Colorado Cousins of our Kansas Native Plants

Hikers passing through high elevation mountain meadows often catch glimpses of a number of familiar flowers. In fact, many of the mountain meadow natives are closely related to our Kansas native plants.

With nearly daily rain showers, the subalpine grassland meadows of the southern Rocky Mountains are bursting with wildflowers this summer. Rocky Mountain subalpine wildflowers are adapted to high elevations with cooler, shorter summers, longer, colder winters, and intense sunlight. Small, silvery, sun-reflecting, hairy leaves, ground-hugging growth habits, and clumps of showy pollinator-attracting flowers help these Colorado species survive. With a short growing season, flowers are produced and set seed in what seems like record time.

Kansas natives often share similar adaptive features—silvery, fine, hairy, leaves, and similar pollinator-attracting showy flowers –enabling them to survive Kansas’ long, hot summers and cold, dry winters. Although time and physical barriers have separated most Colorado and Kansas native plants into unique species, a few remain as a single species. Let’s take a look at a few of these Colorado cousins.

Raspberries blooming on Raspberry Mountain in early July in the shadow of Pike’s Peak. Photo by Janelle Flory Schrock.

Columbine (Aquilegia spp)

Kansas’ wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) blooms during the cooler, moister spring months of the year, and seed is immediately dispersed. Blue columbine (Aquilegia coerulea) – Colorado’s state flower – blooms in July, taking advantage of the sunshine and warmer days of summer in the high mountains.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) doesn’t change species between Kansas and Colorado, but the blooming time does! While yarrow blooms in late spring in our Kansas prairies, in subalpine mountain meadows, it blooms in July, taking advantage of the sunshine and pollinators of mid-summer. There is little chance that, should they be grown together, cross-pollination could occur between these quite different ecotypes.

Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum)

Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum) is another wildflower species that remains the same from Kansas to Colorado. Again, the time of flowering differs. Kansas individuals bloom in spring, and Colorado individuals bloom during similar temperature conditions that occur at the height of the high altitude summer.

Alpine Parsley (Pseudocymopterus spp.)

Members of the carrot and parsley family are commonly found in both Kansas and Colorado. Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) grace our gardens in spring, while high mountain meadows are filled with the yellow umbels of mountain parsleys in July.

Primrose (Oenothera spp)

The white, night-blooming showy evening primroses (Oenothera speciosa) typically appear in May and June in Kansas. Come July, their diminutive Colorado cousins, (Oenothera spp) make their appearance in rocky niches and along trails.

Locoweed (Oxytropis spp.)

Locoweed (Oxytropis spp.) fills Colorado mountain meadows with patches of bright pinks, blues and lavenders. Like the wild indigoes (Baptisia spp) that brighten Kansas prairies and pastures, locoweed is a nitrogen-fixing legume. Both are also toxic to cattle, sheep and horses.

Ragwort (Packera spp.)

Ragworts (Packera spp.) are delightful yellow flowers of shade and sun. Colorado’s ragworts are commonly found along a trail’s edge in July. Kansas’ golden ragwort (Packera plattensis) is one of the first wildflowers to brighten winter-weary landscapes in April.

Penstemon (Penstemon spp)

Penstemons (Penstemon spp) are abundant in the Rocky Mountain subalpine meadows in July. Generally short in height and with smaller flowers, they nonetheless add deep, rich lavenders, blues and purples to rocky niches and trailsides. Their taller Kansas cousins precede them, blooming in late spring.

Jacob’s Ladder (Polemonium spp.)

Hike through a subalpine, shaded, moist forest, and suddenly you may encounter a faint scent of skunk, indicating that you have stepped on Jacob’s ladder, a lovely blue-flowered species that hugs the ground with ladder-like leaves. In Kansas, Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans) is a woodland spring ephemera with striking blue, bell-shaped flowers, and yes, the scent of skunk!

Shrubby cinquefoil (Dasiphora (Potentilla) fruticosa)

Shrubby cinquefoil (Dasiphora (Potentilla) fruticosa) is commonly found in high mountain meadows in July. It is just one of a number of cinquefoils that commonly grow at high elevations. Bright yellow flowers attract numerous pollinators. In Kansas, prairie cinquefoil (Dasiphora (Potentilla) arguta), also a shrub, blooms in scattered clumps throughout the summer.

Goldenrod (Solidago spp.)

Our Kansas goldenrods tend to be taller, filling the late summer prairies and pastures with swaths of yellow. They are the harbingers of autumn, blooming in late August and September. Subalpine goldenrods can’t wait that long. The diminutive Rocky Mountain goldenrod begins to flower in mid-July in the high montane meadows, adding their golden color to the seasonal procession of color.

These are just a few of the many familial relationships that exist between Kansas and Rocky Mountain native plants. Next time you travel west, take a moment to find a familiar “face” in the wildflowers at your feet!

Soil Is Alive

“ . . . most of us rarely give any thought to the fact that the ground beneath our feet is a complicated, ever-moving tangle of rocks and animals and plants and water and chemical compounds that rivals the ocean as a wild, dark mysterious, and inscrutable realm.”

Farming with Soil Life. https://www.xerces.org/sites/default/files/publications/19-051.pdf

Many of us garden for wildlife, choosing native plants that provide vital shelter, food and habitat for a diversity of species. However, the soils in which our native plants grow also play an important role in the success of our native gardens. Soil is alive! Let’s dig deeper into this “wild, dark, mysterious, and inscrutable realm that is soil.”

Soils Function

  • Soils are a medium for plant growth, anchoring roots, and also soaking up the nutrients, water and air that plants need to grow. 
  • Soils store and filter water. The pores between soil particles, created by roots and animal tunnels, capture and hold precipitation, where it is available to plant roots. The water-holding capacity of soils is also important in reducing erosion and flooding. Soils also filter water, degrading and removing contaminants as it moves downward through soil layers to become groundwater.
  • Soils recycle and store organic material. Bacteria, fungi, insects and a host of other organisms decompose once-living plants and animals, producing organic material that can be used by living plants and animals for growth, maintenance and reproduction. Organic materials also store carbon, sometimes for centuries! This function helps mitigate climate change. 
  • Soils are habitat for wildlife. From large to small, many animals burrow, nest or hibernate in soil. Animal movements in soils contribute to soil health by continually aerating, churning and mixing. 
  • Soils are an engineering medium. Humans use large amounts of soil for construction and engineering projects. Little construction could be done without soils.

Soil Composition

Soils are composed of both living and non-living elements. Non-living minerals and rocks – soil particles of silt, sand and clay – intermingle with living elements to produce a unique mix of physical, chemical and biological properties that vary from region to region. 

Soil Life

A teaspoon of healthy soil holds more living organisms than there are people on earth – 700 billion plus. Moreover, there are more different kinds of living organisms in the soil under our feet than there are living on top of the ground, from the microscopic to large insects. Together these soil organisms form a complex food web that makes life more livable for all of us.

Let’s take a look at some of these “little things that run the world.”

Bacteria. Microscopic soil bacteria are by far the most ubiquitous organisms living in soil. Bacteria play important roles both in decomposition, and in fixing nitrogen.

Free-living soil bacteria

Rhizobial bacteria live in nodules on the roots of legumes (pea and bean family), converting atmospheric nitrogen into compounds that the plants use. In return, rhizobium receive sugars from the legume – a symbiotic relationship.

Rhizobial nodules on the roots of a legume.

Protozoans. Living in the water film surrounding soil particles are single celled protozoans. As predators, decomposers and consumers of bacteria, protozoans are important in nutrient cycling.

Single celled protozoan between soil particles

Fungi. Soil fungi are diverse in shape, size, form and function. Some are single-celled, others are multi-cellular. Most are beneficial, contributing to decomposition and nutrient recycling.

Mycorrhizae on roots. Note the web-like extensions that absorb water and nutrients from the soil.

One noteworthy group, the mycorrhizal fungi, live symbiotically with roots, enhancing nutrient and water uptake in the roots. In return, mycorrhizae receive sugars.  More than 80% of the plants on earth have relationships with mycorrhizae.

Tardigrades. Also known as water bears, tardigrades are as big as the period at the end of this sentence. Tardigrades are predators and omnivores.

Tardigrades generally live in leaf litter and the top 1-inch of soil.

Nematodes. Nematodes can be predators, fungivores, bacterivores, omnivores, or plant parasites. They also disperse bacteria, carrying and excreting bacteria as they move through the soil. Nematodes tend to be found in water films within soil.

Beneficial nematodes

Mites. Mites are important predators and decomposers. They break leaf litter down, making it available to smaller organisms. Mites are abundant and diverse and can be found from the soil surface to deeper soil layers. Depending on the species, mites feed on everything from bacteria, fungi, algae, and dead plants and animals, to insect eggs, nematodes, other mites and springtails. 

Soil mite diversity

Dwarf millipedes. Dwarf millipedes are decomposers, fungivores, herbivores and scavengers. Moving through pore spaces in the soil, they are typically found around roots. 

Dwarf millipede

Springtails. Springtails come in all shapes and sizes. They feed on dead plant and animal materials, often in the top layers of soil and in leaf litter. They are so named because of their tail-like structure that enables them to jump a short distance. As decomposers, they contribute to nutrient availability in soils.

Earthworms. Earthworms are perhaps the best known of soil creatures, and their contributions are well-known: mixing and aerating soils, and distributing nutrients and minerals in their waste. 

Worldwide there are more than 7,000 species of earthworms.

Centipedes. Centipedes are predators, and they are fast runners, sometimes chasing their prey. They eat earthworms, and other insects, large and small, injecting venom to paralyze and kill their prey.

Centipedes can be found in shallow to deep soil layers.

Spiders. As predators, spiders are important in controlling other insect populations. Underground dwelling spiders also contribute to soil mixing and aeration.

Wolf spiders live underground. Females can carry up to 100 young on their backs.

Beetles. The tiger beetle is just one of a host of insects that spends the larval stage of its life in soil. Both larva and adult are predators. Larval tiger beetles are predators, feeding on other insects on the soil surface. Tiger beetle larval burrows can be 18” deep.

Tiger beetles are fast-moving hunters, chasing prey on the ground surface

These are just a few of the millions of organisms that live in the soil under our feet. All are important in maintaining healthy, productive soils. 

Here are four tips to support underground wildlife, large and small, in the soils in your garden:

  1. Disturb the soil as little as possible. Tilling and digging disturbs and damages the soil food web.
  2. Grow a diversity of plants. Different species of plants add and remove different compounds from the soil, creating more diverse conditions for the organisms living in the soil
  3. Keep living roots growing in the soil for as much of the year as possible. Roots feed living organisms in the soil.  
  4. Keep the soil covered with dead plant material. Mulch not only protects the soil from drying out fast, but it also feeds the decomposers, which are then eaten by other living things.  If you want healthy soil, you should not see it very often!

Soil wildlife makes your prairie garden grow. Protect it! 

All photos courtesy of USDA Soil Resources Conservation Service.  https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/photogallery/soils/health/biology/gallery/?cid=1788&position=Promo

Reference:

Hopwood, Frische, May and Lee-Mader. 2021. Farming With Soil Life: A Handbook for Supporting Soil Invertebrates and Soil Health on Farms. Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. https://www.xerces.org/sites/default/files/publications/19-051.pdf

Insects: The little things that run the world

They pollinate 90% of the flowering plants on earth; and they eat plants, the crucial first step in changing plant energy into the fats and proteins that feed hosts of other animals. In so doing, insects sustain Earth’s ecosystems.  They truly are, in E.O. Wilson’s words, “The little things that run the world.”

Yet globally, insect populations have declined by 47% since 1974, a loss that translates into a decline in the very ecosystems that sustain all life on earth, humans included! 

https://www.audubon.org/news/yards-non-native-plants-create-food-deserts-bugs-and-birds

What can be done to reverse this trend? By restoring native plant communities in yards and gardens, we can help reverse insect losses and restore ecosystem health to our yards and gardens. 

Why native plants? In study after study, it has been shown that native plants host many times more insect species than do non-natives. 

Which insect groups are most important? In Nature’s Best Hope, author Doug Tallamy suggests selecting native plants that support two important insect groups: large, nutritious insects (think caterpillars of butterflies and moths) and bees. Caterpillars are the mainstay of most bird diets; and native bees perform the lion’s share of pollination. 

https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/pollinator-of-the-month/halictid_bees.shtml 

Where can I find resources for host plants native to my area?

Planting a diversity of native plants chosen for their ability to provide food for caterpillars and flowers for nectaring bees, ensures not only a prairie garden filled with a diversity of insects and birds, but also a garden that contributes to a healthier environment. And it is all happening right outside our door! 

Reference: 

Tallamy, Douglas W.  2019. Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press.

Gardeners make EVERY DAY Earth Day

One week ago today was the 50th Anniversary of the first Earth Day demonstration in 1970. The Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts are lasting results of that first Earth Day! Yet much more remains to be done, and it can’t happen on just one day of the year. Earth Day reminds us that every day is Earth Day.

As gardeners and stewards and of our immediate environment, we are already making a difference in our own backyards and communities. As we explore and connect with nature each day, we are establishing a care ethic to make positive decisions for the environment, present and future.

Support biodiversity at home

This year, Earth Day recognized the enormous challenges – and vast opportunities – of climate action. So, what better place to start climate actions than in our native prairie gardens? Native prairie gardens are – by their very nature – pollinator gardens. They attract an abundance of pollinators (and other small creatures as well) throughout the growing season. In so doing, they help conserve biodiversity, protect species threatened by climate change, and restore ecosystem balance.

But native gardens do so much more to mitigate climate change. They hold and conserve water, store carbon in extensive root systems, build fertile soils, and help maintain cleaner air. In tending native gardens, we benefit as well by experiencing beauty, joy, and a sense of well-being.  

Pollinator Garden Resources

You can celebrate Earth Day every day by joining Earth Day 2020’s campaign to Protect Our Species. Because the Monarch butterfly is currently vulnerable and declining, it is one of ten species directing the Earth Day Network’s conservation efforts in 2020. Earth Day 2020 provides an informative Pollinator Garden Toolkit, and Pollinator Garden Worksheet to help you plan or add to your pollinator garden. 

Then, attend the online FloraKansas Native Plant Festival, with its large selection of hearty, native flowers, grasses, trees and shrubs suitable for a diversity of habitats. If you have questions, FloraKansas has experts available too!

Connect to the broader community

Last, but not least, invite your neighbors, friends and family to join you in your efforts to create pollinator-friendly spaces. Garden by garden, we can create a mosaic of native habitats that benefit a broader community of both pollinators AND people!

Photo: A native metallic green sweat bee Agapostemon sp gathering pollen from wavy-leaf false dandelion Microseris cuspidata. (Lorna Harder photo taken 20 Apr 2020)

References:

Fall Gardening for Spring Bees

Shorter days, cooler nights, bronzing prairie grasses and asters in bloom – all herald the arrival of fall on the prairie. However, as this year’s abundant growth recedes, our garden’s care and keeping into the fall and winter will affect both plants and pollinators in next year’s garden.

Mason Bees

One of our most desirable spring pollinators is the Mason Bee; and our prairie gardens provide great habitat for this species. You can begin planning now to attract this special native bee species.

Mason bee (Osmia sp) females carry dry pollen in a patch of hairs on the underside of the abdomen, a feature they share in common with other females in the leaf-cutting bee family (Megachilidae).
Photo By Rollin Coville (https://www.motherearthnews.com/nature-and-environment/wildlife/types-of-bees-osmia-mason-ze0z1311zcov)

Mason bees are solitary nesters. They are incredibly efficient pollinators (one Mason bee can do the work of 60 honey bees), and they are docile. In March, adult females emerge, mate, lay eggs for 4-6 weeks, and then die.

Eggs are laid in a series of small chambers the females build within tunnels of dead wood or hollow plant stems in a protected spot. Each egg is provisioned with pollen and then plugged with mud, hence the name “mason.” Eggs develop for the remainder of the year. Allowing stems and dead woody plant materials to remain in our gardens in fall and winter preserves developing Mason bee larvae that may be present. 

Create a Nesting Box

Because a number of our North American native bees, including Mason bees, are in decline, native gardeners can further encourage Mason bees by adding nesting bee boxes. Bee boxes are simply made, whether from wood, bamboo or cardboard.

Simple, untreated wood block nesting bee box with holes plugged.
By Red58bill – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6022789

As you plan for spring, you might include a bee box-making day as a winter project. Install your bee box in a dry, warm, protected spot early next spring, make sure there are a number of nearby sources of pollen and mud, and you are welcoming one of our most interesting native bees, the Mason bee, into your spring prairie garden!

Citations: 

Further information on Mason beekeeping: