Flower Form and Function

Who doesn’t love a perfectly round peony or a deep red rose? While humans are mostly concerned with the aesthetic qualities of flowers, that’s only half the story. The shape, size and color of a flower are less about fashion and more about function, changing over millions of years to be recognized and pollinated by certain methods. Understanding a bit about flower form can help you shop smart when you are trying to create pollinator friendly landscaping.

File:Longitudinal section of raspberry flower.gif
Flowers are complicated and variable structures. Knowing a bit about them ensures you are planting flowers that actually fit with our native pollinators. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

Coevolution

Coevolution is the concept that living things in close proximity to each other affect the characteristics they develop over time. For instance, the length of moth and bee tongues and the length of some tube-shaped flowers in their geographic area are closely related; as one grows or shrinks over thousands of years, so does the other since their positive interactions impact what traits are passed to the next generation. Our prairie plants in the midwest are no different. Liatris, compass plants, sunflowers and grasses all have complex, dependent relationships with native insects and animals. Flowering plants are still changing today, sometimes naturally and other times with a little push by humans.

Keeping Your Form

Flower form often determines its function in the environment. Each different flower shape is related to its pollinator mechanism. As mentioned above, tube flowers are a favorite of hummingbirds and long-tongued insects because their mouth physiology matches the shape. With hundreds of variations in shape and arrangement, you can spend years studying them all! As new horticultural varieties of native plants are introduced into the garden center, it is important to know what the original form and function of the flower was to be sure it is still serving that purpose even after hybridization.

Breeders hope to make more native plants commercially accessible to the public and to create reliable performers in the garden. But sometimes the changes they make (either through seedling selection or via hybridization) can be detrimental to flower form or leaf palatability, which decreases its usefulness in the ecosystem.

There are many patented varieties of Eupatorium dubium that focus on curtailing the height of the plant, which at a gangly six feet is unsuitable for most garden spaces. Anecdotally, we have found that pollinators flock just as much to the dwarf varieties like “Little Joe” as to the wild type, since the flower shape and color has not changed significantly between the types.

Hybridization

In plants, natural hybridization leads to new characteristics and creates genetic diversity. Humans can hybridize plants by transferring pollen from a plant of interest (say, an especially delicious tomato) with another plant of interest (perhaps a tomato with exceptional vigor). The seeds produced from that cross would be a new, genetically unique plant that hopefully has both of the aforementioned traits. This is not new, and has been happening since Gregor Mendel’s time!

Man-made crosses can lead to higher yields or increased drought tolerance, but they also have their downsides. Cultivars (cultivated varieties) can solve many tricky garden problems but sometimes have decreased ecosystem functionality. Try to shop for plants closely resembling their parent plant in the important categories: flower shape, color, and leaf color. Early research suggests that selections with increased drought tolerance, plant height, and other factors aren’t as influential to pollinators as the flower and leaf changes.

‘Julia’ is a hybrid coneflower sporting orange flowers on strong stems. While we all love these colorful Echinacea varieties, and pollinators seem to as well, they are not nearly as long lived as the less vibrant native species. We don’t know yet how the color change affects the foraging behavior of our native insects, so more research is needed. Photo courtesy of Walter’s Gardens.

How to keep it all straight?

You don’t have to be a botany expert to make good choices. When buying some of the commercially available cultivars/varieties/hybrids, simply try to choose ones closest to their wild parent in appearance. If the flowers are doubled, or a wildly different color than is naturally occurring, that should be a red flag. We can all keep educating ourselves about the pros and cons of cultivars while still enjoying manageable and well-planned native gardens. Planting native trees, shrubs and perennials in your landscape increases the genetic diversity and ecosystem function of your neighborhood. It is worth the extra work, and learning along the way will make the native garden experience even more rewarding!

Site Analysis to Guide Planting Decisions

While preparing for my “Site Analysis to Guide Planting Decisions” class last week, I came across the snippet below. I believe it is worth sharing because it helped me visualize the details needed to create a good design. As I was reading it through, I could see this landscape and my own landscape before me. They were laid out as a blank canvas to be explored and understood at a deep level.  I hope it helps you like it helped me.      

In our present power-happy and schedule-conscious era, this vitally important aspect of developing a simpatico feeling for the land and the total project site is too often overlooked. And too often our completed work gives tragic evidence of our haste and neglect.

In Japan, historically, this keen awareness of the site has been of great significance in landscape planning. Each structure has seemed a natural outgrowth of its site, preserving and accentuating its best features.

Studying in Japan, the author was struck by this consistent quality and once asked an architect how he achieved it in his work. “Quite simply,” said the architect. “If designing, say, a residence, I go each day to the piece of land on which it is to be constructed. Sometimes for long hours with a mat and tea. Sometimes in the quiet of evening when the shadows are long. Sometimes in the busy part of the day when the streets are abustle and the sun is clear and bright. Sometimes in the snow and even in the rain, for much can be learned of a piece of ground by watching the rainfall play across it and the runoff take its course in rivulets along the natural drainageways.

“Landscape Architecture: The Shaping of Man’s Natural Environment” by John Ormsbee Simonds

Illustrations from Landscape Architecture: The Shaping of Man’s Natural Environment by John Ormsbee Simonds.

The Poetry of Site Analysis — Seattle's Favorite Garden Store Since 1924 -  Swansons Nursery
The Poetry of Site Analysis — Seattle's Favorite Garden Store Since 1924 -  Swansons Nursery

I go to the land, and stay, until I have come to know it. I learn to know its bad features—the jangling friction of the passing street, the awkward angles of a windblown pine, an unpleasant sector of the mountain view, the lack of moisture in the soil, the nearness of a neighbor’s house to an angle of the property.

I learn to know its good features—a glorious clump of maple trees, a broad ledge perching high in space above a gushing waterfall that spills into the deep ravine below. I come to know the cool and pleasant summer airs that rise from the falls and move across an open draw of the land. I sense perhaps the deliciously pungent fragrance of the deeply layered cedar fronds as the warm sun plays across them. This patch I know must be left undisturbed.

I know where the sun will appear in the early morning, when its warmth will be most welcome. I have learned which areas will be struck by its harshly blinding light as it burns hot and penetrating in the late afternoon, and from which spots the sunset seems to glow the richest in the dusky peace of evening. I have marveled at the changing dappled light and soft, fresh colors of the bamboo thicket and watched for hours the lemon-crested warblers that have built their nests and feed there.

I come to sense with great pleasure the subtle relationship of a jutting granite boulder to the jutting granite profile of the mountainside across the way. Little things, one may think, but they tell one, ‘Here is the essence of this fragment of land; here is its very spirit. Preserve this spirit, and it will pervade your gardens, your home, and your every day.

And so I come to understand this bit of land, its moods, its limitations, its possibilities. Only now can I take my ink and brush in hand and start to draw my plans. But in my mind the structure by now is fully visualized. It has taken its form and character from the site and the passing street and the fragment of rock and the wafting breeze and the arching sun and the sound of the falls and the distant view.

Knowing the owner and his family and the things they like, I have found for them here a living environment that brings them into the best relationship with the landscape that surrounds them. This structure, this house that I have conceived, is no more than an arrangement of spaces, open and closed, accommodating and expressing in stone, timber, tile, and rice paper a delightful, fulfilling way of life. How else can one come to design the best home for this site?

There can be no other way! This, in Japan as elsewhere, is in simplest terms the planning process—for the home, the community, the city, the highway, or the national park.”

“Landscape Architecture: The Shaping of Man’s Natural Environment” by John Ormsbee Simonds

These few paragraphs resonated with me. I know we don’t have many waterfalls or granite mountains, but the idea is to identify elements worth keeping. What views do you want to frame or create? Although much has changed in landscaping over the decades since this was first published in 1961, the basic principles are the same. And there are consequences of a careless design. Landscapes that you appreciate the most don’t just happen by accident. Connecting with the land, “your piece of land”, is invaluable toward creating a sensitive, seamless design.

Combination of Butterfly weed with switchgrass

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.

Landscaping with Plant Communities in Mind

This blog post is updated and republished. Previously published as “The Social Network for Plants” in September 2017.

One of the landscaping concepts I touched upon in my recent Matrix Planting class is the idea that plants are members of a complex social network. No, they are not on Facebook, Instagram or tweeting about the conditions on their side of the prairie, but they do grow best in a company of friends. I enjoy the idea that even though each plant is unique, they are part of interrelated communities. They complement each other and live in harmony, which makes them so much more resilient together than if they grow isolated and alone.

Plant communities in the wild

Nature is a great teacher. Look at wild plant communities. Whether a forest or a prairie, you will find plants growing harmoniously together. There aren’t any mulched areas between plants, but rather intertwining, interlocking and dense groups of plants growing side by side. A compass plant reaches up through tall grasses like big bluestem and indiangrass. The deep tap root punches through the fibrous roots of the grasses, and the tall grasses help prop up the compass plant’s long stems and keep them from flopping over.  If you plant compass plant in your landscape, plant it with these tall grasses. Plants grow in environments that suit their growth habit.

Butterfly weed is another great example. In the wild, it would get smothered and lost in five to six foot grasses, but you see it flourishing with shorter grasses like little bluestem, prairie dropseed and blue gramma. Grasses of similar height is what they prefer. The beautiful orange blooms are at the same height as the grasses. These plants also have similar sun, soil and moisture requirements, too.

Know more about the plants you grow

An understanding of plant communities and the preferences of individual plants will help direct your landscape design. This approach to landscaping forces you to become familiar with each plant, but rewards you with a successful landscape that mimics the communities on the prairie. By adapting your gardens to include groups of plants that naturally occur together and that match your own landscape, you will have a functional, low maintenance landscape that is ecologically responsible and beautiful at the same time.

Urban prairie photo courtesy Craig Freeman

This style of landscaping has caused me to reevaluate how I design new plantings. For instance, switchgrass, which is one of my favorite grasses, is a solitary grass in the wild. It forms large colonies with other wildflowers growing on the edges of these colonies.  Richard Hansen and Friedrich Stahl, in their book “Perennials and their Garden Habitat”, arrange plants according to their sociability level.  Plants like switchgrass or coneflowers at lower levels (1 and 2) are set individually or in small clusters. Plants like prairie dropseed or blue grama at higher levels (3 to 5) are set in groups of 10 to 20-plus, arranged loosely around the others.

By observing the different levels of plant sociability, it guides how you incorporate plants into your landscape. It is an ecological way to garden that focuses less on aesthetics and more on relationships of plants. Of course height, bloom time, texture and flower color are important, but they are not the most important consideration when planting. The main emphasis now is grouping plants together that thrive in the wild together.

So what does this look like practically in your landscape?

It looks like 10-20 coneflowers (level 2 plants) propped up with little bluestem, prairie dropseed and blue grama (level 4 plants). In the wild, you never see just coneflowers growing in large solitary groups together, but mixed with other wildflowers and grasses. Blue sage (level 2 plant) has a tendency to flop, but when combined with other taller grasses and wildflowers, its blue flowers are held at eye level. The taller, more upright plants or solitary plants in levels 1 and 2 need the level 3 to 5 plants to grow and spread around them. This interlocking matrix of plants covers every square foot of your garden. Weeds are crowded out and maintenance is reduced over time as these plants squeeze out unwanted species. You can now manage your plant communities as a whole rather than taking care of each individual plant.

Native prairie photo courtesy of Craig Freeman

I believe this approach to designing a landscape has many benefits. Using this approach, we will become intimately acquainted with the plants we grow and the social communities in which they thrive. This connection to our plants forces us to learn about them. More importantly we begin to see them as individual pieces of a much larger collection of associated plants. It is a radical shift in how we design a garden. Plants are pieces that nature weaves together in ecological combinations. Nature is a great teacher.

Insects – Motivation for Native Landscaping

Early September blooming plants are attracting loads of nectar-sipping insects right now. Host plants are green and thriving from timely rains and providing food for munching larvae. All this insect activity has led to great enjoyment for me in exploring the Dyck Arboretum grounds and my home landscape. It has prompted me to think more about my real motivation for landscaping with native plants.

Gulf fritillary nectaring on prairie dock

Plants or Insects?

For many years, I’ve claimed that my enjoyment of native landscaping was motivated by my love of plants. Indeed, their flowers, seed pods, seeds, seed dispersal mechanisms, and roots are all interesting traits and worthy of appeal. Getting to know their growth habits, moisture and light preferences all translate to the level of success I will have (or not) in establishing these plants in a given landscape. And early in their establishment, my focus is geared toward making sure they stay alive with my watering, mulching, and weeding efforts.

Common milkweed wind-blown seed dispersal mechanisms are cool to observe. But I am increasingly interested by the insects this plant attracts too (like the milkweed bug)

But as these long-lived perennials develop substantial root systems, become established, and begin to flower, I worry less about their survival. My perspective changes, turns towards what they can do for the local ecosystem. New questions arise. What insects are attracted to their flower nectar? Which insects are pollinating them and leading to seed production? What insect larvae are eating their leaves or other parts of the plant? What predators are in turn feeding on those insects?

Simple image of a prairie food pyramid (Credit: Mariana Ruiz Villarreal (LadyofHats) for CK-12 Foundation)

Plants, being at the base of the food pyramid, dictate the level of diversity that exists further up the pyramid of consumption. Small bases lead to small pyramids and bigger bases lead to bigger pyramids. So in theory, the more different species of plants I install in my landscape, the more species of insects I will host. I can specifically predict what insects I will attract to a landscape based on the larval host plants I establish. For example, milkweed species will draw in monarch butterflies. Golden alexander or other species in the parsley family will draw in black swallowtail butterflies. Willow species will draw in viceroy butterflies, and so on. HERE is a list of butterfly larval host plants.

The Insects Have It

When I stop and think about it, the most interesting parts of tours at the Arboretum are when insects are visible and busy doing their thing. Stopping with a group to watch a hatch of caterpillars devour a plant leaf and dream of what those caterpillars will turn into is pretty cool. Observing a huddle of school kids dump out a sweep net and squeal with delight at finding the baby praying mantis, massive grasshopper, or whatever other interesting insect they are not used to seeing, simply makes my day.

Milkweed tussock moth larvae feeding on common milkweed
Tour participants observing monarch caterpillars and milkweed longhorn beetles on common milkweed
3rd Graders investigating the contents of an insect sweep net

Many of the species blooming now around the Visitor Center at Dyck Arboretum are sometimes considered invasive and perhaps even uninteresting because they are common. But as I highlight in another blog post Finding Value in the Undesirables, they attract a load of insects which makes them interesting to me. Here is a collection of photos of insects taken just outside my office last week:

One particular plant, Leavenworth eryngo (Eryngium leavenworthii), is stunning due to its vibrant color and interestingly shaped features. It’s often noticed by visitors walking to the greenhouse during FloraKansas: Fall Native Plant Days. However, what most people say when they see it is “did you see the swarms of insects on that plant?!” Customers are eager to recreate such insect habitat at their homes. For this reason, I keep a bag of seed for this annual species collected from the previous year to give away.

Become An Insect Promoter

This subtitle may make many traditional gardeners cringe. I have recently followed social media groups of gardeners where the anti-insect sentiment is rabid. Pesticides are commonly recommended to get rid of insect hatches in home landscapes and the recoil response related to spiders in general can be disturbing. Even many of our dedicated members that love to buy native plants for their landscapes don’t like to see the plants they come to love devoured by caterpillars. I am on a mission to change that.

So, if you are not already an entomology enthusiast and in awe of insects, I encourage you to take on a popular motivation for landscaping with native plants. Become more open to welcoming insects. Choose native plants or native cultivars not only because you think they will be pretty, but for how they will eventually host insects, enhance the food web they support, and increase the wildlife diversity in your landscape.

Plant Profile: Black-eyed Susan

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia sp.) are one of the most recognizable summer-blooming wildflowers. Their bright yellow flowers explode in the summer and are covered with all sorts of pollinator activity. Bees, flies, butterflies, and beetles feed on its nectar and pollen. The fruiting heads also provide seed for birds over the winter.  Here is a look at a few species and cultivars worth trying.   

Missouri black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia missouriensis)

In the wild, Missouri Black-eyed Susan grows in rocky limestone glades, barrens, and tallgrass prairies. It ranges from Illinois and Missouri, south to Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Although not native to Kansas, I have found it very resilient and quite adaptable to various growing conditions. It has large bouquets of bright yellow flowers atop 18” stems. The foliage is narrow with the leaves and stems covered with a dense fuzz. It’s a nice addition to the front/middle of any border or informal meadow landscape. 

Missouri Black-eyed Susan

Brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba)

This native gem can be found in eastern Kansas and on into much of the southeastern Great Plains. It grows naturally in open woods and savanna areas with medium to moist soil. Each plant can produce loads of charming, warm yellow daisy flowers with brown button centers. It keeps pumping out blooms through much of the later summer through fall. The slender branched stems are surprisingly sturdy and help the plant reach an ultimate height of three to four feet. It is a wonderful habit plant with blooms for pollinators and seeds for birds. It does self-sow, so know that it will move around. You will need to selectively weed plants out of your landscape, if you are agreeable to that sort of thing. 

We have carried a cultivar of Brown-eyed Susan called ‘Prairie Glow’ with attractive flowers of burnt orange with yellow tips surrounding a chocolate center cone. ‘Prairie Glow’ prefers full sun to light shade, and is also adaptable to many soil conditions.

Brown-Eyed Susan

Sweet Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia subtomentosa)

Sweet black-eyed Susan grows throughout much of the central and eastern Great Plains in low, moist soil of thickets, creek banks, pastures, prairie ravines and ditches. The flowers are spectacular and rival sunflowers in quantity of blooms, if the root system can find consistent moisture. A large variety of insects love the nectar and/or pollen of Sweet Black-eyed Susan and flock to the blooms during July, August and September. 

This is a great plant for a full sun to part shade location, but only when there is ample moisture. It will not endure dry soils. Plant it by a stream, water garden or pond where water is available on or near the surface. ‘Henry Eilers’ is a nice cultivar discovered in Illinois as a stabilized mutation with rolled or quilled ray petals. This cultivar reaches five feet tall and two feet wide. ‘Little Henry‘ is a shorter form which grows 3 to 4 feet tall but has the same quilled flowers.

Photo courtesy of TERRA NOVA® Nurseries, Inc.
www.terranovanurseries.com

Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

There are many forms of this poor man’s daisy, because it is so easy to hybridize. Typically, the species is found in full sun to part shade in mixed and tall grass prairies as a short-lived perennial or annual. It seeds readily and is a favorite to include in many prairie seed mixes. The bright yellow blooms from June through September are a welcome sight in any landscape from prairie to wildflower seeding. Some cultivars available are ‘Cherry Brandy, ‘Prairie Sun’, ‘Cherokee Sunset’, ‘Indian Summer’, ‘Autumn Colors’, ‘Denver Daisy’, ‘Goldilocks’, ‘Goldrush’, ‘Rustic Colors’, ‘Sonora’, ‘Toto Gold’, and ‘Toto Lemon’.

Cutleaf Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata)

This species grows in similar habitats to sweet coneflower – moist soil of creekbanks, thickets and open woods. A cut leaf coneflower really stands out in full sun and adequate moisture. The leaves are deeply lobed and the large, wide clumps, two to four feet across, can reach five to six feet tall.  Each stalk can have multiple large flowers with a greenish-yellow central cone. They bloom from July to October.  A garden worthy cultivar of cut leaf coneflower is ‘Herbstonne’.

Orange Coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida)

This eastern United States black-eyed susan is one of the most widely used in horticulture. Many cultivars, varieties and subspecies are incorporated into landscape designs. The native form thrives in glades, meadows, and prairies.  Rudbeckia fulgida var. deamii, Rudbeckia fulgida var. fulgida and Rudbeckia fulgida var. speciosa are two of my favorite native forms of orange coneflower. They grow well in landscapes with medium to moist soil and plenty of sun. These clumps slowly spread by rhizomes ultimately forming a dense mat of dark green leaves. The blooms pop up from July through September. 

‘Goldsturm‘ was a popular cultivar, but it has been used less because it has issues with septoria leaf spot and powdery mildew. New forms like ‘American Gold Rush’, ‘Little Goldstar, and ‘Viette’s Little Suzy‘ have resistance to both septoria leaf spot and powdery mildew. These are great alternatives to ‘Goldsturm’. 

Rudbeckia ‘American Gold Rush’

Giant Coneflower (Rudbeckia maxima)

Prairie Dropseed (foreground), Rudbeckia maxima, and yellow coneflowers

I love this coneflower for its blue green leaves and large coned flowers in June and July. It makes quite a statement in the landscape with flower stalks to six feet.  Native to Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana, I have found it to be quite adaptable. It appreciates regular moisture but can handle some dry periods.  Birds eat the seeds from the large cones during the winter. 

There is a Rudbeckia for just about any landscape situation with full to part sun and wet to dry. Pollinators love them and birds too. Add some to your garden for their late season bloom.

Seeded Prairie Checkup

I recently did a seeded prairie checkup to see how our December 2020 sidewalk planting described in the earlier blog post “Seeding After Disturbance” is doing. I’ve been informally monitoring it regularly since spring and have been encouraged by the progress I’ve seen.

Sidewalk edge seeded planting site this week on 8/10/21
The same planting site on the day it was planted 12/28/20 w/ planters Janelle and Kendra

Good Germination

We’ve been lucky with the weather since this planting. Conditions to promote good seed germination have been excellent. Remember the deep freeze we had in February? While it tested our human resiliency and strained our heating bills, it was good for this seeded prairie. Adequate precipitation and freeze/thaw action commenced throughout February and March. These conditions helped work the seed down into the soil while also breaking down their seed coats to help prepare them for germination.

Warmer temperatures along with rains in April and May promoted good germination. Identifiable prairie seedlings from the planted species list identified in the earlier blog post were evident amidst the expected seedlings of annuals like ragweed, sunflower, and foxtail.

Annual sunflower, giant ragweed, and foxtail grass serve as a shading nurse crop for tender, young perennial prairie plants

Thanks to the planting areas’ proximity to a water spigot, I was able to do some supplemental irrigation during the hot, dry weeks of late June and early July to keep the new seedlings from burning up while the seedling roots were small. But periodic rains in July and early August along with mottled shade from the nurse crop of sunflowers and annual grasses provided the conditions needed to help the prairie seedlings get well established as we head into fall.

Species Identified

A brief perusal of seedlings during this week’s seeded prairie checkup helped me find and photograph 14 of the 43 species that were part of the Prairie Moon Nursery seed mix. My prairie seedling identification skills are rusty, but I was able to identify the following seedlings to at least genus and some to species.

Seedlings of these identified species are thick throughout the planting and I’m confident that a good number of the rest of the 43 species in the mix will also show up eventually.

Weed Management

Typical management for a less-manicured seeded planting is simply to mow it a couple of times during the growing season to keep annuals from going to seed. Since such an approach for a higher profile area near the visitor center may look a bit scalped and perhaps not as appealing, we are taking the approach of cutting or pulling stems of the annuals. It is more labor intensive than mowing but not an unmanageable approach for small sidewalk edge planting, and regular volunteer, Gerry Selzer, has cheerfully embraced this task.

This weedy sidewalk edge vegetation is shading and hosting a variety of prairie seedlings underneath
The rare and coveted Gerrius selzeranii

Attracting Insects

One of the main reasons for planting this diverse wildflower seed mix in addition to adding pretty splashes of flower colors, is to attract insects and biological diversity to our sidewalk edge prairie beds. In two or three years, these planted species will be flowering and attracting insects with their flower nectar and host plant vegetation. I look forward to engaging school kids and teachers with regular investigations of these sidewalk edges to learn more about relationship between prairie plants and insects.

A new black-eyed susan is already playing host to caterpillars, possibly of species of checkerspot butterfly

Overall, I’m pleased with the progress of this planting as seen during this seeded prairie checkup. Days are getting shorter and we are almost to the cooler months of this planting’s first year when I can be pretty sure that these young prairie seedlings will have deep enough roots to survive about any weather conditions. Stay tuned for future updates about the development of this planting and consider how you too might add a seeded planting somewhere in your landscape.

Coneflowers: A Lesson in Host Plants

Coneflowers are so emblematic of the prairie. I love to include these prairie denizens in many of my designs. They are quite adaptable and I love the yellows, purples and pink colors of the true natives as they bloom during the summer.  The new cultivated varieties are attractive too. A mass of coneflowers with little bluestem make a nice combination by providing color and texture through the growing season. But right now, many of the plants are full of little black or brown caterpillars that are using Echinacea and Rudbeckia as their food.

Coneflowers as host plants

We are getting calls from our members and customers, and are seeing damage on our plants as well. Coneflower leaves are blackening, getting holes and disappearing. Contrary to how you may feel, this damage is an indication that your garden is functioning properly. Host plants are the vital food source that caterpillars live on. Adult butterflies will seek out these plants to lay their eggs on because they know that the caterpillar cannot travel far and will not survive if placed on a plant that they cannot eat. These caterpillars will eventually turn into checkerspot butterflies or a relative in that family. 

Think differently about your landscape

One of the goals of any garden – besides beauty – is to have pollinators in your garden. Sometimes they might not immediately be in the form you desire. Sometimes pollinators or their caterpillars may eat your plants or deform them.  Don’t be too hasty to spray or remove the culprits. They are doing what comes naturally to them and it is often better to leave the insect. These insects are fantastic food for fledgling birds as well.

Understand the life cycle

The caterpillars eating your coneflowers will make cocoons in a week or so and then turn into butterflies.  We must learn to embrace these caterpillars and accept some damage. The coneflowers will eventually recover. The tradeoff is that we create habitat suitable for butterflies to complete their life cycle. The “ugly, hairy” caterpillars will morph into beautiful butterflies that are equal to the beauty of the flower. 

The key to a successful butterfly garden is to plant both nectar and host plants, so that the butterflies will have a food source in all stages of their life cycles. We often design our landscapes as nectar sources and forget that these pollinators need host plants too. So as you design your landscape, include flowering plants that produce nectar and also double as host plants.

Other host plants

  • Black Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) Host plant for: Silvery Checkerspot, Gorgone Checkerspot, Bordered Patch butterfly
  • Aster spp. Host plant for: Pearl crescent, Painted Lady and more
  • Coneflower (Echinacea spp.) Host Plant for: Silvery Checkerspot and more
  • Hollyhock (Alcea spp.) Host plant for: Painted Lady, Common Checkered-Skipper and more
  • Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea) or Dill (Antheum graveolens) Host plant for: Black Swallowtail, Anise Swallowtail and more NOTE: The Black Swallowtail will feed on any plants within the Parsley family.
  • Sunflower (Helianthus spp.) Host plant for: Silvery Checkerspot, Painted Lady and more
  • Milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) Host plant for: Monarch
  • Mallow (Malva spp.) Host plant for: Common Checkered-Skipper, Gray Hairstreak , Painted Lady and more
  • Violet (Viola spp.) Host plant for: Great Spangled Fritillary, Variegated Fritillary, Meadow Fritillary and more

Garden Retreat

As much as we love our work at the Arboretum, sometimes the staff need to get out and about! Once or twice a year we take a staff retreat, spending a day in leisure time together. We eat, laugh, and explore new places. We often visit other gardens or notable landscapes on these retreat days. Luckily, Wichita has two great locations to see beautiful gardens: Botanica and the Wichita Art Museum. Click here to learn more about how your Dyck Arboretum membership gives you free admission to these places.

Mi Garden et Su Garden

Visiting other gardens is always a treat for us plant nerds, and Botanica never disappoints. It has seventeen acres of sprawling gardens including the Chinese Friendship garden, a woodland glade, a prairie-inspired meadow, a butterfly house and a children’s garden. With interactive statues and countless water features, there is excitement around every corner. Although our mission and goals are very different from Botanica’s, we can still draw inspiration and fresh ideas from their exhibits. They have many vibrant annual plantings featuring coleus, begonias, cannas, and more. These would be unsustainable for our garden, given our smaller staff and water-conscious focus, but the color combinations and design principles could be implemented within our ethos of ecological native plantings.

Arb staff enjoying the children’s garden at Botanica.
Botanica does a fabulous job of seamlessly mixing classical garden designs and exotic, tropical plants with prairie favorites. While it is no doubt labor intensive to maintain, the effect is undeniably beautiful.
Their boardwalk and pond includes views of water lilies, lotus flowers, pickerel weed, and many other stunning aquatic plants.

What a WAMmy of a Retreat!

The Wichita Art Museum is full of priceless paintings and sculptures inside, but also has an 8-acre ‘art garden’ outside. The plantings feature prairie natives like coneflower, switchgrass, side-oats grama, alliums, and rattlesnake master. These familiar plants are growing in modern designs, grouped in masses to create large swathes of color and form. As a backdrop for sculptures and surrounded by interesting walkways, the prairie species look wild and yet orderly. They also provide great pollinator habitat in an otherwise urban, nectar-less area. Prairie plants require less water than traditional landscaping, making these gardens green in more than one way.

Mass plantings featuring fountain grass and catmint make a dramatic effect at the WAM. As we have learned here at the Arb, mass plantings are also easier to weed and maintain, especially for volunteers and staff who may be less familiar with the plant material.
The Wichita Art Museum has set their massive outdoor sculptures within several prairie-themed garden spaces. Brad is taking this photo while Scott and I chat about grass varieties and Janelle, the truly wise one among us, seeks shade to prevent a sunburn!
WAM infuses every space with a modern, clean-cut feel. The stepping stones cut an orderly path through a dense planting of grasses.

What a joy it was to take a day away from the Arboretum office, the greenhouse, and the ever-present crabgrass to explore other gardens and refresh our mindset. I returned to the Arboretum with renewed appreciation for what makes our garden unique and what our mission charges us to do, but with new inspiration for how we can do it better. If you are an Arboretum member, be sure to take advantage of that reciprocal membership. Visit these Wichita institutions and support them if you can.

The Edible Landscape

I am a big fan of a landscape that is functional as well as beautiful. Functionality might mean wildlife and pollinator attraction, water absorbing (rain garden) or water conserving (xeriscaping). But it can also mean incorporating human food plants into your perennial garden. This not only provides a healthy snack, but it encourages more interaction and participation. What is the point of a beautiful landscape if you aren’t out enjoying it?

Here is a small preview of some of the plants I will discuss in the upcoming Native Plant School class all about landscaping with edible plants. If this topic fires you up, stop by our gift shop to grab a copy of Kelly Kindscher’s Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie, a wonderful plant guide and exploration of ethnobotany on the Great Plains.

Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)

A personal favorite of mine, Elderberry is as beautiful as it is nutritious. This plant will love a low spot in the yard where water tends to collect after rains, or an area with poor drainage. It can reach 8ft tall, putting on an impressive show in late spring when covered with massive white flower clusters. Berries ripen in July, a perfect time to spend the hot afternoons in the kitchen making jams and syrups. I make a cold remedy from them that has never let me down!

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)

Persimmon (left) and PawPaw (right) both produce delicious fruit.

Everything about pawpaw seems tropical. Surely this fruit cannot be native to hot, dry Kansas…yet it is! It is an easy growing plant that can grow in full sun or partial shade and tolerates alkaline soil. To get a good fruit set you should plant more than one; though they have both male and female flowers on a single tree they are not self-fertile. The fruit is worth it! A custard-like texture with the flavor of bananas and mangos, it is perfect for pies and homemade ice cream.

Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa)

Monarda fistulosa flower, photographed by Brad Guhr

If you are short on garden space and can’t add a shrub or tree, never fear. Monarda fistulosa is a wonderful edible perennial much smaller in stature than the previous options. About 3ft by 3ft when happy and mature, the leaves of this plant make excellent tea, with a flavor reminiscent of the bergamot oil used in Earl Grey. It has a long history of medicinal use by indigenous North Americans, for everything from upper respiratory problems to sore feet. The flowers are also edible and add a citrusy, spicy punch to salads.

From persimmon to chokeberry, we have so many native plants to choose from to diversify our diets and add beauty to our home landscapes. Thanks to thousands of years of culinary experimentation by the tribes and nations of North America we have a rich ethnobotanical tradition to learn from, an example of how to learn about, appreciate and interact with food and flora.

Our upcoming class will cover some easy-to-grow native plants that have edible leaves or fruits, along with some landscaping ideas for how to incorporate them into a garden setting. Stay tuned to our website for the registration link!