From Lawn To Lush

Lawn alternatives are more than just a passing craze. They are a great way to reduce your carbon-footprint and increase pollinator habitat. I am excited to present a class this week on this very topic, and thought it might be nice to preview it here on the blog.

I replaced a large section of lawn at my own home, and instead planted with bluebeard, perky sue, sedum, prairie drop seed, Mexican feather grass, horsetail milkweed, and lavender. The violets came up on their own, and in hordes! But I leave them there because they are host plants for fritillary butterflies.

Cost over the ‘Lawn’ Haul

Traditional lawns of cool season grasses such as fescue and Kentucky blue grass have a wonderful place in my heart. They are great for entertaining, playing family games of badminton or throwing a Frisbee for the dog. But all that green space adds up: Kansas alone has 157,000 acres of turf and lawn, according to data from 2006 released by the KSDA. In that year, it cost Kansans an average of $1,541 per acre to maintain the turf grass in our state. So we end up with lots of grass, lots of money spent, but little to show in terms of habitat, soil health, or carbon sequestration.

Volunteers helped us plant our Sundial bed near the Visitor Center. The planting is dense and diverse, but is balanced well by the solid green of the fescue lawns around it and the tidy limestone edging.

Lawn Alternatives Bring Balance

Rather than villainizing turf grass and framing it as the epitome of all native landscaping evils, a symbol of a Eurocentric society ,obsessed with outward displays of status that date back to palaces and aristocratic practices of a bygone era….I choose to focus on balance. We must balance our love of flat, green, monoculture lawns with the urgent need for diverse native plantings. By converting some areas of your lawn to forbs, shrubs, native grasses and groundcovers, you gain interest and beauty and ecological benefits.

This home in Oklahoma has skipped the traditional grass lawn by planting shrubs and perennials around pathways/hardscape. The sidewalks keep it looking organized and also make for easy access to the beds. By Lebuert [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], from Wikimedia Commons

If you want to learn more about planting lawn alternatives, what species to choose and maintenance tips, be sure to sign up for our Native Plant School Series and catch my class tomorrow night!



New Native Plants: Part II

This is the second post in a two part series exploring new plants available at the spring fundraiser. After 22 years of Florakansas, we are still finding new garden-worthy natives to offer our community, and the commercial horticulture industry is always introducing new plant varieties to try.

Allium ‘Lavender Bubbles’

Allium ‘Lavender Bubbles’. Photo courtesy of Walter’s Gardens.

Ornamental onion is a landscaping favorite because of its tidy habit and pollinator-friendly blooms. We will have the native species A. cernuum and A. stellatum available, but when you need a bit more purple punch ‘Lavender Bubbles’ is the way to go. This variety blooms later in the summer than the well-loved ‘Millennium’, and has darker blooms.

Ephedra regliana

Ephedra regalia, known as joint fir, is a diminutive ancient plant that adds some evergreen whimsy to a rock garden or border planting. Photo by I, James Roberts, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Tolerant of alkaline soils and extreme drought, this plant can be found growing wild from Kyrgyzstan to China. A relative of ancient conifers, its showy red fruits develop in late summer. It absolutely demands good drainage, poor soil, and full sun. It would fit right in with a cactus garden or desert aesthetic.

Eupatorium ‘Prairie Jewel’

Variegated foliage of Eupatorium ‘Prairie Jewel’. Photo courtesty of Bluebird Nursery Inc.

Eupatorium altissimum is a native Kansas plant that does not get the credit it deserves. It is seen as a tall, gangly plant with small, unimpressive white blooms. I have begun to appreciate it more and more as a drought tolerant back drop plant; something to grow at the back of the garden to add height and greenery. I call the flowers ‘baby’s breath of the prairie’ because they are so useful in bouquets. The ‘Prairie Jewel’ variety has striking leaf coloration that keeps it interesting, even when not in bloom.

Calamintha nepeta var. nepeta

Calmintha nepeta var. nepeta blends into many garden styles and makes a lovely addition to the perennial garden. Photo by I, KENPEI, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

This is a plant I am very excited to try out in my own garden. Its white blooms and puffy habit make for great filler in weed-prone spaces that would benefit from dense cover and competition. Native to Europe, this mint family member carries its well-known pros and cons: it can be aggressive if left to spread unchecked, but it is beloved by pollinators.

Remember, members get first pick of the plants through pre-order services and our special Members-only Day on April 22. If you see some new plants here you just can’t live without, consider joining our growing membership of nature lovers! These plants and many more will be available to non-members April 23-26.

New Plants: Part I

There are no new plants; they aren’t flying in on a spaceship from a galaxy far, far away. But when it comes to Florakansas Native Plant Festival we try to keep the inventory fresh by always adding new offerings in our inventory. While we always offer the tried and true natives and adaptable we have come to love, we also want to offer a little something *new to you* every year. Sometimes this means finding a source of more obscure natives, or seeding them ourselves. We also work to get our hands on new commercial varieties of garden favorites.

And while February and March can seem long and cold, they also signal that FloraKansas is right around the corner! There is no better time to peruse the Native Plant Guide and get up to speed on all the goodies available.

Here are a few of the stand-outs (part II coming soon):

Geranium ‘Crane Dance’

Photo courtesy of Walter’s Gardens

Plant breeders cultivate most commercial varieties of Geranium from Geranium pratense, a species native to Europe and Asia. But this one, selected for its brilliant red fall foliage, is derived from the native G. maculatum. The blooms are an electric shade of blue.

Buddleia ‘Grand Cascade’

Photo courtesy of Walter’s Gardens

Easy to grow, with a thousand and one varieties, butterfly bush is a long-time garden favorite. ‘Grand Cascade’ boasts the largest blooms of any variety, with some 14″ long and as thick as my arm. It is not native to North America, meaning it is likely useless as a host plant for our invertebrates. But Buddleia is an undeniable favorite nectar source for many pollinators.

Plant your Buddleia near a window or patio to enjoy their sweet scent, and be sure to install true Kansas native plants nearby to complete the ecological garden trifecta: host plants for larval food, nectar for adults, and habitat to shelter and rest.

Thermopsis villosa

Photo by Bob Gutowski, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Better known as Carolina lupine, Thermopsis villosa is native to woodland clearings in the southern Appalachian mountains. Surprisingly drought tolerant once established, this plant will grace your garden with lemon yellow blooms reminiscent of Baptisia. Because its native range is the eastern US, we can assume it takes a bit more water than our dry, upland prairie species. Place this one in full to part sun, in an area that gets semi-regular watering.

Antennaria dioica ‘Rubra’

Photo by Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Pussytoes are ubiquitous, native all over the North American continent. In Kansas we most often see Antennaria neglecta, field pussytoes. They are short statured and white-flowered, a favorite for pollinators and a good groundcover, but not a showy garden flower. A. dioica ‘Rubra’ is a nice change of pace — it sports a bright pink bloom that you can’t help but love. Native to Alaska, this species is very cold hardy.

All of these plants and many more will be available at our spring sale. Peruse our Native Plant Guide to get inspired and make your plant list. Dyck Arboretum members may pre-order plants once the 2021 Native Plant Guide is made available. (Later in February.)

The second part of this blog post, New Plants: Part II is coming soon!

Feeling Edgy

Every good piece of art deserves a good frame. The same goes for gardens! A well-designed, ecologically friendly landscape needs to have borders and edging keeping it in bounds, not only physically, but visually. Joan Nassauer of the University of Michigan makes this point better than anyone in her text ‘Messy Ecosystems, Orderly Frames’.

Novel landscape designs that improve ecological quality may not be appreciated or maintained if recognizable landscape language that communicates human intention is not part of the landscape.

Nassauer, 2007

In layman’s terms, no matter how wonderfully water-wise and pollinator-friendly your garden is, if it looks messy, all the neighbors will hate it.

Proper edging can make a garden look tidier and more intentional. For prairie gardens that may be prone to look unruly, framing and clean lines are very important. Photo from Our Mother’s Garden entrance.

Beauty Standards

Messy, in this usage, is a unique idea borne from our Eurocentric culture. These traditional gardens and landscapes need to be constantly in order, with straight lines, perfect symmetry, short lawns and hedges trimmed into unnatural shapes. Those standards of beauty and acceptability come from the aristocracy of Western Europe; castles and manors with hedge mazes, rose gardens, and endless formal lawns.

In our prairie home, these ideas do more harm than good. Trying to maintain those landscapes of the old country is costly, labor intensive, and destructive. Kansas is hot, dry, and extreme in her fluctuations, unlike the place of my ancestors from Europe – cooler, moist, and temperate. And trying to make the natural world bend to my ideas of perfect order is an uphill battle and a waste of resources. But we can achieve an orderly, formal aesthetic by using proper edging in native landscapes.

Steel edging makes a strong statement. It lends a degree of formality and tidiness, even if the plants inside the edging are aggressive natives!
To install this stone edging, volunteers helped me dig a shallow trench against the sidewalk. We situated them an inch or so below the sidewalk, to make sure they sit tightly together and aren’t moved by heavy rains.

Choosing the Right Edging

Plastic. Metal. Wood. Stone. What is right for your space? This may depend on the design of your house, or the structure a garden is nearest to. It may also depend on the plants. For instance, species with vigorous underground spreaders that need control may require deep steel edging. My personal favorite is stone. If installed properly, stone never has to be replaced. Steel edging is becoming quite popular for its modern, industrial quality, but can be expensive for large spaces.

You can see here my own unfinished edging project. One side looks neat and tidy, and is holding its mulch and soil. The other side sans edging routinely erodes after rain events, sending my mulch and good garden soil into the gutter.
Steel edging is installed by hammering the sections into the soil, then joining them with clips at corners or joints. Mulch or gravel is then added around the edging according to the style you are trying to achieve.

If you are concerned about how your pollinator garden or native landscaping may be perceived by passersby, consider edging it. Edging adds an easily recognizable human element. Onlookers will see this space is purposeful, cared for, and important. And it just might convince someone to create a prairie garden of their own.

Silver and Gold

Even when the mercury drops and the snow flies, I am still thinking about gardening! Winter is the best time to sketch and plan; to dream up additions to your landscape so you are ready to install when spring arrives. Of course, at Christmas time my mind is always drawn to plants with silver and gold tones. Here is a little sample of some of my favorite holiday-colored landscape picks that can bring joy all year.

Short-Toothed Mountain Mint – Pycnanthemum muticum

Mountain mint is easy to grow and tolerant of a wide variety of conditions. The leaves develop a silver, dusty look that adds great texture to the landscape. Photo by SB Johnny via Wikimedia Commons

It is no secret that I am a fan of mountain mints. There are several species that grow well in our area, and I have planted them all! I appreciate its low maintenance habit, long lasting blooms, its usefulness in floral arrangements, and have I mentioned it is a pollinator magnet? Insects go absolutely bonkers for the hundreds of tiny white blooms that cluster at the top of the plant. P. muticum is a special favorite because of its wider, silvery leaves. A strong silver tone brings a coolness to the garden in summer, and nods to the first frosts of fall.

Gray Santolina – Santolina chamaecyparissus

Just outside our Visitor Center is a lovely gray santolina specimen. The jewel of our xeric garden year round, it is especially eye-catching when it blooms.

A Mediterranean native, this drought-loving plant is a fabulous ground cover. Plant in full sun and well drained soil, and forget about it! It needs no fuss, and rewards you with yellow, button-like blooms in early summer. The silver foliage stays attractive all year in our area, and has a powerful, sage-y fragrance.

I could also include the well known garden plants like Russian sage and Lamb’s ear in this list — both grow very well in Kansas and add that touch of silver compliments contemporary and cottage gardens alike.

Goldenrod – Solidago sp.

Goldenrods are, of course, a great way to add gold tones into your landscape. Toward the end of the growing season, when the sun streams in at a lower angle, these beauties come into bloom. Their golden flowers are not only beautiful, but they are a vital source of nectar for migrating monarchs. My favorite cultivated variety is S. rugosa ‘Fireworks’, but there are many good ones to choose from.

Switchgrass – Panicum virgatum

Wikicommons public domain image at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AUSDA_switchgrass.jpg
Switchgrass and big bluestem play well together, especially in dormancy when their bronze and red tones add some holiday cheer to the garden.

While I enjoy the lustrous green of switchgrass in summer, I really prefer how it looks in November and December: golden bronze arching leaves and fluffy seed heads holding a bit of morning frost. The gold tones of dormant switchgrass make it useful for decorating your Christmas tree (try slipping in few seed heads and watch the lights make them twinkle!) or for making dried wreaths and bouquets. Birds also love to nibble on the grass seed through the winter, so be sure to leave some standing to provide that critical habitat.

So go ahead, dream of spring! Anytime of year is a good time to make plans for improving your garden and landscape. Each season offers a new perspective on what colors, shapes and textures work well together. If you are lucky, perhaps someone will get you a Dyck Arboretum Membership or an eGift card to use at our FloraKansas Native Plant Festival for Christmas to help make your native garden dreams a reality!

Will Work for Lights: How We Prepare for Luminary Walk

It is that time of year again! Volunteers and staff are preparing for our annual Winter Luminary Walk event. This means stringing hundreds of extension cords and thousands of Christmas lights throughout the Arboretum. It may seem ridiculously early, but we often start this process the day after Halloween. (Do you think a Monster Mash/White Christmas remix would ever be a radio hit?)

Putting up lights is only half the work — fixing them is the real trial!

Where to Start?

Many folks wonder how we begin when there is so much area to cover. I like to start every year by stringing lights around the pond. This is an easy job that gets me mentally warmed up to spend the next few weeks working with lights and wires. Because we have been doing this for so many years, we have a pretty good idea of how many strands it takes to get around the pond (31) or tied onto the leaf house (3) or draped in the small prairie near the Visitor Center (18). We have some lights labeled for specific areas. Others are stored on spools so they can easily be unrolled and installed.

Style

Many public gardens throughout the US put on holiday light shows, and each is dazzling in their own way. Here at Dyck Arboretum we have a unique approach: we aim to highlight the natural landscape rather than cover it with colorful, flashy displays. We keep our style simple and classic. For example, we use only warm white Christmas lights, under-mounted spotlights, and thematically relevant features. Foregoing busy, strobe-like displays or loud music, we invite visitors to appreciate the forms and shapes of native trees in the quiet of a prairie night. You may hear an owl hooting as you stroll, or the sound of water trickling into the stream.

White swans float on the pond among reflections of our large footbridge and stately bald cypress tree. Photo from 2017 by Lowell Flory

Features

Over the years we have trialed many new features to keep Luminary Walk feeling fresh, even to repeat visitors. Some years we have lighted ‘swans’ floating on the pond and ‘bison’ grazing in our prairie. Other years we installed shooting stars high above our lawns and have created arbors, tunnels, and pendulous hanging ornaments. The only way to know what we are up to this year? Come and see for yourself!

In 2018 my father and I created a life-size wire bison to be strung with lights and displayed in the Prairie Window Project. We started by drawing a properly scaled silhouette of a bison and bent the flat steel into shape with pipe wrenches.

We hope this event can be a fun and festive time to meet with family and friends at a socially distant, outdoor venue. Visit the event page for ticketing and for information about how this event will be COVID-conscious, specifically:

  • adding event hours to reduce crowding
  • capping ticket sales per half hour
  • closing our facilities to indoor traffic
  • reducing the need for volunteer set up and take down
  • requiring face masks for all attendees
I focus on outdoor decorations, but the rest of the staff and volunteers have the job of beautifying our indoor facilities. Reminder: Indoor facilities will be closed this year.

Enjoy our holiday event Thanksgiving Weekend November 27-29 or Closing Weekend December 4-6.

Don’t Bug My Plants

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

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

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

Don’t Judge a Bug By Its Diet

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

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

A Funky (plant) Baseline

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

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

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

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

Doom and Gloom for Your Blooms?

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

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

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

Beautiful Bluebeard

Caryopteris, also known as bluebeard, is a family of shrubs native to Mongolia and northern Asia. When I first started working in the nursery trade, I regarded bluebeard as just another in a long line of fast and convenient non-native landscape shrubs. Boring and over-planted, I didn’t think it was anything to sing about. Now that I have planted it and cared for it myself, I have changed my tune!

This bluebeard in Our Mother’s Garden on the Arboretum grounds takes very little maintenance. I trim it a bit in early March and forget about it for the rest of the year!

Pollinator Palooza

Bluebeard may be non-native, but it still attracts a myriad of pollinators. Within a just few minutes of observation, I saw a silver spotted skipper, some orange skippers, carpenter bee, digger wasp (Scolia dubia) and many types of flies nectaring on a Caryopteris bush. It can be a nice addition to a pollinator garden, as long as that garden also includes some host plant natives as well.

I saw several silver spotted skippers feeding on my Caryopteris bush. I wonder if these were the same individuals who, just a few weeks ago as caterpillars, fed on my Amorpha fruticosa?

Wow Factor

When blooming in late summer and early fall, bluebeard is very showy. The dusty blue-violet blooms are stacked one on top of the other. But even without flowers, this shrub holds its own — the foliage comes in dark green or a light chartreuse, a huge benefit when trying to create a spectrum of greens in the garden. My favorite is ‘Sunshine Blue II’ with its light foliage and darker blooms. To create an eye popping contrast, plant them with dark-leaf shrubs like Ginger Wine ninebark. Or, mirror their neon hue elsewhere in the garden with a Tiger Eye sumac.

Bluebeard pairs nicely with feathery grasses like Nassella tenuissima (front left) as well as lime green tones like Tiger Eye Sumac (back left)

Easy Peasy

Caryopteris is perfect for the lazy gardener. It stays under 3 feet tall and takes minimal trimming and very little water. In our zone it tends to die back over the winter, so cutting a bit of the twiggy wood off the top before spring growth begins is all you need to do. I see why people love it now; convenient and easy makes for a great landscape addition!

There are lots of perfect places for bluebeard — in your home’s foundation plantings, out by your mailbox at the curb, or tucked into your prairie garden. Luckily, fall is a great time to plant! Find this and many more great picks at FloraKansas, our native plant festival and fundraiser.

New Favorite Plants

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

Phemeranthus calycinus – Rock Pink or Fameflower

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

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

Amorpha fruticosa – false indigo bush

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

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

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

Lythrum alatum – winged loosestrife

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

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

More favorite plants to come….

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

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

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

The Mystery of the Orange Bug

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

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

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

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

Step One: Photograph

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

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

Insect or other?

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

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

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

Step Two: Where is it?

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

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

The blooms of Smoky Hills skullcap. Photo by Craig Freeman

Step Three: Ask and Post

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

And the bug is…

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

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

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