2020 Year in Review

2020 might be considered a “dumpster fire” as I’ve seen referred to many times on social media. Our Dyck Arboretum staff felt that way at times about 2020, especially earlier in the year. Cancellation of our 10th annual Leprechaun Run, education lectures, native plant classes, rentals, Prairie Window Concert Series shows, our cornerstone Earth Partnership for Schools Program 14th annual summer institute, and so forth, sure had me feeling down in the dumps for the early part of the year.

First impressions can be deceiving. What might appear to be a destructive, out-of-control prairie fire, was actually an in-control prescribed burn where disturbance is having a beneficial effect. This could be a sort of metaphor for 2020 where things weren’t always as bad as they seemed.

When I first started thinking about a 2020 year-end blog post, I figured why would anybody want a recap of a dumpster fire?! But then I thought about all the lessons we learned about ourselves this year. Rather than avoid the subject and focus on the negative, there was a lot of silver lining effort put forth this year. We took stock of all our lemons, and were able to make a lot of lemonade in 2020.

Teachers from Truesdell Middle School give a presentation about prairie gardening lessons they have been doing with their students

The first event of a normal year is the early January one-day reunion of our previous year cohort of Earth Partnership for School teachers. It might have been a bit foreboding of what was to come in 2020 when our anticipated reunion with 35 teachers from one of our largest ever annual cohorts was diminished to a handful of hearty souls by an icy winter storm.

Teachers exploring the icy prairie landscape at Dyck Arboretum in January 2020. See photos of the Earth Partnership for Schools 2019-20 teacher cohort in action HERE

The weather disruptions continued as storms delayed our late January and late February Winter Lecture Series events featuring presentations about Kansas bird populations and distributions and the story of a beloved local bread-baking entrepreneur. Thankfully, the first two of these three scheduled winter lectures were able to be rescheduled and delivered, but the third was altogether canceled due to the pandemic.

Chuck Otte, an expert birdwatcher, extension agent, and the Kansas Bird Listserv database manager gave our first winter lecture
Sharon Entz, owner and head baker of Crust & Crumb Bakery, has incorporated her Mennonite farming heritage and expertise in milling science into her craft.
Delicious Crust & Crumb Valentine galettes served at intermission of the Prairie Window Concert Series
Missy Andersen & Her One Man Band gave the PWCS audience a great show in early February
Flagship Romance was a popular artist as part of our PWCS in early March
Little did we know that this full house crowd would be the last we would host indoors for a while

We will all have lifetime memories of events or trips or gatherings that we remember as the last that happened for us before the COVID-19 shutdown of 2020. Mine was a March 9th Dyck Arboretum board meeting where we surmised that coming events “might be a bit disrupted”. *Insert ominous music*

All of a sudden, virtual meetings were the new normal

As we know, COVID-19 shut down our social lives that second week in March and initiated a series of cancellations for Dyck Arboretum. My first step of adaptation was to figure out how to deliver a virtual presentation, as I clumsily did for a dozen folks interested in developing rain gardens.

We were sure that somehow, delivery of our mission statement would still be important whether it was safe for folks to gather in person or not

One of the events critical to our mission and budget is our spring plant sale, and the 2020 sale was racing toward us in a calendar clouded with uncertainty. We determined that we simply had to figure out a way to deliver plants safely.

We were already planning in January and February to order, grow, and deliver more plants than ever in the history of FloraKansas. When COVID hit, shipments like this one were already being delivered.

So, we put on our Arboretum big girl and big boy pants, got creative and figured out how to solve some problems. We virtually networked like crazy, bolstered our website for virtual orders, and planned for contactless curbside pickup. We learned a lot in the process and our native plant gardening members came through for us in a big way with their orders.

Curbside plant pickup in action
We certainly got our steps in early April filling plant orders for members and the general public
Fishing net check delivery

We knew that plants would not stop growing for a virus and tried to figure out how to commence with grounds maintenance activities safely without our regular cadre of retired volunteers. Local college students cooped up at home while doing remote learning heartily answered the call to help us with various grounds maintenance activities.

College student labor is very beneficial to have on hand for the labor-intensive process of conducting a prescribed burn
Native landscaping graduate student, Ashley Akers, provided invaluable assistance to Arboretum staff this summer

As we learned early on what activities were deemed to be COVID-safe, being outdoors and getting exercise was more important than ever for maintaining mental and physical well-being. Walkers on our Arboretum path were more abundant this spring/summer/fall than we can ever remember. With folks doing more gardening at home, an interest in native landscaping seemed to reach new heights.

Dyck Arboretum horticulturist Katie Schmidt, and office manager Janelle Flory Schrock answered the native plant frenzy by starting a “Plant of the Day” campaign on social media

By late summer, we became a little more savvy with remote delivery of educational materials and we delivered our first ever virtual Native Plant School. We were blown away by the interest in these classes as our members and the general public signed up and participated at three to four times the normal rate we had seen in past years.

Outdoor events such as walking meetings around our 1/2-mile path or weddings and theater events in our outdoor amphitheater became much more the norm.

Interest in outdoor weddings at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains was more popular than ever in 2020
The Hesston College Theater production of Charlotte’s Web was a huge hit this fall

The monarch migration was more memorable at Dyck Arboretum than I can ever remember in September of 2020. Not only did the butterflies stop for a few-day layover in a phenomenal way, but an avian predator enjoyed their presence as well. HERE is a more detailed telling of that story.

Monarch fallout at Dyck Arboretum in September
A confetti of monarch wings courtesy of the beaks and talons of a group of Mississippi Kites

The end of the calendar year at Dyck Arboretum has long been marked by the holiday-themed winter Luminary Walk during Thanksgiving weekend and the first weekend in December.

We knew that the usual groups of indoor gatherings in our buildings around hot drinks and cookies and close huddling around the bonfire would not happen this year. But with strict adherence to COVID safety protocols and some creativity and dedicated volunteerism from members, board members, and Hesston College musicians, we were able to say the “show must go on”. You all responded admirably and supported us heartily.

Lights in native grasses add unique ambiance when enjoying a prairie garden in its dormancy
Hesston College faculty member, Ken Rodgers, plays the piano in the Prairie Pavilion winter wonderland “snow globe” for visitors outdoors via a remote speaker
A Palette-Palooza decorating contest added nicely to the festive scene
Tri-bike excursions with neighboring Schowalter Villa residents have become a regular and welcoming scene in 2020
Favorable weather and scheduling allowed for helping Arboretum board member, LeAnn Clark and her husband Stan, with a prescribed prairie burn in mid-December
Katie utilizing the services of the “brown bomber” in late December to complete some dumpster cleanup tasks in the old field station shop in late December
Janelle planting prairie wildflower seed along a new section of sidewalk near our Visitor Center in late December

2020 was a trying year for all of us. But it also taught us something about ourselves, about resiliency, and finding something positive through adversity. You, our dedicated members and volunteers, were so critical to helping us find this positivity in what could have been a destructive year. For this, we are so very grateful.

Holiday greetings from our Arboretum family to yours and we look forward to seeing you in 2021!

A Grand Old Burr Oak

I spent time this fall with a grand old burr oak near Hesston along the Middle Emma Creek in McPherson County that caught my eye a few years ago. I introduce to you the Stucky Oak.

Burr oak at the Stucky Place

A Relic of Belonging

This tree is a stately burr oak (Quercus macrocarpa) estimated conservatively to be at least 200 years old. I find fascinating the remnants of vegetation around us that predate European settlement. Large open-grown burr oaks, like untilled prairies, are vestiges of a time shaped by climate and thousands of years of evolution.

For approximately 10,000 years since the last ice age, a warmer climate and the rain shadow effect of the Rocky Mountains have shaped the vegetation here. Plant communities existing at the location of Kansas have consisted mainly of grasslands tolerant of frequent fires initiated by lightning and Indigenous people and grazing by bison. Trees had a hard time getting established here when they were being eaten or burned to the ground every few years. Thus, prairies dominate the state of Kansas.

Oak Savannas of Eastern Kansas

As distance from the Rocky Mountains to the east increases along with average rainfall, trees more easily establish. An ecotone identified as oak savanna (prairie with scattered open-grown oaks) marks the transition from prairies of the Great Plains to the forests of the eastern states. Burr oak was the most dominant tree in this Great Plains ecotone for reasons described below. For more information about oak savannas, click HERE.

Oak savanna historical range (Credit: Guy R. McPherson, 1997)

Burr oaks in the eastern portion of the Great Plains were more likely to be found along stream corridors and especially on the east and north side of streams. Here, trees could survive better in the moister, more humid micro-climates and had some protection from prairie fires typically pushed in a east and north direction by the prevailing southwesterly winds. Fires that reached these locations were less frequent and of lower intensity as they typically would be backing against the wind. The Stucky oak along with a number of other old burr oaks dot the Stucky property located in one of these refuge areas just above the east bank of the Middle Emma Creek.

Burr oak range – USDA map
This burr oak in the foreground (let’s call it the “Sibling Oak”) is much younger than the Stucky Oak (seen in background) but still very stately. It too could be a relic of the oak savanna ecosystem present here during pre-European settlement times.

Unique Adaptations

Open-grown burr oaks growing on the prairie certainly have a different growth pattern than trees growing in a forest. Forest-grown trees have to reach vertically as they compete with other trees for sunlight. Trees growing on the prairie don’t have to compete for light and thus more efficiently orient their branches horizontally as well as vertically to maximize photosynthesis.

Old open-grown burr oaks are typically wider than they are tall (The Stucky Oak – Photo by Lamar Roth)

A tree with a relatively more shallow and broad canopy, will allow more light to filter through its branches to the understory below. This unusual, mottled light micro-climate under burr oaks harbors unique assemblages of plants not specifically found in either prairies or forests. For more on the makeup of these rare plant communities, click HERE.

Mottled sunlight penetrating through broad-reaching branches of the Stucky Oak

Fallen burr oak leaves are large, thick, rigid, curled, and irregularly shaped which keeps them aloft, and dry in the litter layer. In the spring, this persistent fuel easily burns and carries fire. Fires under burr oaks are hot enough to kill competing tree species that might invade its space, but not as hot as a grassland fire carrying more intense heat that could kill the burr oak.

Burr oak leaf and acorn litter at Dyck Arboretum

The thick, corky bark of a burr oak helps protect the cambium layer from the intense heat that could kill the tree. This trait develops on the trunk and branches of burr oak after about 10 years of growth and helps the tree survive repeated burning. For more on the biological and ecological traits of burr oaks and oak savannas, click HERE.

Thick, corky bark protects a burr oak from lower-intensity fires

Not Quite a State Champion

In 2019, I heard a presentation at the Kansas Native Plant Society Annual Meeting about the Champion Trees of Kansas Program. I’ve been curious how the Stucky Oak would stack up against the biggest trees in Kansas and recently got permission to take some measurements. Trees in the Program have a calculated point total based on the following formula: POINTS = trunk circumference in inches + height in feet + crown spread/4 in feet.

As you can see from the following table, the Stucky Oak fell short of the champion in St. George (near Manhattan) in total points. However, with a similar trunk circumference (diameter comparison is 5.6′ vs 6.5′) and larger canopy spread, the Stucky oak is only hurt in this scoring by its shorter stature. Take into consideration that a tree east of Manhattan has benefitted from more rainfall over its life and grown faster than the Stucky Oak. When doing so, it is not inconceivable to think that the Stucky Oak may indeed be an older tree.

A Sense of Place

For most houses we know, the choices of vegetation for landscaping are chosen by the people tending the home. The Stucky house location, I am guessing, was chosen because of the vegetation that already existed.

Matt Stucky and his tree

Matt Stucky is the third generation in his family that has lived in this house that has enjoyed this location and made memories here. He’s a farmer and land steward and when talking with him, you immediately sense the affinity he has for this tree. You can tell that he enjoys the thought that his kids swing under the shade of this oak and throw acorns at each other the way he did as a kid and the way his dad probably did too.

The farm name shows pride in a sense of place

Matt fondly told me the story of an elderly couple from Oklahoma that stopped by some years ago to say they got married in their 20s under the giant oak in his yard. They were descendants of the original Classen Mennonite family that settled in the area in 1874. The couple showed Matt an old photo of the occasion. The tree in the photo looked basically the same as it does now. The couple returned many summers thereafter to sit in the shade of the oak for an afternoon.

History Transcending to the Future

The thought of natural phenomena that transcend generations of people and time move me. Whether it is seeing the same constellations in the skies above known to earth’s life forms since the beginning of time, stewarding prairies that have provided sustenance to residents of the Great Plains for thousands of years before me, or paying homage to an old tree known by families of Indigenous as well as European cultures, I find such things to be very powerful.

Burr oak through the seasons (Partners in Place, LLC)

Equally as powerful for me is our responsibility to carry these stories forward. I challenge you to make a connection to stories related to the nightly traverse of Orion across the winter night sky, how a bison kill for the Quivira Indians of Kansas was like a visit to the grocery and hardware stores today, and how an oak can enhance the biodiversity of your home landscape. Embrace these connections and pass them along to the next generation.

Acorns collected from the Stucky Oak

With this spirit in mind, my friend, Lorna Harder, and I collected acorns from the Stucky Oak and hope to raise burr oak progeny. We would like to share these young trees with teachers who participate in our Earth Partnership for Schools Program and members who attend our plant sales.

The quote from Caecilius Statius, 220-168 B.C. goes “We plant trees not for ourselves, but for the future generations.” I think you know now what species I would choose.

“This oak tree and me, we’re made of the same stuff.”

― Carl Sagan

Predator Profile: Praying Mantis

The Carolina mantid (Courtesy of Hebard and the Illinois Natural History Survey) from An Introduction to the Study of Insects

The praying mantis is a medieval-looking predator of the garden that could just as well be a source of a horror film. Females are known to bite the head of their male partner during copulation to prevent his premature flight and then proceed to eat him after his job is done. If newly-hatched nymphs don’t find enough insects to eat shortly after leaving the nest, they start cannibalizing their own siblings. After watching my grasshopper-eating video at the end of this post, even some meat-eaters may swear off KFC for a very, long, time.

Carolina mantid cleaning its legs (video by Henry Friesen Guhr)

Identification

Praying mantises or mantids have compound eyes in freely moving heads on a pronounced neck and are the only insect that can “look over their shoulder.” Their front legs are muscular viselike appendages with spines held in front of them. They lie in wait, ambush their prey, and then hold and eat them alive.

Chinese mantid with a grasshopper

Kansas has five different species of mantids. There are three native species and two introduced. Of our native species, two are small, uncommon, typically found in prairies, and described in Insects in Kansas (Salsbury and White) as follows:

Descriptions of our two Kansas prairie mantids

For the remaining more common three species in Kansas (Carolina mantis, Chinese mantis, and European mantis), the following is a description of each provided courtesy of Missouri Department of Conservation (mantids) with bugguide.net links to photos of each individual species:

  • Carolina mantis (Stagomantis carolina). Native.
    • Pale green to tan or mottled gray
    • Adult length 2–2¼ inches
    • The combined length of the head and thorax is about as long as the abdomen.
    • The middle pair of legs are about twice as long as the antennae.
    • Females are essentially flightless, as their wings are relatively small — when folded, they do not extend as far as the abdomen tip; usually only about three-fourths of the way down the body.
    • Males may have the wings extend beyond the abdomen tip and may fly to lights at night.
    • There is a black patch on the outer pair of wings.
    • Examine the facial shield (the part of the face in front of the antennae and between the eyes: in this and other Stagomantis species, it is long and narrow (in the Chinese mantis, it is fairly square and has vertical stripes).
    • Egg cases are somewhat flattened, elongated, teardrop-shaped structures.
  • Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis). Nonnative. Very commonly encountered.
    • Tan to pale green; tan individuals often show a stripe of pale green on the side (it’s the borders of the green front wings)
    • Adult length 2¼–4 inches or more
    • Examine the facial shield (the part of the face in front of the antennae and between the eyes): in the Chinese mantis, it is fairly square and has vertical stripes (in our native Carolina mantis, it is long and narrow and lacks stripes).
    • Flies well, often attracted to lights at night.
    • Egg cases resemble tan toasted marshmallows. They are fairly round, about as long as wide, Ping-Pong-ball size; usually attached to twigs of bushes and small trees.
    • Native to east Asia. Introduced to North America accidentally in 1896. Later, imported on purpose in hopes of combatting insect pests. Among the many insects it consumes are our smaller native mantids, and it may be playing a role, in some regions, in the declining populations of the Carolina mantis. Because the Chinese mantis has been widespread in our country for so long, it is difficult to determine what its ecological impact has been on native ecosystems. Because of the females’ large size, they have occasionally been recorded eating small vertebrates, including small reptiles and amphibians and even hummingbirds, but these seem to be relatively rare occurrences that do not have a significant impact on populations of those species.
  • European mantis or praying mantis (Mantis religiosa). Nonnative; probably the least encountered of these three.
    • Yellowish green, cream-colored, or tan.
    • Adult length 2–3 inches
    • Diagnostic feature is a round black dot on the underside of the basal joint (coxa) of the forelegs. Sometimes this black dot has a white center. This spot can be hard to see when their “arms” are held together.
    • Egg cases are rather egg-shaped, distinctly layered structures.
    • Native to Europe. Introduced to North America accidentally in 1899. Later, imported on purpose in hopes of combatting insect pests. People may still introduce them occasionally.

For a visual comparison of the ootheca for these three species, HERE is an article with photos.

Reproduction

Once the female has been fertilized and consumes the male as a “last supper” of sorts, she develops and deposits her eggs to complete the life cycle before dying herself.

Mating Carolina mantids – completion of a life cycle before the carnage

The female mixes the eggs with a frothy, protein-based material called spumaline and extrudes them onto a stem or building. This mass hardens to form a strong Styrofoam-like casing or ootheca that helps keep up to 200 eggs from drying out over the winter.

Chinese mantis “toasted marshmallow” egg casing on a goldenrod stem

The nymphs that emerge from the ootheca in spring do not have different-looking larval stages like many other insects. They resemble adult forms throughout their entire juvenile development.

Mantid nymph (dime-sized) found during an insect sweeping activity

Biological Control

It would seem just as appropriate to name this creature the “preying” mantis. I have seen many instances of mantids munching on moths, butterflies, bees and more and recently captured video of a Chinese mantis eating a grasshopper (see end of blog).

Mantids are touted as biological control agents to get rid of pest insects in gardens and greenhouses. However, the effectiveness of this approach is questionable. While they efficiently prey on insects, a small release of mantids cannot possibly control all the insects that humans consider to be crop pests. Complicating their effectiveness, mantids also indiscriminately consume insects that we consider to be beneficial pollinators as well. And since nonnative mantid species are those most commonly distributed for biological control, some rightfully worry about the impact their continued introductions may have on smaller native mantid populations.

However you find and observe mantids in gardens and natural areas around you, observe and enjoy the habits of these fascinating creatures.

Chinese mantis eating a grasshopper at Dyck Arboretum

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 phenomenon 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.

Pandemic Picks for the Prairie Landscape

Do you have an out-of-the-way plot of ground that needs to be vaccinated from the maladies of soil erosion or a lack of biological diversity? Is this planting area safely physically distanced from other more manicured areas of your landscape? Would you like 2020 to be remembered for something other than COVID-19? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, I have a selection of very easy-to-grow native plant species that will establish your prairie landscape area faster than a coronavirus infects a church choir.

Brad’s PPE (Prairie Pandemic Elections)

Blooms May-June

  • Illinois bundle-flower (Desmanthus illinoensis) – a nitrogen-fixing legume with seed heads that are as attractive as its flowers
  • river oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) – the only shade-oriented species of the bunch that originates from stream corridors of Eastern Kansas
  • beebalm (Monarda fistulosa) – the flowers attract bumblebees and the vegetation can be used make mint tea
  • common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) – this favorite host plant for the monarch butterfly also has very sweet aroma when flowering
  • gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) – stunning splashes of yellow when this species blooms in mass

Blooms July-August

  • compass plant (Silphium laciniatum)
  • rosin weed (Silphium integrifolium)
  • cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum)
  • prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum)

The genus Silphium offers four very hearty species that have so much to offer. Learn more about these species from a previous blog post.

Blooms August-September

  • western ironweed (Vernonia baldwinii) – this is the taller and more robust cousin of our plant sale favorite ‘iron butterflies’ ironweed
  • tall joe-pye weed (Eupatorium altissimum) – few species will attract more pollinators than this Eupatorium
  • brown-eyed susan (Rudbeckia triloba) – so beautiful and so invasive
  • tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum) – not all thistles are bad as I discuss in an earlier blog post
  • Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) – goldenrods are famous for their color and pollinator attraction in late summer and few are heartier than this species
  • Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani) – learn more about this and other sunflower species that could be considered good pandemic picks in an earlier blog post

See an earlier post I wrote about these late summer blooming “undesirables” and all the loads of insects they attract to our Arboretum landscape.

Prairie Ecosystem vs Prairie Gardening

In a diverse and thriving prairie ecosystem where these native species typically reside, a dense matrix of competitive prairie grasses and grazing animals help keep them in check. You could say that the prairie plant community has a herd immunity against these aggressive, super-spreader species.

But when you plop these species into a nutrient-rich, urban prairie garden with mulch and plenty of moisture, they grow seemingly with reckless abandon. They don’t have the same competitive prairie environment or grazers regularly eating them back to keep them in check. They spread quickly with rapidly expanding root systems and prolific seed production. These pandemic picks are long-haulers that will quickly (within a five years) take over slower and lower growing species, and you won’t need contact tracing to know where they came from. Therefore, we’ve learned (the hard way from some of our thankfully forgiving members) that these pandemic picks with their tall, rank growth do not belong in a small, more manicured garden.

So, given this information, you may ask…why recommend these pandemic picks that would make one symptomatic of a foolish gardener? Or, to put it more bluntly, WHO in the world is this CDC (Center for Dumb Consultation) that is giving you this advice!? Dyck Arboretum, of course!

The species I’m recommending provide colorful, aesthetically-pleasing blooms, soil erosion control, interesting vegetation, host plant food for caterpillars, and loads of nectar for pollinators. These species are extremely drought tolerant and will survive fine without care from you. And as an added bonus, they provide hearty competition for and crowd out annual plants like giant ragweed, a pollen emitter that makes you want to don your N-95 mask this time of year!

The major disclaimer I will offer and the key to being happy with these pandemic picks in your landscape is choosing a remote place where they can all be quarantined together. The more physical distance you can give this cluster planting location, the less likely their seeds are to invade more manicured areas of your prairie landscape. The only care this planting needs is an annual mowing/cutting in winter or early spring. Add some flammable tall grasses to the mix like big bluestem, Indian grass, and switch grass, and you can burn it annually instead.

To learn more about these species, visit the Kansas Wildflowers and Grasses website. A handful of these species are available through our FloraKansas native plant sale. Zoom on over to Dyck Arboretum in the coming days of September 10 (for members) and September 11-13 (for general public). All of these species can be found on our grounds. Bring a paper bag, catch me at FloraKansas, and I’d be happy to show you where these species can be found and give you permission to collect seed.

Get in early on this pollinator-friendly planting trend now as it may soon go viral!

Landowner Prairie Restoration Spotlight – Carolyn and Terry Schwab

Terry and Carolyn Schwab live on 109 acres in Eastern Harvey County affectionately known by a former neighbor as the “Foothills to the Flint Hills.” While much of the county land has been converted to cropland over the last century, the Schwab property has remained in remnant prairie.

We received a grant in 2004 to identify and study more than 100 prairie remnants in South Central Kansas and to collect seed for our 18-acre Prairie Window Project prairie reconstruction project on-site at Dyck Arboretum. Until 2010, this work helped us develop a prairie landowner network through which we consulted with landowners and assisted them with their prairie management needs. It was during these years that I had the pleasure of first meeting the Schwabs. Ever since I have enjoyed observing the dedication they bring to being prairie restorationists and natural area enthusiasts.

Terry and Carolyn Schwab and the property they manage (2007)

Increasing Wildlife Diversity

The property was a moderately overgrazed cattle pasture when they acquired it in 1993. The Schwabs’ main goal as land stewards was to increase wildlife diversity through improved habitat and enhance their avid hobbies of bird-watching and fishing.

The remnant prairie and emergent wetland above and around the ponds on their land can consist of hundreds of species of grasses, wildflowers, sedges, and shrubs. High plant diversity translates to high wildlife diversity. Maintaining diverse herbaceous vegetation also serves as a good surface water filter that improves pond health. Terry and Carolyn knew that without grazing or other forms of grassland management, invasion of a handful of tree species (including nonnative species) would create a dense, and comparatively lifeless, forest canopy within decades. Plant species diversity would decrease and wildlife habitat would suffer. They needed to become prairie restoration land stewards.

Dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata) (Photo by Carolyn Schwab)

Vegetation Management

Controlling woody species and removing nonnative wildflowers became top priorities for the Schwabs in their quest to improve wildlife habitat on their property. Their initial efforts were extensive and laborious. They cut Osage orange and eastern red cedar trees and manually dug out musk thistle. To maintain water levels in the ponds, they repaired holes in the dams and removed trees whose roots can compromise dam life.

Numerous small trees invading in prescribed burning units A and B (2002 aerial photography)
Comparison with the previous photo shows that mechanical removal and prescribed burning have reduced tree cover over a six-year period, especially in units A and B (2008 aerial photography)

They were able to open up the upland areas where they had successfully removed mature trees and restore contiguous areas of grass and wildflower-dominated prairie. In these areas, the Schwabs implemented a regular rotation of mowing and prescribed burning to control any further invasion of woody plants. They networked with a local fire department to help them do this. They found mowing and burning to be much less labor-intensive than manual tree removal and effective tools for long term tree management.

Management Unit B, post-burn in 2009 (Photo by Carolyn Schwab)

Carolyn and Terry have made great improvements in restoring the prairie and emergent wetlands with tree management, but they know that they cannot rest on their laurels. Mature, seed-producing trees on their land and neighboring properties make keeping up with tree invasion a continual challenge. In addition to maintaining a routine of mowing and burning, they continue to cut and treat a number of invading tree species including honey locust, Bradford pear, Osage orange, Siberian elm, eastern red cedar, and the shrub Japanese honeysuckle. They are also on the lookout for the highly invasive, noxious weed sericea lespedeza which is becoming increasingly present in the area.

Conducting a prescribed burn on Unit C in 2010

Wildlife Monitoring

Carolyn invests a great deal of time monitoring and reporting on the biodiversity observed on their property. Daily walks to document bird populations, track phenology of flowering plants, and photograph butterflies are all part of what she sees as being an informed land steward.

Regal fritillary butterflies are dependent on habitat including diverse, large tracts of prairie. Even though the Schwabs have been improving the habitat of their prairie, regal fritillary numbers seem to be declining in recent years on a landscape scale. Carolyn has been planting nectar plants like butterfly milkweed and regal fritillary host plants (prairie violets) in the landscaping around her house to try and further support regal fritillary numbers.

This 2013 regal fritillary on butterfly milkweed (a yellow native landscaping variety near house) was the last one that Carolyn has seen on her property (Photo by Carolyn Schwab)

Carolyn is a top-notch birder. According to the Kansas Bird Listserv Database, a total of 329 species of birds have ever been documented as observed in Harvey County. Carolyn has seen more of these species (270) than anybody. And with easy access to 109 acres of prairie, wetland, woodland, and open water habitat, Carolyn has seen a whopping 232 of these species on her property!

A favorite experience of hers was witnessing a rare event on October 27, 2010. Eastern Harvey County is well east of the main sandhill crane migration flyway and seeing cranes there is not common. That night, however, the Schwabs observed 200+ sandhill cranes settle in for the night at their pond and enjoyed hearing their calls through the night. The cranes took off the next morning, but left behind a lasting memory for Carolyn.

Return of Butterfly Milkweed

The Schwab prairie restoration efforts are not only increasing the presence of grassland bird populations, but plant diversity as well. For years, they have not seen any butterfly milkweed on their property. But during the growing season of 2020, Carolyn reports that she has seen 20 plants.

Butterfly milkweed (Photo by Carolyn Schwab)

Protection for the Future

The Schwabs are considering registering their property with the Kansas Land Trust to protect this native prairie in perpetuity. By establishing a conservation easement on the property, Terry and Carolyn would be establishing guidelines for future landowners to follow that would help protect the prairie, watershed, and the diversity of species therein.

Thank you, Carolyn and Terry for your important prairie restoration land stewardship and for being willing to share your story.

A white-tailed deer doe and two fawns sheltering on one of the Schwab pond islands (Photo by Carolyn Schwab)

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.

Help Us Count Butterflies

Put Saturday, June 27, 2020 on your calendar and plan to help us count butterflies. The 21st Annual Harvey County Butterfly Count will consist of groups of butterfly enthusiasts dispersing to butterfly hot spots around the county to observe and count as many butterfly species as possible. Participant age or experience does not matter.

Whether you can immediately tell the difference between a pearl crescent and a gorgone checkerspot or you are unable to differentiate between a monarch and a moth, we encourage you to attend. The only requirement is a curious interest in finding and counting butterflies.

E. tiger swallowtail butterfly nectaring on tall thistle.

Harvey County Butterfly Count

The Harvey County Butterfly Count typically takes place on a single day in late June throughout a 16-mile diameter circle that includes Newton, Halstead, and Hesston. Emeritus biology professor, Dwight Platt, organized the first Harvey County Butterfly Count in 2000. Dwight has long been a champion of citizen science in South Central Kansas. As a Bethel College freshman in 1948, he helped organize the first Harvey County area Halstead-Newton Christmas Bird Count. As my major professor in the early 1990s at Bethel, Dwight inspired me to get active in citizen science, and many years later (in 2016) passed along to me oversight of the Harvey County Butterfly Count. Dwight plans to participate all day in this 21st Harvey County count at the age of 89.

Dwight Platt, conducting a butterfly survey at Sand Prairie in W. Harvey County in 2008.

Citizen Science

Guidance for the Harvey County Butterfly Count protocol is provided by North American Butterfly Association (NABA). Their efforts to build and organize a robust data set is important to monitor trends in butterfly populations. Comparisons of the results across years can be used to monitor changes in populations and study the effects of weather and habitat change on North American butterflies.

By participating in such counts, you are contributing to research through citizen science. In the process, you are also increasing your scientific understanding, learning about environmental issues, gaining an appreciation for the natural world, and becoming a more engaged citizen. Thanks to Dwight, family members, and friends who encouraged me to do such things at a young age, citizen science shaped my choice of vocation and was personally transformative. I am hooked now and consider citizen science a fun hobby.

Delaware skipper butterfly nectaring on tall thistle.

Common Butterflies Observed

In addition to sending all the data to NABA from each year’s one-day count, I have 20 years of Harvey County Butterfly Count data in a spreadsheet that can be organized in a variety of ways. Here are a few summary numbers:

  • Over the last 20 years, 85 butterfly species have been observed during the one-day Harvey County counts.
  • The average number of butterfly species seen over the last 20 counts is 50.8.
  • 25 butterfly species have been observed nearly every year of the count (19 out of 20 counts).

Those 25 commonly observed Harvey County butterfly species are featured here for easy visual reference (photo credits). I lumped some of the similar-looking species together to help you more easily discern some of the subtle differences. Review them a few times and you will already start to develop a familiarity with the majority of butterflies seen on a typical count!

While the above 25 species are mostly what you will see and be counting, the real fun comes in finding the other 25 or so more rare species throughout the day. Searching for different types of habitat and flowers usually helps expand the diversity of species observed. Looking for certain host plants to find rare species is also part of the strategy.

What to Bring

The most important mode of preparation for a summer butterfly count is adjusting to the elements. Once you protect yourself from the sun with a hat and light cotton clothing and apply insect repellent around your ankles to repel ticks and chiggers, you can more easily turn your focus to the fun of looking for flowers and the butterflies they attract. If you simply plan to sweat and stay well-hydrated (bring plenty of water), you will find yourself enjoying a breezy summer day in Kansas.

Additionally, consider bringing binoculars (I also have close-range butterfly binoculars to lend you) and/or a camera with a zoom lens, but neither are mandatory. Each group will have a leader with an expertise in identification and a plan for sites to visit.

Let me know at brad.guhr@hesston.edu if you would like to attend for a half (3-4 hours) or full day (6-8 hours) and I will send you an email with more details.

Plan to enjoy part or all of a summer day counting butterflies and help make an important contribution to citizen science.

Rare regal fritillary butterflies nectaring on butterfly milkweed.

Visit Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park

I would highly recommend that you visit Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park, a new gem in the crown of great destination places to visit in Kansas. The High Plains and western Smoky Hills landscapes of Western Kansas are too often overlooked as a flyover region or burden of windshield time to endure as Kansans head west to the mountains. But if you take the time, I am sure you will become enamored as I have by the geologic history, wide-open viewshed, and various biological elements of the short to mixed grass prairie ecosystem. There are various intriguing features for a visit to Little Jerusalem.

Little Jerusalem, looking north from the 1.2-mile overlook

A Look Back in Time

You will immediately notice the layer cake geology in the Niobrara Chalk spires and unique standing features carved by the Smoky Hill River at Little Jerusalem over. Layers of shells, shark teeth and bone fragments were deposited at the bottom of an ancient Cretaceous era inland sea covering this area from 145 to 66 million years ago. These are favorite areas for paleontologists to find skeletal fossils of swimming reptiles such as mosasaurs and plesiosaurs.

Carl Buell’s Tylosaurus painting used in Mike Everhart’s short story “A Day in the Life of a Mosasaur. http://oceansofkansas.com/mosa-sty.html

Recreation in Wide-Open Spaces

Treeless plains make for stunning landscape views and Western Kansas has no shortage of them. Wide-open spaces, few people to see, and a typically windy environment also make this an excellent place to socially distance yourself during a pandemic outdoors while exercising your body and mind.

Little Jerusalem, looking west from the 0.25-mile overlook

After arriving at the new parking lot and paying your $5 car fee at the self-pay station, you can set out on hikes to great views either a 1/2 mile or a little over 2-miles total in length. I took in the views at all three of the overlooks which were all impressive. But I would have to say that the views from the overlook furthest in distance (1.2 miles) from the parking lot were most spectacular. Most of the trails consist of packed gravel that are easy to walk on.

Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park trails

Rare Plants and Animals

There is so much to see at Little Jerusalem in the short and mixed grass prairie all around. You can simply take in the beauty of the colors and textures as part of the surrounding landscape. Or you can investigate closer to see an array of interesting examples of flora and fauna unique to the area. Great Plains wild buckwheat (Eriogonum helichrysoides) is found around the chalk bluffs of Western Kansas (with the largest population found in this park) and nowhere else in the world. Ferruginous hawks (Buteo regalis) are open-country birds that breed in grasslands and the most nests in Kansas are found along the bluffs of the Smoky River.

Ferruginous hawk, photo by Bob Gress (BirdsInFocus.com)

Close to Other Worthy Features

While planning your visit to Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park, consider visiting a few other worthy public and private features in the area in or near the Smoky River valley and watershed.

Locations of recommended destinations

Smoky Valley Ranch in Logan County has been protected and is currently being managed by Kansas Chapter of The Nature Conservancy. It is an expansive example of short and mixed-grass prairie managed as a working ranch that features dramatic chalk bluffs, grazing cattle and bison, black-tailed prairie dogs, and the federally endangered black-footed ferret.

Monument Rocks National Landmark and Castle Rock, combined in consideration for one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas, are both impressive examples of Niobrara Chalk towers on either side of Gove County. Both features are on private land where visitors are allowed to get close to the features. Be respectful of the rules including no climbing, fossil hunting, camping, littering or bonfires.

Monument Rocks National Natural Landmark in Gove County

During your Western Kansas visit, consider renting a cabin or camping at beautiful Lake Scott State Park. It is considered by National Geographic as one of the country’s 50 must-see state parks. Extensive hiking trails, a state fishing lake, and various features of cultural history from Pueblo Native Americans to early European settlers can all be found here.

Sunset at Lake Scott State Park in Scott County

I’ll leave you with a poem (Prairie Wind by Fred D. Atchison, Sr.) featured on one of the signs at Little Jerusalem where one is invited to “Have A Seat, Fill Your Lungs”:

I am thinking of you, prairie wind

running free across Kansas plains

and see the evidence of your presence

billowing seas of golden grain.

You etch your mark on sandstone cliffs

sculptures carved by a timeless hand

and move soft brushes of prairie grass

drawing circles across the sand.

It is humbling when I realize

these soft breezes reaching me now

whispered lullabies to the Indian child

before the prairie was put to the plow.

I have witnessed your destructive force

throughout the reaches of your domain

and felt the comfort of your caress

when you become gentle again.

You are an adversary to work against

and you break those who will not bend

an ally to all who work with you

when finally we learn to walk with the wind.

Celebrating Earth Day Through Native Plants

Today is the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day. For a half century, April 22 has been a day when we celebrate a connection with our planet and pause to think about how we can be better earth stewards. I would like to state the case for having native plants be central to this stewardship focus.

Earth Day in 1970 mobilized 20 million Americans to unify in support of environmental protection. The energy of this movement led to a greater awareness of and protection for natural elements important to humans, including clean air (Clean Air Act of 1970), clean water (Clean Water Act of 1972) and biological diversity (Endangered Species Act of 1973).

My 50th Anniversary Earth Day Flag – an adapted version of John McConnell’s Earth Day flag adorned with the spring blooming native plants (clockwise from upper left-golden alexander, vernal witch hazel, Missouri evening primrose, and rose verbena).

Native plants and their ecosystems are closely connected to the health of air, water, and biological diversity. Native plants photosynthesize, produce oxygen and sink atmospheric carbon. Native plants buffer streams, hold soil, and filter moving water. Native plants provide food and habitat for wildlife of all kinds. For the more than one billion people that will recognize Earth Day around the world today, celebrating native plants could easily be central to this celebration.

So, to celebrate the 50th Earth Day, I would like to recognize some of the spring-blooming native plants that are hitting their stride in my home landscape right now.

A favorite garden corner with bloomers from left to right including Major Wheeler honeysuckle, roundleaf ragwort, ‘Pink Lanterns’ columbine, shortstem spiderwort, and golden alexander.

Spring blooming wildflowers offer the first signs of hope after a long winter. In late winter/early spring, they bait us with anticipation, even when nighttime temperatures regularly dip below freezing and cold winds are not yet inviting us to be outside. Their root systems receive messages from increasing hours of daylight and higher average temperatures. Their green shoots break dormancy and emerge as if they are responding to cheerful invitations of the robins, repeatedly calling “cheer-up, cheer-a-lee, cheer-ee-o”.

That was the scene in my yard in early March. Fast forward now to mid April through more than a month of pandemic isolation. While I’m captive at home, the need for hope and beauty seems ever greater and the following spring blooming wildflowers are answering the call.

Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense)

Wild ginger.

Wild ginger is a creeping wildflower that creates growing ground cover colonies. The roots of the plant smell like ginger. Their heart-shaped close-to-the-ground leaves may be less than striking, but the hidden flowers of wild ginger (pollinated by beetles, flies and ants) are worth the search.

Wild ginger flower.

Woodland Phlox (Phlox divaricata)

Woodland phlox.

The Greek meaning of the word phlox refers to the intense floral color which is evident once you see woodland phlox in bloom. The plant will form a spreading colony. It does surprisingly well in Kansas if you can find a protected place for it. The fragrant and showy flowers attract butterflies, hummingbird moths, and hummingbirds.

Roundleaf Ragwort (Packera obovata)

Roundleaf ragwort.

Once established, roundleaf ragwort establishes a creeping colony and is one of the earliest bloomers in the spring. Roundleaf ragwort flowers attract butterflies, bees, and bumblebees. With an evergreen leaf throughout all seasons, this species offers year-round interest without being invasive to the detriment of surrounding plants.

Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pennsylvanica)

Pennsylvania sedge.

Pennsylvania sedge is commonly found in the dry to dry-mesic understory of oak-hickory woodlands. It is a nice landscaping choice for a dry, shady yard location in Kansas. While they certainly do resemble grasses in their appearance, sedges, characterized by their triangular stem (“sedges have edges”) are in a family all their own.

Columbine ‘Pink Lanterns’ (Aquilegia canadensis)

Columbine ‘Pink Lanterns’.

Columbine is easy to establish in partial sun to full shade conditions and its flowers attract hummingbirds and bumblebees. The name is in reference to a couple of birds. The genus name Aquilegia is derived from a combination of the Latin word “aquila” (meaning eagle for the five spurs resembling an eagle claw) and the Latin word for “columba” (meaning dove, for five doves nestled together). This pink version of Aquilegia canadensis was actually discovered in Marion County, Kansas by Dyck Arboretum of the Plains!

Spring Bloomers in Your Landscape

Many spring blooming wildflowers are native to woodland understories. Such woodland understories historically would have only been native to Eastern Kansas. Today, urban tree canopies and the north side of fences, garages, and houses all provide great shady habitat to plant spring woodland bloomers like those featured in our FloraKansas plant sale Spring Woodland Kit.

But you certainly don’t need to stop with the species in this kit. See a previous blog post (Spring-Blooming Prairie and Woodland Plants) featuring additional spring bloomers that you might consider for shady or sunny areas.

Celebrate Earth Day with me. Consider participating in the rewarding ritual of native plant gardening and make every day Earth Day.