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!

Fireflies of Summer

The longest days of late June in Southcentral Kansas for me feel synonymous with sweltering hot swimming weather, carefree kids riding bikes, backyard BBQs, blooming milkweeds, butterflies, and the first signs of the fireflies of summer.

Saturday evening, June 12, 2021, I saw the first flash of a firefly in my backyard. I found many adult fireflies on the underside of milkweed leaves while looking for monarch caterpillars in my prairie garden. Over the last week, fireflies have begun putting on a dazzling light show in the early evening hours.

Firefly Diversity, Life Cycle, and Habit

Fireflies, sometimes referred to as lightning bugs, are neither flies nor bugs. They are beetles (order Coleoptera) in the family Lampyridae. Nearly 170 firefly species of Lampyrids have been documented throughout the United States and Canada.

Like all beetles, fireflies go through complete metamorphosis in four stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. The complete life cycle can range from two months to three years or more, the majority of the life cycle spent in the larval stage. The larva is a predator that eats soft-bodied invertebrates including earthworms, slugs, and snails. It first injects paralyzing neurotoxins to immobilize its prey. Then it secretes digestive enzymes to liquify it for easy consumption.

Fireflies have specialized light organs under their abdomens that produce the compound luciferin. Luciferin combined with oxygen undergoes a chemical reaction known as bioluminescence that produces light with almost no heat. Even the eggs and larvae of some species glow, hence the name “glow worm”. Adult males and females turn that light on and off to communicate in their mating ritual. Each species of firefly has its own distinct lighting pattern.

Research shows that this illumination system also deters predators. Just like a monarch butterfly has a bright coloration system to communicate that it is poisonous, fireflies send the message that their bodies are toxic by flashing. I have big brown bats living in my yard. I thought they would easily munch on fireflies since beetles are a favorite part of their diet, but this article helped me to learn otherwise.

Larry Buschman – Local Firefly Expert

I probably would not have become inspired to learn more about fireflies if it hadn’t been for meeting Larry Buschman. Larry is a total firefly nerd and a knowledgeable one at that. He travels throughout the Central United States every summer to look for and study different species of Lampyrids. Larry was kind enough to let me tag along last summer and observe him in action. When I met him for the first time in a parking lot along the Walnut River near El Dorado, he wasn’t hard to spot. With his red light head lamp, insect net, and his homemade contraption consisting of a “flashing system” and camera on a fishing pole to lure in and photograph various species, Larry looked like a character out of Ghostbusters. I knew right away I had met a new friend.

“Who you gonna call” if you want to identify fireflies? Larry Buschman.
Larry trying not to be annoyed by my flash camera messing up his night vision while he identifies a firefly specimen.

We set out for the deepest and darkest part of the riparian woods. As it got dark and Larry got to work luring in fireflies, we caught two different species of fireflies. We found Photinus pyralis “The Big Dipper” abundantly. This is the species that you and I probably most commonly see in our yards in Kansas. The males display five 1-2 second flashes regularly every 4-5 seconds, which elicits a similar one-time flash by the female.

We also found a less common species in the genus Photuris. This group is easily identified by its humped back and longer legs. Female adults of Photuris are often predators of other fireflies. While the long, slow flash narrows down the identification of this firefly to one of a couple of different species of Photuris (either P. caeruluscens or P. lucicrescens), Larry was not sure on the identification. So, for now it gets the more generic designation of Photuris spp. See more details about the firefly species of Kansas in Larry’s Field Guide to Western North American Fireflies.

Larry allowed me to take home and photograph the next day the two species we found.

Firefly Threats and Conservation

World Firefly Day is coming July 3-4, 2021 and marks a good time to think about their conservation. Firefly species around the world are threatened. A recent study identified that the three most prominent threats to fireflies are 1) habitat loss, 2) artificial light, and 3) pesticide use. Artificial light at night and pesticide use are two threats that we can curtail fairly easily and with minimal effort. Check out light pollution solutions and firefly-friendly lighting practices to help you reduce light pollution in your landscape. And consider the sensible approach of Green Scaping to reduce and even eliminate pesticide use in your landscape.

Addressing the largest threat to fireflies of habitat loss is one we can also take on in our landscaping. It is a drumbeat that we deliver regularly through our education channels at Dyck Arboretum. Building habitat for insects in general will benefit any subgroup of insects including fireflies. Plain and simple, you can do this by increasing the diversity of native plants in your landscape.

For further firefly conservation recommendations, check out the Xerces Society’s comprehensive publication Conserving the Jewels of the Night.

I’ll leave you with a favorite children’s book to share. Children will be an important part of firefly and insect conservation into the future. Consider how you might restore insect habitat, curb pesticide use, and reduce light population to help protect the fireflies of summer.

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Many of our readers and webinar participants have asked for an update on my native front yard project, and I am happy to oblige! As with every native garden, it had it’s ‘ugly duckling’ phase wherein it was more mulch than garden. This is normal, and patience is key to getting past this phase. Given the right conditions and enough time to mature, native plants will thrive and thrill you.

An Earth-Friendly Garden

Would you believe that not all gardens are ‘green’? I wanted to avoid the use of too many exotics, which take a lot of extra irrigation and often do not provide food for wildlife and insects. My goal two years ago was to decrease the amount of lawn in my landscape and increase quality habitat in my area. Since then I have been pleased to host buckeye, skipper, and monarch caterpillars. I have seen many species of birds swooping over my garden to eat the flies and moths that hang around. With very low water needs, this landscape helps keep my household water consumption low.

Grey Santolina and purple skullcap anchor the front of my low-growing native landscape.
Limestone edging along the curb stops my mulch from sliding away in heavy rains. I also found a few interesting boulders to serve as substrate for hen and chicks. They make a nice focal point, and add structure.

The Best Laid Plants

While we talk a lot about careful planning and design as keys to success with a native garden, a dash of spontaneity keeps the garden fun and fresh. After initial planting, I continued to add plants and deviate from my written plan. That’s okay! Adding lambs ear from my grandmother’s house, and strawberry mint from my parent’s greenhouse made the garden more personal and functional. I continue to fill in gaps here and there as I see them appear. I have learned an important lesson from all of this: if a certain plant doesn’t work out, it doesn’t mean you failed or that you aren’t a good gardener. It might just mean it wasn’t in the right spot! Fill that space with something else you like and try again.

White flowers of thyme spill onto my sidewalk, contrasted with the silvers of lambs ear
and the chartreuse leaves of bluebeard and sumac.

Plant Selection

I mixed natives and non-natives to create a landscape that speaks to me; a space that is visually pleasing and ecologically friendly. Here are some of my favorites that are all growing well together:

  • lamb’s ear (Stachys bizantina)
  • fame flower (Talinum calycinum)
  • bluebeard (Caryopteris sp.)
  • skullcap (Scuttelaria resinosa ‘Smokey Hills’)
  • ornamental onion (Allium spp. )
  • Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuisimma)
  • prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis)
  • grey lavender cotton (Santolina chamaecyparissus)
  • sand cherry (Prunus besseyii ‘Pawnee Buttes’)
  • perky sue (Hymenoxys scaposa)
  • horsetail milkweed (Asclepias verticillata)
  • dwarf false indigo (Baptisia australis var. minor)
  • thyme, oregano, and lavender

Stay tuned for future updates as this planting matures and continues to change. We have had such great enthusiasm around our Native Front Yard classes, making me hopeful that many of you are on the journey to more sustainable front yards as well!

How to Plant Your Garden Kit

There is no “one way” to landscape with native plants. One person’s dream landscape design might be someone else’s nightmare. Native gardens can be wild and wistful, or organized and formal. As long as the plant species being used are beneficial to wildlife and water conscious, you are on the right track! But it can be overwhelming when you have lots of great plants to choose from, but no guidance on how or where to install them in an aesthetically pleasing way. Planting can be daunting for beginners.

Our garden kits are so popular at FloraKansas because they take the guess work out of plant selection. Looking to fill in your shade garden? Our shade garden kit has a mix of spreaders and specimens to keep your interest through the season. Hoping to host caterpillars? The host plant medley we put together is a buffet for monarchs, fritillaries, swallowtails, and more. But after buying the kit, the real work begins!

Mountain mint is a plant included in our Monarch Special kit. A magnet for pollinators, it has a long bloom period and should be placed toward the middle or back of your garden area because of its height.
This is a very simple example schematic you could draft for yourself, depending on your circumstances. Use X’s to show each plant’s future placement and be sure to include existing structures like fences, driveways, sidewalks, or trees.

Keep It Simple

Our basic guidance is simple: cluster plants and design by height. This means keeping some color blocks together. For example, if the species are small like Viola pedata in our host plant kit, consider placing them in close proximity. When they bloom, it will make a much bigger impact and will draw more attention than just one plant here and there. Also keep an eye on height, planting so that one species doesn’t overshadow others. Place tall species at the back or middle of your viewing area, and shorter species toward the front or around the border. These two guidelines alone will help make your garden kit look planned and intentional, and can also help you stay organized when it comes time to weed. Use this simple design as an example, and make your own adjustments based on the kit you purchased.

Plants out in their natural prairie settings have no organization or man-made pattern, which is beautiful and awe inspiring at large scale. In our small home gardens however, careful design and clustering of color is a more manageable and visually pleasing approach. Photo by Brad Guhr.

Let the Plants Be Your Guide

If you purchased a garden kit with taller grasses like switch grass, those can serve as a backdrop for the color of flowers in front. If your kit included little bluestem, consider mixing those into a mid-height section as added structure for Liatris or milkweeds. As for how close to plant, we usually suggest no more than one plant per 2.5 to 3 square feet to accommodate the vigorous growth that is sure to come.

So grab some scratch paper and make a few sketches before you start digging holes. Or don’t! As I said before, there is no right way. You can plan down to the very last inch or throw them in willy-nilly. As long as you are having fun and planting native, you can’t go wrong.