Plant Profile: Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium)

There are quite a few native wildflowers that everyone knows – coneflowers, gayfeathers, prairie clovers, evening primrose and so on. But when I tell folks to try some rattlesnake master, Eryngium yuccifolium, I get the blank stare, or the proverbial crickets in the room sound. What does that do? What does that look like?  True, it is one of the lesser known wildflowers, but I contend that it is just as attractive as some of the common wildflowers.

Rattlesnake master, Eryngium yuccifolium, gets its name from the belief that the roots have the ability to heal snake bites. In today’s world, I would stick to the true antidotes. Often the root was dried and used in bitter teas as a supposed cure for maladies such as venereal disease, liver problems, impotence, expelling worms and to induce vomiting. It makes me thankful for modern medicine, but back in the 18th and 19th centuries many herbs from the prairie were used to cure a variety of ailments because they had nothing else.

This unique wildflower’s scientific name comes from the close resemblance the leaves have with a yucca plant. The sword-like leaves have soft tiny barbs along the edges that make it easily recognizable. In the summer, the white thistle-like flowers develop atop the stout upright stems. Even though it looks like a thistle, it is actually a member of the carrot/parsley family. Rattlesnake master ultimately reaches about three to four feet tall with a spread of one to two feet. I like to combine them in groups of three in the middle to back of the flower bed.

In the landscape or in a prairie, it is quite a striking plant. The grey-green foliage and one inch diameter flower heads make it stand out in the garden as an accent plant. The flowers slowly dry and become yellow-brown later in fall and into the winter. The stalks are sturdy and remain well into winter, providing interest in the landscape. We have even used them in dried flower arrangements.

Plant them in full sun or part shade for best growth. They are quite adaptable, but prefer a medium to dry soil. I have planted in spring and fall with easy establishment either time of the year. This is a plant that should be used more in roadside plantings, prairie restorations, prairie landscape settings, and in your wildflower garden.

You may never need a rattlesnake master for a snake bite, but you do need some rattlesnake master in your garden. Its attractive appearance and resilient beauty are outstanding. Plus, pollinators love it too.  You may have just found your next favorite plant.

A Short List of Sun-Loving Favorites

This time of year as we greet the true arrival of spring and the FloraKansas Native Plant Festival, I am asked quite a few questions about native plants. Often people ask about how to establish their native plants, but more often they want to know which native plants are my favorites.  It is hard to narrow down my choices, because there are so many great plants to include in your garden.  Wildflowers attract pollinators and grasses add texture, structure and movement in the garden.  The combination of wildflowers and grasses create the layers and habitat that wildlife depend on for survival.

Here is a list of my top five sun-loving favorites:

Threadleaf Bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii)

This is an all-season perennial with fantastic ornamental features that at make it stand out from other wildflowers.   In May and June, clusters of small powder blue, star-like flowers top the strong stems.  The stems are encircled with soft, narrow leaves resembling pine needles, making each plant look like a small shrub with feathery texture and incredible fullness. I have found them to be extremely hardy, drought tolerant and very low maintenance.

Amsonia fall color

The real show develops in September when the foliage turns a butter yellow, fading to a golden brown by October.  One specimen plant is spectacular in each season of the year, but a group of ten or more massed together and strategically located are quite stunning.  Individual plants can reach up to 48 inches tall and 24-36 inches wide.  They prefer full sun to partial shade and an average garden soil.

Other Bluestars worth trying are Shining Bluestar (Amsonia illustris), Amsonia ‘Storm Cloud’, and Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)

Northwind Switchgrass

The airy seed heads and upright habit make this a great landscape grass.  These forms make quite a statement in the fall and winter landscape.  They add structure, texture and movement.  For best results, plant them in a sunny spot in a medium to moist soil.  It is very drought tolerant.  Discover these varieties: ‘Northwind’-consistent upright form to four feet tall and golden yellow fall color, ‘Cheyenne Sky’-red leaves develop early in the summer and grows to three feet, and ‘Dallas Blues’-tall (to 8 feet), with blue foliage and purple seed heads.

Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’ (Penstemon digitalis)

I love this penstemon in the perennial border.  The pink flowers in spring have just a blush of white and develop interesting seed heads.   It adds outstanding form and texture to any landscape throughout the year.  Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’ is a beautiful selection of smooth penstemon with reddish-purple foliage that is attractive even when blooming is complete.

Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’ in bloom. Photo courtesy of Terra Nova Nurseries.

Letterman’s Iron Plant (Vernonia lettermanii ‘Iron Butterflies’)

One of the plants that has done well over the past few years 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.

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 gets its name 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.

Iron Butterflies in bloom

In late summer, the flowers are just what butterflies and other pollinators need as they migrate or prepare for winter. All sorts of butterflies, skippers, moths, and bees will swarm the blooms. 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.

Aromatic aster (Aster oblongifolius)

Aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ in full bloom

This diverse wildflower grows throughout the state, and is more drought-tolerant than other aster species. Its name alludes to its fragrant purple/pink flowers and foliage that exudes a pungent aroma.  This species typically grows about two feet tall, but shorter varieties exist.  Garden worthy varieties include ‘Dream of Beauty’ (short (one foot tall) with pink blooms), ‘October Skies’ (2’ x 2’ with light blue flowers)  and ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ (3’ x 2’ with light blue flowers).

If you missed FloraKansas this weekend, never fear! We will be keeping the plants on display this week (open weekdays 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.) and I will also be setting up a booth on Sunday, May 6th, at Lakewood Park in Salina for the Discover Salina Naturally event. Come see me there!

 

Little Known Natives

Our FloraKansas Plant Sale is the largest native plant sale in the state of Kansas. We do our best to provide a wide selection of native and adaptable perennials that will grow reliably, but will, over time, use less water and fertilizer. Using native plants in your landscape helps to build back some of the native habitat that our cities and neighborhoods have paved over and shoved aside.

While planning out our inventory for this year, I was struck by how many amazing North American natives we offer that get overlooked. Why are these dazzlers not flying off the shelves? I’d like to introduce our readers to some of these lesser-known native showstoppers.

Linum p. Lewisii– Flax

Linum, also known as blue flax, prairie flax, or Lewisii flax (named for Meriwether Lewis) is one of the few “true blue” flowers out there. It has dainty blooms on stout stems and thin, grey green foliage. According to the USDA link, it is native from Kansas to California and Texas all the way to the far reaches of Northern Canada. Linum does not tolerate prolonged wetness; good drainage and a somewhat rocky environment suit it well. At the Arboretum, we have a very old blue flax specimen growing out from between a couple of limestone slabs in a rockwall. It blooms every spring like clockwork!

Flax is a great native addition to any dry, full sun garden.

 

Ipomopsis aggregata– Scarlet Gilia (Biennial)

Beloved by hummingbirds, scarlet gilia is a dry-loving plant, native to the western half of North America. Just missing the western Kansas border, this plant makes its home in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and California – you can tell from that list that it likes a high-and-dry soil climate with excellent drainage. Gilia will likely do well in a sunny rock garden.

Scarlet Gilia has dainty red blooms but a tough, drought tolerant root system.
     Photo by Jerry Friedman (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Packera obovata– Golden Ragwort

Native from Kansas all the way to the Atlantic ocean, this woodland species is a colorful ground cover that spreads via seed or rhizome. It appreciates a shaded location, but is very low maintenance once established. Usually blooming mid-spring, it is a welcome sight for hungry pollinators!

Bright yellow flowers of Packera obovata, great for cutting!

 

Talinum calycinum– Rock Pink

Rock pink, also known as fameflower, is a sweet and petite succulent that loves hot sun. Native from Nebraska to Texas and Colorado to Missouri, this species loves rocky, gravelly soil and dry conditions. Brilliant purple flowers contrast with bright yellow stamens in the center. These look great next to low growing non-native companions such as hens and chicks, annual rose moss or ground-hugging sedums.

Talinum is a native succulent with wiry purple stems and bright blooms.    Photo by Corey Raimond (Largeflower Fameflower) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Stylophorum diphyllum– Celandine Poppy

Found mostly east of Kansas in Missouri, Kentucky, Indiana and Michigan, celandine poppy is a cheery yellow spring bloomer that often goes dormant during the hot summer months. It has lobed leaves and hairy stems which support large, yellow, poppy-like flowers.

Celandine poppy gives bright yellow blooms early in the growing season.       Photo by R.W. Smith, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

 

Carex brevior– Plains Oval Sedge

Okay, so this isn’t a blooming show stopper, but it is a must-have nonetheless! The weedy, invasive sedges give a bad name to the genus, but Carex brevior, and many other well-behaved sedges are superb for filling in gaps in the garden, creating a lush, verdant look. Deep green arching blades and a compact form make this sedge a hit in a part shade setting.

Berlandiera lyrata– Chocolate Flower

Chocolate flower is one of my personal favorite natives. It truly smells (and tastes?) like chocolate, a unique and tantalizing scent for your garden. Plant in large groups to maximize the visual impact and aroma. Also known as greeneyes or chocolate daisy, they are beneficial to pollinators and can grow in dry, shallow soil. They are native to Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado and New Mexico.

Chocolate flower is irresistibly cheery and smells uncannily like warm chocolate. Photo by Kaldari (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Spring is just around the corner – soon our greenhouse will be bursting with all these species and many more! Not sure how to incorporate these plants into your garden? Come to our Native Plant Landscaping Symposium to hear about the experiences and techniques of native plant gardening from beginners and veterans alike. I hope to see these beauties in more landscapes soon, for their own uniqueness and for their contribution to the ecosystem.

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!