Kansas is the Sunflower State

Excerpt from Kansas legislation:

Whereas, This flower has to all Kansans a historic symbolism which speaks of frontier days, winding trails, pathless prairies, and is full of the life and glory of the past, the pride of the present, and richly emblematic of the majesty of a golden future, and is a flower which has given Kansas the world-wide name, “the sunflower state”…

Be it enacted … that the helianthus or wild native sunflower is … designated … the state flower and floral emblem of the state of Kansas.

This past weekend, I traveled to Marion to watch my daughter’s volleyball game.  On the way, I could not help but notice sunflowers blooming.   It was amazing to see the many different varieties and forms scattered throughout the prairies and ravines.  I tried my best at 65 miles per hour to identify them.  They were everywhere and in their full glory.  The yellow flowers stood out amongst the changing prairie grasses.  They brighten up the prairie landscape and signal the changing seasons.  If you are out and about in the coming weeks, here are some of the gorgeous sunflowers you will see.


Willow-leaf Sunflower (Helianthus salicifolius) – This is one of the most common sunflowers and is easily identified because it has many long, narrow, drooping leaves swirled around the stem.  The leaves are not more than a quarter inch wide and make a soft umbrella at the top of the stem as they grow.  The bright yellow clusters of blooms are attractive, but the foliage is equally interesting.

Willowleaf Sunflower


Maximillian Sunflower (Helianthus maximilianii) – This is a very showy sunflower with tall stems that rise above surrounding grasses.  The blooms are vibrant and large.  It is a beautiful sunflower, but beware.  It is rhizomatous and spreads vigorously.  I would not plant this sunflower in a formal landscape.  I would plant it in a prairie or area of the yard that allows it to go wild.  It will quickly take over any garden when it is happy.  We have some along the pond where we can manage its spread with a mower.

Maximilian Sunflower


Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) –  You can find these sunflowers along woodlands and in moist prairies.  It has larger leaves that are thick and rough.  Stems are topped with large golden-yellow flower heads. I have never tasted the tuberous roots but those who have considered them a delicacy.  The roots can be eaten raw or boiled like a potato.

Jerusalem Artichocke


Other sunflowers worth noting: Sawtooth Sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus) – Similar to Maximillian Sunflower; Ashy Sunflower (Helianthus mollis) – Shorter with gray foliage; and Common Sunflower (Helianthus annuus) – Tall with flowers at the ends of the branched stems.


Oh sunflower! The queen of all flowers,

No other with you can compare,

The roadside and fields are made golden

Because of your bright presence there.

“An Ode to the Kansas Sunflower,” Ed Blair, 1901


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.

Four Reasons You Should Plant in the Fall

We just finished our fall plant sale last weekend and I had many people ask if this is a good time to plant.  My answer was “No. It is a GREAT time to plant!”  In fact, it’s a perfect time to plant just about anything (other than annuals).

I don’t know why this fall planting message is not resonating with all gardeners.  We may be worn out from managing the plants we installed in the spring or we are busy with other things and not focused on what our gardens will need next spring.  Whatever the justifications, here are my reasons why you will be rewarded for working on your native landscape this fall:


A wildflower display at our front entrance, the first spring after a fall planting.

#1 Warm Soils

Because the soil is still warm from the summer, the roots will continue to develop until the first frost.  In our area, this occurs around mid-October.  However, trees and shrubs will root until the grounds freezes.  In the spring, these plants will have developed root systems that are actively growing and ready to produce flowers and survive the hot summer months.  Last fall, we planted twenty-five butterfly milkweed and twenty-three survived the winter.  Most of these plants bloomed this summer.

#2 Reduced stress

Transplanting causes stress on plants as they are introduced to a new environment.  This shock is reduced by planting in the fall because the plant is entering dormancy.  The growth is moving from above ground to below ground and root systems are storing energy reserves for next year.  Fall transplants have this vital time for root development before winter.  Transplanting in the spring, on the other hand, causes additional stress and plants may hardly recover from transplant shock before the demands of summer are realized.  The overall plant health is improved for next year by starting with transplanting this fall.

#3 Less weed competition

We have found that when planting in September there are fewer problems with weeds such as crabgrass and foxtail.  This allows plants to get a head start for next season without competing with problematic weeds.   Remember to mulch around the plants after the first freeze to help moderate soil temperatures, control winter annual weeds such as henbit, and hold soil moisture through the winter.  Keep mulch away from the base of plants to allow proper air exchange.

#4 Beneficial Rains

Warm days and cool nights provide an ideal environment for transplanting and growth.   Typically, fall brings several cool, cloudy days with frequent precipitation.  Warm sunny days can cause stress on new transplants.  Cooler nights and morning dew allow plants to recover each night.  Beneficial autumn rains eliminate some daily watering.

The arboretum parking lot median was planted in September.

Here at the arboretum, we prefer to plant in the fall because we have more time and have seen the benefits first hand.  We are usually very busy in the spring readying the gardens.  It is nice to see plants that were started in the fall jumping to life and even blooming.

Whenever you plant, whether spring or fall, the ultimate goal is to create a landscape you can enjoy.  Take time to enjoy the fruits of your labor.


Five Elegant Perennials for the Summer Landscape

Lately, I have been watching old Western films.  John Wayne always looks so calm and collected.  He never sweats, even though he is wearing five layers of clothing.  Have you ever wondered why they wear so much when it is so hot?

Right now, I wish I had a sprinkler to run through or a bucket of ice water to dump on myself.  Those movie characters who ride through the desert unscathed remind me of some tough plants blooming right now in the arboretum.  It is a true testament to the toughness of some perennials that thrive in adverse conditions.

Try these sun-loving perennials – you will be rewarded year after year by these resilient plants:

Letterman’s Ironplant-Vernonia lettermanii ‘Iron Butterfly’

While walking through the gardens this morning, I noticed the vibrant purple blooms of this iron-clad wildflower.  We should be tooting the horn for more natives like these.  The plants were alive with activity-like a pollinator magnet!  Each stem has slender leaves radiating outward, similar to Amsonia hubrichtii.  This is a more refined ironweed, but just as tenacious as the pasture type.  I use them in groupings with switch grass and goldenrods but they would be a nice addition to any landscape.

Vernonia Iron Butterfly

Photo taken at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains


Russian Sage-Perovskia atriplicifolia

On my recent trip to Denver, Russian Sage was ubiquitous.  That’s a fancy word for everywhere.  It was in the street medians, parks, store fronts, and in front of most homes, but for good reason.  The soft lavender blooms are eye-catching.  The cloud of colorful flowers above the finely textured aromatic foliage is a wonderful combination.  Did I mention that Russian Sage is tough?  It shines in any full to part sun location.  It can survive drought conditions, but appreciates weekly watering.  They are best displayed in mass plantings or with native grasses.

Russian Sage-Photo Courtesy of Walters Gardens, Inc.

Photo courtesy of Walters Gardens


Button Blazing Star-Liatris aspera

Blazing stars have put on quite a show this year and button blazing star is no exception.  It is in full bloom right now in 100 degree heat and loving it.  The entire plant matures to 3′ in height, but the real show is the purple button flowers that develop along the stem.  It is happiest in medium to dry soil conditions and will become unhappy with too much moisture.  Pollinators flock to it, including butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees.  Plant them in mass, 8-12 inches apart for the ultimate display.  I like to integrate several grasses like Little Bluestem or switch grass to give interest later in the season.

Liatris aspera

Photo taken at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains


Hummingbird Mint- Agastache ‘Blue Boa’

This plant has been one of my biggest surprises over the last several years.  It is almost always in bloom.  It loves the heat and humidity.  The deep violet-blue blooms lure many different pollinators and ‘Blue boa’ requires very little care once established in a medium to dry location.  If you want to help the pollinators, try a few in your landscape. You will be surprised by them, too.

Agastache Blue Boa-Photo Courtesy of Terra Nova Nurseries

Photo courtesy of Terra Nova Nurseries


Aromatic Aster-Aster oblongifolius ‘October Skies’

We have been growing this great form of our native aromatic aster for several years.  It is not rambunctious in the landscape.  In fact, it develops into a nice bush that is covered with glowing lavender flowers.  When the whole plant is in bloom it looks like a mum on steroids.  Flowers begin to open in late September and last into October.  During the warm days of autumn, pollinators congregate on these beauties, seeking to collect the last pollen of the season.  We have used them in borders and native groupings with ornamental grasses.

Aster October Skies

Photo taken at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains


Notice the theme?  They all have lavender blooms.  These are a few plants that are doing well in the arboretum.  What plants have you had success with this year?