Landscaping with Native Kansas Oaks

Filtered light coming through a stately open-grown burr oak.

There are many appealing reasons to consider landscaping with native Kansas oaks. Oaks are

  • long-lived with strong branches,
  • can grow to be large and stately,
  • provide welcome shade from the hot Kansas summer sun,
  • allow some filtered light to pass through to allow growth of understory vegetation, and
  • enhance the wildlife diversity in any landscape by attracting insects.

Native Kansas Oaks

Kansas is predominately a prairie state. Fire and grazing have helped keep grasses and wildflowers as the dominant form of vegetation for thousands of years. Kansas does, however, get enough precipitation to support trees, especially many drought-tolerant species of oaks. And when they are not being burned or grazed down to the ground on a regular basis, they can thrive here.

With the Rocky Mountain rain shadow influencing the precipitation map for Kansas, we have increasing bands of precipitation moving from west to east across the state.

Trees generally need more water than prairie grasses and wildflowers. Therefore, it is understandable that eastern Kansas climate is most hospitable for growing trees. The following Küchler Vegetation Map of Kansas confirms the association between greater precipitation and the historical presence of trees by the location of oak-hickory forests, oak savannas, and other timbered regions in the eastern part of the state.

The trees that thrive throughout eastern Kansas may also be able to grow further west into Kansas, but will be limited to locations near streams or urban landscapes where they can receive supplemental irrigation.

Using the fantastic recently published book, Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines in Kansas by Michael Haddock and Craig Freeman, I compiled the following table of the oaks native to Kansas. I have listed the 12 native oak species in order from most to least common in Kansas. I did this to serve as a guide to the species that generally have the greatest tolerance to drought conditions and that are therefore more likely to succeed even in the drier parts of the state.

Attracting Wildlife

Regarding the benefits of oaks I provided in the introduction, I want to expand a bit on the benefits of attracting wildlife.

Filtered light sustains understory vegetation

Oaks in general and especially more drought-tolerant oaks like burr oak allow more light to filter through its leaf canopy to the understory than other tree species such as elms and maples. As I describe briefly in a post about a local, large burr oak tree, burr oak savanna plant communities of Eastern Kansas were historically able to support diverse arrays of grasses and wildflowers under their canopy that promote a healthy ecosystem of biological diversity. Urban folks can follow this model and grow prairie-like native plant gardens under the canopy of oaks. This also helps explain why it is easier to grow turf grass in the filtered light conditions under an oak than it is under the shadier understory of an elm or maple.

Oaks – the best trees for supporting wildlife

Professor Doug Tallamy in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware is a big proponent of using native oaks to attract wildlife. His book Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens makes a strong case for using oaks to attract caterpillars, and subsequently birds that feed caterpillars to their young, to enhance the biological diversity of a landscape. His research shows that the oak genus (Quercus) attracts more caterpillars to its leaves, flowers, bark, acorns, and roots than any other genus of trees. In fact, this genus is so important to Tallamy that his most recent book The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees focuses entirely on the subject.

Five Favorite Oaks

While I think there are appealing components to all 12 of the native Kansas oaks, I have narrowed my focus for the purposes of this post to promoting five favorite oak species.

USDA maps denote the natural range of each species. A given tree may still thrive in say an urban area outside of this range when offered wind and drought protection from structures, other trees, and/or supplemental irrigation.
This 55′ wide by 45′ tall burr oak outside my office window is great example of how this species takes a wide-open stance when grown in full sun. The root structure cross-section drawing pasted proportionately below this tree was found in the Nebraska Conservation Bulletin Number 37.

Burr oak savannas were part of the focus of my graduate research and I simply love the majestic, strong-branched open-grown shape of this species. The shape and distinct look of a mature Q. macrocarpa specimen in winter is as interesting to me as its leafy green look during the growing season. It is bimodal in its moisture distribution, meaning it can survive in both dry upland conditions as well as low floodplain conditions. Thick, gnarly bark makes this tree more fire tolerant than most, and when top-killed, its taproot allows it to immediately re-sprout. The large acorn fruits (hence the Latin name “macrocarpa“) are food for many insects, mammals, and birds (e.g., turkeys and wood ducks). To appreciate the value of a burr oak to wildlife, click on this Illinois wildflowers link and scroll down to the impressive list of “faunal associations.” Burr oak leaves turn yellowish-brown before dropping in the fall.

The attractive ashy gray bark, toothy margined leaves and stately round shape of the drought-tolerant chinquapin oak make it an appealing landscaping tree. One-inch sweet acorns are a favorite food for many birds and mammals and the leaves turn yellow-orange to orangish-brown before dropping in fall. This species prefers well-drained soils but tolerates a variety of soil textures and moisture regimes.

Dwarf chinquapin oak only reaches a mature height of approximately 20 feet and certainly can be used in different landscaping scenarios than any of the four other medium to large landscaping trees recommended here. You may use it as a featured shrub or planted with many to form a screen. This species prefers sandy or clayey soils whereas the larger Q. muehlenbergii does best in calcareous soils. In spite of its small size, dwarf chinquapin oak can produce large quantities of acorns which along with the leaves and bark provide food for numerous species of insects, birds and mammals. This oak is known to produce underground runners to spread clonally.

Black oak is named for its dark bark color at maturity. It has a deep taproot with widespread laterals which make it a very drought-tolerant tree that is adaptable to a variety of soil types. It does especially well in sandy soils. As described for other oak species, black oak provides food for numerous insects, birds and mammals.

Shumard oak is a popular landscaping tree because of its strong branches, long life and red fall color. It is adaptable to a variety of soils and its acorns provide food for various types of wildlife including insects, birds, and mammals. Although its natural environment is along streams in Eastern Kansas, it is tolerant of drier areas further west in protected urban areas. A shumard oak I planted in my yard loses its leaves late fall, by around Thanksgiving.

Things to Think About

Tree size/location

When locating a tree, leaving room for the eventual size of the mature tree will save you or future caretakers time and money. Conflicts between growing tree branches and buildings, utility wires, city code street clearances, and branches of other trees can lead to tree trimming headaches, so consideration given to a tree’s height and spread is important. Also, the closer a tree is to a sidewalk or driveway, the more likely its roots are to alter the grade of and contribute to the cracking of that concrete.

How long will it hold its leaves?

Some oaks lose their leaves in fall, but others hold onto them until spring. I can think of a couple of reasons this may be important to you. If you like to do your leaf raking in fall, don’t choose an oak that holds leaves till spring. If you want your oak to cast shade in summer but not winter, be sure to choose an oak that drops its leaves in fall. For example, this may be an important consideration for a tree that shades a house in summer, but allows solar panels to work in the winter.

Oak leaves are slower to decompose

Know that oak leaves have higher tannin content than many other tree species, and therefore, take longer to decompose. I like to use all my tree leaves for garden mulch and since the oaks I’ve planted in my landscape are all pretty small still, this has not been a big concern. However, if you compost your leaves or have heard the myth that tannin-rich oak leaves will make your soil more acidic, read this article.

Slower growing trees still provide rewards

A common complaint I hear about oaks is that they grow too slow. Therefore, folks may opt for the short-term gain of quick shade provided by a poplar or silver maple instead of a longer lived oak. A poplar lifespan may be 30-50 years, a silver maple 50-100 years, and an oak 150-250 years. But what you gain in quicker shade with the poplar and silver maple, you give up in durability, attraction to wildlife, and passing along quality trees to future property owners. The above recommended oaks all would be considered slow to moderate rate growing trees. Do know that you can increase the growth rate of an oak with mulching, supplemental water, and fertilizer. Maybe it is the skewed perspective of an oak lover, but I would think that oaks even improve property value. And remember, a tree is planted for the next generation as much as it is for you.

Milkweed for Monarchs

In Kansas and throughout the central U.S. corridor, we need to plant more milkweed for monarchs. Because of human-caused reductions of host plant milkweed species through the monarch migration corridor, this butterfly is in decline. I will summarize the current plight of the monarch, review its life cycle and why it is in decline, and recommend seven milkweed species we should be planting more frequently in our urban landscapes to attempt to aid monarch recovery.

Monarch on swamp milkweed in the Arboretum greenhouse. Photo by Barbara Beesley.

Plight of the Monarch

Experts monitor monarch populations by documenting the extent of area they occupy annually in their Mexican oyamel fir forest overwintering sites. While the numbers are variable from year to year, the overall downward trendline seen in the following graph is discouraging.

World Wildlife Fund monarch data cited in a blog post by Cornell University’s Anurag Agrawal

The following recent announcement highlights that the monarch warrants protection to stop its decline, but that too many other species needing protection are taking priority at the moment.

Monarch Life Cycle

From March to November, eastern populations of monarchs migrate from Mexico to Southern Canada and back every year. It usually takes four generations of monarchs to make this journey – two going north and two going south.

Monarch generations over a typical year from Journey North

Various species of milkweed (Asclepias spp.) throughout the migration corridor of the central U.S. play host to hungry larvae as an essential element of the monarch life cycle.

Monarch life cycle from the U.S. Department of Agriculture

Adult butterflies completing the first northern leg of the journey from Mexico to the south central states of the U.S. including Kansas are conditioned to find milkweed plants to lay their eggs in spring. Later generations returning south in late summer are doing the same.

Monarch migration from Monarch Watch

Human Impacts

In a 2013 presentation at Dyck Arboretum, Monarch Watch’s Chip Taylor expressed that a loss of milkweed throughout this migration corridor is one of the top reasons for the monarch’s decline. The advent of no-till agricultural practices has been great for the efficient production of crops, but its broadcast spraying of generalist herbicides like glyphosate (i.e., Roundup) has also been very efficient at killing milkweed throughout the Plains and Midwest.

Acres converted of prairie converted to cropland in monarch flyway from Monarch Watch

Loss of monarch nectar sources through habitat destruction, widespread use of insecticides, and climate change pose additional challenges to the monarch.

More Milkweed Needed

The monarch butterfly evolved along with the presence of prairie milkweed species throughout the Great Plains and Midwest during the 10,000 years since the last Ice Age.

Presettlement extent of prairie from Michigan State University

Just as humans have rapidly reduced the presence of milkweed in the last couple of decades, we should be able to find ways to re-establish milkweed.

In a recent presentation, I promoted the planting of milkweed for monarchs and highlighted the diversity of 19 milkweed species found in Kansas. These species are well-documented in the book Kansas Wildflowers and Weeds by Michael John Haddock, Craig C. Freeman, and Janét E. Bare. Compiling information from Chip Taylor and a 2018 Iowa study in Frontiers of Ecological Evolution on milkweed preference by monarchs, I landed on promotion of the following seven yellow-highlighted species. With high monarch larvae survivorship, and being relatively easy to establish from plugs, these seven milkweed species are good selections to grow in any sunny garden spot.

Milkweed species in Kansas

To make a dent in the recovering milkweed presence throughout the monarch flyway, seeded milkweed re-establishment should be boosted in large-scale habitat areas like in between agricultural fields, along roadsides and in Conservation Reserve Program land just to name a few. But such efforts will require coordination with governmental agencies and lots of planning. What I will propose with the rest of this post will be what we can each do with our own plots of land. Consider planting plants in native plant gardens and collect and spread seed if you have areas that are larger and less manicured.

The following seven milkweed species offer aesthetically pleasing milkweed species that are good larval hosts for monarchs and good nectar sources for a variety of insects. All milkweed photos are courtesy of Michael John Haddock (Source: Kansas Wildflowers and Grasses Website)

Common milkweed can get to be weedy in the garden, but it is easy to pull, so I don’t mind a little weeding because of the immense benefit this monarch favorite offers (prefers dry to medium soil, grows 4-5′ tall, and blooms in June to July with a very sweet fragrance).
Whorled milkweed prefers dry to medium soil, grows 1-2′ tall, and blooms in June to July
Butterfly milkweed prefers dry to medium soil, grows 1-2′ tall, and blooms in June to July
Green antelopehorn milkweed prefers dry to medium soil, grows 1-2′ tall, and blooms in May to June
Showy milkweed prefers sandy loam dry to medium soil, grows 3-4′ tall, and blooms in June to July
Smooth or Sullivant’s milkweed prefers medium to medium -wet soil and can be commonly found in the bottom of roadside ditches. It grows 3-4′ tall, and blooms in June to July. While a bit similar looking to common milkweed, smooth milkweeds differs with its smooth, non-hairy leaves that clasp the stem, and with more flat rather than rounded flower cluster.
As the name implies, swamp or marsh milkweed likes its feet wet, prefers wet to wet-medium soil like along a pond edge, grows 4-5′ tall, and blooms in August to September

As tempting as it may be to plant tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) in an annual bed or a pot, try to avoid it. Even though it can host monarch larvae and the flowers are attractive for insects and humans alike. The following article from Xerces Society provides compelling reasons not to plant tropical milkweed in non-tropical areas. Holding monarchs in colder places longer than they should, and exposing monarchs to the protozoan parasite Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (or OE for short) are two of those reasons.

Come check out our Spring FloraKansas Native Plant Festival, April 22-26, 2021. There you will find a wide selection of milkweeds and other wildflowers, grasses, sedges, shrubs, and trees to enhance your landscape for monarchs and all insects!

Seeding After Disturbance

Dispersal of prairie wildflower seeds after sidewalk construction

I’d like to tell you about our late December sidewalk edge prairie seeding after disturbance following the installation of a new sidewalk right outside my office window.

Preamble about Disturbance

Disturbance is rich with meaning and ever-present.

In humans…

Our lives are filled with different levels of disturbance. While we typically trend toward stability and shy away from disturbance, we know unsettling events will happen. So, we try to be ready for them, use them as a resetting point, and work to make ourselves more resilient as quickly as possible going forward. How we respond to disturbance determines how quickly we recover in that quest to eventually make ourselves better.

In the prairie…

The same goes in native plant communities on the Plains. Disturbance is a natural and important element in maintaining a prairie ecosystem. While fire and grazing are two disturbing elements, they have ironically been prairie stabilizers for thousands of years. Without their occurrence on a semi-regular basis to knock back woody plants, prairies will be invaded by shrubs and trees and transition to woodlands and eventually forests in a manner of decades.

Fire and grazers also expose and disturb soil. In the spring, fire removes a cold-insulating organic matter layer, blackens the soil surface, and heats the soil profile. Hooves of grazers stir soil and buffalo wallows clear existing vegetation. Burrowing mammals of the prairie also stir up and expose soil. All of these activities encourage the germination of early successional forb seeds in the soil seedbank that attract unique species of wildlife in biological diverse prairie. Disturbance is not only good for the prairie, but it is essential.

In this sidewalk-lined prairie garden…

Ever since the new sidewalk was installed summer of 2020, the adjacent soil in 2-4′ zone of disturbance on either side has been bare. The vegetation in these areas prior to disturbance consisted of native prairie grasses and the occasional prairie wildflower. But after this soil disturbance, annual weeds will explode from these areas come spring. It may have been 40 years since this site was a farm field, but I guarantee that the agricultural nonnative and native annuals brought in by years of farming, including species like henbit, foxtail, and ragweed, will profusely germinate here in a few months.

A Unique Opportunity

These sidewalk edges have been an important educational resource over the last 15 years. Thousands of students, from Kindergarten through college-age, have studied them for plant and insect diversity via field trips and labs. School teachers participating in our Earth Partnership for Schools summer institutes and classes of master gardeners and master naturalists have also gotten in on the sampling of these areas each fall.

Field trip students conducting insect studies of sidewalk edge prairie habitat
A science teacher studying sidewalk edge prairie habitat during an Earth Partnership for Schools summer institute

Over these years, I’ve noticed that tall native prairie grasses, including big bluestem, Indian grass, switch grass, and eastern gamma grass, have come to dominate these sidewalk plantings, while wildflowers have slowly gotten crowded out. Frankly, these plantings needed some disturbance to break the grass stronghold and provide a window of opportunity for an infusion of new species.

Rather than discourage with herbicides the germination of annual weeds and grasses sprouting from roots along this disturbed sidewalk edge, we decided to plant a native wildflower mix to offer hearty competition. We chose a diverse array of colorful flowering prairie species desirable to human eyes and insect pollinators alike. The sports adage that “the best defense is a good offense” certainly fits our approach to the ecological restoration of this sidewalk edge.

Seed Mix

Sidewalk edge seed mix including 43 species of forbs

Prairie Moon Nursery offers a nice array of prairie wildflowers with historical range into the mixed/tallgrass prairie of Kansas. I went through their seed inventory and chose all the species that I know from regional prairies (with a few exceptions). A nice summary of other seed and plant sources can be found through Kansas Native Plant Society. The developed species list amounted to the following 43 species, representing a variety of heights, colors, and bloom times and should add a nice diversity of plants and eventually wildlife to these areas.

FORBS
Allium stellatumpink wild onion
Anemone canadensisCanada anemone
Asclepias sullivantiismooth milkweed
Asclepias tuberosabutterfly milkweed
Asclepias verticillatawhorled milkweed
Asclepias viridisgreen antelopehorn milkweed
Aster azureussky blue aster
Aster novae-angliaeNew England aster
Baptisia albawhite wild indigo
Baptisia australisblue wild indigo
Brickellia eupatorioidesfalse bonset
Callirhoe involucratapurple poppy mallow
Chamaecrista fasciculatayellow partridge pea
Coreposis palmataprairie coreopsis
Dalea candidumwhite prairie clover
Dalea purpureumpurple prairie clover
Desmodium canadenseshowy tick trefoil
Desmodium illinoenseIllinois tick trefoil
Echinacea angustifolianarrow-leaved coneflower
Echinacea pallidapale purple coneflower
Eryngium yuccifoliumrattlesnake master
Lespedeza capitataround-headed bush clover
Liatris asperabutton blazing star
Liatris punctatadotted blazing star
Liatris pycnostachyaKansas gayfeather
Monarda fistulosawild bergamot
Oenothera macrocarpaMissouri evening primrose
Penstemon digitalissmooth penstemon
Penstemon grandifloruslarge beardtongue
Penstemon tubaeflorustube beardtongue
Phlox pilosaprairie phlox
Pycnanthemum virginianummountain mint
Ratibida columniferalong-headed coneflower
Rudbeckia hirtablack-eyed susan
Ruellia humiliswild petunia
Sisyrinchium campestreprairie blue-eyed grass
Solidago missouriensisMissouri goldenrod
Solidago speciosashowy goldenrod
Tradescantia bracteatabracted spiderwort
Tradescantia ohiensisOhio spiderwort
Zizia aureagolden alexanders
SHRUBS
Amorpha canescenslead plant
Ceanothus americanusNew Jersey tea

I was sure to omit species that would be aggressive as they are in nearby gardens and will eventually invade on their own. The mix for 1,000 square feet was calculated to be planted at a generous rate of 73 seeds/sq. ft. (50 seeds/sq. ft. is what I recall to be a minimum industry standard) This cost us $171.20 including shipping and a $50 mixing fee for orders under $200.

Eye candy from the Prairie Moon Nursery catalog

Planting Process

We pushed to get this seed ordered and delivered as early in the winter as possible. I like to aim for December, but have planted in January also. Different wildflower species require various types of treatment/stratification for best chance of germination, but a general successful approach is aiming for 2-3 months of cold-wet conditions (a typical winter) that will lead to the best rate of germination possible. After receiving the seed, we proceeded as follows…

Seed mix from Prairie Moon Nursery

Mix seed with bulk

We used sand, but mixing sawdust, kitty litter, or other media with your seed will do. The seed will seem like an incredibly small quantity of material to spread over a large area and adding bulk material helps increase the chances that you will cover the entire planting area with seed.

Dividing mix evenly into planting areas

A supply of 5-gallon buckets is helpful to divide the seed/bulk material mixture into even quantities that match the number of even-sized planting areas. To give yourself a reserve quantity of seed, I recommend doubling the number of seed quantities per planting area. For example, we had two sides of sidewalk to plant, and prepared four buckets of seed. Cover each planting area with one bucket and then do the same again with the second bucket. If you blow it with the first bucket and don’t cover the entire area – which is easy to do – then you have a reserve bucket to finish the job.

Raking planting area

Good seed/soil contact is the goal to encourage seed moisture absorption and improve germination once an average soil temperature of 55 degrees F is reached in the spring. There was some dead plant debris covering our planting areas, so we raked the areas before planting.

Raking the planting area prior to seeding

Dispersing seed

Seed dispersal is easy by hand and probably most successful when conducted with bare hands so you can feel the seed mixture, if you can keep them warm on a cold day. But standard handheld or rolling push-behind broadcasters could also be effective. More sophisticated seed drills calibrated to specific seed sizes are not very effective with mixes containing various sizes and textures of seeds like we were dealing with.

A final raking

While not an essential step, we had the human power and time to do a light final raking after planting to barely cover the seed. You want to be careful to not bury small seeds too deeply. Seed planting experts often advocate for allowing nature and its powers of freezing/thawing, precipitation, and gravity to work the seeds into the top 1/8-inch of soil throughout the course of winter.

Follow-up

Moisture and frozen ground are now what we wish for

Most of the work is now finished with this planting and the main job in follow-up as we look forward to colorful, flowering wildflowers throughout the growing season is to have patience. While a few species like black-eyed susan, wild bergamot, and yellow partridge pea may flower in the first couple of years of this planting, most species in the mix won’t flower until year three or longer.

Photo used by permission from Nature Education-1995 Conservation Research Institute, Heidi Natura

It will be difficult to think of this planting as anything other than a complete and utter failure in the first year when all you can mostly see are weeds. However, careful inspection should show in this first growing season that small sprouts of prairie species hidden close to the ground are there. Prairie wildflowers develop deep, 5-15 foot root systems to help them survive for years and even decades through harsh Kansas summers and that process takes time. About all we can do is mow the planting area as high as possible once or twice each year in the first few years to keep annual weeds from going to seed and reduce their competition with prairie seedlings for light and water.

My friend often refers to the sage advice of Frog and Toad after a planting. I will follow her lead and leave you with this message as there is little left to do…

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.