New Favorite Plants

Every plant sale I find myself enthusiastically telling customers, “This is my favorite plant!” And every plant sale, that plant changes. Lets be honest, every DAY that plant changes! I am always finding new favorite plants that excite and inspire in the landscape. I have been especially impressed with the new shrubs and perennials in my home landscape. With little care and sporadic watering, they have beat the odds and survived in my laissez-faire landscape. Here are a few of my new favorite plants.

Phemeranthus calycinus – Rock Pink or Fameflower

Fameflower is one of very few native succulent plants in Kansas. The thick, needle-like leaves and wiry stems make it a unique addition to any garden. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

I found a few of these growing in the gravel under the benches in the Arboretum greenhouse and couldn’t bear to throw them away. I planted them in my native flower bed at home. A few tiny succulent leaves and a thin, hair-like root has turned into a huge, wonderful plant! Fameflower has never been a big seller, and it never caught my eye until now. These flowers bloom for weeks and weeks, the flowers opening and closing every day. Because they are succulent, they thrive in hot, full sun areas and require little water.

Amorpha fruticosa – false indigo bush

False indigo bush has huge, spikey blooms with showy yellow anthers. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

This shrub has been a favorite for a long time, but I had never planted one for myself. In the same genus as lead plant, it shares those lovely, pollinator-attracting purple spikes in late spring to early summer. The leaves are delicate and pea-like, and they are a favorite food of the silver spotted skipper caterpillar. I planted two of these shrubs in a low spot near the edge of my yard where water often collects after rain. They are thriving! To keep them from getting leggy, I plan to trim them back every spring.

These plants have only been planted for a few months, and already they are attracting wildlife! I saw some strangely folded leaves and upon further investigation found a caterpillar inside. This leaf folding is how the caterpillars create shelter for themselves as they eat.
They are very hard to photograph, but you can see the tiny black head with orange marking and light green body of the silver spotted skipper butterfly.
After blooming, it displays unusual drooping seeds heads.

Lythrum alatum – winged loosestrife

Don’t let the delicate purple flowers fool you; this plant is tough! It has already survived floods and drought in our small rain garden, and it was only planted in May.

No, this is not that terrible invader purple loosestrife taking over US wetlands. This is it’s well behaved native cousin. Wing-loosestrife has been a wonderful addition to our tiny rain garden area, and has come back from the brink of death multiple times when I have forgotten to water. That’s my kind of plant! Hummingbirds, long tongued bees, and skippers are all known to nectar on winged loosestrife.

More favorite plants to come….

This fall I hope to make a few additions to my beds. I need to add some filler and texture to my side yard, so I will plant mountain mint. A long blooming, drought tolerant favorite of pollinators, the white flowers will help blend the colors of the bed into a cohesive look. Pair that with the airy-ness of sand love grass and the charisma of cat claw sensitive briar, and I think the garden will shape up nicely!

Cat claw sensitive briar has spherical pink blooms and leaves that close up when touched. It can be found growing native statewide.

All of these plants and many more soon-to-be favorites are available for purchase at our FloraKansas Native Plant Festival September 10-13. Check our website for information about our member-only day, curbside pick up procedures, and Covid19 updates relevant to the sale.

Shrubs for Wet Areas

Last week while splashing around in a lake in Missouri, I noticed a shoreline of shrubs blooming and covered with pollinators. And wouldn’t you know, someone had just recently asked me to recommend some shrubs for wet areas in their landscape. (Yes, there ARE wet places in Kansas.) The first example was right in front of me. 

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)

That shrub I saw blooming along the lake was buttonbush. This deciduous shrub is commonly found in moist to wet areas in full sun to partial shade.  It can persist even when submerged for a time. The lustrous leaves shine in the sunlight. In early to mid-summer, the unusual, fragrant flower balls of this native shrub are magnets to a host of pollinators. 

I have seen up to two dozen swallowtail butterflies on one plant when in bloom. It has a rounded-upright habit ultimately reaching 8-10 feet tall and wide. ‘Sugar Shack®’ is a shorter form that works well in the landscape. Fruit persists into winter, adding winter interest. 

The Sputnik-like blooms of Buttonbush

 

Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)

Elderberries are under appreciated as landscape plants.  Even in the wild they often blend into their surroundings.  They are only noticed when they burst into bloom in early summer with dense clusters of white flowers.  Pollinators seek out these flowers and cover the flat-topped bundles. 

Consider planting elderberry shrubs in a drainage area or part of the yard that always floods – they thrive in excess water. Many people use the raw elderberries in jams, wines, and home remedies. ‘Adams’ and ‘York’ are two types of elderberry we recommend for heavy fruit production. You must have at least one of each for best fruiting. 

Elderberry Blooms

Dogwoods (Cornus sp.)

Some of the shrub dogwoods (Silky Cornus ammomum, Cornus racemosa and Cornus drummundii) are good options for wetter areas in the landscape. Each is a little different in height, shape and habit. However, they all offer creamy-white blooms in late spring or early summer. While in bloom, these shrubs are teaming with pollinators. Birds and other wildlife will eat the fruit that is produced. ‘Red Rover’ is a compact selection of silky dogwood with attractive blooms, bluish fruit and nice fall color. 

Others

Black and Red Chokecherry, Aronia melanocarpa and Aronia arbutifolia

Possumhaw, Ilex decidua

Deciduous Holly Fruit in winter

Winterberry, Ilex verticillata cultivars and hybrids

Spicebush, Lindera benzoin

Arrowwood Viburnum, Viburnum dentatum

Blackhaw Viburnum, Viburnum prunifolium

Rusty Blackhaw, Viburnum rufidulum

As it turns out there are very few plants that will grow in soil that is constantly saturated. These shrubs are more tolerant of wet sites than others. Obviously, all plant roots require oxygen in order to function and grow properly.  These shrubs persist in soil that lacks oxygen or is periodically flooded without succumbing to diseases and site related problems. 

Try some of these native shrubs that are more adapted to these adverse conditions. You can find them at our FloraKansas Native Plant Festival in September!

A Flint Hills Visit: Inspiration for Native Landscaping

The prairie and its Flint Hills environment at Chase State Fishing Lake (CSFL) provide serious inspiration for native landscaping. The CSFL vegetation, wildlife, substrate below, and the sky above collectively compose for me the most beloved and iconic landscape of native Kansas.

During my many past visits to CSFL, I have usually had an agenda that involved leading a tour group, collecting seed, or gathering butterfly data. I have never taken the opportunity to climb the bluff, sit in the prairie, listen to the grassland birds, observe butterflies and other pollinators, and watch the clouds go by. But I did just that on a recent Saturday in late June.

American lady butterfly on purple coneflower at CSFL

Pure Enjoyment

In addition to providing inspiration for native landscaping, visits to CSFL bring me pure enjoyment. During this recent visit, the steady breeze – with not a tree to stop it – was a reliable Kansas air conditioner. It kept me from thinking about the sweat-inducing effects of the hot sun. The puffy clouds overhead kept changing the light patterns and offered ever-fresh visual perspectives. In the midst of a surreal pandemic experience, when home and work routines are turned upside down and inside out, sitting on that prairie bluff was like visiting an old friend.

Big sky and clean water make CSFL a great place to fish or swim on a hot summer day

Desirable Wildflowers

The prairie wildflowers were plentiful during my visit thanks to a wet spring. The prairie plants we promote for the home landscape are in their native ecosystem here, with root systems that extend 10 to 15 feet into a matrix of limestone/flint/chert.

Rich images of plants like narrow-leaved bluets (white flowers) and lead plant (purple flowers) growing through rock are common at CSFL

In addition to a stunning display of orange and red butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), other flowering species included tuberous Indian plantain (Arnoglossum plantagineum), narrow-leaved milkweed (Asclepias stenophylla), smooth milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii), green milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora), serrate-leaf evening primrose (Calylophus serrulatus), white prairie-clover (Dalea candida), purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Illinois tickclover (Desmodium illinoense), purple coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia), narrow-leaf bluets (Hedyotis nigricans), catclaw sensitive briar (Mimosa quadrivalvis), and prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera). In your garden, these plants will attract monarch larvae (milkweeds) and other pollinators, fix nitrogen (legumes) and provide year-round visual interest.

Smooth milkweed at CSFL

Interesting Critters

The insects observed on flowers (including 17 butterfly species I noted) were plentiful. Spending time identifying and documenting insect diversity makes me want to see more of them in my landscape. Diversity of wildlife species is directly correlated to the diversity of plants in an ecosystem. Increase the diversity of flora and you will increase the diversity of fauna!

Wild indigo duskywings mating on lead plant at CSFL

In her last blog post, colleague Katie talks about the fun of identifying insects (The Mystery of the Orange Bug). I can certainly relate to the fun of trying to solve mystery insects.

The caterpillar pictured below is a new one to me. One of the identification tools and bio-networking platforms I’d like to use more is iNaturalist. Click HERE to see a couple of photos and help me with identification of this unknown (to me) caterpillar. One follower of this thread suggested the correct ID to be a salt marsh moth. I would have a hard time arguing otherwise.

Possibly a salt marsh moth on lead plant

Butterfly Milkweed

If nothing else, spending time at CSFL in late June will inspire you to fill your landscape with butterfly milkweed. It is harder to grow the same remarkable eye candy of this favorite prairie plant in richer and less well-drained soils. But in spite of my 50% success rate (at best), I keep trying. Never before have I heard somebody say that a prairie reconstruction or garden has too much butterfly milkweed!

Butterfly milkweed at CSFL

None of us will be able to completely recreate the open prairie of the Flint Hills in our urban landscapes. We can, however, take incremental steps in that direction with the plants we choose and the wildlife we attract. Visit Chase State Fishing Lake, absorb some if its good vibes, copy some of its elements with your plant selection choices, enjoy the wildlife viewing, and find new inspiration for native landscaping.

Click HERE for more of my thoughts about and photos from an earlier blog post about Chase State Fishing Lake.

Why Native Plants?

Achieving any goal is a challenge. I find those goals that matter to me the most especially difficult and daunting. Success in moving toward these big goals needs a compelling “WHY”.  Whether in self-care, your job, or with your family, why you want to make the effort helps keep you motivated and moving the ball forward. 

It is the same for gardening with native plants. Why are native plants so important? In difficult times, even I need to be reminded of “WHY” we promote the use of native plants here at the Arboretum and in the urban and suburban home landscape. 

What is YOUR why?

With so much angst about the state of the environment, gardening with native plants is something each of us can do. We all want to see positive change, but often the solutions seem too big and out of reach. I believe the first step is to start with your own yard and neighborhood. 

Choose natives for all the good they do. Choose native plants not because they are easy (they’re not), but because they belong in your yard. 

Choose natives because you can. It is your choice. And when you choose to use natives, and many others make the same choice, you will have a collective positive impact on the world around you. 

Choose native as an example for others to follow. Imagine what that would look like over time – all the relationships you will develop with other gardeners and the conversations you will be able to have. 

Butterfly Milkweed and Pale Coneflowers

Here are a few other reasons native plants should become the “new normal” in gardening:

Low Maintenance

There is no such thing as a no-maintenance landscape. Native plants still need some care, but compared to a traditional landscape with a lawn, tidy shrubs and a few trees surrounded by perennial beds, native plants are extremely low in maintenance. Native plants are adapted to our climate and can grow in the toughest environments. Once established, their deep roots take them through prolonged periods of drought. 

Saves money

There are obvious savings associated with a native landscape compared to maintaining a traditional landscape. A native landscape uses less water, little or no fertilizer and no chemicals or pesticides, which in turn saves you time. I am frugal and a native landscape is a low cost alternative to a traditional lawn-dominated landscape.  Conservation and stewardship are trends that help you and the environment.

Blue false indigo

Saves water

We have seen an increased interest in native plants because of the water they save once established. Many homeowners are decreasing their lawns as a way of saving water and money.  Most roots on a fescue or bluegrass lawn are only three to four inches deep compared to prairie wildflowers and grasses that develop extensive root systems several feet deep. Big bluestem grass, for example, establishes roots up to ten feet deep. With a shallow root system, a typical lawn requires ten gallons of water per square foot through the summer to keep it looking green. If you minimize your lawn, you will begin to diminish your dependence on water. 

Kansas Gayfeather and Grayheaded Coneflower blooming along the Arboretum pond

Beautiful plants

If you have ever walked through a pristine prairie or observed the changing seasons in the Flint Hills, you know the exquisite beauty of wildflowers in bloom coupled with native grasses. It is understated and taken for granted. I am always amazed at the complexity and intricacies of these prairie plants.  They create a very unique sense of place. Here are a few design ideas to get you thinking about your own native garden.

Garden Design Waterwise Native Design

Attract pollinators and wildlife

Pollinators and wildflowers have a symbiotic relationship. If you have wildflowers, you will attract butterflies. There have been over 20 butterfly species identified and documented at the Arboretum during the butterfly counts. They seek out our wildflowers and utilize them throughout the year. Monarch populations are declining. They need milkweed, and since we have milkweed in the Arboretum, they show up. Also, just like the monarchs, songbird populations are declining.  They need prairie habitat for survival along with wildflower seeds to feed overwintering birds.

Often the “WHY” we do something gets lost in the tasks of creating something new. I need to be reminded “WHY” from time to time to reset my focus. Certainly there are more reasons “WHY” to use native plants – we each have our own unique perspective and motivation. I hope reading this has helped you reconnect with your why, so you can move ever closer to your native plant gardening goals.

The Mystery of the Orange Bug

As a lover of nature and all its small, crawly things, I often drop everything to observe and identify even the smallest bug. Much to the annoyance of my coworkers and volunteers, I just can’t give it up!

Learning to correctly identify the creatures around me brings a lot of fun and joy, but also:

  • Increases my scientific understanding of the world
  • Adds to my taxonomic and ecological knowledge
  • Builds empathy and compassion for the lives of smaller beings
  • Gives me a greater sense of place and familiarity in my Kansas homeland
This is the face of our little mystery. There were over ten of these orange bugs on a single plant!

Identifying the creatures around you is not always intuitive. Recently I found some small, orange, wiggly friends in the landscaping at my house. And so begins the mystery! Here are the steps and resources I always use to identify new-to-me bugs. Hopefully they can be useful to you as well!

Step One: Photograph

Make sure to quickly capture some detailed images of your friend. Life for a bug is fast paced — they are moving, flying, fleeing, eating or being eaten! You will need to have a good photo to refer to, as your search for answers may last longer than your memory.

I like to snap a quick photo with my iphone, but for tiny details I add a clip on macrolens. This one was very inexpensive and does a great job.

Insect or other?

Start by discerning whether you are a looking at an insect or something else. The word ‘bug’ is used to generalize all small, crawly things, but there are important distinctions. Spiders, for example, are not insects. Roly-polys are not insects. Earth worms are not insects. Counting legs and body segments of your specimen can help you determine if it is an insect; true insects will have 6 legs and 3 distinct body segments.

This diagram shows the 3 main body parts of an insect, and the characteristic 3 pairs of legs. Diagram from Wiki Commons

If you are a beginner and don’t know much terminology, use the easy picture-based and shape-based search tool BugFinder. My mystery friend could not be found on this form. They had 6 well-defined legs but no obvious body segments. I thought perhaps I was looking at a caterpillar (still an insect!), so I visited DiscoverLife and answered their beginner-friendly caterpillar search form. In the past it has been tremendously helpful, but not this time.

Step Two: Where is it?

Where is this individual living? If you can identify its preferred habitat, you have a huge clue to discovering its identity. My mystery bug was living and feeding on Scutellaria resinosa, (also known as skullcap), but nothing else around it. Many insects have a host plant (a specific food plant that the babies must eat) or host plant family. By knowing the plant, I can work backwards and find out what insects are likely to feed on or interact with it. Sometimes these interactions are called faunal associations.

When searching the web to identify a new insect, remember to include the plant it was found on and the region of the world you are in. This will narrow your search. I love to use the maps at butterfliesandmoths.org to see what species have been spotted in my area.

The blooms of Smoky Hills skullcap. Photo by Craig Freeman

Step Three: Ask and Post

If you have scoured the internet and all your favorite insect guidebooks, but still are stumped, it is time to visit BugGuide.net. They are “an online community of naturalists who enjoy learning about and sharing our observations of insects, spiders, and other related creatures.” There you will find a wealth of information on insects and their common whereabouts, but you can also post photos and ask questions of that expert group. They love to share their passion, and “to instill in others the fascination and appreciation…for the intricate lives of these oft-maligned creatures.” You may also find answers by posting a photo to your local naturalist Facebook groups.

And the bug is…

A shining flea beetle larvae, Asphaera lustrans! I finally found my answer by searching through the records at BugGuide.net and coming upon this page. While I can’t be sure, it was the closest match I could find. I also discovered that particular flea beetle hosts on Scutellaria, so I became even more convinced of its identity. I plan to post my photos and ask the experts on BugGuide to be sure.

Identifying wildlife and plants in your region is a lifelong pursuit; a never-ending puzzle. It can provide hours of stimulating entertainment for adults and children alike, and it will introduce you to like-minded folks who are also curious and engaged with world around us.

Next time you see a bug crawling across your porch or on your kitchen sink, don’t squish! Capture it, take a photo, release it outside, and begin the fun of unraveling its mystery!