Plant Profile: Kentucky Coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus)

When one thinks of the Great Plains, trees are often the last thing to cross one’s mind. Surprisingly this region is home to a number of species that have found their way into yards and parks throughout the United States. The honey locust, American elm, black walnut and silver maple are as common in front yards as they are along streams and patches of woodlands of the plains. One of the more beautiful native trees found in this region is the Kentucky coffeetree, a member of the legume family. Kentucky coffeetree can be found along the eastern portion of Kansas. The tree derives it name from a common practice among early Kentucky homesteaders of grinding the seeds to make a coffee-like drink.

Mature Kentucky Coffeetree (Wikipedia)

Though somewhat uncommon in landscape plantings, the coffeetree offers many ornamental attributes. A large tree, it can reach 60 feet in height with a 30 foot spread. As of March 2022, the Kansas Forest Service state champion Kentucky coffeetree, located at Fort Leavenworth, currently stands at 100 feet tall. As the tree matures, the bark forms scaly ridges with curled edges. In winter the ascending branches present a picturesque silhouette against the winter sky. Written descriptions have labeled the tree “clumsy” looking after the leaves drop. While young trees can appear awkward their first few years, mature specimens develop stout trunks and main branches, reminding one of their innate toughness and durability.

In spring the tree may be slow to leaf out, but the patient observer is soon rewarded with bipinnately compound, bright green leaves with dainty, ovate leaflets that give the tree a soft, fine textured appearance throughout the growing season.

The bipinnately compound leaflets

Kentucky coffeetrees are individual male and female trees. The botanical term for plants with male and female flowers on separate individuals is dioecious, a condition also found in Ginkgo, juniper, and Osage orange. Flowers appear in May and June as graceful racemes. The male flowers are somewhat inconspicuous and green-yellow, while the female flowers are somewhat larger and pale yellow-white. Both types of flowers are quite fragrant. Each of these flowers are favorites of pollinating insects.

Creamy white flowers in the spring (Wikipedia)

Fall color is often a subdued yellow and female plants will often produce a reddish brown pod filled with incredibly hard, round, slightly flattened seeds. The hard coats allow seeds to lay dormant in the ground for long periods of time until weathering and soil bacteria wear down the tough shell, allowing germination to occur if temperature and moisture are adequate. Professional growers often soak the seed in concentrated sulfuric acid to thin the coat enough for water and gas exchange (a dangerous practice for the average home gardener). Another option is to use fine sand paper to sand down the shells so several seeds will potentially sprout. Don’t sand too much.

Bean-like pods and seeds of Kentucky coffeetree

Due to the coffeetree’s large size and the sometimes “messy” pods from the female trees, it is often not the best selection for the average yard. However, it is well-suited to large open areas, along streams and in park settings. It is not particular about soil, but best growth occurs in deep moist ground. Drought tolerant, it experiences very few problems.

In the wild, small colonies of coffeetree can be found when new trees form from the root suckers. This is usually not a problem in the landscape if the tree is mulched and regular mowing occurs around the tree. Transplanting in most successful with small plants, because the tree develops a course fibrous root system that limits the transplanting success of larger trees.

In the Arboretum’s bird watch area, a small coffeetree is planted just below the big bridge.

I like good coffee. Lucky for us that our coffee supplies for drinking are more than adequate, but one should still consider this beautiful, tough native tree for your landscape.

Great Plains Skink

Great Plains Skink (adult form) from my urban garden in Newton, KS (May 28, 2009)

Increasingly, I find enjoyment in the wildlife attracted to my native plant gardens. One species I’ve especially loved seeing has been the Great Plains Skink (Plestiodon obsoletus). For at least 13 years (since I took the above photo), I have observed this species coming and going from under my garage or deck, around the foundation of my house, and to and from my native plant gardens. The combination of these habitats appears to provide suitable cover, food, and thermoregulation for this ectothermic (cold-blooded) reptile.

Identification

The adult Great Plains Skink averages 7-9 inches in length (as large as 13″) and is the largest, most common, and most widespread (nearly throughout the entire state) of the seven skink species in Kansas.

Great Plains Skink range map from the Kansas Herpetofaunal Atlas

Coloring ranges from tan with dark brown markings to light gray or olive. The following photos show some of the variations in colors and markings for this species from juvenile to adult.

Natural History

In addition to my urban gardens, it is referenced in the book Amphibians, Reptiles, and Turtles in Kansas (Collins, Collins, and Taggart, 2010) that the Great Plains Skink commonly inhabits open, rocky hillsides with low prairie vegetation. Their diet consists of spiders and a variety of insects such as grasshoppers, crickets and beetles.

Breeding occurs in May after which pregnant females dig deep burrows under rocks and lay 5-32 (average of 12) eggs. After a 1-2 month incubation period, hatched young skinks may take several years to reach sexual maturity.

Diversity in the Home Landscape

Landscaping with native plants leads to attraction of a variety of wildlife species. This bigger picture food chain or ecosystem connection between plants and the animals they support has become one of the most interesting and satisfying incentives of incorporating as much native plant diversity into my home landscape as possible. Whether these plant-animal or predator-prey interactions attract butterflies, monarchs or birds that eat them, birds in general, large beetles, fireflies, cicada killers, preying mantids, bats, or skinks, I’m intrigued with observing every single connection and the underlying story it tells.

I’ll leave you with the following observation…from just last night. We added a red fox to the list of species that has visited our urban home landscape. It spent about an hour in a tussle with a flexible plastic downspout tube in one of our gardens. This particular shade garden is where I have most recently seen a skink in recent weeks. Was “skink-in-a-tube” the cause for this entertainment? Will I see the skink again in this area? Whatever the case, I will enjoy continued observations and looking for answers.

Is there still a skink somewhere in this photo?

Roots of Native Plants

The prairie is a unique ecosystem with great diversity of plants. This diversity is extremely important because there are so many niches within the prairie. These are created by differing rainfall averages across the expanse of the landscape from west to east, different soil types and different depths of soil for plants to grow. This adaptability and resiliency of plants is correlated in part to the root systems associated with many native plants.

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

Plants grow in community

For so long, we have thought that the deep roots of many of these native plants translated to their ability to withstand drought and extreme temperatures. However, more research is pointing to the fact that most of the water absorption occurs in the top two to four feet of the soil profile. As it turns out, plants grow in community with each other and each above ground layer (groundcover, seasonal theme, and structure) draws moisture from different zones within those few feet of soil. This allows them to grow harmoniously together and not in competition with each other. This is the matrix planting concept, which mimics what happens naturally within a prairie. 

Narrowleaf Coneflower in the Flint Hills

Why are deep root systems important?

What we see above ground is typically only a third of the overall plant.  Roots exist out of sight and can reach anywhere from 8 to 14 feet into the soil.  Yes, these extensive roots do absorb moisture and nutrients but they do so much more.  They play an important role in helping a plant grow, thrive and improve the environment around them.

These hidden roots also:

  • Anchor the plant in the soil as plants try to reach for sunlight
  • Store excess food for future needs underground
  • Nourish the soil by dying and regrowing new roots each year, which builds top soil 
  • Fix nitrogen in the soil (legumes)
  • Increase bio productivity, by absorbing and holding toxins and heavy metals, carbon sequestration
  • Prevent erosion – fibrous roots hold the soil and absorb more runoff (as in a rain garden)
Butterfly Milkweed

I believe that native plant roots make these prairie plants resilient in the landscape. They are adapted to our local soils, rainfall and nutrients. In the 2011 and 2012 drought years, we observed native plants blooming in the fall, even after enduring 50+ days of 100 degree temperatures. This could not have happened without a healthy, sustaining root system. 

So while we learn more about the root systems of native plants and the vital role they play within the life of a prairie, we know that bringing native plants back into our environments continues to have so many positive benefits. Let’s work at getting more native plants into our landscapes and let them flourish.

Pine Diseases Changing Landscapes Forever

The Arboretum continues to change. If you visited the Arboretum in the early years, you would have seen many different types of pine trees and other evergreens planted in groves. These pine trees initially flourished, even though they are not native to Kansas. However, over the past 20 years, the Arboretum has lost many of those original pine trees.

This is not an isolated problem. Whole shelterbelts, specimen trees and screens have been decimated by diseases exclusive to pines. What are the most common pine diseases and what can be done to control their spread? That is a question I’m often asked and there are no easy answers. I do suggest Kansas State Extension and online resources for more information.

Pine Wilt

Pine Wilt threatens to remove several pines permanently from the landscape. Discovered in Missouri in 1979, pine wilt is most serious on Scotch Pines but can infect Austrian and White Pines. Since that initial report, it has continued to move westward and has completely decimated all of the Scotch pines in the Arboretum.

Symptoms for Pine Wilt usually appear from August through December and cause the trees to wilt and die rapidly in a month or two. Trees may survive for more than one year but the result is always fatal. The needles turn from bluish-gray to yellow/brown and remain attached to the tree.

Several organisms play a role in the death of a tree. The pinewood nematode is transmitted from pine to pine by a bark beetle, the pine sawyer. Once inside the trunk, the microscopic worms feed on the blue stained fungi that live in the wood but also on the living plant cells surrounding the resin canals and water-conducting passages, essentially choking the tree. There are no highly effective management tactics. Dead pines should be promptly cut and destroyed before warm weather of spring. If this is not done, beetles can continue to emerge from the logs and infect more trees.

Austrian Pine dead from disease that will be removed this spring in the Arboretum

Other Pine Diseases

Foliar diseases such as Sphaeropsis Tip Blight (STB), Dothistroma Neddle Blight (DNB), and Brown Spot of Pines (BSoP) are caused by types of fungi that can infect both the new and old growth. Some of the species affected by these diseases include Austrian, Mugo, Scots, and Ponderosa Pines. The symptoms of STB appear on the current year’s shoots. As the new shoots emerge in the spring, they are susceptible to infection by the fungus. Any damaged area provides the spores a way into the tree. The spores are dispersed by water and require high humidity for germination and penetration of the host tissue. Both DNB and BSoP cause spotting of the needles and eventually premature defoliation. Transmission is again by water and moisture. In a year with many spring rains, the moisture can spread the spores like wildfire and many treatments are needed to keep them in check.

Treatment Options

These three foliar diseases can be treated with multiple applications of copper fungicides and Bordeaux mixtures in the spring and early summer. Treatments are costly and high pressure equipment is needed to project the spray to the top of the trees. It has been my experience that control of these diseases is difficult. Spray timing is critical, densely planted trees are highly susceptible, and infection occurs during excessive rainfall. Thinning trees and removing dead or diseased branches will prolong the life of the tree, but the best defense is to keep the trees healthy by providing adequate moisture and fertility.

Diversity is the Key

One of the key lessons we have learned from this experience is that diversity is vital to a successful landscape. Whether pine trees, deciduous tree, perennials or shrubs, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Establish a variety of plants adapted to your landscape rather than just one or two species. The truth is that you can do everything right and still lose an evergreen tree. Replant with a diverse variety of species so your whole landscape will not be open to widespread devastation again. There will be other diseases that come, but diversity will give you the edge.

Other Evergreens

New evergreen species are being trialed for adaptability in Kansas, but at this time there are not many viable alternatives other than our eastern red cedar with cultivars such as ‘Taylor’ and ‘Canaertii’. Southwestern White Pine (Pinus strobiformis), Arizona Cypress (Cupresses arizonica), Black Hills Spruce (Picea glauca var. densata) and Pinyon Pine (Pinus edulis) are also viable options. Full descriptions of these trees can be researched on the internet or you can come to the Arboretum and view them in person.

Pines like Ponderosa (Pinus ponderosa), Austrian (Pinus nigra) and Scotch (Pinus sylvestris) have been taken off the recommended tree list because they are so prone to disease. I would highly encourage you to visit the Kansas Forestry Service website at www.kansasforests.org . Once there, choose your region to view a full list of recommended trees for your area along with other informative publications.

Southwestern White Pine
Southwestern White Pine
Arizona Cypress
Arizona Cypress
Arizona Cypress
Arizona Cypress scale-like needles

Defining Common Horticultural Terms, Part 2

We encounter many enthusiastic new gardeners at FloraKansas who have heard about the importance of planting native plants, but don’t yet have the knowledge base needed to establish a successful planting. If you’re dreaming of a flourishing prairie pollinator garden, let me unpack the why behind the what of a few more horticultural terms for you.

Host Plants

Often, the focus for our gardens is on blooms and succession of blooms, more so than host plants.  Beautiful gardens in full bloom are what we see in catalogs, magazine and books. It is natural to gravitate toward these flourishing gardens that nectar-seeking butterflies need to sustain themselves. However, host plants (food for butterfly caterpillars) will keep them coming back to your landscape for years to come.    

It’s important to plan for the entire life cycle of a pollinator. Butterflies need places to lay their eggs.  Think of host plants as the baby nurseries of the garden. Female butterflies will flit and flutter through your garden looking for the right plant to lay their eggs. Some will lay their eggs on stems, or on the underside of leaves, hidden from predators. If you have a variety of host plants, you will attract a variety of butterflies. 

Newly hatched monarch caterpillar on common milkweed (Photo by Brad Guhr)

Ultimately, the goal of any habitat garden is to provide everything those butterfly species need to complete their life cycle. Food for all stages of their life cycle, protection, and water are needed at different times throughout the year. The tiny larvae (caterpillars) will emerge and begin eating on the host plant. As they eat, they grow until they leave the plant and form a chrysalis. It is a fascinating process that you can watch unfold in your own garden. 

Here are a few host plants and the pollinator they attract:

  • Wild Lupine – Karner Blue butterfly
  • Golden alexander – Black Swallowtail butterfly
  • New Jersey Tea – Spring Azure butterfly
  • Columbine – Columbine Duskywing
  • Smooth Blue Aster – Crescent Butterflies
  • Little Bluestem – Leonard’s Skipper
  • Prairie Violet – Fritillary Butterflies
  • Pearly Everlasting – American Lady
  • Milkweeds – Monarchs
  • Paw Paw – Zebra Swallowtail butterfly
Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly on Pawpaw tree at the Arboretum, photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

Resource: Holm, Heather. Pollinators of Native Plants: Attract, Observe, and Identify Pollinators and Beneficial Insects with Native Plants. Pollination Press, 2014.

Sunlight Defined

Knowing how much light you have within your landscape is an important piece to a sound design. By simply watching sun patterns throughout the year, you will be able to determine how much sunlight your garden receives. Industry standards and labeling can then be used to assist in selecting the right plants for your landscape conditions. Here are some terms worth knowing since all plants require sunlight to grow, but differ in the amount and intensity of light needed to prosper. 

  • Full sun – Plants need at least 6 hours of direct sun daily
  • Part sun – Plants thrive with between 3 and 6 hours of direct sun per day
  • Part shade – Plants require between 3 and 6 hours of sun per day, but need protection from intense mid-day sun
  • Full shade – Plants require less than 3 hours of direct sun per day

Full Sun

Not surprisingly, this type of light describes what most prairie plants need. They enjoy open, bright sunny locations with direct sunlight for most of the day. This could also be morning shade/afternoon sun or vice versa, as long as there is at least 6 hours of continuous sunlight. Most of these plants have deeper root systems or adaptations that help them endure this light intensity for the growing season. 

Let experience be your guide when situating plants. Yes, some plants can handle full sun, but need protection for the hot afternoon sun. Or they can handle full sun with consistent moisture. This is the other reason to understand your site, including soil moisture, soil type, root competition and drainage.  All these factors directly affect plants too.  

Sun loving prairie plants

Part Sun and Part Shade

These light definitions are quite a bit different than plants for full sun.  Plants for part sun and part shade obviously require less light, more importantly, the light intensity is a key factor for their endurance and success.  Filtered sun for most of the day or morning sun afternoon shade fit the bill for situating plants.  Too much direct sunlight for too long a period will stunt plants needing part sun or part shade. 

There is often a fine line between getting too much sun that the plants suffer and getting too little light that the plants don’t bloom. For either group, providing direct morning sun is often the best choice.

Full Shade

Most shade plants require anything from the dappled shade found under deciduous trees, indirect light found on the north side of the house or deeper shade found under evergreens. In our area, growing shade plants can be a challenge because we are trying to grow shade plants in what was once a prairie environment with intense full sun. True shade plants often perish because they get too much sun, too much hot dry wind and/or too little moisture.

To successfully grow shade plants in our area, they need protection and consistent moisture. Any shade gardens must mimic the woodland environment. Loamy soils with leaf litter, consistent moisture – but not too much! – and protection from drying winds. It can be a challenge, but shade gardens can be carefully created with the proper light conditions, too.

Dyck Arboretum woodland garden with columbine, woodland phlox, white woodland aster and solomon’s seal

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.

Watering Winter Landscapes

One key to successfully establishing plants in the fall is to periodically check them through the winter months. It has been an extremely dry fall and early winter in our area and for much of Kansas. More than likely, these new established plants are dry and would benefit from a deep soaking. Now is the time to check your plants if you have not already.

Trees and shrubs

Newly planted trees and shrubs are still growing as long as the ground is not frozen and will benefit from up to five gallons of water. Larger trees may need more water. If you have properly planted them with a small basin around the trunk, you can fill it with water and let the water percolate into the soil. This basin concentrates most of the moisture around the original root ball and those fresh new roots. I would even water trees and shrubs you planted within the last few years, because they have not fully developed sustaining root systems. Keep in mind that evergreen trees are always losing and using moisture. They are the most susceptible to desiccation during winter.

American Elm with soil basin for easy watering

Perennials

Hopefully, you were able to get your grasses and perennials established properly last fall. As part of the establishment process, roots attached to the damp soil and they were able to take up moisture on their own. As that soil has dried over the past few months, the perennials are at risk of drying out since they don’t have a deep fully developed root system. Check around the plants and water if the top couple of inches of soil is dry. Native grasses are not actively growing now since the soil temperature is below 60 degrees. But even grasses would absorb a little water this time of year, as well.

Summer and fall planted perennials and grasses, if dry, will benefit from a winter watering.

Watering options

  • Soaker hoses: Use pressure compensating soaker hoses for foundation plantings or shelterbelts
  • Overhead Sprinkler: Best for large areas of newly planted fescue or turf with competitive tree roots.
  • Five gallon bucket: Drill a small hole in the bottom of the bucket and let water slowly drain out over time.
  • Watering wand: Helps water specific plants and not overwater others that like it dryer.
  • Garden hose: Place at base of trees or shrubs and let trickle until soil is deeply soaked.

Frequency

Water every few weeks or every time the top couple inches of soil is dry. I go out and physically dig down in the soil to inspect moisture content. If I water this time of year, I make sure to drain any hoses and sprinklers when I am finished to prevent freeze damage.

It may seem like plants are fine since they are not actively growing this time of year, but it has been extremely dry. A quick inspection of the soil will tell you if you need to water or not. Be proactive and water during the winter months as needed. If you have already put the effort into planting them, why not help them along through this drought? Your plants will benefit from your diligence by producing blooms and habitat for you and wildlife next season.

Closing Out the Year

Sunset at the Arboretum in December 2021. Photo by Gerry Epp

As the sun sets on another year, we want to wish you and your loved ones a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. We know this is an unusual holiday season and the Dyck Arboretum of the Plains staff wishes you health and happiness.

The Arboretum grounds will be open to the public during daylight hours, but the gift shop and office will be closed through January 2.

We cherish the friendships and relationships with each of you over the past year. The people who support and care for this place are at the heart of our mission statement: “cultivating transformative relationships between people and the land.”

It is our goal for 2022 to further this mission and build resilient relationships with as many people as we can. This year has been a challenge, but serving each of you in various ways is always a highlight. We look with hope into the new year.


Take care,

Dyck Arboretum of the Plains staff

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from Katie, Scott, Janelle and Brad

Considering Caring for Common Ground

I am going to pull back the curtain for you regarding the potential development of some programming here at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains. This fall we have begun considering an initiative called Caring for Common Ground. Although we already promote in general the concept of “Caring for Common Ground” through much of our programming at Dyck Arboretum, we want to make the process with our membership more intentional.

Oak savanna seed collecting at Holy Wisdom Monastery. Collecting seed is an important and meaningful ritual in ecological restoration

Formalizing a Concept

The thoughts of the land conservationist, Aldo Leopold, have long been very influential to me and my work. In answering the question “What is a Land Ethic?” the Aldo Leopold Foundation offers the following:


“Ethics direct all members of a community to treat one another with respect for the mutual benefit of all. A land ethic expands the definition of “community” to include not only humans, but all of the other parts of the Earth, as well: soils, waters, plants, and animals, or what Leopold called “the land.” In Leopold’s vision of a land ethic, the relationships between people and land are intertwined: care for people cannot be separated from care for the land. A land ethic is a moral code of conduct that grows out of these interconnected caring relationships.”


Three years ago, we formalized a new mission statement: Dyck Arboretum of the Plains cultivates transformative relationships between people and the land. The concept of and language surrounding Leopold’s Land Ethic was foundational to the development of this new mission statement.

Growing the Land Ethic plaque on the grounds at The Aldo Leopold Foundation

Retreat to Wisconsin

Cheryl Bauer-Armstrong helped conceive and for 30 years has run the Earth Partnership Program at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Subsequently, the Earth Partnership for Schools Program that Lorna Harder and I co-facilitate in Kansas comes from Cheryl and the Earth Partnership Program. So, when the revered Earth Partnership team of Cheryl, Claire Bjork, and Greg Armstrong, plus Amy Alstad at Holy Wisdom Monastery, invited us to a conference called Caring for Common Ground (CCG) that had been years in the making, we couldn’t resist attending.

The Shack

Our Kansas team started by making a pilgrimage to The Shack, featured in the landmark book, A Sand County Almanac. This is the place where Aldo Leopold developed some of his thinking about The Land Ethic. We enjoyed visiting the place where many of his stories in the book took place. Walking prairie restored by the Leopold family and that is maintained today by staff at The Aldo Leopold Foundation. It felt like hallowed ground.

Our group (Kendra Flory, Lorna Harder, Karen McCabe-Juhnke, and John McCabe-Juhnke) taking in The Shack and Aldo Leopold’s restored prairie
John and Lorna birding along the Wisconsin River near The Shack
Kendra, Lorna, Karen, and Leopold Foundation Education Coordinator, McCale Carter (our tour guide for the day) taking turns reading the “The Good Oak” on the spot where that tree once existed

Conference at Holy Wisdom Monastery

We then drove 45 minutes south of The Shack to the Holy Wisdom Monastery where our conference would take place. The Benedictine sisters there are undertaking serious land stewardship on their grounds. Under the guidance of Greg Armstrong in past years and Amy Alstad in the present, volunteers are restoring many acres of tallgrass prairie and oak savanna. These restoration project areas were our learning grounds for the CCG conference.

Conference days started with gratitude, calm reflection, and hilltop views overlooking restored prairie and Lake Mendota
Karen and John McCabe-Juhnke collecting seed of bottlebrush grass
Planting seed in a degraded oak savanna
Cheryl Bauer-Armstrong (center) leads a post-planting sharing circle. The other CCG Conference leaders are from far left, Amy Alstad, Greg Armstrong, and Claire Bjork

Our conference activities involved observation and assessment of the present conditions related to soils, vegetation and wildlife. We acknowledged the past removal of Indigenous Peoples from these ancestral lands. A local Ho-Chunk tribal member served as an advisor for CCG and joined us for a session. There was discussion about the processes of land degradation that have been part of the site’s history. We reviewed ecological restoration techniques, conducted planning charrettes, and participated in seed collection and planting exercises.

Friends from Kansas and Wisconsin came together to practice ecological restoration techniques and develop a resolve for doing more land stewardship rituals going forward

Spirituality of Stewardship

Spirituality is an individual’s search for sacred meaning in life and recognition of a sense that there is something greater than oneself. Being a land steward restores ecosystem functions for the greater good through meaningful rituals. As a result, it can add value to one’s life, build a sense of place, and be a spiritual process.

Land restoration is inherently filled with ethical and spiritual dimensions. People from all religious and faith traditions certainly can bring value to this CCG process.

The writings of Leopold and Braiding Sweetgrass author, Robin Wall Kimmerer are influential to CCG. Kimmerer challenges us with the following question in our relationship to the earth. Should we be living in deep communion with the land, or looking to subdue and dominate it? Above all, this is an important question for land stewards to ask ourselves.

Pilot Study in 2022

We at Dyck Arboretum want to to do a pilot study of Kansas Caring for Common Ground (KCCG) in 2022. The first test cohort will be our small group that went to Madison. Arboretum staff, board members, and anybody that would like to help us Beta test this new program are welcome.

We envision that this will be a year-long study from January through December with one meeting per month. Homework could include individual reading, research, study and preparation for the next session. Monthly gatherings might include sharing, dialogue, and an interactive seasonal land stewardship practice. Such practices might include seed collection, prescribed burning, seed propagation, plant identification, chain saw work, planting, etc. An alternative to the monthly format for a larger group might include a one-time, whole-weekend KCCG retreat.

Regardless of format, a consistent framework for KCCG would include 1) A review of the site’s history (soils, hydrology, vegetation, wildlife, presence of Indigenous People, etc.), 2) An assessment of how conditions have changed over the last century or more, and 3) A land restoration plan for the future. Oh, and good food/drink would also be an important part of every gathering!

Going Forward with Intention

Finally, I’ll leave you with an image of the table that I sat around with friends after every evening of the conference. One adorned the table with interesting wood pieces collected from Wisconsin and Kansas that had been hand-cut, polished, stained and artistically crafted as candle holders. Another supplied delicious, slow food that came with thoughtful planning, preparation and cooking. Another provided spirited drinks with hand-harvested ingredients. It was a space filled with intention, meaning, adoration, and gratitude. May the coming year in study, conversation, and practice with Caring for Common Ground in Kansas be filled with similar such things for each other and with the land.

Five Book Recommendations for the Kansas Prairie Gardener

Learning to identify wildflowers is a rewarding pastime that can greatly increase one’s appreciation of the world of nature. Identifying plants in their natural setting can also inform our decisions on what and how to plant many of these wildflowers, grasses, trees and shrubs in our own yards.  Identification is made easier with the aid of a good wildflower guide especially if you are going old school without a phone. These books usually include photographs, drawings, written descriptions, and information on the plant’s ecology and distribution. 

The Arboretum staff is occasionally asked to recommend books on plants and animals. Most of the time we use our phones and search the internet for the information. However, there is something tactile about holding a field guide in your hand and working through the identification process. There are a number of good general guides, the following are particularly helpful in Kansas. 

Wildflowers and Grasses of Kansas

A field guide by Michael John Haddock.  Flowers grouped by color of bloom.

Kansas Wildflowers and Weeds

by Michael John Haddock, Craig C. Freeman, and Janet E. Bare.  This book is very scientific but thorough. If you find a plant you can’t identify, look here.

Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines in Kansas Revised and Expanded Edition

by Michael John Haddock and Craig C. Freeman.  I love this book and use it often.  It has the county the plants are found in Kansas.

Field Guide to the Common Grasses of Oklahoma, Kansas

by Iralee Barnhard.  It has great color pictures and descriptions.

     

The Guide to Kansas Birds and Birding Hot Spots

by Bob Gress and Pete Janzen.  Color pictures, field identification and other valuable information. 

Pocket Guides from the Great Plains Nature Center*

Kansas Snakes, Common Kansas Butterflies, Great Plains Waterbirds, Kansas Raptors, Kansas Red Hills Wildflowers, Kansas Flint Hills Wildflowers and Grasses, Common Kansas Backyard Birds, and Great Plains Shorebirds, Common Kansas Mushrooms, Kansas Amphibians, Turtles and Lizards, Kansas Land Snails, Kansas Mammals, Kansas Freshwater Mussels, Kansas Stream Fishes, Common Kansas Spiders, and Kansas Threatened and Endangered Species.

*Single copies of the GPNC Pocket Guides may be picked up free at the Great Plains Nature Center.  All GPNC Pocket Guides may be downloaded in pdf format from GPNC.org.  Copies can be mailed for $3.00 each by sending a check payable to the FGPNC, to: Pocket Guides, Great Plains Nature Center, 6232 East 29th St. N, Wichita, KS 67220. 

I know technology has changed so much of how we identify the world around us, but quite often, I still use these guides and books rather than my phone. In the absence of a guide I will take a picture with my phone, note the location and site conditions so I can look it up the next day in the office. Nature is a good teacher and I use the things I learn from the field in so many different ways. I am often amazed at the beauty of what I have found, but also the resiliency that it takes to survive where it is growing. Understanding leads to appreciation and appreciation leads to conservation and stewardship.       

These wildflower guides are available online and some can be purchased at our gift shop during the holidays.