How Do You Learn About Native Plants?

This weekend, I did some reflecting on the past 19 years I have spent at the arboretum.  I thought I knew so much when I was hired as the horticulturist. After all, I had just graduated from Kansas State University with a horticulture degree.  There wasn’t anything I didn’t know. But after the first week, I was in over my head.

It was July in Kansas. Need I say more?

One of the first things I quickly realized was that I knew virtually nothing about native plants.  I had learned about a few native trees and shrubs in my college classes, but I couldn’t identify more than five wildflowers.  My learning curve was steep those first few years.  I was going to sink or swim at this new job by how much I knew about native plants.  So I set out to learn all I could about the plants that grow on the prairie.


Bison-Photo by Craig Freeman


Finney County KS-Photo by Craig Freeman

The most formative experiences that I had were the many seed collecting field trips we made throughout the state.  It was so enlightening to see the plants growing in their natural environment.  Those memories guide how I design gardens today.  I became familiar with the plants, but more importantly I learned where they like to grow and who they like to grow with.  Just like us, plants need to be in communities that are vibrant, healthy and sustaining.   Native plants rely on each other.  High quality prairies and even gardens have communities of plants that live harmoniously together.


Logan County, KS-Photo by Craig Freeman


Chalk Formations-Photo by Craig Freeman

Collecting seeds forced me to learn the scientific names of the plants.  Each seed had a specific set of conditions that it must be subjected to in order for germination to occur.  This too was a fascinating process that required me to learn.  It was extremely rewarding to take some seed from the wild and get it to germinate in the greenhouse and ultimately place a new plant for the seed we collected into the arboretum for others to enjoy.


Cimarron National Grassland-Photo by Craig Freeman


Rocktown Natural Area-Russel County-Photo by Craig Freeman

I read catalogs and books about native plants.  I grew, planted and killed several native plants in an attempt to continue that learning process.  I moved plants that were not happy to other areas in the garden where they began to thrive.  These exploratory trips – we called it “55 mph botany” – helped me hone my identification skills as we traveled many of the back roads of Kansas in search of unique native plants.  Each of these experiences influence plant choices, mixtures and sequences in landscape plans.  As native plants have become more mainstream, more information is available.  Naturally, I am still learning.


Flint Hills-Photo by Craig Freeman

I say all this to encourage gardeners, specifically native plant enthusiasts, to learn everything you can about at least 25 plants that will grow well in your landscape.  From those, there is nearly an infinite number of plant combinations.  By matching plants to your sight, the guess-work has been taken out of the equation.  This will increase your successes and diminish your failures.  If the plants are happy, they will take care of themselves. And that will increase your enjoyment while greatly reducing your upkeep and maintenance.

Challenge:  Start with learning about 10 native plants, eight wildflowers and two grasses.  As you learn about these plants and incorporate them into your garden where they like to grow, I believe you will be rewarded in time with a landscape that works for you, not against you.   You will have a community of plants that flourish together.

Let the learning begin!

Connection Between People and Prairie

At Dyck Arboretum of the Plains, we invest considerable effort in helping interpret Kansas prairie plants and ecosystems. Our educational programming, winter lectures, plant sales, and outreach celebrate the many benefits that come from Kansas native plants and the ecosystems they support. With our next spring education symposium entitled Prairie and Plains Indians Bonds, we’d like to expand our focus to people and culture.

Leopold quote

Kansans today certainly value their connection to the land. How we get our food is one of those ways we are connected. Kansas produces many grains through commercial farming operations. Small farm and gardens produce fruits and vegetables for local farmer’s markets. Small farms also produce poultry, pork and lamb. Prairie ranchers produce beef cattle. Hunters have a close connection to the land and birdwatchers and photographers do too.

These land-connected demographics, however, are shrinking with each successive generation. With advances in technology and an increasingly global economy, it becomes easier and easier to disconnect from the land as most of us acquire all our needed resources by driving to the nearest store. We as a collective population continue to lose ties to the land and each generation continues to lose connection with our natural and cultural history.

Indigenous Peoples were very connected to the land. The prairie was their grocery store, pharmacy, and general store. Their spirituality was closely tied to their natural surroundings too and a great reverence was given to the elements of earth, air, fire and water. While the Plains Indians of many different tribes received great benefit from prairie vegetation and wildlife, their actions, helped care for the prairie as well, even if unintentional. Frequent use of fire for purposes of hunting, clearing vegetation for safe lodging, and various cultural rituals increased fire frequency on the landscape, minimized the presence of woody plants, and even expanded the extent of grassland ecosystems in the Great Plains and Midwestern prairie regions.

With European migration to North America, great changes on the landscape began to occur. Human population density has definitely changed. The estimated North American population of Indigenous Peoples in 1492 was 3.8 million (Reference) and today’s North American population is roughly 150 times that at more than 567 million (Reference). Over that same time span, there has been a 99% loss of tallgrass prairie and a 68 percent decline in mixed-grass prairie from historic acreage (Reference). Needless to say there, has been a great decline in the connection between prairie and people.

At our April 2 symposium, we will explore the rich bonds between prairie and people, better understand how they were broken, and learn about ways they are being restored. I hope you will join us for this day.

Catkins: Spring’s Botanical Wonder

Sneezing, coughing, watery eyes – everyone is complaining about allergies this time of year, the Arboretum staff included. Many people point the blame at any pretty flower they see in early spring, such as Bradford Pear blossoms (Pyrus sp.), redbuds (Cercis sp.) or daffodils (Narcissus sp.). But it is likely to be less obvious blooms causing your sniffles – catkins. The trees are chalk full of these inconspicuous, pollen-spraying fiends! I’ll have to put aside my animosity for them and their disastrous effect on my sinuses while I explain their fascinating botany…but I’ll have to blow my nose first.


Catkins at the Arboretum now! From left to right, willow (Salix), alder (Alnus) and aspen (Populus)

Structure and Function

Catkins are flowers adapted to be pollinated by wind, which is known as anemochory. (Pollinated in water? Hydrocory. Pollinated by birds? Ornithochory. You get the idea.) Their dangling habit is part of this adaptation, and pollen is released from male flowers when wind causes them to shake. These worm-like blooms are actually hundreds of tiny flowers strung together.  Each catkin is either male or female, but both sexes may or may not be carried on the same plant. If a single plant produces both male and female catkins it is considered ‘monoecious’. Some tree and shrub species have separate sexes and produce only male or female flowers on a single plant, meaning they are ‘dioecious’.

Salix caprea flower stages – male catkin (I) and female catkin (III), ovary cross section (V)

No Beauty Queen

In general, the prettier the flower the less likely it is to be pollinated by wind. The striking white pear trees blooming now are mostly pollinated by bees, and therefore not the cause of wind-born pollen allergies. If the flower is colorful and attractive it is probably luring in winged creatures to carry it’s pollen becuase the grains are too heavy to be carried on the wind. Catkins are not burdened with the task of being beautiful – they don’t have to attract a subjective eye for pollination. But in the plant world, if you can’t be pretty then you must be prolific! These little flowers release enormous amounts of pollen onto the breeze, with little chance that any of it will serendipitously land on the female of the corresponding species. Not only does the pollen grain have to float its way to the opposite sex, but it must then land exactly on the tiny stigma, the pollen receptacle atop the female flower, to produce pollination. What a feat! With such slim odds, it is no wonder that these trees produce prodigious amounts of pollen, much to the dismay of allergy sufferers.

Left , ragweed pollen (Amrbosia) Right, Hazel pollen (Corylus). Hazel trees produce catkins. Ragweed does not, but the pollen is so annoying I thought everyone should know what it looks like.

Left , ragweed pollen (Amrbosia) Right, Hazel pollen (Corylus). Hazel trees produce catkins. Ragweed does not have catkins, but the pollen is so annoying I thought everyone should know what it looks like.


Whether their pollen ends up in your nose and eyes, or the catkins themselves fall wet and soggy on your windshield, try not to loathe them too much – they are just another of nature’s incredibly well-designed survival mechanisms, and all your sneezing is just a sign that spring has arrived!


Wikimedia public domain images
Salix flowers – By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

Ambrosia pollen – By Nikita Karasik (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Corylus pollen – By Doc. RNDr. Josef Reischig, CSc. (Author’s archive) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Principles of a Sustainable Landscape Design

Through our work in promoting the use of native plants in landscaping, we have observed that homeowners and gardeners are becoming increasingly aware of the positive impacts they can have on the natural world.  At the same time, they are looking for ways they can sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labor.

In a weekly article I receive online, landscape architects were asked to rate the expected popularity of a variety of residential outdoor design elements in 2016.  Here are the top trends in landscape design, according to the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA):

  • Rainwater/graywater harvesting-88%
  • Native plants-86%
  • Native/adapted drought tolerant plants-85%
  • Low maintenance landscapes-85%
  • Permeable paving-77%
  • Fire pits/fireplaces-75%
  • Food/vegetable gardens (including orchard, vineyards, etc.)-75%
  • Rain gardens-73%
  • Drip irrigation-72%
  • Reduced lawn area-72%

These trends highlight the importance homeowners place on a functional landscape – landscapes that reflect their values and life style, gardens that center on solutions to problems rather than creating additional problems.  Invest your time and energy in something that can make a significant difference.   Think about these four principles as your develop your own sustainable landscape design.

Principle #1 – Treat Water as a Valuable Resource

We have seen the dramatic results of the drought in the west.  Throughout 2011 and 2012, we endured our own drought here in Kansas.  Certainly, the extremes we faced were not as severe as in places like California or Texas, but the impact on our landscapes can still be seen.  Water demand was at an all-time high.  Our landscapes were losing water faster than it could be replaced.  In the aftermath, people began to ask tough questions about water use, irrigation practices, plant material and rainwater collection.

A sustainable design focuses on proper plant selection (i.e. native plants), drip irrigation if necessary and rain gardens or collection points to capture storm water.  This new approach to design keeps water in the proper perspective.

ArbFlowers_May06- 007

Baptisia ‘Purple Smoke’ is a native, drought tolerant perennial

Principle #2 – Value Your Soil

Like water, soil is a finite resource.  There are choices we can make to improve our soil and to reduce or eliminate runoff and soil erosion in our landscape.

A sustainable design uses deep rooted perennials and grasses to hold the soil.  These plants can be combined in appealing combinations.  Beautiful blooms, textures and forms serve functional purposes in the design.

Photo courtesy Walters Gardens.

“Twilight Zone” little bluestem                                                   Photo courtesy Walters Gardens.

Principle #3 – Choose Native Plants

In my opinion, your first choice in a landscape should always be native plants.  There are so many wonderful plants to choose for your landscape.  I know there are some amazing adaptable perennials too, but if you start with a base of natives, you will be rewarded year after year.

A sustainable design matches appropriate plants to the site.  Right plant, right place.


Native planting at Sunset Elementary in Newton, KS

Principle #4 – Don’t Be Wasteful

Does your landscape add to the landfill?  How much waste does it produce each year?  Lawns are an important functional element in the landscape.  I need a space for my children and pets to roam.  They can also generate large quantities of yard waste, especially if you collect grass clippings.  Do we need a huge lawn or can it be reduced in size and replaced with beautiful wildflowers, grasses and ornamental trees and shrubs?

A sustainable design evaluates every aspect of the landscape with the goal to reduce your negative environmental impact, while including features that are beneficial to the natural world and beautiful at the same time.


These homeowners chose to reduce lawn by replacing with wildflowers and shrubs.

It’s simple: By gardening with native plants, no matter where you live or how small or large your space is, you can help sustain wildlife.” – Doug Tallamy, Bringing Nature Home


Still wanting more information? You may find some helpful hints on our “Landscaping with Native Plants” page. Or, you may wish to sign up for a Native Landscaping Class and/or visit with one of our staff at the FloraKansas Native Plant Sale, April 21-25.


Wonderful White Wildflowers

Our greenhouse is finally filling up, and what a sight! Little green sprouts are popping up in their pots, eager for more warm weather. By the time our plant sale rolls around the greenhouse will be a gallery of purple, pink and orange blooms! Unfortunately, all that gorgeous color will surely steal the spotlight away from some of my favorite white flowering species. Too many native and adaptable white wildflowers don’t get the attention they deserve in the modern garden. Opposite of the recent Oscar’s controversy, we aren’t giving these wonderful whites enough attention! White flowers add brightness to shady or green-dominated areas and won’t clash with your existing color palette.

Here are a few of my top picks from our upcoming plant sale that will add an under-celebrated species and a pop of brightness to your landscape:

Dictamnus albus – Gas Plant 

Dictamnus albus, Gas Plant -

Dictamnus albus, Gas Plant –

Dictamnus albus could be the conversation piece of your garden this year! Contrary to what its name suggests, it has a pleasant, citrus aroma when in bloom and the flowers are good for cutting. The “gas” in its common name refers to its flammable nature – the whole plant is covered with a thin layer of volatile oils that, in the right conditions, can be ignited for a brief flash of blue flame. A fun patio party trick, to be sure! These volatile oils can cause skin irritation (known as phytophotodermatitis, if you are looking to impress your friends or physician) akin to a chemical burn, a result of the oils reaction to sunlight on the skin surface. In my opinion, the beauty and intrigue are worth the small risk. Known for its longevity, it is perfect for a full sun or part shade area that is not likely to be disturbed, for the health of your epidermis and for the happiness of the plant.


Parthenium integrifolium – Wild Quinine

Parthenium intergrifolium, wild quinine -

Parthenium intergrifolium, wild quinine –

Tragically underused in today’s gardens, wild quinine blooms reliably all summer long and produces attractive seedheads for dried arrangements during fall and winter. Dreamy pearl-like flower clusters form atop serrated foliage. It thrives in full sun and isn’t preyed upon by bunnies and deer – the leaves are sandpapery and unpalatable. An attractant for equally undervalued pollinators, many species of beetles, wasps and flies flock to wild quinine to feed on its pollen and nectar. Tall and clump forming, it creates a dynamic backdrop for other, shorter flowers.


Ceoanthus americanus – New Jersey Tea

Ceanothus americanus, New Jersey Tea - (Public Domain)

Ceanothus americanus, New Jersey Tea – (Public Domain)

A showy native shrub, New Jersey Tea grows to 3 – 4 feet tall and produces panicle shaped flower clusters in late spring to midsummer. The eastern namesake comes from its use as a surprisingly yummy tea substitute during the Revolutionary War and also utilized by Native Americans for various internal ailments*. The dense and vigorous growth habit make it difficult to transplant once established, so pick a permanent home for it in your garden. Ceaoanthus is quite tolerant of drought and poor soil, growing well in rocky, sloping areas. The Spring Azure and Summer Azure butterflies (Celastrina sp.) use New Jersey tea as their larval host plant and continue to feed on the nectar as adults. A great alternative to high maintenance, non-native shrubs.

I’ll be saving my pennies to snag a few of these beauties for my own garden, and hopefully some of you will as well. A complement to any landscape or flower arrangement and a haven for special pollinators, why shouldn’t we adore them?



Gas Plant: By Bernd Haynold (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Wild Quinine: By Adamantios (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

*info from Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie, Kelly Kindscher 1992