This past week I had the opportunity to trek into the Flint Hills. I always enjoy spending time immersed in a prairie setting. It makes me feel small in a great big world. It makes me keenly aware of the great diversity and complexity of the prairie ecosystem. It also reminds me how precarious these settings are and how important they are to our survival and the life cycles of so many different things. Here are a few of the prairie blooms I saw in June:
Catclaw sensitive briar (Mimosa quadrivalvis var. nuttallii)
Narrowleaf Coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia)
Leadplant (Amorpha canescens)
Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
Bee balm (Monarda fistulosa)
Prairie Coneflower (Ratibida columnifera)
Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Sullivant’s Milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii)
This is just a handful of flowers blooming right now in the Flint Hills. With all the rain, the prairies are lush and full of life. I would encourage you to take time to find a prairie near you, even our own Prairie Window Project, and enjoy our native habitat. I was amazed how alive the prairie was with sights and sounds of wildlife and pollinators. It was worth taking in the view of earth and sky.
I often use this phrase to describe my home prairie garden which is a common misquote from a favorite 1989 baseball movie, Field of Dreams. The actual quote uses he, not they…multiple baseball players walk out of the cornfield when he builds the field…hence the likely confusion. Nevertheless, the premise of my misquote seems to be proven by my observations. Insects and a whole host of other wildlife species come to my yard, because of the plants I am adding to my landscape.
I haven’t done any quantitative sampling of insects in my yard to prove with statistical certainty that landscaping with native plants has increased the presence of fauna around my home. However, every year I do see what seem like increasingly more insects, as well as other animals that eat insects, around my yard. Therefore, I am deducing that Kevin Costner’s quote (or my made-up version) rings true for me.
A Diverse Food Web
It would make sense that an increase in insects in my yard would happen as plant diversity increases in our landscape. The principles of ecology and trophic levels of food webs tell us this will happen. In a previous blog post (In Awe of Insects), I discuss an Earth Partnership for Schools curriculum activity called “Sweeping Discoveries.” We do this activity at Dyck Arboretum on a regular basis with teachers and students to test whether insect diversity is higher in a fescue lawn or prairie garden. The prairie garden always produces greater numbers and greater diversity of insect species.
Plenty of Moisture
Another factor coming into play that is likely causing a bountiful number of insects in our yard has been an abundance of rainfall in the first half of 2019. Roughly half of the Newton, KS area’s 34 inches of average annual precipitation fell in record-breaking fashion during the month of May. Not only is this prairie garden mature, since I have been adding to it regularly for 15 years now, but the existing plants are reaching their maximum size and duration of flowering due to the abundant moisture. There is plenty of host plant material and nectar right now for insects.
Herbivores and Carnivores
I make daily morning/evening weeding and observation visits in our prairie garden. I have enjoyed watching butterflies, flies, moths, beetles, true bugs, ants, katydids, small bees, big bumblebees, and more in recent weeks. The especially intense blooming of common milkweed has really attracted plant-eating and nectar-sipping insect visitors lately.
As one would expect, species that eat insects should also be abundant. Insectivorous birds common around our urban yard include grackles, cardinals, brown thrashers, black-capped chickadees, Carolina wrens, bluejays, starlings, Baltimore orioles, chimney swifts, and American robins. Joining these birds in our yard are carnivores including assassin bugs, Great Plains skinks, big brown bats, preying mantis, spiders, cicada killers, eastern screech owls, and Cooper’s hawks that have made their presence known (somewhat regularly).
Harvey County Butterfly Count
If you have any interest in learning more about the butterflies in Kansas and even if you are a butterfly novice, consider joining me and others this Saturday, June 22, 2019 at our 20th Annual Harvey County Butterfly Count. Spend either a half or full day looking for, identifying, and counting butterflies with experienced group leaders around the county. This citizen science data is logged through the North American Butterfly Association and helps track trends in butterfly populations. Send me an email if you are interested and I will get you involved.
Now, get out there and tune into the fascinating world of insects around you. Consider what you can do to add more plant diversity, and ultimately more insect and wildlife diversity to your landscape. Both you and the insects will benefit.
We have seen an abundance of blooms this spring. All this beauty and wildlife activity, particularly pollinators, has reminded me again about the roles our gardens play in benefiting our small corner of the world. We can garden with a sense of purpose that helps wildlife ecologically. With Pollinator Week quickly approaching (June 17th – 23rd), I thought maybe we could take a moment to think about our gardens in a different way.
Garden with your goals in mind
When we garden, each of us has an opportunity to develop a native wildlife habitat, to design our garden to attract pollinators and wildlife, and to create a safe space where horticulture, imagination, and ecology are reflected purposefully in our garden design. We need to think with the end-goal in mind. By creating living sanctuaries, depleted and endangered native bees and butterflies can easily find the food, shelter and water they need for their survival.
This is a small way you can show you care, maybe even rediscover your own humanity. Along with others in your neighborhood who develop habitat gardens, you will help the predicament of these beneficial insects. Even a small garden can have an impact. Think of it as a way you can reconnect with nature in a very personal way as you care for your corner of the earth.
Statistics show that the monarch butterfly population in North America has declined by over 90% in just the last 20 years. This is disheartening. One of the biggest factors in monarch decline is the increasing scarcity of its only caterpillar host plant: milkweeds. Without milkweeds, monarchs can’t successfully reproduce or migrate, resulting in the species declines. If you plant milkweeds in your own garden you can help reverse the fortune of these beautiful insects. You can be part of the ultimate solution, which is to provide the plants monarchs need for their life cycle.
The plight of the honey bee and the collapse of entire colonies has garnered nationwide attention. However, many of our native bee populations are in danger too. Scientists continue to track dwindling populations of native bees, including the possible extinction of some species. The native pollinators are key components of a healthy ecosystem. Habitat loss, the use of pesticides and insecticides along the introduced diseases threaten their lives. These bees often lack season-long food sources, which is obviously important to their vitality.
Choose Native Plants
Native plants can help us alleviate some of the problems pollinators face. Native plants have the ability to grow in our soils, are adapted to the climate, look attractive, control erosion, create beneficial habitat and are the preferred food source for many of these pollinators. By establishing habitat gardens that use native prairie plants, we can improve their plight in this world. Recognizing that we can make a difference should be motivation to at least begin to help them.
Stewardship starts at home
Stewardship and conservation can start with our gardens. Despite size limitations, these prairie gardens are an important part of conserving the prairie and the wildlife that depend on them. You might be surprised how much your garden can do to reverse some of these trends. Imagine your garden combined with hundreds of other small prairie landscapes. True, it is not the expansive prairies of the past, but it does make a difference. Your garden can be a piece of the patchwork of prairies.
Spring blooming plants are just beginning to fade and early summer blooms are coming on strong. At least once a day Arboretum staff members answer the question,
“What is this flower?”
Sometimes someone shows us a photo or has a cutting of something they saw on the roadside. More often than not, however, they try to describe it to us. This is not an easy task if you don’t speak the language of flowers. For instance, if you tell my coworker Brad Guhr that you saw a round flower, he might ask you what you mean by round, and whether it was radial or globulose. There is a lot of special lingo out there concerning flowers. Here I will clarify a few common botany terms relating to flowers, and though they sound complicated, they really simplify the identification process. Learning these terms also teaches us to look closer and longer, becoming better observers.
Inflorescence is a word you will hear often around botanists. This is just a fancy word for the complete flower head of the plant including bracts and stems. Sometimes it is even used as a verb, a synonym to ‘flowering’.
Composite flowers are special inflorescences that seem like one flower, but are actually many flowers put together. Sunflowers are a good example of a typical composite flower. Their center is made up of hundreds (sometimes thousands) of disc flowers that mature into seeds. The yellow petals of the sunflower are ray flowers (or ray florets) and do not create seed. Some composites are made up only of ray flowers, like dandelions. Some composites are solely disc flowers, like our native thistles.
We can further describe some composite flowers as spikes. To be a true spike, each individual flower is directly attached to the main stem, like gayfeather. If the individual flowers are held away from the main stem by smaller stems (pedicels), they are called a raceme. Penstemon and coral bells are both good examples of racemes.
Umbel flowers are some of my favorite for use in floral arrangements. These are flat topped clusters of flowers on short flower stalks, spreading from a common point. Dill, carrot, and fennel all have umbels. As the name suggests, the arrangement of the flower stalks is reminiscent of an umbrella.
These are just a few basic flower terms that can help you begin to identify unknown plants. Keep a look out for more installations on the topic of descriptive plant language. Now get out there and botanize!