O Cedar Tree, O Cedar Tree

Here is a repost from last year about using local cedar trees for your Christmas decoration this year, for the ecological benefits and the fun folksy style! Enjoy —- 

This past weekend I cut down a red cedar to use as my Christmas tree; just the right shape and size and with the right amount of character. I feel great about cutting one of these trees out of the wild (an Arboretum staffer condoning tree felling? Yes!). Red cedars are beautiful, strung with lights and tinsel, but they have become a real pest in the Great Plains ecosystem. Here are a few reasons to skip the plastic tree or spruce farm and simply cut yourself a cedar!

Any Christmas tree, cedar or artificial, can benefit from some ecologically conscious decorations. Dried grass and seed heads of prairie plants look magical amongst warm white lights, but are biodegradable.

Cedars have become invasive

Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) is native to Kansas and much of central and eastern North America. Native though they are, the USDA labels cedars as invasive, and rightfully so. Too many pastures and meadows are overgrown with cedars, choking out native grasses and wildflowers. Without natural wildfires and regular controlled burns, cedars have been allowed to flourish in places that historically would not have been suitable. The tallgrass prairie is one of the most rare and endangered ecosystems in the world, and the invasion of cedars upon open grasslands decreases species richness, changes soil composition and even threatens indigenous wildlife. If you are a landowner looking to do maintenance of your grassland or clear it of cedar trees, Dyck Arboretum can provide helpful information.

Trees and shrubs are overpopulating grassy landscapes. Randy Rodgers has a wonderful essay here on the impacts of trees encroaching on the prairie.

Cedars degrade the prairie ecosystem

Grassland dependent birds, insects and small mammals become displaced or outcompeted when red cedars populate formerly open land. The University of Nebraska has compiled a lot of data on this subject at The Eastern Red Cedar Science Literacy Project, where you can find informative and alarming tidbits like:

“Grassland birds are the most rapidly declining avian guild in North America (Fuhlendorf et al. 2012) and are rarely observed once juniper exceeds 10% of land cover (Chapman et al. 2004).” (Twidwell et al. 2013)

and…

“An increase in overstory cover from 0% to 30% red cedar can change a species-rich prairie community to a depauperate community dominated by 1 (small mammal) species, Peromyscus leucopus.” (Horncastle et al. 2005)

Endangered and vulnerable species like the American burying beetle and the greater prairie chicken are only further threatened by the turnover of grassland to cedar forests. Cedars do have redeeming qualities – winter shelter and forage for birds, drought tolerance and erosion control. Red cedars certainly have their place in a hedgerow or small grove, but should be carefully limited from spreading.

Cedar trees make prescribed burning  tricky and often exacerbate already dangerous wildfires by sending up massive flames. Overgrown cedar pastures are a serious fire risk, and may have been a factor in the 2015 Anderson Creek wildfire.

My coworker Brad has some great bumper stickers that encourage regular prescribed burns to prevent cedar overgrowth.

Cedars are a ‘green’ choice

For all the aforementioned reasons, cutting a cedar for a Christmas tree is already a very ecologically conscious decision. But there is more! Unlike plastic trees, cedars are biodegradable and can be used for firewood or garden mulch. Also note that conventional Christmas tree farms providing spruce or firs require lots of resources:

  • clearing/agricultural development of land
  • years of regular water input
  • pesticides to keep needles bug free
  • shipping and fuel costs to get the trees to distributors around the country

Why don’t we skip all that frivolous resource usage and cut down some of these pesky cedars instead? You can feel good about a tree that’s low on carbon waste but high in old-fashioned, folksy quality.

Get permission from a farmer, landowner or your county land management officials before you start cutting. They will likely be happy to get rid of one, and you may get it for free (more money for gifts, yippee!) and enjoy a lovely, cedar-scented home this holiday.

The Resilient Prairie

An interesting thing happened in the Fall of 2012, after one of the hottest and driest summers on record – the prairie bloomed.  The historic drought was harsh and many plants that were borderline hardy in Kansas were lost, but very few of the wildflowers and grasses of the prairie were lost.  Asters, blue sage and goldenrods bloomed in spite of the brutal summer conditions.  The native grasses, though much shorter, survived.

This was a great lesson about one of the ultimate surviving landscapes—the prairie.

Blue Sage (Salvia azurea)

Kansas has some of the largest expanses of the tallgrass prairie in the United States.  Less than four percent of the original North American prairie land is left.  This sea of grasses and wildflowers survives floods and drought, high and low temperatures, grazing, fire and many invasive species.  The deep roots and adaptability make it one of the most resilient landscapes in the world.

Liatris and Indian grass in the Prairie Window Project

This prairie ecosystem manages heat and drought through adaptation.  The deep roots absorb water that other shallow-rooted plants can’t touch.  Plants go dormant during drought to conserve water and maintain growing points just at or below the soil surface.  Once conditions improve, these plants begin to grow again.  Leaves are shiny or have tiny hairs to reduce water loss.  Grasses stay shorter and produce fewer seeds.

Each of these adaptations help the prairie plants survive and use less water.  This diverse ecosystem is resilient – more resilient than many other landscapes and certainly more resilient than a typical lawn.  It provides habitat for wildlife and food and nectar for pollinators.  It is a self-sustaining environment that persists through harsh conditions.

Reconstructed Prairie at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains

Those drought years gave us a chance to evaluate what we are doing with our own landscapes and to take a look at the types of plants that will actually grow here with minimal time, water and maintenance.  It provided an opportunity to select new plants that can tolerate adverse weather conditions.  More and more Kansans are choosing plants like little bluestem, switchgrass or prairie dropseed.  Gardeners are filling up their landscapes with wildflowers such as coneflowers, penstemon, blazing stars, goldenrods, asters and milkweeds in smaller “pocket” prairies.  These micro-prairies have all the ornamental qualities of a larger prairie, but on a much smaller scale.

Nature is a good teacher.  These plants, which survived and even bloomed after one of the driest summers in recent memory, are amazing.  I knew that prairie plants were tough, but that season made me take notice.  It made me rethink my own perceptions of what is environmentally-sound landscaping.  We can create sustainable plant communities in our own small landscapes simply by copying what nature has done so successfully in creating the prairie. These are beautiful plants that are diverse in form, texture and color.  Plants that would work well in any sunny location.  The combinations are endless.

 

The prairie has a legacy of resilient beauty.  Embrace what is around you and create a sense of place in your own pocket of the historic prairie land.

Autumn Prairie: Like Nothing I Have Ever Seen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Day on the Prairie is Good Medicine

Well, it happened again!  I spent another beautiful day in the Flint Hills.  After several weeks of busyness, I needed some quiet and solitude – time away from the office to refocus my thoughts and recharge my batteries.  I knew just the place to go.

Deep in the heart of the Flint Hills there is a secluded pond that is stocked with Largemouth bass.  It is rare that you don’t catch a fish and this particular day was no exception.  The fish were biting, but more importantly the sun was shining, the breeze was light and the spring wildflowers were in bloom.  It was a picture perfect day.

We who live in Kansas often get criticized for the lack of beauty in the state.  While it is true that we don’t have mountains and we don’t have large forests and we don’t have beautiful sand beaches, what we do have is open prairie. We have an unobstructed, open view of the blue sky.  We have some of the best sunrises and sunsets in the world, with colors and hues that change from one minute to the next and reach from west to east.  I am amazed each and every time I pause to appreciate the beginning and the end of the day.  They are truly works of art and a gift to be appreciated.

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Quivira Wildlife Refuge at dusk. Photo by Brad Guhr.

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Quivira Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Brad Guhr.

This particular day my senses were heightened.  The Flint Hills prairie was spectacular.  I was keenly aware of the various sights and sounds all around me.  I noticed the Meadowlarks singing on the fence posts and the various birds in the Cottonwood trees near the pond.  The scissor-tailed flycatcher was doing his thing over the grasses and I could hear the call of a pheasant in the distance.  The prairie was alive with activity.

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Chase State Fishing Lake. Photo Courtesy of Bob Regier

I walked through the prairie noticing all the spring wildflowers blooming.  There was tremendous diversity from tiny violet woodsorrel (Oxalis violacea) to yellow grooved flax (Linum sulcatum) to Milkvetch (Astragalus sp.) to larger wildflowers like Blue False Indigo (Baptisia australis var. minor) and Green Antelopehorn Milkweed (Asclepias virids).   The prairie I was walking through had been burned this spring, so individual wildflowers stood out amongst the dark green grass blades.

I believe people from other states and landscapes would change their minds about Kansas if they could have been with me that day.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. Photo by Brad Guhr.

In my opinion, we take the Kansas landscape for granted, with its striking beauty, its stunning complexity and diversity and its open expanse stretching to the horizon.   It is a landscape worthy of appreciation and admiration.

If you have a chance, take a drive and spend a day on the prairie.  Why not this week?  It may be just what you need.  It certainly helped me to reconnect and left me refreshed.  It was good medicine.

Try these links to set your prairie itinerary.  Natural Kansas , Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve , Cimarron National Grasslands , Konza Prairie , Maxwell Wildlife Refuge , The Nature Conservancy of Kansas .

 

Have You Ever Wondered What The Tallgrass Prairie Was Really Like?

In late September, I was at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve near Strong City, KS.  It was a great experience.  The Flint Hills were in bloom with wildflowers and the grasses were adorned in their autumn glory.  I walked to the top of the bluff on the Southwind Nature Trail and looked to the west.  It is a magnificent sight to behold.  The rolling hills covered with amber grasses were stunning.  I stood there for quite a while taking in the sights and sounds of the tallgrass prairie.

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It made me think about the prairie and imagine what it must have been like in the early 1800s – to look at this “sea of grass”  moving and waving in the wind stretching as far as the eyes could see.  The Flint Hills offer us just a glimpse of what The Great Plains used to be. They show us how much we have lost.

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These enormous plains with grass up to a horse’s belly or higher were extraordinary.  Early settlers and explorers tried to describe what they saw.  Here are some of their descriptions:

 
…we walked on over a Ridge came to high large prairies and hills.  We walked on found some cherries near a handsome Spring River and named cherry Run at which we drank at the forks then followed it or one branch to the head which came out of a ridge which joins the prairies, and went up on a high Ridge of prairie where we could See all around for a long distance in the open prairies or as far as our eyes could behold, and on the opposite Side of the Missouris we saw a large and extensive prairie which looked very handsome,…”  The Journals Sergeant John Ordway Kept on the Journey of the Corps of Discovery, July 15, 1804.

 

“I felt motion in the landscape; in the fresh easy blowing wind, and in the earth itself, as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping, galloping…” —Willa Cather, My Antonia, 1918

 

…boundless and beautiful / For which the speech of England has no name– / The Prairies…

…Fitting floor / For this magnificent temple of the sky…

– William Cullen Bryant (1866, “The Prairies,” D. Appleton, New York, NY)

 

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“Elysian (heavenly)  fields of tremendous areas of luxuriant grass” (Fremont 1845)

 

I would encourage you to visit the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.  Sure, it is not the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone, but it is unique to our part of the world.  It highlights an ecosystem that is nearly gone, but worth saving.  It made me more aware of how quickly something can be lost.  I can still hear the birds, feel the wind on my face and picture the hills of grass spreading into the distance as I stood on that overlook.  It was a snapshot of the prairie that will stay with me forever.

Teenage Prairie

Our prairie is getting all grown up. The 12-acre prairie reconstruction at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains known as the Prairie Window Project is reaching a noticeably new stage of maturity in its sixth year of growth. Deep root systems have developed to support a matrix of full-size grasses, a variety of colorful wildflowers, and a bounty of seed heads. For the first time, it looks like and gives the feel of being a REAL prairie.

Big bluestem growing in the Prairie Window Project

Big bluestem growing in the Prairie Window Project

I can’t help but reflect on its numerous developmental similarities to those of my 14-year old son, Henry. Each involved preparation and planning, was nurtured with grand hopes and dreams, and required a significant investment of time and economic resources to shepherd them to their current state of maturation. Just as many lessons of my childhood and a rich array of ancestral influences have contributed to Henry’s development, the arboretum’s tallgrass youngster was conceived only after years of studying and modeling the local prairies of South Central Kansas and collecting seeds from over 170 plant species.

I even poignantly recognize that many of our Marion County prairie remnant seed sources near Lehigh laden with bluestem, blazing star, blue salvia, and goldenrod were the same prairies where my Grandpa Henry decades ago introduced me to prairie wonders such as rolling vistas of the Flint Hills, scissor-tailed flycatchers, and ruts of the Santa Fe Trail. It gives me great comfort to know that the remains of dozens of my ancestors in Marion County cemeteries, and maybe even mine someday, will be cycled through the 10-foot deep root systems of big bluestem, switchgrass and Indian grass many times over in the coming millennia.

Blazing star and Indian grass in the Prairie Window Project

Button blazing star and Indian grass in the Prairie Window Project

Henry and the Prairie Window Project have each benefited greatly from the work and support of many others along with some fortunate helpings of luck. They are beneficiaries of the nutrient-rich soils of Kansas, and both have surpassed me in height this fall. They have plenty of room to grow in complexity, mature and diversify, and I am coming to terms with the fact that most of my influence to shape these two beings has already been given. I marvel at what they have become in their young lives, and with great anticipation I will be watching what new developments are to come.

For more information on prairie restoration and native plants, please explore our website.