Spring Ephemerals: Don’t wait!

Because of the tendency for some spring ephemerals to go dormant in hot weather, there are a handful of plants we only offer at the spring Florakansas event. Shooting star, liverleaf, and jack-in-the-pulpit are all beautiful woodland species and that show off in spring then disappear for the rest of the year. If you wait until fall to buy these beauties, you likely won’t find them on our greenhouse benches! Though Florakansas is over, we still have some of these plants in stock, and I will be happy to chat with you via email if you’d like to purchase them.

Hepatica americana

Hepatica blooms very early in spring, sometimes even through the snow.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Also known as liverleaf, this petite plant puts on small star shaped flowers and is very hardy. Great in moist to medium-dry shade, it will perform in the garden without any fuss. The flowers can be white, or even a light blue or pink at times. Blooms close up at night and open on rainy days, a charming movement in the early spring garden. The leaves hug the ground at only 2-3″ tall, so it fits well near edging or walkways.

Dodecatheon media

Shooting star comes in pink and white. Whichever color you choose, they are sure to delight as they spring up in April on leafless stems. With a flower unlike any other, this native oddity is a conversation starter and always a welcome harbinger of warmer days to come. Plant in a part shady spot where the soil won’t become waterlogged, as they may rot. Once finished blooming in May, the plant disappears completely only to surprise you again next spring!

Arisaema triphyllum

Photo by Fanmartin via Wikimedia Commons
Native range of A. triyphyllum according to the USDA plants database

Jack-in-the-pulpit is a fascinating plant that looks more like it belongs in the tropics than in Kansas. Native to eastern Kansas and much of the mid to upper east coast, this plant spreads slowly underground to form lush colonies of lobed leaves and spathe blooms. The blooms are green externally, but often turn burgundy red inside, eventually giving way to interesting red fruits in fall. But take care, though they may look delicious, these fruits are not edible!

Other spring ephemerals that go dormant during summer and are only offered in spring are Mertensia virginica (bluebells) and Podophyllum peltatum (mayapple). Though Florakansas has ended and the shopping hours are over, if you still need a few plants please email arboretum@hesston.edu to reach a staff member and we will be happy to help.

FloraKansas FAQs

For long-time members and newbies alike, FloraKansas is an exciting time. The thrill of finding the perfect plant, the joy of meeting like-minded gardeners, the rush of fear that we might sell out of your favorite species; it can all be a lot to take in! Though we make small tweaks each year, there are a few things you can plan ahead for.

Our greenhouse gets quite full during the plant sale, and we are happy to see these plants go to new homes!

Member Day

The Thursday of Florakansas is always member day. This means ONLY members can purchase plants that day. If you are not a member and would like to come on that day, you are welcome to purchase a membership at the same time as your plants.
FAQS:

  • “Can I bring a friend who is not a member?” Yes, if you are a member or planning to become one, you may bring a guest.
  • “How do I know if my membership is current?” There are 3 ways to find out: Search your email for a renewal receipt, find the date on your membership card, or contact our office.
  • “Do I need to bring my membership card?” No, but it sure is helpful for our staff!
Member day is a busy time. It is a great time to mingle with plant experts and enthusiasts as well as first-timers. Staff and volunteers are always nearby to help!

Organization

So much to see, so little time! Grasses, trees, shrubs and vines are in the gravel area outside the greenhouse while the herbaceous plants are inside the greenhouse. Each aisle in the greenhouse is labeled by category, and a full explanation of each category is available here. We have a shade aisle for native and non-native plants that prefer 7 hours or less of direct sun, an adaptable aisle full of non-native garden favorites that grow well in our region, and a Natives for Sun aisle jam packed with true natives from Kansas and our bordering states. Using our native plant guide will help you find what category, and therefore what aisle, your desired plant will likely be found. And of course, staff and volunteers are always happy to help!
FAQs:

  • “Why include plants native to other states?” Over thousands of years, native species ranges have shifted and continue to do so based on the changing climate. Plants don’t care about state lines, so we do our best to offer a diverse set of plants from the Great Plains and Ozark regions that work well in many microclimates and garden types while still adding to a healthy ecosystem.
  • “Why do you carry non-natives at all?” There are many plants not native to our area that still perform well in our climate and add great beauty and habitat to the garden. Offering these adaptable plants, as we call them, ensures our customers can continue to purchase familiar and reliable garden favorites along with lesser known natives as they expand their gardening knowledge. Since FloraKansas is our largest fundraiser, offering a wide selection of plants allows us to absorb the higher cost of growing and purchasing those hard to find natives.

Pre-Order and Pick Up

This is a map from our 2020 plant sale procedures, but it remains fairly accurate. While we don’t need 5 pick up spots now that the pandemic lockdowns have lifted, we still ask that folks who are picking up follow this flow of traffic and stop near the greenhouse for staff to assist.

Members get the added benefit of pre-order service (closed as of April 11). This means you can send us your order before the sale via our online order form and staff will box up your plants for pick up. No shopping or waiting in line! You may pick up your plants as soon as you receive the invoice via email, or you may come to the sale in person. If you decide to shop the sale in addition to pre-ordering, please keep your new purchases and your pre-order separate. This cuts down on confusion at the cash register. FAQs:

  • “How do I know my order has been received?” Once you fill out the form on our website, you will see a prompt that thanks you for your order. This is the only confirmation you will receive until your order is processed.
  • “How do I know when my order is ready?” When you order is processed and ready for pick up, you will receive an email. This is an invoice, with directions for pick up times and procedure. Once you see this in your inbox, your plants are ready for you!
  • “Can I order plants for someone else who is not a member?” As long as a current member is the one filling out the form and paying for the plants, yes. This is a great time to encourage your friends to become members as well!

BYO?

Boxes: We provide cardboard boxes to shoppers, but you are welcome to bring you own! Volunteers spend weeks helping us collect discarded boxes from local grocery stores. If you bring your own, we can cut down on our collection time.

Pots: Do you have pots from last year you would like us to reuse? If so, bring them with you! We will happily accept OUR POTS ONLY, since they match our pricing and storage systems.

Consider bringing these other items to help your FloraKansas shopping trip go smoothly: your membership card, measurements and pictures of your landscape site to show a staff person, a wagon or cart for your plants. Wagons will be provided, but we occasionally run out during busy times!

FloraKansas is as exciting for staff as it is for our patrons. We get to see our longtime friends and meet new faces. Staff can hear about the progress of gardens we helped design, and smile at the stories of wildlife enjoying the habitat these plants create. We can’t wait to see you all there!

FloraKansas Greenhouse Guide

When you visit the greenhouse during our FloraKansas fundraisers, you may notice some signage hanging over the aisles: Shade, Adaptables, Natives for Sun. This post will help you make sense of how we organize the species so you can find exactly what you want and start planting!

Use the aisle markers to help you navigate the greenhouse. You may also find it helpful to bring your Native Plant Guide with you,
helping you remember the names and attributes of the plants you are interested in. Photo by Amy Sharp Photography.

Shade

In the north aisle you will find shade plants, both native and adaptable. These plants will appreciate all day dappled sun or less than 6 hours of direct sun per day. By nature, many of these plants like a bit more water than their sun loving counterparts. There are lots of great options for dry shade, however, which is common in Kansas’ suburban neighborhoods. Use your native plant guide or the placard over each species to know which plants like it dry or moist, and help you select the right plants for your site.

Shade Garden
The native columbine Aquilegia canadensis thrives in the Arboretum shade garden.
This is one of many shade-tolerant species you can find at FloraKansas.
Geranium maculatum ‘Crane Dance’ is a hybrid of two parent G. maculatum types. This plant can tolerate droughty shade and has excellent fall color. Photo courtesy Walter’s Gardens

Adaptables

Heptacodium, also known as Seven Son Flower, is a shrub from northern Asia. While it is not native here, our butterflies sure do love it!
Hardy and drought tolerant, it has become one of our favorite adaptable shrubs.
Monarchs on Seven Son Flower at Dyck Arboretum, 9/20/2020 – Photo by Gerry Epp

The center aisle is for Adaptables. This is our catch-all term for non-natives that still deserve to be included in our sale. Maybe it is because they are a well-known garden classic, like peonies or hibiscus. Perhaps they are new and unique, appealing to the adventurous gardeners in our customer base. No matter the reason they initially caught our eye, we consider the following before we add them to our inventory:

  • do they reliably preform well in our area?
  • are they known to be non-invasive?
  • do they still benefit our local pollinators and birds?
  • are they particularly water-wise or hardy?

We research every plant that goes into this aisle to make sure these species deserve a spot at our sale, and have something special to offer our shoppers.

Natives for Sun

Lastly the Natives for Sun aisle is by far the most jam packed and diverse of the three, alphabetized by latin name for all those botany nerds out there. These plants are native to KS and our bordering states. We research the historical ranges for these plants. We also research which horticultural varieties we carry are naturally occurring or intentionally hybridized by breeders. Information is always changing on this topic! When considering whether it is ‘native enough’ for this aisle we also consider factors like how the flower form and leaf color has potentially been changed by humans, which can affect its function in the ecosystem.

Ratibida columnifera is a native prairie plant you would find in our Natives for Sun aisle.
It loves hot summer days and open spaces! Photo by Emily Weaver.

Our greenhouse was built in 2008, and has changed the way we operate our fundraiser in a big way. Before we had a greenhouse, Florakansas was held in the parking lot! I am so glad those days are gone and that our greenhouse is the permanent home for Florakansas, a center of activity for volunteers, and a warm place to escape to in late winter. We hope to see lots of you enjoying the greenhouse at our spring sale!

All About Asters

Spring hasn’t even started and I am already looking forward to fall. Why? Asters. They are hardy, long-blooming, and attract tons of pollinators. Planning ahead and planting asters now will ensure you have lots of color through October and even into November. If not now, then by the time they are blooming and you remember how much you like them… it will be too late!

There are lots of great asters available at our biannual Florakansas fundraisers. Sun-loving, shade-tolerant, and a myriad of colors to choose from, it can be overwhelming to decide on a variety. Check out Scott’s previous blog on asters to learn about a great variety of native asters. Here I will cover only those not included in that blog, as well as new varieties available at our upcoming FloraKansas event.

Aster lateriflorus ‘Lady In Black’

‘Lady In Black’ is quite showy with dark foliage and masses of bright flowers. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Calico aster is a lesser known species, but has a lot of garden potential. The ‘Lady in Black’ variety has dark foliage and white to blush colored flowers with pink centers. It looks great planted in masses, paired with sturdy grasses around it for support like Panicum ‘Northwind’ or ‘Purple Tears’. Its arching stems are graceful, and add a lot of energy and movement to a prairie garden or meadow planting.

Aster sericeus

File:Symphyotrichum sericeum (15354337036).jpg
Aster sericeus has a light purple flower, slightly cupped foliage and wire stems. Photo from Wikimedia Commons
By: peganum from Henfield, England, CC BY-SA 2.0

One of my personal favorites, it is often overlooked for flashier species. Silky aster is diminutive but tough as nails, and its wiry stems offer nice contrast to its light green, hairy leaves. It has a silver tint to it, especially from a distance, so it adds a wonderful cool tone to any hot, sunny place in the garden. It has a somewhat prostrate habit, so it benefits from sturdy plants around it for support. I’d pair this with Schizachyrium ‘Jazz’ or even some old fashioned lambs ear as both would bring out the blueish-silver tone of the foliage.

Silky aster is native throughout the Flint Hills and mixed grass prairie areas.
Map from USDA plants data base.

Aster novae-angliae ‘Grape Crush’

New England asters are known for their late blooms and towering height. As much as they are loved by pollinators, gardeners have come to curse them for becoming too tall and floppy. ‘Grape Crush’ is a shorter, denser variety. It keeps a much tidier habit and has a deep purple color. We will also have ‘Purple Dome’ New England type, which is very similar but perhaps with a slightly earlier bloom time. We are excited to try planting some ‘Grape Crush’ around our grounds this season!

Also available this spring…

  • Aster nova-belgii ‘Anton Kippenberg’ (a New York type that doesn’t flop, blue flowers in early fall)
  • Aster ericoides ‘Snow Flurry’ (less than 6″ tall, full sun/dry soil, toughest plant around)
  • Aster leavis ‘Bluebird’ (full sun, tall and floriferous!)
  • Aster divaracatus (white flowers, good in shade)
  • Aster cordifolus (white to bluish flowers, taller than A. divaricatus, good in dry shade)
  • Aster dumosus ‘Woods Blue’ and ‘Woods Purple’ (very short and compact)

Name Change

Note that many aster species have formally changed their taxonomic name to Symphyotrichum. Due to modern research and genetic study, botanists have found that not all asters belong in the same group, so Symphyotrichum is a new genus name that will help us better understand this huge family of plants. In our native plant guide you will find this name change already in action.

The New Kansas

Compared to the average human lifespan, Kansas is old. 160 years old to be exact. But before it was a state, it was just one unbounded part of a vast Great Plains grassland landscape. It was home to millions of bison, nomadic and agrarian Indigenous people, and lots of grass. Before European settlement in this area, Kansas was dominated by grasses. Woody species had little chance of surviving the dry weather patterns and frequent fires. But times have changed. Cities, towns and homesteads come with lots of tree planting and a cessation of the much needed fires that keep the grasslands grassy. Our modern neighborhoods don’t resemble these ancient landscapes. So how can we truly plant native species if much of our garden space doesn’t have prairie conditions anymore?

View from the observation tower at Maxwell Wildlife Refuge.

Understand Your Microclimate

Microclimate is all about the conditions in a very specific area. A microclimate might include your entire yard, or just that one spot on the side of your house. Factors like windbreaks, ambient heat from foundations, or compacted soil from foot traffic mean that your garden spot is completely unique. You may have built-in irrigation, or get extra run-off from your neighbor’s roof, or have a leaky water faucet that saturates the soil around your garden. All this adds up to a very different set of conditions from the historically treeless, windy, dry prairies of early Kansas. Your ‘prairie garden’ might not be right for all true prairie plants.

This graphic is from the great guide, The Tallgrass Restoration Handbook available from Island Press. In the book it is used to show the prairie continuum as it moves from prairie to oak savannah habitats. I like to use it as an artistic illustration of time as well. Each box can represent our state at a different time period: at the top is a relatively treeless Kansas with mostly open grassland. In the middle we see early settlement and homesteading with trees planted and less fires, and at the bottom is a depiction of our state today with much more tree cover in our cities, towns, and cleared pasturelands.

Native vs Near Native

Hearing your yard isn’t compatible with plants native to your county or region is a real bummer. But perhaps your garden is just perfect for, say, Ozark native plants. In a medium-to-dry shaded yard with root competition from mature trees, the forest flowers of the Ozarks will perform much better than prairie plants, even though they are not native to your county. Considering how species have shifted to and fro over millennia, these neighboring species are still water-wise and beneficial for wildlife. Maybe your yard is sandy/rockier than expected. Try far western Kansas or Colorado species. Plants in that region love extremely fast drainage and dry conditions. Unless you are a professional conservationist intentionally restoring wild area as closely as possible to its original species population, it doesn’t pay to be too pedantic in the garden.

Packera obovata is native to eastern Kansas, but is more commonly found in the open woods of Missouri and Arkansas.   

Crank up the Chainsaw

If you want to plant prairie species, you need open space and sun. Cutting down trees can make this a reality! It sounds scary, but removing trees from your yard is okay. We have been led to believe, via international tree planting campaigns, that all trees are sacred. But that’s not the case in our area. We should absolutely preserve heavily forested ecosystems that host wildlife dependent on trees. Think: Congo Basin, Amazon, Taiga, etc. But the Great Plains grass-dominated ecosystem functions best with fewer trees.

Our wildlife thrives in a relatively tree-less environment. If you have non-native, unnecessary trees in your yard, consider removing them to create more sunny space for your prairie perennials. Down with invasive ornamental pears and Siberian elms. Yes, even some native Eastern red cedars should be ousted. Unchecked, they are a huge problem for prairies. If this seems too extreme, you can simply limb up your trees to allow more light through.

Good land stewardship sometimes means taking down trees. If those trees are invasive species, diseased, or taking up space where native prairie plants could be thriving, then down they go!

The Right Plants for the Right Place

Folks often ask why we don’t only offer Kansas natives. They also ask why we sell plants with special horticultural varieties as well as the straight native species. Because most of our customers are homeowners aiming to feed birds and provide pollinator habitat, we offer options that will perform well in the reality of residential environments. This might mean their yard isn’t right for what is truly native to a 50 mile radius. Or perhaps the space is better suited to less aggressive, taller/shorter, or seedless horticultural variety that fits their garden dimensions.

We hope to help everyone, regardless of their garden situation, to find beneficial plants that create habitat and bring joy. Offering plants to the whole plant-loving spectrum, from the newcomer planting their first wildflower to the experienced native plant purist looking for local eco-types, we are here to educate and assist.

Little Bluestem Varieties

Schizachyrium scoparium, also known as little bluestem, is the official state grass of Kansas. And for good reason! It is found in every county of Kansas, produces an incredible amount of biomass per acre, and is host to nine species of skipper butterflies. No fertilizer or fuss required, it will grow well in harsh conditions and poor soil. Little bluestem is a great grass to add to your landscape if you want something ecologically beneficial, water-wise, and colorful.

Variety vs Species

Because it is such an impressive plant, little bluestem has gotten a lot of attention from the horticultural industry. Professional breeders have selected and cultivated many new varieties. Humans have been selecting and breeding desirable traits into plants for thousands of years, so we are getting quite good at it by now. Customers looking to buy little bluestem have a lot of options to choose from in terms of height, habit, and color palette. While they are all still S. scoparium, they all offer something different that might benefit a certain landscape use. Below is a comparison of several options and their traits to help you decide.

Little bluestem is known for its fine foliage and multitude of colors.

S. scoparium

The straight species, as we say, is the regular old wild type. S. scoparium that’s propagated by seed is genetically diverse from every other little bluestem growing around it. In contrast, most cultivated (named) varieties are propagated by division, meaning they are exact genetic copies of each other. This ensures the same coloration and habit. But if you don’t need that kind of aesthetic assurance, the classic little bluestem is a great option. You’d find this growing in prairies, pastures, and field edges. Pros: genetic diversity, great for restorations, wildlife areas or pastures, usually cheaper than branded varieties. Cons: floppy, not as colorful as other options, height is less predictable.

‘Jazz’ Little Bluestem

Foliage height: 1.5 to 2 ft
Total with bloom: 2.5 ft
One of the main differences between bluestem cultivars is height. ‘Jazz’ is a great solution for folks who want bluestem, but need it to be shorter than the regular species. A variety brought to market by Intrinsic Perennials, ‘Jazz’ usually stays under 24 inches and has a very bushy, upright habit. Pros: short, full and fluffy, upright. Cons: not as colorful as other options

Here you see two types of little bluestem in winter. ‘Jazz’ on the right, is shorter and fuller than the ‘Twilight Zone’ next to it. They also have subtle differences in color.

‘Twilight Zone’ Little Bluestem

Foliage height: 2 ft
Total with blooms: 4 ft
Known for its incredible coloration, ‘Twilight Zone’ is a fan favorite. Year after year we sell out of this one, and even our suppliers can’t keep it in stock. It has a powder blue coloration on the grass blades, followed by deep purple tips in fall. Mid-height, it is not as tidy and compact as Jazz but still stands up well with minimal floppiness given the right conditions. Pros: unbeatable blue color. Cons: too tall for some applications, may flop if partially shaded or in rich soil.

Adding lots of cool tones to the garden, ‘Twilight Zone’ works well with companion plants in purple, blue and yellow, such as Russian sage, gayfeather, golden Alexanders, and alliums. Photo courtesy Walters Gardens.

‘Blaze’ Little Bluestem

Foliage height: 2 ft
Total with blooms: 3 ft
If you like red, ‘Blaze’ is the choice. This variety is lush and green all summer, then packs a punch in fall with its deep red/orange/pink tones that delight all winter. ‘Blaze’ was actually bred as a high-yield pasture grass in the 1960s, but has been lauded for landscape use because of its beauty. ‘Blaze’ is especially nice in mass plantings. Pros: red fall and winter color, vigorous growth. Cons: flops easily if soil is too rich

The deep red stems of ‘Blaze’ provide high contrast to the fluffy white seeds. Photo by Emily Weaver

I could go on and on about other favorites like ‘Standing Ovation’, ‘Prairie Blues’ and ‘Carousel’. No matter which little bluestem you choose, it will be a great low maintenance plant providing habitat and beauty all year long.

Island Renovation: Part I

During December Scott and I have been working on renovating and restoring the edges of the pond island. This beloved spot is where children like to feed the ducks and turtles, where couples get engagement pictures taken, and where visitors can spend a quiet moment near the water. Over the past 40 years it has eroded away in many places. Thanks to a grant from the Central Kansas Community Foundation and a generous anonymous matching donation, we are able to strengthen the island banks and keep it in good shape for years to come.

Rock Steady

The edges of the island were originally made of a redwood retaining wall, backfilled with rock and soil. While the redwood wall has stayed remarkably intact, the material behind it has eroded away. There was over a six foot gap in some places between where the bank used to be and where it is now! All that material has floated downstream during flood events and times of high flow. We are filling in these gaps with concrete and brick rubble.

Adding Soil

On top of the rock goes 4-8 inches of soil. This area will be home to a continuation of the prairie grasses and forbs currently growing on the island. Switchgrass, dotted blazing star, and purple prairie clover are already growing well on the higher areas of the island. I hope prairie cordgrass, river oats and Kansas gayfeather will colonize lower portions of our new island edge in the coming years.

We will seed this area, as well as allow the neighboring plantings to spread naturally into it. Controlling invasive weeds here will be a high priority next spring and summer as this soil likely contains unfamiliar weed seeds, some of which may be noxious or highly invasive.

Out of Bounds

We are also dumping rubble on the outside of the redwood retaining board. This will help stop erosion, support the board in light of all the new weight being dumped behind it, and create a substrate for future aquatic plants. In spring that outer rock layer will become a substrate for planting new aquatic species. We hope to add hibiscus, lizards tail, equisetum, marsh marigold, pickerel weed, and other native pond plants.

The red line shows the wooden retaining wall. This was the original bank, and it has now been restored with rock and a layer of soil on top. By adding rock on the outside of that, we are able to strengthen it even more and hopefully create a useable substrate to hold future aquatic plantings.

Maintaining the grounds is a big job. The needed repairs never end, and it can get expensive. Donations, memberships, FloraKansas purchases, and all the other ways you support the Dyck Arboretum helps keep these acres safe and accessible to the community.

Thank you to all who gave to this pond renovation initiative. Keep your eyes peeled for future updates on the planting and growth of this new pond edge!

O Cedar Tree, O Cedar Tree

Here is a repost from a few years ago about using local cedar trees for your Christmas decoration this year, for the ecological benefits and the fun folksy style!

This past weekend I cut down a red cedar to use as my Christmas tree; just the right shape and size and with the right amount of character. I feel great about cutting one of these trees out of the wild (an Arboretum staffer condoning tree felling? Yes!). Red cedars are beautiful, strung with lights and tinsel, but they have become a real pest in the Great Plains ecosystem. Here are a few reasons to skip the plastic tree or spruce farm and simply cut yourself a cedar!

Any Christmas tree, cedar or artificial, can benefit from some ecologically conscious decorations. Dried grass and seed heads of prairie plants look magical amongst warm white lights, but are biodegradable.

Cedars have become invasive

Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) is native to Kansas and much of central and eastern North America. Native though they are, the USDA labels cedars as invasive, and rightfully so. Too many pastures and meadows are overgrown with cedars, choking out native grasses and wildflowers. Without natural wildfires and regular controlled burns, cedars have been allowed to flourish in places that historically would not have been suitable. The tallgrass prairie is one of the most rare and endangered ecosystems in the world, and the invasion of cedars upon open grasslands decreases species richness, changes soil composition and even threatens indigenous wildlife. If you are a landowner looking to do maintenance of your grassland or clear it of cedar trees, Dyck Arboretum can provide helpful information.

The woody plants in this photo have completely run amuck in a landscape that should be dominated by grass. Randy Rodgers has a wonderful essay here on the impacts of trees encroaching on the prairie.

Cedars degrade the prairie ecosystem

Grassland dependent birds, insects and small mammals become displaced or outcompeted when red cedars populate formerly open land. The University of Nebraska has compiled a lot of data on this subject at The Eastern Red Cedar Science Literacy Project, where you can find informative and alarming tidbits like:

“Grassland birds are the most rapidly declining avian guild in North America (Fuhlendorf et al. 2012) and are rarely observed once juniper exceeds 10% of land cover (Chapman et al. 2004).” (Twidwell et al. 2013)

and…

“An increase in overstory cover from 0% to 30% red cedar can change a species-rich prairie community to a depauperate community dominated by 1 (small mammal) species, Peromyscus leucopus.” (Horncastle et al. 2005)

Endangered and vulnerable species like the American burying beetle and the greater prairie chicken are only further threatened by the turnover of grassland to cedar forests. Cedars do have redeeming qualities – winter shelter and forage for birds, drought tolerance and erosion control. Red cedars certainly have their place in a hedgerow or small grove, but should be carefully limited from spreading.

Cedar trees make prescribed burning a little tricky, and can exacerbate wildfires by sending up flames much higher than other grassland plants do.
My coworker Brad has some great bumper stickers that encourage regular prescribed burns to prevent cedar overgrowth.

Cedars are a ‘green’ choice

For all the aforementioned reasons, cutting a cedar for a Christmas tree is already a very ecologically conscious decision. But there is more! Unlike plastic trees, cedars are biodegradable and can be used for firewood or garden mulch. Also note that conventional Christmas tree farms providing spruce or firs require lots of resources:

  • clearing/agricultural development of land
  • years of regular water input
  • pesticides to keep needles bug free
  • shipping and fuel costs to get the trees to distributors around the country

Why don’t we skip all that frivolous resource usage and cut down some of these pesky cedars instead? You can feel good about a tree that’s low on carbon waste but high in old-fashioned, folksy quality.

Get permission from a farmer, landowner or your county land management officials before you start cutting. They will likely be happy to get rid of one, and you may get it for free (more money for gifts, yippee!) and enjoy a lovely, cedar-scented home this holiday.

Calling it Cuts: Tree Care

If you have been walking at the Arboretum lately you may have noticed some bare spots. Some big bare spots. We have been cutting down dead trees and clearing brush. It can be sad to say goodbye to something that has been a part of our landscape for so many years; casting shade, catching wind, housing birds. But there are lots of great reasons to break out the chainsaw and cut. Not sure when the time is right for tree care? Here are some guidelines.

Safety first! Make sure you are using proper eye and ear protection before you embark on your tree felling adventures.
And don’t go it alone if you can help it — enlist help from family and friends to be spotters and extra hands in case things get dicey.

Disease

A tree harboring disease has got to go. Weather it is in an Arboretum or a neighborhood, diseased trees can sometimes spread their illnesses and cause a lot of damage. Be they mites, fungus, or viral pathogens, keep an eye out for health problems. Certain diseases, like pine wilt, that are spread by nematodes or beetles require the burning of affected wood to prohibit the spread of the disease to other trees. Be kind to your neighbors and dispose of wood properly to avoid contagion.

This pine was slowly dying, and was finally cut down to make room from a row of bald cypress in this area. A naturally wet and clayey spot, they should preform much better here than pines.

Crowding

A good tree in a bad place is not a good tree at all. We have lots of volunteer trees around the Arboretum thanks to a healthy squirrel population. But not all these saplings live to see old age. We cut truckloads of volunteer trees, even desirable oak and maple species, if they aren’t in the right location. Our goal here at the Arb is to create a naturalistic, not exactly ‘natural’ environment. This means curating and editing where trees are allowed to grow, and what species we want to showcase. Because our prairie biome depends on fire and grazing to keep woody species at bay, any area not exposed to those controls turns into an unmanageable forest pretty quick! In your own yard, choose carefully the species and placement of the trees you allow to sprout, and get rid of the rest. This will not only create a more aesthetically pleasing affect, it also allows you to eliminate non-native or invasive species.

This beautiful burr oak was 6 inches around and 12 feet tall, but had grown up in an inconvenient area too close to our other mature trees. It can be painful to cut down a specimen like this, but it is necessary to create well-spaced plantings.

Damage, Age, and Safety

We all get old. And certain tree species don’t age gracefully. From ice storm damage to weak wood, geriatric trees pose a special maintenance dilemma. How to preserve the healthy part of the tree, the shape, and the form, but cut out the dead? I am a lassiez-faire arborist, meaning I prefer to leave a bit of dead wood whenever possible. If the limb is not diseased and does not pose a hazard to nearby trees, why not leave it as habitat? Cavity nesting birds need dead wood to make their nests out of, and insects make their home in there, becoming food for hungry woodpeckers and chickadees. However, if limbs are dangling precariously or pose a safety hazard near structures or walkways, it must be cut immediately.

Discovering Host Plants

My phone is chock full of caterpillar photos. It seems I am constantly stooping down to examine another caterpillar, and to document what it is eating. I am a big fan of all insects, but especially these charismatic transformers. With their plump bodies and endless colors, it is not hard to see why people are becoming more interested in attracting them to the garden.

Viceroy caterpillars can be hard to spot. They disguise themselves as bird poo to appear less appetizing, and it works!
This one was spotted just off the sidewalk at the Arb eating willow leaves.

Host plants are a key part of that process. Caterpillars of all kinds often have a specific food plant or plant family that they need to survive. While I am familiar with monarchs on milkweed and swallowtails on parsley, there is a whole world of interesting host plants out there to utilize in the landscape.

Potluck

My house cats can be picky eaters, but caterpillars are even worse. Many of these little creatures can only feed on a handful of plant species. Their mothers may have to fly miles and miles to find the right plant to lay her eggs on. That is why it is so important to support the native insects of your area by gardening with the native plants they have evolved with for millennia.

Recently I added a few new host plants to my mental list of must-haves for caterpillar habitat.

  • Aspens and willows for viceroy butterflies
  • Primrose and lythrum for sphinx moths
  • Baptisia for broom moths
  • Sumac for spotted datanas
A group of white-lined sphinx moths devoured a primrose patch. They also like to chow down on winged lythrum (Lythrum alatum), a great native plant for wet areas.
Genista broom moth caterpillars (Uresiphita reversalis) are a cheery shade of yellow. They love Baptisia and can make the plants look quite ragged. But, by the time these caterpillars are feeding heavily in midsummer, the Baptisia has already bloomed and is done for the season anyway.
These spotted datana (Datana perspicua) caterpillars are gregarious feeders, meaning you usually find them in groups with their siblings. They munched away on this aromatic sumac (Rhus aromatica) for a few days, and tripled in size!

Appreciate, Don’t Hate

As my knowledge of host plants grows, so does my appreciation for native plants and the intricate ecosystem they support. I am so encouraged to hear more people calling them friends rather than foes, and wanting to identify and observe rather than squish and poison. It is always best practice to pause before sprinkling that pesticide – your garden will thank you, since most caterpillars do more good than harm. Changing our perspective about caterpillars, and all insects, is key to maintaining a functional, healthy food web. If you are interested in finding more caterpillars in your Kansas landscape, reach out to the staff at Dyck Arboretum for consultation, follow our Facebook and Instagram accounts for educational content, and mark your calendars for next spring’s FloraKansas fundraiser!