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.


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.


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.


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.


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!

Pleopeltis polypodioides

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.


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!


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!

Planting Trees: When Visions Become Legacies

“Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” – Greek Proverb

A group gathered at the Dyck Arboretum this past Monday evening to remember all that has been accomplished on this plot of land since 1981 – the plant and wildlife communities that have been established, the beauty that has been added to the community of Hesston, the lives that have been impacted, and the lessons learned.  All of these fruits came from a vision, a dream, a notion of what was possible – AND a lot of hard work and determination.

And though a 35th anniversary may not seem as notable or momentous as a 25th or a 50th anniversary, this celebration is particularly special to us. It is the first significant celebration we’ve had without both Harold and Evie Dyck, our founders. In the past, we’ve had their words and ideas and presence here to help guide us. Now we, the Dyck Arboretum staff and board, volunteers, as well as the Dyck family members, continue to realize their vision through our work.

35th anniversary tree planting

On Monday, October 10, 2016, Arboretum staff and board members planted a black oak sapling in commemoration of the 35th anniversary of the first tree planting at the Dyck Arboretum. That first tree, a bur oak, is shown in the background of this photo.

Aldo Leopold: Visionary and Legacy Maker

On Monday we learned about the life and work of another visionary. Aldo Leopold, a towering figure in the world of land conservation, devoted his adult life to studying nature, being in wilderness, and documenting what he heard and saw. (You may recognize Leopold’s name from several of the sculptures along our walking path.) Most notably, Leopold tended a piece of land with his wife and his five children and restored it to its most natural, most wild, most harmonious state.

I was particularly amazed to learn that, over the course of several decades, Leopold’s family planted nearly 50,000 trees on their land, restoring a small farm, with deteriorating sandy soil and a scarcity of wildlife, back to wilderness. When they first acquired the land, one of the Leopold children shared, it wasn’t much to look at. But as they all began to pitch in and work hard, their father’s vision took hold in each of them. Can you imagine – over a period of sixteen years, they planted 3,000 trees EACH YEAR? They had a vision and dream of what that land could be, but it required commitment and lots of hard work to realize that dream.

Leopold quote

Visions and Legacies

As a part of the celebration this week, we also planted a tree, a tiny black oak sapling, grown from an acorn that was collected from Leopold’s land in Wisconsin.  As we planted this tree not fifty yards away from the first bur oak that was planted here in 1981, it got me thinking about the difference between “vision” and “legacy”.

At what point does someone’s vision or dream for the future become their legacy? Is it when that person is no longer living? Is it when certain milestones or goals are reached? Does it happen slowly, over time, with each acorn or seed that is planted or sown, or with each visitor or student who learns something new? Is it when the vision is passed on, capturing the imagination of a new generation?

To play on a metaphor we use frequently here at the Arboretum, if planting an acorn represents a vision, what part of a tree’s life cycle represents legacy? Could it be when the tree that grows from the acorn drops seeds of its own?

The Dyck Arboretum pond in 1984

The Dyck Arboretum pond in 1984

Leaving our Own Legacy

When the Dycks first shared their vision with their family, friends and community members, they didn’t have much to show others to illustrate what they were dreaming of.  They only had an empty piece of land, once a couple of fields where wheat and alfalfa grew. But they planted that first bur oak tree, and the vision began to spread.

That tree is now on the eastern edge of our parking lot. It is easy to miss, but for the many acorns it drops on the pavement in autumn. Many who visit here will not notice it, nor the small plaque at its base that reads “Bur oak, Quercus macrocarpa. The first tree planted in the Arboretum, October 10, 1981.” It is only one of many trees, shrubs, wildflowers and grasses that have since been planted here, all playing a part in creating a living, breathing, dynamic landscape.

Meanwhile, in the median of the parking lot, there now also grows a small “Leopold” black oak sapling, the shade under which our children and grandchildren may take refuge. It is a piece of Leopold’s legacy and a reminder that our work isn’t done yet. It begins a new legacy for us here at Dyck Arboretum.


“We mourned the loss of the old tree, but knew that a dozen of its progeny standing straight and stalwart on the sands had already taken over its job of wood-making.”  – Aldo Leopold, “Good Oak” from A Sand County Almanac

A Kansas Land Ethic: Celebrating 35 years of Dyck Arboretum of the Plains

Can you imagine what Hesston would be like without the Dyck Arboretum of the Plains?  Over 35 years ago, Harold and Evie Dyck had a dream to create a garden that reflected the Kansas landscape they loved so much.  They wanted it to be close to Schowalter Villa and Hesston College.  They wanted it to be a “…setting for educational opportunities for the community and a place where visitors may come to enjoy nature or sit in quiet reflection.”

This Arboretum, dedicated with the first tree planting on October 10, 1981, has matured into one of the premier native plant gardens in the country.


Julia Dyck, representing the Dyck family, had the honor of the first shovelful of soil around the new Bur Oak tree. October 10, 1981.

Today, as we celebrate our 35th anniversary, most visitors to the Dyck Arboretum of the Plains never knew Harold or Evie Dyck.  That is unfortunate because they were gracious, generous visionaries ahead of their time.

The idea of the Dyck Arboretum of the Plains came about after Harold and Evie visited the Barlett Arboretum in Belle Plaine, Kansas.  They talked about an Arboretum that would benefit the community, region, and the state of Kansas.

“Even though we have been many places,” explained Evie, “we have always appreciated Kansas.  If we develop an arboretum in Kansas, we feel it should reflect the character of Kansas.”  They left this place as a legacy for future generations to enjoy.  It was their way of saying “Thank You” to the community they lived in and served all their lives.  They had a Kansas land ethic.


Harold and Evie Dyck

In many ways, the Arboretum has exceeded even Harold and Evie’s expectations and the impact they wanted it to have.  Each year, over 20,000 visitors experience the Arboretum through educational programs, engaging events or interactive discovery. Our mission, “to promote, through education and stewardship, the conservation and use of plants native and adaptable to Kansas,” has become mainstream.  The most important component of our mission has always been to connect people to the prairie.  Native landscaping, enhanced biodiversity, and increased awareness of the prairie are important ideas within our mission that guide much of our efforts.  It is our goal to provide a setting where visitors can experience native and adaptable plants in attractive displays.  It was Evie’s dream to provide not only a beautiful place for community recreation, but also a place to pause for a little while, enjoy nature and hopefully gain a deeper appreciation of the simple beauty of Kansas.


Kansas Earth Partnership for Schools native planting on school grounds


Orange Butterfly weed in the Bird Watch Area

4-25 photo 17

FloraKansas Native Plant Sale


Wedding at the Arboretum


Luminary Stroll


Prairie Window Concert Series-Red Molly

We who live in Hesston often take the Arboretum for granted.  It seems as if it has always been here.  I certainly take for granted being able to work at the Arboretum, and am reminded of this privilege each time I talk with a visitor.  There are not too many communities the size of Hesston who have a garden for the citizens to enjoy.  In my short time as director, I have come to realize how vital it is for our success and growth, that those who utilize the Arboretum support us in many different ways.  These gardens wouldn’t exist without that original dream and the support of many people who volunteer and give generously each year.


Cliff Bitikofer-Long-time volunteer on new mower donated by Excel Industries, Inc.

I wish you could hear the stories of people who have come to our plant sales and transform their landscape by using native plants.  How others love this place and have seen nothing like it.  How they appreciate what we do here and want to support our mission.  To see extended families, including multiple generations, frequently come through the Visitor Center, walk the grounds, and feed the fish and turtles.  I wish you could see the faces of the children and hear the conversations we have with those who are seeing the Arboretum for the first time or rediscovering its beauty.  This place is unique and special.

Water Garden

Bearer of the Ammonite (by Paul Friesen)

Help us celebrate 35 years of the Dyck Arboretum of the Plains.  We have many exciting events scheduled over the next year starting with the Anniversary Kick Off on October 10, from 5 to 7 p.m.  On that day, there will be a ceremonial oak planting and screening of the documentary Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for our Time.  Refreshments will be served during the show.  Come enjoy an evening at the Arboretum as we reminisce about the past and look forward to the future.  Click here for the full schedule of events.