Roots of Native Plants

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

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

Plants grow in community

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

Narrowleaf Coneflower in the Flint Hills

Why are deep root systems important?

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

These hidden roots also:

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

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

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

Saturated Soils and Wilting Plants

This year we have been facing many environmental challenges from wind, drought, torrential rain for a lucky few, and now soaring temperatures. Nobody said gardening in Kansas would be easy. One of the more common problems we see in spring is wilting plants, especially those that are newly transplanted. This is true after the big rains last week and now the heat of this week. The new gardener may wonder – “what’s wrong with my plants?”

Saturated Soils

The heavy rain has resulted in saturated soil. Plants need water, but standing water for hours or even days depletes the soil of valuable oxygen. The roots need oxygen present in the soil, but as voids are filled with water, the oxygen is removed and root systems can become damaged. The fine root hairs die from lack of oxygen. These fine hair roots are vital for water and nutrient uptake by the plant. Whether it is a perennial or vegetable crop like tomatoes, the plants wilt because the uptake of water has been interrupted.

Will the wilting plants recover?

A number of factors affect the plant’s ability to overcome a flooding episode. How long the plants were flooded, drainage away from the root system, type of soil, type of plants (think about their natural habitat: some plants appreciate wet soils while other don’t), and how long the plant has been established. A newly established plant will be more affected than a mature plant.

Liatris wilting

Many vegetables crops are sensitive to flooding or saturated soils, but if the soil dries out quickly they will usually recover on their own with no help from us. Heavily mulched plants with more than two to three inches of mulch tend to stay wet too long for many perennials. If you see this wilting happening, check soil moisture. The mulch is not allowing the soil to dry out and may be damaging the roots. Rake back the mulch for a few days to encourage the soil to dry out.

If the soil stinks, then it has transitioned into an anaerobic state and everything is killed in the soil, including microbes and roots. Not a good situation. At this point it is very difficult to bring a plant back, because it is too badly damaged. Native plants generally appreciate good drainage. Root rot or crown rot are two of the most common problems, because the soil stays wet too long. As an example, narrow-leaf coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia) grows on rocky hillsides with keen drainage and no standing water. Planting one of these coneflowers in a flat garden with heavy clay soils is a recipe for disaster.

This time of year, gardeners should also be on the lookout for increased incidences of diseases such as early blight and powdery mildew. Humidity and excess moisture can quickly damage plants with these diseases, too.

Yellow Leaves

Echinacea turning yellow from too much water

Yellowing foliage can also be a problem after a heavy rain event. This is a visual indicator of compromised roots, but also the leaching out of nitrogen in the soil. Nitrogen is mobile in the soil and moves downward away from roots with moisture. An application of slow-release fertilizer like Osmocote or a liquid fertilizer will green the plant back up over time.

I only recommend fertilizing fully established perennials, i.e. plants you put into the ground last year. Fertilizing newly planted perennials will cause excess top growth without a sustaining root system. With native wildflowers and grasses, it generally takes three to five years to develop a sustaining root system.

To avoid these problems, it is critical to match plants to your site. Good drainage and keeping moisture away from the crowns of the plants will keep your plants healthy too. Don’t put too much mulch around your plants, especially the main stem. Plant your garden densely and let the plants be the mulch.

If you do mulch your garden, only put enough to just cover the soil. Usually one to two inches is enough. Allow the plants to develop roots that tap into the moisture and nutrients. We need the spring rains, but sometimes we can get too much for our newer perennials.

Spring Ephemerals: Don’t wait!

Because of the tendency for some spring ephemerals to go dormant in hot weather, there are a handful of plants we only offer at the spring Florakansas event. Shooting star, liverleaf, and jack-in-the-pulpit are all beautiful woodland species and that show off in spring then disappear for the rest of the year. If you wait until fall to buy these beauties, you likely won’t find them on our greenhouse benches! Though Florakansas is over, we still have some of these plants in stock, and I will be happy to chat with you via email if you’d like to purchase them.

Hepatica americana

Hepatica blooms very early in spring, sometimes even through the snow.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Also known as liverleaf, this petite plant puts on small star shaped flowers and is very hardy. Great in moist to medium-dry shade, it will perform in the garden without any fuss. The flowers can be white, or even a light blue or pink at times. Blooms close up at night and open on rainy days, a charming movement in the early spring garden. The leaves hug the ground at only 2-3″ tall, so it fits well near edging or walkways.

Dodecatheon media

Shooting star comes in pink and white. Whichever color you choose, they are sure to delight as they spring up in April on leafless stems. With a flower unlike any other, this native oddity is a conversation starter and always a welcome harbinger of warmer days to come. Plant in a part shady spot where the soil won’t become waterlogged, as they may rot. Once finished blooming in May, the plant disappears completely only to surprise you again next spring!

Arisaema triphyllum

Photo by Fanmartin via Wikimedia Commons
Native range of A. triyphyllum according to the USDA plants database

Jack-in-the-pulpit is a fascinating plant that looks more like it belongs in the tropics than in Kansas. Native to eastern Kansas and much of the mid to upper east coast, this plant spreads slowly underground to form lush colonies of lobed leaves and spathe blooms. The blooms are green externally, but often turn burgundy red inside, eventually giving way to interesting red fruits in fall. But take care, though they may look delicious, these fruits are not edible!

Other spring ephemerals that go dormant during summer and are only offered in spring are Mertensia virginica (bluebells) and Podophyllum peltatum (mayapple). Though Florakansas has ended and the shopping hours are over, if you still need a few plants please email arboretum@hesston.edu to reach a staff member and we will be happy to help.

FloraKansas Greenhouse Guide

When you visit the greenhouse during our FloraKansas fundraisers, you may notice some signage hanging over the aisles: Shade, Adaptables, Natives for Sun. This post will help you make sense of how we organize the species so you can find exactly what you want and start planting!

Use the aisle markers to help you navigate the greenhouse. You may also find it helpful to bring your Native Plant Guide with you,
helping you remember the names and attributes of the plants you are interested in. Photo by Amy Sharp Photography.

Shade

In the north aisle you will find shade plants, both native and adaptable. These plants will appreciate all day dappled sun or less than 6 hours of direct sun per day. By nature, many of these plants like a bit more water than their sun loving counterparts. There are lots of great options for dry shade, however, which is common in Kansas’ suburban neighborhoods. Use your native plant guide or the placard over each species to know which plants like it dry or moist, and help you select the right plants for your site.

Shade Garden
The native columbine Aquilegia canadensis thrives in the Arboretum shade garden.
This is one of many shade-tolerant species you can find at FloraKansas.
Geranium maculatum ‘Crane Dance’ is a hybrid of two parent G. maculatum types. This plant can tolerate droughty shade and has excellent fall color. Photo courtesy Walter’s Gardens

Adaptables

Heptacodium, also known as Seven Son Flower, is a shrub from northern Asia. While it is not native here, our butterflies sure do love it!
Hardy and drought tolerant, it has become one of our favorite adaptable shrubs.
Monarchs on Seven Son Flower at Dyck Arboretum, 9/20/2020 – Photo by Gerry Epp

The center aisle is for Adaptables. This is our catch-all term for non-natives that still deserve to be included in our sale. Maybe it is because they are a well-known garden classic, like peonies or hibiscus. Perhaps they are new and unique, appealing to the adventurous gardeners in our customer base. No matter the reason they initially caught our eye, we consider the following before we add them to our inventory:

  • do they reliably preform well in our area?
  • are they known to be non-invasive?
  • do they still benefit our local pollinators and birds?
  • are they particularly water-wise or hardy?

We research every plant that goes into this aisle to make sure these species deserve a spot at our sale, and have something special to offer our shoppers.

Natives for Sun

Lastly the Natives for Sun aisle is by far the most jam packed and diverse of the three, alphabetized by latin name for all those botany nerds out there. These plants are native to KS and our bordering states. We research the historical ranges for these plants. We also research which horticultural varieties we carry are naturally occurring or intentionally hybridized by breeders. Information is always changing on this topic! When considering whether it is ‘native enough’ for this aisle we also consider factors like how the flower form and leaf color has potentially been changed by humans, which can affect its function in the ecosystem.

Ratibida columnifera is a native prairie plant you would find in our Natives for Sun aisle.
It loves hot summer days and open spaces! Photo by Emily Weaver.

Our greenhouse was built in 2008, and has changed the way we operate our fundraiser in a big way. Before we had a greenhouse, Florakansas was held in the parking lot! I am so glad those days are gone and that our greenhouse is the permanent home for Florakansas, a center of activity for volunteers, and a warm place to escape to in late winter. We hope to see lots of you enjoying the greenhouse at our spring sale!

Pine Diseases Changing Landscapes Forever

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

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

Pine Wilt

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

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

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

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

Other Pine Diseases

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

Treatment Options

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

Diversity is the Key

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

Other Evergreens

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

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

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

Defining Common Horticultural Terms, Part 2

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

Host Plants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunlight Defined

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

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

Full Sun

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

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

Sun loving prairie plants

Part Sun and Part Shade

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

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

Full Shade

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

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

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

All About Asters

Spring hasn’t even started and I am already looking forward to fall. Why? Asters. They are hardy, long-blooming, and attract tons of pollinators. Planning ahead and planting asters now will ensure you have lots of color through October and even into November. If not now, then by the time they are blooming and you remember how much you like them… it will be too late!

There are lots of great asters available at our biannual Florakansas fundraisers. Sun-loving, shade-tolerant, and a myriad of colors to choose from, it can be overwhelming to decide on a variety. Check out Scott’s previous blog on asters to learn about a great variety of native asters. Here I will cover only those not included in that blog, as well as new varieties available at our upcoming FloraKansas event.

Aster lateriflorus ‘Lady In Black’

‘Lady In Black’ is quite showy with dark foliage and masses of bright flowers. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Calico aster is a lesser known species, but has a lot of garden potential. The ‘Lady in Black’ variety has dark foliage and white to blush colored flowers with pink centers. It looks great planted in masses, paired with sturdy grasses around it for support like Panicum ‘Northwind’ or ‘Purple Tears’. Its arching stems are graceful, and add a lot of energy and movement to a prairie garden or meadow planting.

Aster sericeus

File:Symphyotrichum sericeum (15354337036).jpg
Aster sericeus has a light purple flower, slightly cupped foliage and wire stems. Photo from Wikimedia Commons
By: peganum from Henfield, England, CC BY-SA 2.0

One of my personal favorites, it is often overlooked for flashier species. Silky aster is diminutive but tough as nails, and its wiry stems offer nice contrast to its light green, hairy leaves. It has a silver tint to it, especially from a distance, so it adds a wonderful cool tone to any hot, sunny place in the garden. It has a somewhat prostrate habit, so it benefits from sturdy plants around it for support. I’d pair this with Schizachyrium ‘Jazz’ or even some old fashioned lambs ear as both would bring out the blueish-silver tone of the foliage.

Silky aster is native throughout the Flint Hills and mixed grass prairie areas.
Map from USDA plants data base.

Aster novae-angliae ‘Grape Crush’

New England asters are known for their late blooms and towering height. As much as they are loved by pollinators, gardeners have come to curse them for becoming too tall and floppy. ‘Grape Crush’ is a shorter, denser variety. It keeps a much tidier habit and has a deep purple color. We will also have ‘Purple Dome’ New England type, which is very similar but perhaps with a slightly earlier bloom time. We are excited to try planting some ‘Grape Crush’ around our grounds this season!

Also available this spring…

  • Aster nova-belgii ‘Anton Kippenberg’ (a New York type that doesn’t flop, blue flowers in early fall)
  • Aster ericoides ‘Snow Flurry’ (less than 6″ tall, full sun/dry soil, toughest plant around)
  • Aster leavis ‘Bluebird’ (full sun, tall and floriferous!)
  • Aster divaracatus (white flowers, good in shade)
  • Aster cordifolus (white to bluish flowers, taller than A. divaricatus, good in dry shade)
  • Aster dumosus ‘Woods Blue’ and ‘Woods Purple’ (very short and compact)

Name Change

Note that many aster species have formally changed their taxonomic name to Symphyotrichum. Due to modern research and genetic study, botanists have found that not all asters belong in the same group, so Symphyotrichum is a new genus name that will help us better understand this huge family of plants. In our native plant guide you will find this name change already in action.

Defining Common Horticultural Terms

There are many horticultural terms that get tossed around in casual conversation. We hear these words or phrases in presentations, and read them in books and seed catalogs. Presenters often assume that everyone knows what they mean without much explanation. Here are a just a few words I use from time to time that I would like to define for you.

Xeriscape

Denver Water coined the term xeriscape in 1981 by combining landscape with the Greek prefix xero-, from (xēros), meaning ‘dry’. Xeriscaping = water-conserving landscapes. This landscaping concept focuses on several water conserving measures such as:

  • Planning and design that matches plants to the site
  • Water-efficient plant materials, especially native plants
  • Efficient irrigation systems including drip irrigation
  • Use of water-conserving mulch or densely planted gardens
  • Soil preparation only if necessary
  • Appropriate turf since it can be very water consuming

Something to remember: a xeric garden can still be a beautiful garden. It will just require less water over time so it’s a win, win situation.

Xeric garden at the Arboretum

Habitat

A habitat garden is a garden that mimics the natural landscape while also providing food, shelter and potentially water for wildlife, including pollinators. A habitat garden has layers of plants and a succession of blooms. It is a very intentional way of landscaping focused more on giving back rather than taking something from your landscape. Don’t get me wrong, a habitat garden can still be beautiful, but it will certainly give you much more enjoyment as you attract a host of pollinator, birds and other wildlife to your yard.

Stratification

One of the most interesting processes I learned when I first started working at the Arboretum was the process of stratification. It intrigued me that I could collect seed from the wild and get it to germinate in the greenhouse simply by simulating the chilling and warming that seeds would endure if left outdoors for the winter in their native climate. This chilling and warming that seeds are exposed to breaks down natural germination inhibitors until they are ready and able to germinate the next year.

This process is so important for plants and their survival because it keeps seeds from germinating the same year of development. They must go through a cold period such as winter before they are able to germinate. This does two important things: keeps seeds from germinating in the fall and allows the seeds to be worked into the soil over the winter with the natural freeze/thaw of the soil so they can germinate in spring.

If a seed would germinate in the fall, that tiny plant would not have enough time to develop a sustaining root system. The tiny seeding would not survive the winter. The natural process allows a seed to lay dormant all winter and germinated in the spring when conditions are more favorable for survival, it would have the entire growing season to develop a healthy root system.

This process of stratification is why we encourage people to scatter prairie wildflowers and grass seed in November and December. It allows time for this process to occur so the seeds will germinate the following year.

Hopefully, this is helpful. I will discuss some other terms in upcoming blogs.

2005 seed mix of wildflowers and grasses scattered on the Prairie Window Project at the Arboretum

The New Kansas

Compared to the average human lifespan, Kansas is old. 160 years old to be exact. But before it was a state, it was just one unbounded part of a vast Great Plains grassland landscape. It was home to millions of bison, nomadic and agrarian Indigenous people, and lots of grass. Before European settlement in this area, Kansas was dominated by grasses. Woody species had little chance of surviving the dry weather patterns and frequent fires. But times have changed. Cities, towns and homesteads come with lots of tree planting and a cessation of the much needed fires that keep the grasslands grassy. Our modern neighborhoods don’t resemble these ancient landscapes. So how can we truly plant native species if much of our garden space doesn’t have prairie conditions anymore?

View from the observation tower at Maxwell Wildlife Refuge.

Understand Your Microclimate

Microclimate is all about the conditions in a very specific area. A microclimate might include your entire yard, or just that one spot on the side of your house. Factors like windbreaks, ambient heat from foundations, or compacted soil from foot traffic mean that your garden spot is completely unique. You may have built-in irrigation, or get extra run-off from your neighbor’s roof, or have a leaky water faucet that saturates the soil around your garden. All this adds up to a very different set of conditions from the historically treeless, windy, dry prairies of early Kansas. Your ‘prairie garden’ might not be right for all true prairie plants.

This graphic is from the great guide, The Tallgrass Restoration Handbook available from Island Press. In the book it is used to show the prairie continuum as it moves from prairie to oak savannah habitats. I like to use it as an artistic illustration of time as well. Each box can represent our state at a different time period: at the top is a relatively treeless Kansas with mostly open grassland. In the middle we see early settlement and homesteading with trees planted and less fires, and at the bottom is a depiction of our state today with much more tree cover in our cities, towns, and cleared pasturelands.

Native vs Near Native

Hearing your yard isn’t compatible with plants native to your county or region is a real bummer. But perhaps your garden is just perfect for, say, Ozark native plants. In a medium-to-dry shaded yard with root competition from mature trees, the forest flowers of the Ozarks will perform much better than prairie plants, even though they are not native to your county. Considering how species have shifted to and fro over millennia, these neighboring species are still water-wise and beneficial for wildlife. Maybe your yard is sandy/rockier than expected. Try far western Kansas or Colorado species. Plants in that region love extremely fast drainage and dry conditions. Unless you are a professional conservationist intentionally restoring wild area as closely as possible to its original species population, it doesn’t pay to be too pedantic in the garden.

Packera obovata is native to eastern Kansas, but is more commonly found in the open woods of Missouri and Arkansas.   

Crank up the Chainsaw

If you want to plant prairie species, you need open space and sun. Cutting down trees can make this a reality! It sounds scary, but removing trees from your yard is okay. We have been led to believe, via international tree planting campaigns, that all trees are sacred. But that’s not the case in our area. We should absolutely preserve heavily forested ecosystems that host wildlife dependent on trees. Think: Congo Basin, Amazon, Taiga, etc. But the Great Plains grass-dominated ecosystem functions best with fewer trees.

Our wildlife thrives in a relatively tree-less environment. If you have non-native, unnecessary trees in your yard, consider removing them to create more sunny space for your prairie perennials. Down with invasive ornamental pears and Siberian elms. Yes, even some native Eastern red cedars should be ousted. Unchecked, they are a huge problem for prairies. If this seems too extreme, you can simply limb up your trees to allow more light through.

Good land stewardship sometimes means taking down trees. If those trees are invasive species, diseased, or taking up space where native prairie plants could be thriving, then down they go!

The Right Plants for the Right Place

Folks often ask why we don’t only offer Kansas natives. They also ask why we sell plants with special horticultural varieties as well as the straight native species. Because most of our customers are homeowners aiming to feed birds and provide pollinator habitat, we offer options that will perform well in the reality of residential environments. This might mean their yard isn’t right for what is truly native to a 50 mile radius. Or perhaps the space is better suited to less aggressive, taller/shorter, or seedless horticultural variety that fits their garden dimensions.

We hope to help everyone, regardless of their garden situation, to find beneficial plants that create habitat and bring joy. Offering plants to the whole plant-loving spectrum, from the newcomer planting their first wildflower to the experienced native plant purist looking for local eco-types, we are here to educate and assist.

Beyond Milkweed: More Plants for Monarchs

I recently read an interesting article about monarch butterflies and their migration needs. The foundation of any successful monarch migration rests on a sufficient supply of native milkweeds, as these are the only plants monarch caterpillars can eat. However, there is ongoing research that suggests nectar plants besides milkweeds should receive more attention, since many milkweeds are done blooming when monarchs return to Mexico in the fall.        

Adult monarchs are generalist feeders, and they need varied nectar sources. This is why succession of bloom within your garden is so important.  A variety of beautiful wildflowers provide food for monarchs throughout the year, but also support many other butterflies, bees, birds and other wildlife. Yes, milkweeds are still critical to include in your design since they are both a host plant and a nectar source. But here are some other plants that will assist monarchs as they migrate:

Trees and Shrubs

  • Ceanothus americanus/herbaceous (New Jersey Tea) – Attractive clusters of white flowers in spring and early summer. 
  • Cephalanthus occidentalis (buttonbush) – Interesting white flowers May-September and beautiful fall color. Likes moisture and is great for heavy clay soils.
  • Prunus serotina  (Black Cherry) – Long clusters of fragrant white flowers in spring.  Large tree with fruit for birds later in the season.
  • Rhus spp. (sumac) – Shrubs or small trees with useful flowers for pollinators, fruit for other wildlife and good fall color. 
  • Heptacodium miconioides (Seven-son Flower) – Small ornamental tree with flowers in September.  Monarchs have flocked to our trees while in bloom. 
  • Sambucus canadensis (Elderberry) – Creamy white flowers in the summer atop this large wetland shrub.
  • Lindera benzoin (Spicebush) – Yellow-green flowers in the early spring.  Shrub with fragrant foliage and nice yellow fall color.    
  • Ribes odoratum (Clove Currant) – Bright yellow spicy scented flowers in April-May, followed by delicious black berries. It makes a nice understory shrub.
Monarchs on Seven Son Flower by Gerry Epp

Perennials other than Milkweeds

  • Symphyotrichum novae-angliae (New England Aster) – Purple, pink and lavender blooms September and October are extremely important nectar sources for adult monarchs.
  • Other Aster species: Aromatic Aster, Sky blue Aster, and Heath Aster
  • Solidago sp. (Goldenrod sp.) – Bright yellow blooms in the late summer through early fall. 
  • Vernonia lettermanii ‘Iron Butterfly’ (Ironweed) – Deep purple blooms in August and September.
  • Liatris sp. (Blazing Star) – Purple blooms on these diverse native perennials are a favorite of pollinators.
  • Echinacea sp. (Coneflowers) – These summer blooming wildflowers provide a perfect landing pad for monarchs and pollinators of all sorts. The seeds are eaten by birds through the winter. 
  • Pycnanthemum sp. Mountain Mint – These spreading wildflowers are usually covered with pollinators of all kinds when they bloom in the summer. Give them room in the garden because they do roam. 
  • Monarda sp. (Beebalm) – Fragrant foliage and bright pinkish blooms attract a host of pollinators. 
Monarch on New England Aster
Monarch on late blooming Swamp Milkweed. Photo by Barbara Beesley

Fuel for the Flight

Again, monarchs need milkweeds. These plants are vital to their reproductive processes. However, they need other nectar-rich wildflowers too. This is one of the weak points in their return migration journey.  As they migrate south in the fall, they are not reproductive. Their goal during this part of the migratory cycle is to fuel up on late season nectar plants and build up their body fat so they can make it to Mexico and survive the winter. There, in early March of the following spring, they will leave their mountain roosts to mate, lay eggs on milkweed, and start the cycle all over again.

It is so important to provide fuel and sustenance for Monarchs and other pollinators. Available milkweeds, nectar plants, along with water, trees or other protection at night for roosting and connected habitats will help them all along the way – south to north and back again.

Linking the continental migratory cycle of the monarch butterfly to understand its population decline.