning white blooms and produce fruit with high nutritional content for your table or for the birds to enjoy!

  • Consider planting elderberry (Sambucus) shrubs in a drainage area or part of the yard that always floods – they will absorb excess water and create a wall of blooms in late spring.  Raw elderberries are bitter, but perform well in jams, wines, and home remedies. ‘Adams’ and ‘York’ are two types of elderberry we recommend for heavy fruit production.
  • Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) is a versatile and attractive shrub that bears high-antioxidant blackish berries in late summer. The berries have an astringent quality that makes the mouth pucker with that ‘dry wine’ feeling. Berries can be made into syrups and jams, or used in muffins. Five to six feet tall at maturity, they make a great screen or windbreak. Aronia ‘Viking’ is a nice variety that produces well and has high ornamental value. ‘Low Scape’ and ‘Hedger’ types for smaller spaces display blooms and attractive fall foliage but do not produce much fruit.
  • Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) is native to the eastern-most regions of Kansas and can reach 20 feet tall in some locations. It makes an excellent specimen tree and produces fruit that taste much like blueberries. The berries ripen in mid-summer, earlier than most other berries. They can be eaten right off the tree, baked into pies or dried like raisins for preserving.

Growing berries can be fun and easy! Consider planting some edibles in your landscape as a part of your hedge or as a perennial ground cover. They will look great and taste even better. If you don’t have time to pick them for yourself, the wildlife will thank you for the extra sweet treat!

Six Native Groundcovers That Thrive in the Sun

As you think about your native landscape, taller plants are easier to plug into the design.  There are more choices from which you can add diversity, color, texture and habitat.  These taller layers are the backbone of any plan, while the edges or ground level are often overlooked.   In my opinion, the border plants are just as important because they define the edges.   The larger perennials typically overshadow these native groundcovers, but here are a few that stand out in the landscape.

Missouri Evening Primrose-Oenothera macrocarpa

In the wild, this low growing wildflower is found clinging to exposed hillsides.  If it can survive that environment, it will be a tough drought-tolerant plant for any sunny spot.  The large, showy, yellow flowers bloom from May through August, but the majority of the blooms come in April and May.  One plant can spread up to 24 inches while only reaching 6 to 12 inches tall.  Obviously, it likes it dry, so don’t over water them.  They look great along walkways or spilling over rock walls with their silver green leaves and reddish stems.

Purple Poppy Mallow-Callirhoe involucrata

Some like it hot, but these like it really hot.  The deep tap root of Purple Poppy Mallow sustains it during times of drought.  These roots are starchy and supposedly taste like a sweet potato.  (I don’t know if I am that hungry, but it may be worth a try.)  The magenta cup-like blooms appear throughout spring and into summer.  I like to interplant with low grasses or shorter perennials that bloom later in the season, such as blazing stars or goldenrods.  The stems hug the ground and ultimately spread 24-36 inches wide and 6-12 inches tall.

Blue Grama ‘Blonde Ambition’-Bouteloua gracilis

Unlike any other native grass, ‘Blonde Ambition’ will make an impact in your garden.  The eyelash-like seedheads dance with even the gentlest breeze atop the fine blue-green foliage from mid-summer into winter.  Selected for its unique habit and hardiness, it can be used in a variety of settings from clay to sandy soils.  It gets larger than most Blue Grama grass, maxing out at 24 inches.  Space them 18 to 24 inches apart for best display.  Regularly, Blue Grama is found growing with Buffalograss in the shortgrass prairie, making it an important native grass of the Great Plains.

Rose Verbena-Glandularia canadensis

This plant holds the record for most months in bloom.  I have seen it in bloom from March through December.  It is one of the first to bloom in the spring and if we get some beneficial rain in the fall, it will bloom again.  In the prairie, rose verbena can be found in open bluffs and rocky outcroppings.  It requires minimal rain and terrible soil for the best growth.  Sounds like a winner to me.  The vibrant pinkish-purple blooms will brighten any border.  Give it room to spread.  One drawback is that they are not very long lived, every few years, plants will completely die out or move.  I think that they bloom themselves to death.  Just replace with new plants and again enjoy this sun loving groundcover.

Rose Verbena-Photo courtesy of Craig Freeman

 

Stiff Coreopsis-Coreopsis palmata

Each spring, the golden yellow blooms of this prairie beauty burst open with an eruption of glorious sunshine.  The stems are lined with leaves that resemble little hands lifted skyward.  It is a favorite of pollinators as they flock to the nectar rich flowers from late spring to early summer.  I give it some room to roam since it slowly spreads to fill in an area when it is happy.  Eventually, spreading to 36 inches or more and growing 24 inches tall, this wildflower is a great alternative to its other coreopsis cousins.

Coreopsis palmata-By Frank Mayfield (Flickr: Coreopsis palmata PRAIRIE COREOPSIS) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Prairie Dropseed-Sporobolus heterolepis

At one time, this was one of the top selling grasses nationwide.  It is a favorite of mine because it is long-lived and tough.  It is so tough they are planted in mass in street medians.  The fine textured leaves and airy, fragrant panicles are a nice addition to any landscape.  Each clump can reach 12-18 inches wide and up to 24 inches tall.  The entire plant turns shades of orange and yellow in the fall providing multiple seasons of interest.  It is great in a border, as a groundcover, in an informal prairie setting or as an accent to other short or mid-range perennials.

 

Sporobolus heterolepis-By Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons