Beautiful Bluebeard

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

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

Pollinator Palooza

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

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

Wow Factor

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

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

Easy Peasy

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

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

What is a Living Landscape?

What brings life to a landscape? Some say it’s the plants – after all they are alive. But what about the wildlife they attract?  In my opinion, it is a combination of the two that make the landscape vibrant and sustainable.  The plants need the wildlife and the wildlife need the plants. And we, the caretakers, benefit from this relationship. Landscaping with these factors in mind will help protect and conserve what is essential and irreplaceable -both the native prairie plant life and the diverse wildlife that needs the plants to survive. 

A robin looks for food in a native plant bed.

New Paradigm     

Gardening can be so much more than beautiful plants grouped together in neat arrangements that look good to you.   There is a new emphasis on landscapes that function similar to the vast prairies of old with diverse collections of grasses and wildflowers. This is a shift from the traditional cultural norms that have guided our landscape designs for decades. By thinking critically about the environmental relationships of plants and wildlife, such as pollinators, the traditional landscape is transformed into a design that is functional and sustainable. This “land ethic” of developing an inclusive habitat affirms our role as stewards of the land.

Goals for Your Landscape

This measured approach to landscaping is more goal oriented.  We now want the landscape we live in to be diverse, beautiful, functional, essential to wildlife, layered, compatible with our home, compatible to pollinators, practical, and so much more. These goals are possible to achieve with some basic knowledge and a willingness to continue to learn.

Nature as Your Inspiration  

Fortunately, biological landscapes or living landscapes are becoming the norm. We can have our cake and eat it too.  A garden rich in biological diversity working with the environment and not against it is possible.  Nature should be your inspiration. Simply use productive native species that grew in your area in pre-farming days to create landscapes of ecological richness that are a reflection of the new balance between humans and nature. We need to create new prairie habitats, because it is part of our personal and regional past; we need a variety of plants and animals because they are part of our continuity and hope for the future.

For more information about living landscapes, attend one of our Native Plant School classes this fall. 

The fall Native Plant Festival is also a good opportunity to learn more about native plants and what to include in your gardens. 

Narrowleaf Coneflowers blooming in the Flint Hills

  

New Favorite Plants

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

Phemeranthus calycinus – Rock Pink or Fameflower

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

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

Amorpha fruticosa – false indigo bush

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

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

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

Lythrum alatum – winged loosestrife

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

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

More favorite plants to come….

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

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

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

A Flint Hills Visit: Inspiration for Native Landscaping

The prairie and its Flint Hills environment at Chase State Fishing Lake (CSFL) provide serious inspiration for native landscaping. The CSFL vegetation, wildlife, substrate below, and the sky above collectively compose for me the most beloved and iconic landscape of native Kansas.

During my many past visits to CSFL, I have usually had an agenda that involved leading a tour group, collecting seed, or gathering butterfly data. I have never taken the opportunity to climb the bluff, sit in the prairie, listen to the grassland birds, observe butterflies and other pollinators, and watch the clouds go by. But I did just that on a recent Saturday in late June.

American lady butterfly on purple coneflower at CSFL

Pure Enjoyment

In addition to providing inspiration for native landscaping, visits to CSFL bring me pure enjoyment. During this recent visit, the steady breeze – with not a tree to stop it – was a reliable Kansas air conditioner. It kept me from thinking about the sweat-inducing effects of the hot sun. The puffy clouds overhead kept changing the light patterns and offered ever-fresh visual perspectives. In the midst of a surreal pandemic experience, when home and work routines are turned upside down and inside out, sitting on that prairie bluff was like visiting an old friend.

Big sky and clean water make CSFL a great place to fish or swim on a hot summer day

Desirable Wildflowers

The prairie wildflowers were plentiful during my visit thanks to a wet spring. The prairie plants we promote for the home landscape are in their native ecosystem here, with root systems that extend 10 to 15 feet into a matrix of limestone/flint/chert.

Rich images of plants like narrow-leaved bluets (white flowers) and lead plant (purple flowers) growing through rock are common at CSFL

In addition to a stunning display of orange and red butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), other flowering species included tuberous Indian plantain (Arnoglossum plantagineum), narrow-leaved milkweed (Asclepias stenophylla), smooth milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii), green milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora), serrate-leaf evening primrose (Calylophus serrulatus), white prairie-clover (Dalea candida), purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Illinois tickclover (Desmodium illinoense), purple coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia), narrow-leaf bluets (Hedyotis nigricans), catclaw sensitive briar (Mimosa quadrivalvis), and prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera). In your garden, these plants will attract monarch larvae (milkweeds) and other pollinators, fix nitrogen (legumes) and provide year-round visual interest.

Smooth milkweed at CSFL

Interesting Critters

The insects observed on flowers (including 17 butterfly species I noted) were plentiful. Spending time identifying and documenting insect diversity makes me want to see more of them in my landscape. Diversity of wildlife species is directly correlated to the diversity of plants in an ecosystem. Increase the diversity of flora and you will increase the diversity of fauna!

Wild indigo duskywings mating on lead plant at CSFL

In her last blog post, colleague Katie talks about the fun of identifying insects (The Mystery of the Orange Bug). I can certainly relate to the fun of trying to solve mystery insects.

The caterpillar pictured below is a new one to me. One of the identification tools and bio-networking platforms I’d like to use more is iNaturalist. Click HERE to see a couple of photos and help me with identification of this unknown (to me) caterpillar. One follower of this thread suggested the correct ID to be a salt marsh moth. I would have a hard time arguing otherwise.

Possibly a salt marsh moth on lead plant

Butterfly Milkweed

If nothing else, spending time at CSFL in late June will inspire you to fill your landscape with butterfly milkweed. It is harder to grow the same remarkable eye candy of this favorite prairie plant in richer and less well-drained soils. But in spite of my 50% success rate (at best), I keep trying. Never before have I heard somebody say that a prairie reconstruction or garden has too much butterfly milkweed!

Butterfly milkweed at CSFL

None of us will be able to completely recreate the open prairie of the Flint Hills in our urban landscapes. We can, however, take incremental steps in that direction with the plants we choose and the wildlife we attract. Visit Chase State Fishing Lake, absorb some if its good vibes, copy some of its elements with your plant selection choices, enjoy the wildlife viewing, and find new inspiration for native landscaping.

Click HERE for more of my thoughts about and photos from an earlier blog post about Chase State Fishing Lake.

Three Kansas Garden Kits

Gardens of every size are important to wildlife, including pollinators.  A patchwork of small native plant gardens throughout our cities and towns are the harbor for migrating pollinators or permanent residents to our area. They provide habitat, a safe haven and vital food for survival. 

From vignettes such as balcony gardens or a corner in your backyard to larger prairie reconstructions, each garden can be a critical stopover for wildlife. Large or small, a collective effort to establish native plants in landscapes can make a tremendous difference.    

Besides the good they do for wildlife, native plants build the soil, clean water, and filter the air.  They are good news for everyone and every thing on this earth. For these reasons, we have put together some custom native plant kits for a variety of garden conditions. Whether you are new to the prairie scene, these kits can be used to get a running start on your next native habitat.

Sunny Rain Garden Kit

(full sun, wet to medium soil moisture)

Do you have a wet section in your yard?  These wet-loving natives will do just fine.  From late spring to fall, these wildflowers will provide a succession of blooms and even look attractive through the winter. 

Spring Woodland Kit

(shade/part sun, medium soil moisture)

These delicate beauties are at home in any woodland setting.  We have included a couple groundcovers that will spread to slowing fill in your area.  Be rewarded each year by these spring wildflowers.    

Three Seasons Pollinator Kit

(full sun, medium to dry soil moisture)

This garden will provide season long nectar for some of your favorite butterflies, bees and other pollinators. Some host plants are also included.  Plant these natives in any sunny spot in your yard.     

Whatever your motivations for using natives, you will also be rewarded with a renewed connection with the nature. You will not have an ordinary landscape, but one that helps the birds and pollinators you are concerned about. Why not turn your landscape into something that makes a real difference? 

To order these garden kits and other plants available for pick-up from our greenhouse, visit our FloraKansas Native Plant Festival page. We look forward to helping you get to know these plants!

Short and Sweet: Short Plants for the Prairie Garden

Prairie gardens can sometimes be seen as messy. I have heard it many times while discussing garden plans with Arboretum members. They don’t want it to look too wild. This is a very natural tendency; humans like order, we like patterns, we don’t like chaos. But it is evident by the decline of bird, amphibian, and pollinator species that our desire for the tamed, picture-perfect lawn is ecologically unreasonable.

“What is good in terms of ecological function is often disorderly, and what is neat and tidy is often not sustainable.”

Planting in a Post Wild World, 2015

Joan Nassauer of the University of Michigan does some excellent writing, thinking and teaching on the idea that humans will respond better to ecologically friendly landscapes if they look intentional, framed, and well managed. I think the first and easiest way to achieve this for beginner prairie gardeners is to carefully manage plant height. Choosing short plants preserves sight lines, scales down the planting, and helps the viewers of your landscape more feel comfortable, less hemmed in by foliage. Here are some of our favorites!

Petite Garden Performers

Hymenoxys scaposa (prairie sunshine)

Perky Sue (Hymenoxys scaposa) has semi-succulent foliage and cheerful flowers that bloom all season long.

Hymenoxys has become a new favorite landscape plant for me. Perfect near sidewalks and in tight spots. It is a tiny little powerhouse of bloom if you keep it in full sun. Beware of planting it in a wet spot; soggy soil shortens its lifespan.

Scuttelaria resinosa (skullcap)

Scutellaria resinosa (skull cap) a wonderfully petite mint-family plant native to North Central Kansas. Photo By C. Freeman

This plant makes a short, rounded clump of purple-blue flowers. It thrives in dry, poor soil and isn’t as aggressive as other mint family plants. As a bonus, it also has some interesting medicinal benefits.

Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’

Most Amsonia spp. can get quite large, but the ‘Blue Ice’ variety delivers nice foliage and blue spring bloom in a tighter package.

Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’ offers all the great qualities of Amsonia – colorful fall foliage, blue spring blooms – but stays under 18 inches. Wonderful as a filler plant for any gaps in the garden.

Oenothera macrocarpa (Missouri evening primrose)

Oenothera macrocarpa (Missouri evening primrose) – photo by Michael John Haddock

Missouri evening primrose is an underused landscape plant. Less than a foot tall, this spring stunner is great around sidewalks or trailing ever-so-slightly off rock edging. The blooms are large and eye catching early in the season.

Sporobolus heterolepis (prairie dropseed)

Pugster Blue butterfly bush and prairie dropseed mix well in the landscape and both stay under three feet tall. Photo courtesy of Walters Gardens, Inc.

Last but not least, prairie dropseed is a short prairie grass that can be used to blend different colors and species together. Because grass acts as a unifying element it helps to lead the eye from one area to another.

All these plants will be available at our spring FloraKansas Native Plant Festival. Staff members will be there to help you choose the best plants for your space. We can make recommendations for a beautiful, ecologically friendly landscape.

Front Yard Native Landscaping

As a new homeowner, there are a thousand projects around the house vying for my attention. But none call to me more than landscaping. After a few weeks working on the basement, I needed a break! I redirected my energy and landscaped my front yard!

Walk the Walk

I talk often and openly about the ecological problems inherent with a “well kept lawn”. Now that I finally have my own lawn, I wanted to convert part of it to something earth conscious, yet attractive. With smart design, landscaping can feed birds and insects, build soil integrity, and take very few inputs. I will always have a good sized patch of weedy Fescue for the dog to play Frisbee in, but more and more of the yard will get planted to natives every year.

Proper Prep

First, I sprayed two adjacent sections of our front yard with a strong application of glyphosate. It was not an easy decision: I am not a fan of using this chemical, or any chemicals in the landscape. But when contending with bermuda grass, my options were limited. Bermuda is a fierce, non-native competitor that will easily overtake a native flower bed if not eradicated properly. On the sides of the house, where bluegrass, Fescue, and dandelions are prevalent, I expect solarization to work wonderfully next spring and summer.

Hymenoxys scaposa (perky Sue) is adorably small; six inches tall with cheery yellow flowers the size of a quarter. It is a great addition in my front yard because of its petite, tidy habit.

Planting

A few weeks later I planted right into the dead thatch of the grass. I like to plant thick, aiming for a very full, lush look and less weeding in the long term. Then I back-filled each hole with some rocky, sandy soil from a long abandoned planter box on the side of the house. This might help the clay soil drain better for the drought hardy species I wanted to incorporate. A flag at each plant ensures I don’t miss any while watering.

Though I am always so excited to plant, it doesn’t look like much for the first year. But by next fall it will be the talk of the neighborhood.

In my design, I focused on purples, whites and yellows to complement a pale blue porch. Made up of many western Kansas species, this garden is extremely drought tolerant once established, staying full of blooms for pollinators even in hard times. When I get a free weekend, I will layer the empty spaces with newspaper and wood chips to discourage weeds. Luckily, my city has a free wood chip pile nearby!

Scutellaria resinosa (skull cap) a wonderfully petite mint-family plant native to North Central Kansas. Photo By C. Freeman

Here are some of my favorites included in the design. Many are native, others are non-natives well adapted to heat and drought:

Allium spp.
Amsonia hubrichtii
Asclepias verticillata
Baptisia minor
Ericameria nauseosa
Hymenoxys scaposa

Lavandula ‘Hidcote’
Muhlenbergia capillaris
Nassella tenuissima
Prunus besseyi
‘Pawnee Buttes’
Sporobolus heterolepis
Scutellaria resinosa

I plant Amsonia mainly for its foliage, but the blue blooms are a welcome sight in spring.

Grass But Not Lawn

I used Sporobolus heterolepis along the sidewalk and Muhlenbergia capillaris for a slightly taller focal point. To keep my front yard looking intentional, tidy, and appropriate to my neighborhood setting, I kept the plants under twenty four inches mature height, except for a few accents. My neighbors are already giving me funny looks about all the flags in my yard!

Yet to be included in the planting, Pycnanthemum tenuifolium is a must have for pollinators and for its delicious minty scent.

My co-workers have all taken their work home with them too; planting natives in their home landscapes and seeing the wonderful change in biodiversity these plants bring . It was time for me to do the same! Once the garden matures, I hope it inspires others to convert more of their underused front yard space to valuable, attractive wildlife habitat.

What Do Pollinators Need?

One of my favorite past times during the fall season is watching pollinators work on the many wildflowers in bloom.   This morning there were dozens of different pollinators crawling all over the white flowers of Tall Boneset (Eupatorium altissimum).  It had everything from small flies to larger wasps to different bees and even a few butterflies.  They were all living harmoniously together atop this one plant.  It was fun to watch and listen.

That was one plant. Imagine how many plants are needed to sustain these pollinator populations.  With documented losses of habitat nation wide and documented losses of milkweeds (host plants of the migrating monarchs), what should our strategy be to help the plight of pollinators? 

It’s important to realize that we all need to participate and understand that the choices we make in our landscapes can make a difference. Yes, our landscapes can help pollinators no matter the size.  This one boneset plant was found by dozens of pollinators.  Sure – we will never replace the pristine prairies that once were here, but our smaller green spaces can still help support an abundance of wildlife.     

Here are six ways you can help increase declining populations of pollinators, including bees and monarchs:

1. Plant Pollinator-Friendly Plants

It goes without saying that pollinators need blooming plants and the plants need the pollinators. Having a diverse set of native plants in your landscape will be a good start to attracting pollinators to your yard.

Certainly, milkweeds are the best wildflowers for attracting monarchs to your yard.  We have seen several already migrating through on their way south, and some have been depositing eggs on our common milkweed plants. The wildflowers are the buffet these pollinators need for their survival. (Peruse our native plant list and sample landscape designs for some inspiration.)

Monarch butterfly on Asclepias incarnata, or swamp milkweed – photo by Brad Guhr

2. Plant with a Succession of Blooms

I recommend planting wildflowers that bloom at different times of the year.  A mixture of wildflowers coming into bloom and going out of bloom throughout the year provides a ready food source.  This approach mimics the natural prairie and the changing seasons.

Skipper butterfly on Tall Boneset Eupatorium altissimum

3. Create Habitat in your Yard

Layer trees and shrubs along with wildflowers and grasses.  These plants provide shelter from the wind as well as nesting sites and food for birds, butterflies, and bees. I like to leave old logs and small brush piles so these pollinators can overwinter in my yard. Remember, even a small garden can have a tremendous impact.

Bumblebee on Echinacea purpurea, or purple coneflower – photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

4. Provide Water

We all need water for survival.  Pollinators need it too.  A clean source of water such as a birdbath, basin, or hollow stone is enough water for pollinators.  These features also provide landing spots so that pollinators have a perch. Here are some great plants to complement your water feature.

Pearl crescent butterflies meet at the watering hole – Photo by Dave Osborne

5. Reduce Chemicals

There is growing research on the detrimental effects chemicals have on pollinators.  Any time we can reduce or eliminate the use of chemicals in the landscape, we are impacting wildlife in a positive way.  Allow insects to control unwanted pests.  Be willing to accept a few damaged plants, knowing that by not spraying you are saving much more in the long run.

Hummingbird moth on Liatris pycnostachya, or Kansas gayfeather – photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

6. Learn About the Plight of Endangered Pollinators

There is so much to learn about each type of pollinator.  When are they out in the garden?  What do they need to complete their life cycle?  Where do they migrate or how do they overwinter?  We have so much to learn about these important insects. (One good resource for this is this book, by Heather Holm, which we often carry in our gift shop. And, of course, MonarchWatch.org is a great resource.)

When it comes to supporting the life cycle of pollinators, you can be part of the solution.  Native wildflowers are the best option to help them prosper.  You will be amazed when you introduce just a handful of wildflowers to your landscape.  If you plant them, pollinators will come.

Sumac in the Garden

Sumac might not be what you imagine when you think of an outstanding garden plant. Native sumac often grows on roadsides or prairie draws, and would be unruly in the home landscape. But there are two cultivated varieties that are wonderful additions to the garden — Gro-Low Sumac and Tiger Eyes Sumac. With all the loveliness of native sumac, but much more manageable.

Rhus aromatica Gro-Low has leaves that look similar to poison ivy, but this plant is completely harmless.

Gro-Low sumac is perfect for that spot in your yard you don’t want to maintenance anymore. It grows only sixteen to eighteen inches tall but sprawls out six to eight feet. A shrubby groundcover, it needs no mowing or trimming, no fertilizing, no attention at all! Poor soil in full or part sun will do just fine, and is very drought tolerant once established. It produces small green flowers in the spring, well-loved by native bees, and a brilliant red-orange leaf color in fall. Plant it with Prunus besseyi, little bluestem grass, or even Raydon’s Favorite Aster for groundcover that dazzles.

The native Rhus aromatica bush has lovely fall color, and gets much taller than the Gro-Low variety. Photo by Emily Weaver

Tiger Eyes sumac has been become a landscape favorite for Arboretum staff. They seem to find a place in every landscape design and new garden bed. Chartreuse leaves turn orange in the fall, and they can tolerate lots of hot sun and drought. They can grow between four and six feet tall. Poor soil is no problem; they are highly adaptable. Fuzzy stems and interesting branching make this plant wonderful to observe anytime of the year. Plant it with Amsonia and Red October big bluestem for a memorable fall color show!

These Tiger Eyes Rhus in the Prairie Lakes edition of Showalter Villa are thriving in full sun. We are always happy when we see native plants in the landscapes of our neighboring organizations!

These sumac will be available at our fall FloraKansas Native Plant Festival September 5-8. Staff can help you find the right plants for your landscape, and your purchase supports the Arboretum’s mission to cultivate transformative relationships between people and the land.

Concentration of Blooms

When I recommend native plants for a particular landscape, I’ve learned to focus on the fact that people and the insects they are hoping to attract are conditioned to desire seeing a concentration of blooms with decent repetition. Some of the fascinating parts of landscaping with native plants are that they also have interesting features regarding their vegetation, seed pods, relationship to insects as host plants, and natural/cultural history stories that accompany them as Kansas native plants as well. But first and foremost, their flowers are what most intrigue the masses.

A profusion of purple is about to happen at Dyck Arboretum when the annual Leavenworth eryngo (Eryngium leavenworthii) hits its colorful stride in late August to early September.

A Long Growing Season in Kansas

The challenge when landscaping in Kansas is that our growing season is long, spanning 7 to 8 months, generally from March to October. A given landscape only has so much space for plant repetition and one has to choose which plant species will be planted in big numbers to have a concentration of color when desired. With a school planting, for example, I will mostly choose species that bloom in either April-May or August-September when students will see and enjoy them.

The angst I have in knowing that rigid sunflower (Helianthus rigidus) is having an increasingly dominating presence in our Arboretum prairie reconstruction is slightly soothed by the salve of its showy floral display in mid-September.

When you plant just a handful of species with big numbers of each for a few different times of focused colorful brilliance, you look like a genius during those times of flowering. Each perennial species, however, blooms for only a couple of weeks or so. When the plants are not blooming, critics of native plantings may label your garden as “too wild” or “dead-looking” when vegetation begins to senesce. These folks are not too forgiving of the fact that perennial plants must first build vegetation before they can flower. and then invest energy in building roots so they can come back again next year. So, one needs to find a reasonable balance between sufficient repetition of a given species and making sure there are enough species to provide blooming overlap throughout the growing season.

Prominent Prairie Grasses in July

This concept of concentrated flowering, or lack thereof, is on my mind every July when the Kansas temperatures are hottest and the well-adapted warm-season prairie grasses that are a significant part of the prairie matrix begin to shine. Grass flowers are wind-pollinated and understandably not investing in colorful flowers with a design to attract pollinators. It always seems to me that prairies in July are dominated by green, and that any blooming non-grass flowers stand out.

Kansas gayfeather (Liatris pychnostachya) looks great when it blooms around our pond edge in late July, especially because of its eye-catching repetition.

Inspiration of High Elevation Wildflowers

My family and I usually get away for vacation to Colorado or somewhere west of Kansas to enjoy different landscapes. These trips usually take us to areas with higher elevations, cooler air, and snow-melt streams. Above 5,000 feet in elevation, these areas have much shorter growing seasons, roughly half of that in Kansas. This phenomenon concentrates the flowering of available species into a tighter window of opportunity causing many blooming occurrences to overlap. Since late July is the center of that growing season, the wildflowers are often at their peak during our visits.

Sunflower family plants wash this mountain-side in yellow with the punctuation of purple penstemon and red Indian paintbrush along Brush Creek Trail above Crested Butte, the so-called “Wildflower Capitol of Colorado.”

During our last two July vacations to Montana’s Glacier National Park (GNP) and Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) in 2018 and 2019, respectively, we witnessed especially lush displays of wildflowers that made hikes for me most enjoyable. The following photo collage includes species observed on mountain trails that made me pause and take note. They each have similar-looking close relatives in Kansas.

While I know that most mountain wildflowers won’t survive in Kansas, I am still inspired by them. I observe their site-specificity with regard to moisture/light, what wildlife they attract, and their growth form — often including many plants of one species creating a concentration of color. Our upcoming Fall 2019 FloraKansas Plant Festival will offer many native species that thrive in our Kansas climate and soils. Plan to peruse the options, see what catches your eye, plant them in repetition, and be inspired.

Creamy-colored beargrass (not a grass, but a lily) and pink subalpine spirea provide landscaping inspiration along the Iceberg Lake Trail in Glacier National Park.