Plant Profile: American Beautyberry

This time of year, I look for those little surprises in the landscape that extend the season of beauty in the garden.  Asters in September and October and the native grasses in the late fall and winter punctuate the landscape with form, texture and color. One shrub that is a thrill for me to discover in the fall is American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana). 

During the summer, American Beautyberry is nondescript and often overlooked. It has an open, loose appearance with medium green, opposite leaves.  Dense, lavender-pink flowers develop from the axils of the leaves in June. 

But the real show starts in August and continues through November, with fruit set so abundant that the stems are encircled with brilliant violet to magenta, round berries that are one quarter inch in diameter. These berry clusters appear along the stem, providing a spiraling whorl of color. Many birds including cardinals, mockingbirds, and robins adore the berries, which are stunning in fresh or dried arrangements.

American Beautyberry Photo Credit-Eric Hunt, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This shrub thrives on neglect. It fruits more abundantly in full sun, but grows best in partial shade.  An area with morning sun and afternoon shade is the preferred location. Provide medium to moist soil close to paths and walkways so all who pass by can enjoy the berries.  This shrub would grow well as a colorful, informal backdrop to perennials, but looks best when used for naturalizing, or in mass plantings. 

Beautyberry Fruit. Photo courtesy of Katie Schmidt

American Beautyberry is native to much of the eastern and southern United States.  It is hardy to zone 6 so I treat it like a perennial, since it will die back to the ground each winter.  This will not affect the flowering. The plant will bloom and produce fruit on new growth each year. It matures to about three feet tall and two to three feet wide.  In warmer areas, it can reach eight feet tall and eight feet wide. 

We have offered this attractive native shrub at our plant sales, but most people don’t know what it is. As the name describes, it’s a native shrub with beautiful berries.  Find a place in your landscape for American beautyberry.

Attractive fruit even after an early cold snap. Photo courtesy of Katie Schmidt

Don’t Bug My Plants

I get a lot of calls and emails that start with “something is eating my plants!” Either frustrated or panicked, most view this development as a bad thing. To their surprise, I usually say “Congratulations!”. A bug can be a great thing.

The fact is, plants are meant to be eaten. Plants provide food for the rest of the living world, especially for the world’s insects. It is normal for the native animals of our area to nibble, chew, and sometimes completely defoliate plants. Humans forget this, much to the detriment of the biodiversity in our neighborhoods. Bugs are essential to life on earth, so we should be excited about feeding them!

Newly hatched monarch caterpillar on common milkweed. Photo by Brad Guhr

Don’t Judge a Bug By Its Diet

I like to say Congratulations, not to be flippant, but to help people reframe the situation. I explain that it is very possible they are hosting a native butterfly, moth or beetle larvae. Holes in your Hibiscus can be a good thing! By investigating what exactly is lunching on your leaves, you begin to engage deeper with your garden and with the ecosystem at large. Look carefully before you spray a pesticide; you may find an interesting little friend. You may even be able to precisely identify the bug based on what plant it is eating.

Milkweed bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) eat milkweed seeds. They cause no harm to the plant, and are actually a good friend of the gardener looking to keep their milkweed population under control.

A Funky (plant) Baseline

Plants are at the base of the food chain. They convert the most primitive form of energy – sunlight – into tangible, edible growth. This conversion of sunlight to green leaves allows everything in the food chain to function — bugs, rabbits, and deer eat the leaves, songbirds eat the bugs, snakes eat the bird eggs, coyotes or hawks eat the snake, and so on.

Plants are the foundation of a healthy ecosystem, and native plants are especially important. According to a 2018 study, “in areas made up of less than 70 percent native plant biomass, Carolina chickadees will not produce enough young to sustain their populations. At 70 percent or higher, the birds can thrive.”

Insects in our area have evolved to feed on and coexist with our native plants, and these insects feed everything above them in the food chain. If you find a bug eating your favorite plant, consider how important that little fella might be in terms of feeding the other animals in our ecosystem.

Sulphur caterpillars are voracious, defoliating their host plant in a matter of days.
But it always recovers nicely ones they pupate and move on.

Doom and Gloom for Your Blooms?

The main concern is: will my plant recover? And, most of the time, the answer is yes. Remember, plants are meant to be eaten. They have evolved all sorts of clever ways to survive, and many can survive being eaten completely to the ground. Our Senna and partridge pea plants at the Arboretum become completely defoliated by Sulphur butterfly caterpillars every year. And yet, often they have enough energy to bloom and set seed by the end of the season. Checkerspot larvae absolutely shred the leaves of our coneflowers, but up they come next year, blooming happily.

Variegated Fritillaries (Euptoieta claudia) munched my violets this spring, but never ate enough at once to hurt the plant. Watching them grow and pupate was worth the holey leaves!

Whatever you find eating your garden plants, remember to do your homework before taking action. Leave the pesticide on the shelf, and do some investigation instead! If you have aphids or spider mites in an infestation large enough to damage your plant, consider Safer Soap for a gentle approach. If you find a caterpillar, inch worm, or other larvae, it is likely not a cause for major concern or treatment.

Controlling Weeds in Buffalograss Lawn Areas

There has been recent renewed interest in establishing buffalograss lawn areas as an alternative to conventional fescue. Buffalograss is a native sod-forming grass species that is well adapted to our climate.  It is a nice choice for open, sunny areas. As a warm season grass, it uses water efficiently and effectively, even during periodic and prolonged droughts. This fine textured prairie grass spreads by both seed and stolons (runners), which take root and produce new plants.  We have buffalograss varieties of Cody, Sundancer, Legacy and Bowie growing on the Dyck Arboretum grounds. 

Thick weed free buffalograss

Weeds

One of the drawbacks of buffalograss is that it susceptible to weed infestations. Crabgrass and foxtail are problematic summer annual weeds and henbit, dandelion and chickweed are broadleaf weeds that regularly infiltrate buffalograss.  Each of these types of weeds requires monitoring and sometimes control measures.

Timing

Usually in late October to early November, we spray for broadleaf weeds in our buffalograss lawn areas.  We have several acres of buffalograss, so we hire someone to spray for us.  Choose a day that is 50 degrees or higher. The better the weed is growing, the more weed killer will be moved from the leaves to the roots. Cold temperatures will slow this process, but these products will still work at lower temperatures.

Weed Control

Here at the Arboretum, we are seeing henbit germinate and dandelions greening back up due to earlier rains and cooler temperatures.  These perennial and winter annual weeds usually have germinated by October, but they may be later this year due to the lack of moisture.  However, we are seeing some winter annual weeds. 

It is best to control these young plants when they are small before they get fully established. We use herbicides such as 2,4-D or Trimec blends with 2,4-D, MCPP and Dicamba. By spraying now, these weeds uptake the chemicals and move it from the leaves to the roots readily. This process of translocation is naturally occurring with most plants resulting in a more complete kill of the plant including the roots.

Buffalograss and low growing natives. It’s not just for lawns.

Pre-emergent Weed Control

One of the practices we have tried on smaller areas of buffalograss is the use of pre-emergent herbicides in the spring. This is primarily to control summer annuals such as crabgrass and foxtail. Barricade (prodiamine), Pendulum Aquacap (pendimethalin), Dimension (dithiopyr), Specticle (indaziflam) are recommended pre-emergent herbicides on established Buffalograss stands. Read and follow the chemical label application instructions for best results.  Pre-emergent herbicides can also be applied in the fall to control that pesky weed, little barley.

Is all this worth it?

We encourage people to use buffalograss despite having to spray it occasionally.  Newer varieties are vigorous growers and require little to no water once established. Compare that to a traditional fescue lawn, which needs one to two inches of moisture per week to keep it alive in the summer. These newer buffalograss forms stay green longer in the fall and green up earlier in the spring.  If kept relatively weed free, they require less frequent mowing. Buffalograss need little to no fertilizer and overall will reduce your maintenance.    

It is not my favorite thing to do, but we have seen real benefits from these regular spraying and pre-emergent applications. Before we sprayed in the fall, we were mostly mowing weeds the next spring, especially henbit. In early spring, the henbit was flourishing, but the buffalograss had not started actively growing.  Dandelion, chickweed, and bindweed also had free reign. We made the decision to spray in the fall and it has made such a difference the next year.

By the way, it’s not too late to prepare your landscape for a buffalograss lawn planting next year.

Monarch Fallout and A Predator Story

Monarch Fallout

It happened again in 2020. The convergence of the peak of the September monarch southerly migration over Southcentral Kansas was met by a strong south wind, causing a “fallout” of monarchs at the Dyck Arboretum. Rather than waste energy fighting the headwind, monarchs find a place of refuge to rest and sip nectar. I would estimate that I’ve seen this phenomenon happen five times in the Arb since 2005 and this year’s was the most memorable for a few different reasons including big numbers, fallout location, and a predator story.

Monarchs in the Hedge Row at Dyck Arboretum, 9/20/2020 – Photo by Gerry Epp

Big Numbers

The monarch numbers I observed on Monday, 9/21/2020 seemed to me to be more stunning than I can ever remember. I estimated conservatively in a report to Journey North, there were at least 500 monarchs resting in the Arboretum that day. But after giving it more consideration and talking to a local monarch tagger, Karen Fulk, I wonder if that number was more accurately in the thousands.

Karen’s many years of efforts to tag monarchs in Hesston has her keenly in touch with monarch phenology and migration patterns. She reports that the peak of migration through south central Kansas is usually between 9/22 and 9/27. This year, however, she started seeing an uptick in numbers when a cold front and north wind jump-started the southerly monarch migration a bit earlier.

Karen usually tags 300 annually during the fall migration. This year, Chip Taylor at Monarch Watch, knowing that migration numbers were higher this year, suggested that taggers order extra tags. Karen increased her number to 500 tags and was able to apply most of those when the fallout began Friday 9/18/2020 through Sunday 9/20/2020. Arboretum member, Gerry Epp, further documented this event by posting photos of the fallout on his Facebook page, 9/20/2020.

Monarchs on Seven Son Flower at Dyck Arboretum, 9/20/2020 – Photo by Gerry Epp

Fallout Location

With some repetition now in seeing these fallouts occur in the same place, I want to give some thought to why they congregate where they do at Dyck Arboretum. Karen usually tags at three places in Hesston based on the ability to catch and tag the maximum number in one place, and Dyck Arboretum is where she does the majority of her work. She estimated that 95% of her tagging this year happened at the Arboretum, based on seeing the greatest number of butterflies here.

I would hypothesize that they repeatedly congregate in the small 1/8th-acre area at the Arboretum amphitheater/pinetum for three reasons. One, they are seeking protection from the elements of wind and heat. This is about energy conservation. By escaping the wind and congregating in large groups on the north side of the dense hedge row of Osage orange trees, they are finding a microclimate that is cooler, more humid, and less turbulent than they would find on the south side.

Monarchs on Seven Son Flower at Dyck Arboretum, 9/20/2020 – Photo by Gerry Epp

Two, this location is next to a number of nectar sources. Why not rest where you can eat/drink too? Nearby native plant beds and a reconstructed prairie had a timely profusion of flowering from many species of the genera Helianthus (sunflower), Solidago (goldenrod), Symphotrichium (aster), Liatris (gayfeather), Eryngium (eryngo), and Heptacodium (seven son flower).

Three, a number of white pines in this location may resemble the trees of the Oyamel fir forests in Mexico. I don’t have any proof of this theory, but it seems plausible to me.

Predator Story

The newest wrinkle of this monarch fallout experience was the side story of five immature Mississippi kites. They were probably migrating with the monarchs and decided also to not fight the strong south wind. For a day and a half that I observed, this hungry bunch of pentomic predators took advantage of an abundant food supply. They hung out in the top of one of the white pines and took turns swooping through the monarch clouds to easily catch a snack.

Mississippi Kite Eating A Monarch at Dyck Arboretum, 9/22/2020 – Photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

Sometimes they missed catching their target, but usually, these agile insect catchers snagged their prey. Typically they would return to their perch to eat their catch, but sometimes they would eat in flight or “on the wing” as I hear experienced birders say. At one point, I counted approximately 120 monarch wings that had fluttered down to form what I’ll call a monarch confetti debris field. At four wings per monarch, that represented the carnage of about 30 monarchs. However, a number of wings had already been collected by onlookers, so it is not unreasonable to think that the number of monarchs preyed upon were double or triple what I saw.

Monarch Wings at Dyck Arboretum, 9/20/2020 – Photo by Brad Guhr

Monarch Toxicity

This predator behavior was a surprising observation. Monarch larvae eat milkweed and sequester in the mature butterfly wings and exoskeleton the milkweed toxins called cardiac glycosides. These heart poisons can seriously affect vertebrate predators, including birds, and often cause them to vomit and subsequently avoid eating them further. However, these young kites not only ate monarchs all day Monday, but they continued their feeding frenzy the next morning. Either their stomachs weren’t too adversely soured, or the calories needed to continue this migratory journey were simply too important.

A Google literature review turned up no articles mentioning this habit of Mississippi kites eating monarchs. However, a follow-up conversation with University of Kansas biology instructor, Brad Williamson, helped me understand that this observation is not so irrational. He explained that the monarch population is not 100% toxic.

“The individual toxicity depends a lot on the particular milkweed species that hosted the larval stage. Asclepias syriaca (common milkweed) and Cynanchum laeve (honeyvine milkweed) are not nearly as toxic as A. verticillata (whorled milkweed). There is an entire range of toxicity and it makes for some great mathematical modeling questions–just how much toxicity (percent toxic) in the population is necessary for protection for the entire population? How much metabolic costs are there for monarchs trying to process highly toxic host plants? Turns out that only 25-40% of the population being toxic confers protection for the remaining population.” (I will include below a bibliography on monarch toxicity that Brad Williamson provided if any of you are interested as I am in learning more about this topic.)

There were a lot of interesting biological and ecological issues at play here with these monarchs and kites. It was just one more interesting natural history story with subplots to be observed by those of us living in the Monarch Flyway. Until I’m able to one day witness the hundreds of millions of monarchs wintering in the the Oyamel forests of central Mexico, I am completely content having a front row seat to this fascinating migration phenomena right here in Kansas.

Monarch butterflies observed at the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Michoacán, Mexico. Video by Beatrix Amstutz, February 7, 2020.

Plant Milkweed

To assist the monarchs and their annual migration, plant milkweed host plants and other native nectar plants for adults. Check out our annual spring and fall Flora Kansas native plant sales.

Articles on Monarch Toxicity

  • Brower, L. P., and C. M. Moffitt. “Palatability Dynamics of Cardenolides in the Monarch Butterfly.” Nature 249, no. 5454 (1974): 280–283.
  • Brower, Lincoln P. “Avian Predation on the Monarch Butterfly and Its Implications for Mimicry Theory.” The American Naturalist 131 (1988): S4–S6.
  • Brower, Lincoln P., and Susan C. Glazier. “Localization of Heart Poisons in the Monarch Butterfly.” Science 188, no. 4183 (1975): 19–25.
  • Brower, Lincoln P., Peter B. McEvoy, Kenneth L. Williamson, and Maureen A. Flannery. “Variation in Cardiac Glycoside Content of Monarch Butterflies from Natural Populations in Eastern North America.” Science 177, no. 4047 (1972): 426–429.
  • Fink, Linda S., and Lincoln P. Brower. “Birds Can Overcome the Cardenolide Defence of Monarch Butterflies in Mexico.” Nature 291, no. 5810 (1981): 67–70.Malcolm, S. B., and L. P. Brower. “Evolutionary and Ecological Implications of Cardenolide Sequestration in the Monarch Butterfly.” Experientia 45, no. 3 (1989): 284–295.
  • Malcolm, Stephen B. “Milkweeds, Monarch Butterflies and the Ecological Significance of Cardenolides.” Chemoecology 5, no. 3–4 (1994): 101–117.
  • Malcolm, Stephen B., Barbara J. Cockrell, and Lincoln P. Brower. “Cardenolide Fingerprint of Monarch Butterflies Reared on Common Milkweed, Asclepias Syriaca L.” Journal of Chemical Ecology 15, no. 3 (1989): 819–853.
  • Nelson, C. J., J. N. Seiber, and L. P. Brower. “Seasonal and Intraplant Variation of Cardenolide Content in the California Milkweed, Asclepias Eriocarpa, and Implications for Plant Defense.” Journal of Chemical Ecology 7, no. 6 (1981): 981–1010.
  • Roeske, C. N., J. N. Seiber, L. P. Brower, and C. M. Moffitt. “Milkweed Cardenolides and Their Comparative Processing by Monarch Butterflies (Danaus Plexippus L.).” In Biochemical Interaction between Plants and Insects, 93–167. Springer, 1976.
  • Zalucki, Myron P., Lincoln P. Brower, and Alfonso Alonso-M. “Detrimental Effects of Latex and Cardiac Glycosides on Survival and Growth of First-Instar Monarch Butterfly Larvae Danaus Plexippus Feeding on the Sandhill Milkweed Asclepias Humistrata.” Ecological Entomology 26, no. 2 (2001): 212–224.