Woodland Phlox

Few plants are as visually striking to me in spring as woodland phlox with its showy lavender color, blooming mid to late April in Kansas. Woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata) is a woodland understory species with a vast native range that covers much of the Eastern U.S. (including the eastern third of Kansas) and Canada.

A Book About Phlox

Jim Locklear, a former director for Dyck Arboretum of the Plains, published in 2011 the book Phlox: A Natural History and Gardener’s Guide. In his description of woodland phlox (he calls it timber phlox), Jim highlights just how perfect this species is found to be: “It speaks volumes that horticulturists in eighteenth-century Europe just left timber phlox alone. While they started refining the other phloxes coming in from the American colonies as soon as they got their hands on them–making selections and breeding new hybrids–they found little reason to fiddle with timber phlox. What could be done to improve upon the earthy, cerulean mood it brought to the springtime garden? Today, timber phlox is an essential element of the shade and woodland garden on both sides of the Atlantic, valued for the bluish hues of its fragrant flowers and its early season of bloom.”

Growing Woodland Phlox

Growing woodland wildflowers in historically prairie-adapted Kansas can be a struggle. Even under the shade of city shade trees, the hot, windy summer conditions here still make it challenging to replicate a moist, cool woodland understory environment where these plants thrive. But among the spring woodland wildflowers I’ve inserted into the shady areas of my home landscape, woodland phlox seems to be one of the easier species to establish. It is even spreading specifically in the locations where I have planted it.

Missouri Botanical Garden (MOBOT) provides the following for the best conditions in which to grow woodland phlox: “Best grown in humusy, medium moisture, well-drained soil in part shade to full shade. Prefers rich, moist, organic soils. Appreciates a light summer mulch which helps retain moisture and keep roots cool.” As with any new planting, be sure to give it regular water as needed for the first year, and since it is a woodland species, supplemental water after that during hot summer droughts.

MOBOT further describes that the genus name is derived from the Greek word phlox meaning flame in reference to the intense flower colors of some varieties. The species epithet divaricata means spreading. Woodland phlox attracts butterflies and hummingbirds.

Conveniently, woodland phlox is showing off its flare along the path to our Dyck Arboretum greenhouse to the delight of the throngs of people visiting during our spring FloraKansas Plant Festival happening this weekend. Consider adding woodland phlox to a shady location in your landscape and enjoy its “earthy, cerulean mood” for many springtimes to come.

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!