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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
In our greenhouse and nursery, I work very hard to create a hospitable environment for pollinators and wildlife. This means limited use of pesticides and herbicides. Unfortunately, greenhouse pests flourish when uncontrolled and can lead to devastating crop losses. They affect the appearance of our plants, which in turn affects how well they sell. This year, to minimize my use of insecticidal soap spray, I tried using Mantises as greenhouse predators instead.
Finding and Identifying Egg Cases
While cleaning garden beds this spring, I found many mantis ootheca (egg cases) hanging on branches of shrubs and trees. The egg cases can easily be spotted in areas of dense vegetation that stay standing through the fall and winter. Non-native mantis ootheca are round and bulbous, but native North American mantises (Stagmomantis carolina) have a long, flat egg case resembling a tiny trillobite.
I carefully cut the cases away from the parent plant, leaving the egg sac attached to its branch. I then placed those egg sacs in our unheated greenhouse, sticking the end of their twig into potted plants that often get pest problems in early spring.
For two months, nothing happened. But in mid April when the days were consistently sunny and warm, they finally hatched out in a giant wriggling mass!
They were fun to watch, and they dispersed themselves all across the greenhouse. But when it comes to aphid control, they were not voracious enough. In the past I used lady bugs and parasitic wasps as predators, both of which preyed on more aphids and at a faster rate than the mantises.
Do Not Order or Buy Mantises
I would not recommend ordering mantises from any garden center or organic pest control website — often they send the non-native type that are more likely to cause problems than solve them. Mantises are indiscriminate, and eat beneficial insects like bees, caterpillars, and even prey on hummingbirds.
I had fun experimenting with them because they were readily available to me on our grounds, but I would otherwise be cautious of using a nonnative insect for pest control. The best pest control method for residential gardens is a diverse planting that attract lots of pollinators and predators. These insects will find a balance amongst themselves!
One of the best parts about my job is working in the greenhouse. Yes, it is usually hot and humid in there, and yes my feet are always wet. But none of that seems to matter when I am surrounded by butterflies! With little wind and lots of native blooms, the greenhouse attracts butterflies of all shapes and sizes.
In the greenhouse and in the garden, Agastache (aka anise hyssop or hummingbird mint) is a fan favorite for butterflies, bees and wasps. Sometimes they are so full of pollinators I don’t want to water and disturb them! ‘Blue Boa’ is a great garden variety, and grows best in hot sun and well drained soil. Agastache foeniculum is better for less formal spaces, as it tends to spread readily by seed.
Will Sweat for Butterflies
While working in the greenhouse during the summer months, it isn’t hard to break a sweat. Butterflies will occasionally land on my skin and get a taste of the water-soluble minerals in my perspiration, giving me a great opportunity for up-close viewing and sometimes even a photo. Remember to avoid touching their wings when handling butterflies; this can damage the delicate scales and structures that allow them to fly.
Do you remember a time, in summers past, when your porch light was covered in moths? Or maybe you remember moth carnage left on your windshield after a drive at night? With moth populations in steep decline, those sights are harder to come by.
Moths, like most insects, are not faring well in an increasingly human-dominated world full of pesticides, mono-culture crops, and urban sprawl. Especially troublesome for moths is artificial light at night.
True darkness has important implications for biological processes in humans and animals. For millions of years, life evolved with the sun, moon and stars as the only light source (with an occasional fire here and there). Within the last two hundred years, artificial, electric light has forever changed the night sky and the way we interact with darkness.
Start by keeping the outside of your house as dark as possible. Consider turning off outdoor lights after a certain hour. Then install native plants to feed your moth friends! Like butterflies, most moths drink flower nectar. Some are active by day, others prefer to feed at night. White or pale flowers are attractive to night feeding moths because they are visible in low light. Moths are also attracted to heavily scented flowers, and those that open late in the afternoon or evening.
Any garden designed for pollinators will support moths as well. Plants like Liatris spicata, Asclepias tuberosa, and Aster leavis are perfect for attracting all types of pollinators to the garden. But consider adding more white flowers to hopefully spur some moth activity. Native options available to order for no-contact pickup at FloraKansas include:
For patio containers, consider Gardenia or Datura.
Moths are fascinating creatures. Some are as large as hummingbirds, others as tiny as your pinky nail. Some moths evolved so closely with the plants they pollinate that they have become completely co-dependent! They have a special ecological role in our biome, and deserve our attention and conservation.
At the Arboretum we talk a lot about how to support pollinators with native plants because we are concerned about the sharp decline in their populations. However, frogs and toads have experienced sharp population declines as well, but without the fanfare and media attention. In fact, nearly one-third of the world’s amphibians are threatened or extinct. Perhaps it is the slimy skin, bulgy eyes and webbed toes that make us less sympathetic to their plight. Whatever the reason, we need to put it behind us and rally around these lovely little hop-alongs before it is too late!
What is Making Them Croak?
Many factors have led to the dramatic declines in amphibian populations world wide. One prominent issue is habitat destruction and pollution. Amphibians are especially susceptible to these issues because their skin is part of their respiratory system. Even small amounts of pollutants in water systems can seep into their bodies through their permeable skin layer. Or, a change in the habitat such as logging or damming can change the humidity levels within a forest, making it uninhabitable for amphibians with very specific living conditions.
Rain gardens are a great way to attract frogs and toads to your area. Amphibians are lovers of cool, damp places, such as the shaded banks of a rain garden, which provide ample shelter and attract a plethora of insects for a froggy buffet.
Catch the rainwater from your roof in a shallow depression, and plant the edges of the depression with water loving natives like marsh milkweed, cardinal flower, switchgrass, and Virginia iris. Visit our previous post for more info to start your own rain garden, or attend our Native Plant School class on rain gardens.
Fungus Among Us
Cytrid fungus is devastating the world’s frogs. While we haven’t yet pinpointed how and why the past ten years have seen such dramatic increases in cytrid fungus spread, we do know the pet trade has made the problem even worse. Exotic animals shipped from around the world bring with them exotic pathogens. This exposes native frogs to illnesses they never evolved to resist. Demand for exotic pets also hurts frog populations due to over harvesting specimens from their home country. All in all, it can be a sketchy business. Do your part by not keeping rare and endangered frogs as ‘pets’, and never release a ‘pet’ into the wild. When handling native frogs, leave them in the same area you found them to avoid potentially contaminating new populations.
Eye on the Fly
While the frogs are watching flies, you can be watching the frogs! Be part of the citizen science effort to track frog populations with FrogWatch USA. Learn their calls, spend time outside, contribute to a nationwide science initiative — a fun way to spend spare time in the spring and summer!
I hope to start my own rain garden this year in my side yard. If I get any froggy visitors, you can bet there will be a blog post about it!
Prairie gardens can sometimes be seen as messy. I have heard it many times while discussing garden plans with Arboretum members. They don’t want it to look too wild. This is a very natural tendency; humans like order, we like patterns, we don’t like chaos. But it is evident by the decline of bird, amphibian, and pollinator species that our desire for the tamed, picture-perfect lawn is ecologically unreasonable.
“What is good in terms of ecological function is often disorderly, and what is neat and tidy is often not sustainable.”
– Planting in a Post Wild World, 2015
Joan Nassauer of the University of Michigan does some excellent writing, thinking and teaching on the idea that humans will respond better to ecologically friendly landscapes if they look intentional, framed, and well managed. I think the first and easiest way to achieve this for beginner prairie gardeners is to carefully manage plant height. Choosing short plants preserves sight lines, scales down the planting, and helps the viewers of your landscape more feel comfortable, less hemmed in by foliage. Here are some of our favorites!
Petite Garden Performers
Hymenoxys scaposa (prairie sunshine)
Hymenoxys has become a new favorite landscape plant for me. Perfect near sidewalks and in tight spots. It is a tiny little powerhouse of bloom if you keep it in full sun. Beware of planting it in a wet spot; soggy soil shortens its lifespan.
Scuttelaria resinosa (skullcap)
This plant makes a short, rounded clump of purple-blue flowers. It thrives in dry, poor soil and isn’t as aggressive as other mint family plants. As a bonus, it also has some interesting medicinal benefits.
Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’
Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’ offers all the great qualities of Amsonia – colorful fall foliage, blue spring blooms – but stays under 18 inches. Wonderful as a filler plant for any gaps in the garden.
Oenothera macrocarpa (Missouri evening primrose)
Missouri evening primrose is an underused landscape plant. Less than a foot tall, this spring stunner is great around sidewalks or trailing ever-so-slightly off rock edging. The blooms are large and eye catching early in the season.
Sporobolus heterolepis (prairie dropseed)
Last but not least, prairie dropseed is a short prairie grass that can be used to blend different colors and species together. Because grass acts as a unifying element it helps to lead the eye from one area to another.
All these plants will be available at our spring FloraKansas Native Plant Festival. Staff members will be there to help you choose the best plants for your space. We can make recommendations for a beautiful, ecologically friendly landscape.
This is the time of year I get the most reading done. With no vegetable garden to tend and little watering to do, I finally have a little time to cozy up with all the books I have been neglecting through the year. Specifically, books related to nature and the environment. If you want to stay connected with nature through these long, cold evenings, choose one of these great reads. And don’t forget to join our nature book club! Here are a few book reviews to pique your interest.
This non-fiction story follows Bair through struggles and self discovery as she grapples with the fate of the family farm. A story many Kansans can relate to, Bair is torn between her love of the land and the destructive agricultural practices her family uses to make their living. Set in western Kansas, readers are treated to sunny vistas of shortgrass prairie, colorful sunsets and relaxing horseback rides. Though at times I felt the prose was lacking, the story never lost its grip on me. An important warning cry for the Ogallala aquifer, and a call to action to protect this precious resource.
Published in 1992, this books continues to provide perspective into human civilization’s contentious relationship with planet earth. Made mostly of dialogue, the reader enters an “adventure of the mind and spirit”. Through simple, well-paced conversations between teacher and pupil, we get a fresh look at our agricultural society, and how humans might have arrived at such a violent relationship with the land that sustains us. Sure to spark conversation, this is an impactful, thought-provoking book. It continues to color my thoughts and actions long after I returned it to the shelf.
I won’t give away too much since this is on our nature book club list! Lab Girl is a non-fiction account of Jahren’s life and work in the natural sciences. An accomplished geobiologist, she offers a story that is part memoir and part love story – a love of plants. Hope Jahren dives deep into the mysterious and life-giving qualities of plants, soil and seeds. It’s not a quick-paced book that enthralls you, and at times I wished it moved along at a faster clip. But it may just be the perfect book for late winter, when you’re dreaming of summer and the return of green things.
Keep a look out for more book reviews this winter and early spring. I am on a mission to finish a new book each month so long as the cold weather holds!
Winter is a great time to curl up on the couch and enjoy some cozy relaxation. But for wildlife, it is a three month battle for survival! There are many ways we can help wildlife get through these difficult months. Of course, the best way to attract and support biodiversity is to fill our landscapes with native plants, providing seeds, host plants, shelter, and an active soil biome. But if you missed the boat on planting this past year, there are still some things you can do today to attract furry and feathered friends.
I am an avid birder, so I love to put out feeders in winter when food is scarce to witness a diverse set of species as they drop by. Make sure your feeders are hanging high, away from potential predators (read: neighborhood cats!) and that they offer high-value feed like sunflower seeds or suet cakes.
Besides birds, I like to see rabbits and other small mammals hanging around. Toss out food scraps like carrot skins or wilted salad greens, either in a compost pile or along a fence line to attract rabbits and opossums. (Opossums?!? Why would you want them around? Here’s why)
I used to live near a small field that is home to deer. Some people in our neighborhood scatter corn on the edge of their yard to draw them out of the woods. They come out just as the sun is going down, peacefully nibbling the grains.
When the temperatures plummet, puddles and streams freeze over, becoming inaccessible to the animals that desperately need a drink. Heated birdbaths do the trick, but an inexpensive option is to frequently refill a cement birdbath, less likely to crack than porcelain ones. I dump a pitcher of water into my birdbath before I head to work, giving the birds at least a little bit of drinking time before it freezes over again. Easily make your own cement bird bath like this one, a similar process to what we do every year in the EPS summer institute for teachers. I keep my birdbath low to the ground so that it is accessible to birds, but also to other passing friends like rabbits and skunks.
A brush pile is a great and easy way to create high-quality shelter for birds and small mammals. Find a forgotten corner of the yard and collect sticks, limbs, leaves, and other brush into at least a 3 foot by 5-foot stack. Forget taking all that stuff to your local dump; save yourself the work and create habitat for neighborhood critters.
Additionally, planting a few evergreens in the landscape protects tree-dwelling animals from the icy winter winds. Though eastern red cedar is Kansas’s only native evergreen, I have a few other favorites that do well in our climate. Look for Taylor Junipers at our sale (a cedar selection) for a pencil-shaped evergreen good for limited space. Arizona cypress and Green Giant Arborvitae are good non-native options.
Spring is, remarkably, just around the corner. Start planning now for how you want to improve your landscape with native plants so you are ready when FloraKansas arrives! A garden with food, water, shelter, and a diverse set of native plants will attract wildlife season after season, year after year.