Peonies, please!

Peonies are in full bloom right now, and what a show! They are an old fashioned favorite, and a plant can only achieve such a title by being easy enough to grow that it lives on to be beloved by multiple generations. Don’t we all remember peonies in grandma’s garden? As well recognized as they are, there is more to this flower than meets the eye! Read on to learn about the many different types of peonies and their growing habits.

A ‘Bartzella’ Intersectional Peony in Our Mother’s Garden just west of the main parking lot.
‘Bartzella’ flowers are by far the largest in our peony collection, and with a lovely fragrance!

Three Main Types

To most folks, a peony is just a peony. Besides different colored flowers, aren’t they all the same? Actually there are three types of Peonies – tree, herbaceous, and shrub (which are a hybrid of the first two). Tree peonies can be 7 ft tall with massive flowers and woody stems. These are not commonly grown in our region, but herbaceous and shrub types are. Herbaceous peonies often called ‘garden peonies’. They are 2 to 4 feet tall and wide, easy to grow and long lived, but have a tendency to flop over in a stiff wind or rainstorm. Shrub/Intersectional peonies are a hybrid of tree and herbaceous types; they exhibit the larger flowers and stiffer stems of the tree peony, but the heat tolerance and shorter height of the herbaceous species. They were developed in the 1940s by Toicho Itoh, a Japanese plantsmen. This is why they are also called ‘Itoh Peonies’.

'Kansas' variety garden peony -- pom-pom shaped flower head with multple petal layers, hot pink/magenta
Fittingly, this is a ‘Kansas’ Peony. A regular garden/herbaceaous type, it is a reliable addition to the garden, but it does flop over under the weight of its own blooms.
'Scarlett Heaven' Intersectional Peony -- deep red single layered bloom
We recently added the Itoh peony ‘Scarlett Heaven’ to our gardens. At only two years since planting, it’s flowers stay relatively small and few. But it will get more robust as time goes on!

Native Peonies

The genus Paeonia contains 33 known species, and is native to several places across the globe. From Europe to China and even some in North America. The garden and intersectional peonies commonly sold in garden centers are usually cultivated varieties of some of these native species, brought about via grafting, selective breeding, and tissue culture. Before all the primping and plumping, they were just wildflowers! Here are a few species of note:

  • Paeonia lactiflora – common parent plant to modern garden peonies, also known as the Chinese peony, native to eastern Tibet throughout northern China and Siberia
  • Paeonia officinalis – very similar to a modern garden peony, native southern and western Europe
  • Paeonia suffruticosa – tree peony, native to northern Asia
  • Paeonia brownii – very short species native to high elevations of northwest North America
  • Paeonia californica – medium sized drought loving species endemic to southwestern California and the northern Baja region
'Julia Rose' Itoh Peony -- coral pink bloom with frilly yellow center
‘Julia Rose’ Intersectional Peony

Make Room for the Bloom

If you want these beautiful flowers in your garden, make sure you have the space! You may need to stake garden peonies as they don’t all support their blooms well, so you will need some wiggle room around your plants to retain walking access. If you opt for the intersectional type, note that these showstoppers can easily be 4 feet tall and wide! Peonies appreciate medium moist soil and aren’t fussy about pH. In fact they prefer a slightly alkaline soil over anything acidic, so our limey Kansas clay is often just right! They can even handle mild drought once established. Avoid planting in soils that stay soggy for long periods of time.

Spring and fall are the best time to plant peonies. You can order them online, through catalogs, or even purchase a few at one of our biannual FloraKansas events! However you acquire them, with the proper care they will bloom and thrive for years to come.

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.


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


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 perform 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!

The Importance of Site Analysis Part 2

The more you understand your garden, the easier it will be to choose the right plants for your site.  We all have plant preferences but not all of your plant preferences will grow in your garden.  Here are a few more aspects to consider as you analyze your landscape. 

Soil Type

Here in south central Kansas, our soils are typically alkaline, which is good for growing most prairie plants.  Soils can be pH neutral with a value of 7.0, or anything below that is classed as acid, and anything above, alkaline. To determine your pH, a simple soil test can be done by yourself from kits at most garden centers or through the extension service. 

Other soil considerations are consistency and texture. At the Arboretum, we deal mostly with clay soils.  This soil type compacts easily and drains poorly. You must find plants with root systems that can penetrate through the dense structure of clay, i.e., big bluestem, asters, and indigos.  Other soil types are sandy (dries out quickly, low nutrient holding capacity, low organic matter and loose in your hand), Silty (mixture of a sand and clay, easily compacted), Chalky (stoney, exposed subsoil after construction, good drainage) and Loamy (high in organic matter, holds moisture and nutrients). 

If you have been working in your garden for any length of time, you have a good idea of what type of soil you have.  You can add some compost to your soil if it is really terrible, but typically, you can find plants that will grow in your soil conditions.  For example, there are plants that appreciate the consistent drainage of sandy soils especially during the winter months. 

If your soil is alkaline, you will struggle growing rhododendrons and azaleas that need acidic soil.  Try to gather as much information about your soil and then find plants that grow in it. Finding the right plant for the right place will make you garden smarter not harder.

Think of Garden Aspect

Once you have defined the area you want to landscape, you need to understand aspect. Garden aspect simply means which way your garden is facing.  If it north facing, typically shadowed by your house, it needs plants that can grow in shade or partial shade.  If it is south facing, then choose plants for all day sun.  If it east facing, then choose plants that need six hours of sunlight, but are protected from the hottest sunlight hours.  If your garden is west facing then choose plants that can endure the hottest sunlight hours. 

South-facing garden with prairie dropseed, blackeyed susan, Amsonia hubrichtii, russian sage and Taylor junipers.

Obviously, trees, structures, and house orientation play a role in garden aspect.  The key is to observe your garden at different times throughout the year.  This will help you understand completely where the sunlight is coming from and how intense it can be.

One other thing to consider is microclimates within your garden.  There may be small areas that behave totally different than other areas ten to fifteen feet away.  One example would be a protected area along a fence or under a tree the shields that site from hot west sunlight and drying winds. Or, a low area in your yard that stays consistently moist is another example. These areas might allow you the opportunity to try a few different plants that would not otherwise grow in your garden.

Next Week: Site Analysis Part 3

Benefits of Planting Perennials

As gardeners, we have many choices of plants to introduce into our landscapes.  From trees, shrubs, annuals, and perennials (including grasses), the options seem to be endless.  Here at the Arboretum, we gravitate toward perennials for a number of reasons. 

What is a perennial?

Unlike annuals that germinate, flower, set seed, and die all in one season, perennials are typically cold-hardy plants that will return again and again each spring.  If situated in the right place in your landscapes, perennials will thrive, and will bloom either in spring, summer, or fall.

In my mind, the benefits of planting perennials in your home garden are as follows:

Incredible Root Systems

It often takes perennials several years to develop a sustaining root system after being transplanted from a pot.  These root systems compared to many annuals is much more extensive and much deeper.  During periods of drought, these deeper roots feed nutrients and moisture to the plant.  The deeper roots of grass are credited with developing the deep layers of top soil found in many states that now support farm crops.  These roots also control erosion, sequester carbon, and break up tough compacted soil. 

Xeric Garden
Xeric Garden interpretive signage located on the Dyck Arboretum grounds. Artwork by Lorna Harder.

Diversity of Perennials to Establish in the Landscape

As I said earlier, there are so many different types and varieties of plants you can choose to establish in your display beds. A well-designed landscape with a variety of perennials will enhance the aesthetics and appeal of your property. With perennials that bloom at different seasons during the year and attractive grasses for fall and winter interest, you can create a diverse habitat for wildlife and pollinators, too.  Keep in mind, the habitat you create is provides homes for insects and food for birds during the long, cold months of winter. 

Prairie Window Project, August 2016. Photo by Brad Guhr.

Do perennials require less maintenance?

The key to success with perennials such as native wildflowers and grasses is putting the right plant in the right place in the right way. Perennials will NOT require less maintenance if you are trying to grow something in your landscape that has no business being there. Learn as much about the plants you want to use before you put them in the ground. 

Perennials typically last several seasons. You don’t need to plant every single year like you do with annuals. By planting them once, you save money and time. You will need to clear last year’s growth in February or March and occasionally divide some clumps of perennial grasses as they expand over time. Perennials are a cost-effective and sustainable choice for landscaping.

Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’ ready for spring.

Perennial plants can be the anchors to a landscape. While trees and shrubs provide the backdrop, perennials provide the elements of habitat that pollinators and other wildlife seek. These permanent pieces of your garden puzzle add beauty year after year.  They can be combined to add continuous blooms and interest throughout each growing season.  As perennials come in and out of bloom, a diverse collection of wildlife and pollinators will discover your landscape.  This is ultimately the real benefit of a perennial garden. 

A note about annuals

When I think about annuals in the landscape I don’t think about petunias.  I choose annuals on their ability to provide nectar for pollinators.  Nectar-rich annuals need to be drought tolerant and self-seed, too.  See this article about a mostly annual garden.

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 discuss in my Native Plant School class, now available on our YouTube channel, 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.

Choosing Plants for Birds: Be Beak Specific

Bird enthusiasts often flock to Dyck Arboretum to observe birds in our prairie, woodlands, and pond. In fact, Dyck Arboretum has been a data collection site for the Halstead-Newton Christmas Bird Count for 20+ years. Many FloraKansas patrons ask about how to attract more birds to their own landscapes, and the answer is simple: provide food, water and shelter!

The Arboretum is a hot spot for birds because of the density of native plants on our grounds providing excellent habitat. Birds spend most of their lives looking for food, so add plants to your landscape that produce berries, seeds, nuts, and nectar. A birdfeeder is nice, but native plants will provide fresher sources of nutrition at the appropriate time of year. Each bird, with its specially evolved beak, has favorite food sources that fit its skillset. Try some of the food plants shown above to increase the avian diversity of your neighborhood!

Zizia and sumac to attract caterpillars (nesting birds need thousands of insects to feed the young).

Interested in helping birds even more? Join the Halstead-Newton Christmas Bird Count, conducted each year on the Saturday closest to the winter solstice, and help to gather data about bird populations in our area.

And join us and our friends from Kauffman Museum on Saturday, March 2nd, for a spring symposium entitled “Murmurations & Exaltations: Birds & Birding in a Changing World.” We will start the morning with a bird walk, come inside for breakfast and conversation, and then hear presentations from three of our state’s top bird experts!

Believing in Plants

With every new year comes a renewed sense of optimism about a whole host of things like fitness and health, relationships with loved ones and friends, your occupation, and maybe your garden. In the book The Earth is Enough by Harry Middleton, there is a paragraph that resonated with me, as a horticulturist and a lover of plants, about the struggles of gardening, but also the hope we have in plants. Here it is:

Emerson (one of the old men) believed in plants, though he never completely trusted them. After all, nothing could turn on a man with such cold, merciless indifference as a plant. A curious blight, a virulent plague, a sudden storm, an unyielding march of insects could sour a man’s agricultural fortunes with woeful abruptness, lance his emotions, eviscerate his always desperate accounts.

Harry Middleton

Gardeners need to be eternal optimists. We garden hoping to get something from our efforts, be it a vegetable to eat, beauty to enjoy or shade to rest in. Sometimes that happens but sometimes we fail. As we approach spring (yes, it is coming) and we start thinking about our own native plant gardens, I know that there will be holes to fill in our landscapes because of struggling or underperforming plants. We try to make perfect plant choices for our landscapes, but we are not always successful. Plants have so much to offer to us and the environment around us. Just because there are a few plants that succumb to our harsh climate or pests doesn’t mean we stop planting and believing in plants.

In particular, I believe in plants that are native to Kansas, because they:

  • beautify the landscape – with careful design, your garden can have flowers year round
  • nurture pollinators and other wildlife
  • provide food and shelter for birds, hummingbirds, butterflies, and other pollinators
  • save water
  • thrive in our local climate if properly matched to a site
  • are adapted to our natural cycles, responding to cool, wet winters with lush growth and slowing down during the hot, dry summers
  • prefer our soils or can grow in just about any soil type
  • do well in our native soils and do not require soil amendments or fertilizers
  • reduce pesticide use
  • typically have fewer pest problems than non-natives because they have co-evolved with native insects (unless there is a new introduced predator or pest)
  • minimize your carbon footprint
  • reduce maintenance over time in a well-designed garden
  • can easily be started with smaller sized plants, saving on installation costs
  • cool the environment
  • play an active role in the water cycle, adding cooling moisture to the atmosphere
  • harmonize with diverse garden styles
  • create a sense of place within our prairie state
Gray-headed coneflower with Bearer of the Ammonite by Paul Friesen. Photo Courtesy of Jen LeFevre

Just Keep Planting

Some plants are going to let us down. Or maybe we let them down by trying them in an ill-suited location in the first place. Whatever the case may be, keep believing in plants. They are good for you and the environment. Try to find joy in the beauty around you even though it is not always perfect or ideal.

Each and every year, we struggle with plants here at the Arboretum just like you do. But we are rewarded by our imperfect efforts time and time again. The journey of tending a garden is not an easy, straight line. It is a winding road of highs and lows. Keep believing in plants anyway.

Plant Tags and USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map

Plant tags can be confusing. They give general information about the plant, but I often wonder, is this realistic for our area? Will this plant really grow to four feet tall? Or will it be beat down by our Kansas heat and wind? Can it withstand our temperature extremes? One critically important piece of information on the plant tag is the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Plant Hardiness Zone Map (PHZM). 


Echinacea purpurea ‘Pow Pow White’ is hardy to zone 3 (-40 to -35 degrees F). So it will grow well in zones 3-8, which is most of the United States.

Purpose and Use

The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map was developed to show the average low winter temperature. Plants are rated according to the USDA hardiness zones, which is the minimum winter temperature they can survive.  On the map, there are 13 zones with a 10-degree F difference between the zones. Each zone is further delineated with 5-degree F differences dividing the zone further into a and b (6a and 6b for example). Hesston is in zone 6b (-5 to 0 degrees F).

Kansas hardiness zones range from 5b (-15 to -10 degrees F) in the extreme northwest corner to 7a (0 – 5 degrees F) in the south and southeast. The USDA PHZM has been recently updated to show gardeners what plants are most likely to survive in their area.  Type in your zip code to find your zone and use it as you choose plants for your landscape. CLICK HERE FOR THE 2023 USDA PHZM

Plant Provenance

This hardiness zone map highlights another important factor to consider regarding native plants – provenance.  Plant provenance refers to the source of the plant material that was collected for propagation. The reason this matters is that some species have very broad natural ranges that cover several very different ecoregions, hardiness zones. The populations of such species have developed adaptations to their environment at a genetic level even though they are outwardly identical.  Seed collected from a northern provenance is adapted to a shorter growing season, colder winter temperatures and often cooler nighttime temperatures compared to a southern provenance seed.  All this to say, try to purchase native seed from sources closest to your ecoregion as possible. 

This coleus is an annual unless it stays warm all year such as zone 10. Obviously, it must be kept away from freezing temperatures.

Plant lovers tend to push the boundaries when it comes to hardiness.  I have been told and shown plants growing in Kansas that are supposed to be hardy to zone 8.  It’s possible, but they are the exception, not the rule.  Often they are growing in a microclimate, which is a localized area that differs from the average climate with different growing conditions. This could be on the side of a building, red brick wall, a fence or an evergreen tree blocking the sun or wind. This could also be in a valley or on top of a hill.   

The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is a valuable tool that helps gardeners and growers choose hardy plants that are most likely to thrive at a location. 

Here are a few other helpful pointers from the USDA:

  • If your hardiness zone has changed in this edition of the USDA PHZM, it does not mean you should start removing plants from your garden or change what you are growing. What has thrived in your yard will most likely continue to thrive.
  • Remember this is the average coldest night—not the lowest it could go. Gardeners should keep that in mind when selecting plants, especially if they choose to “push” their hardiness zone by growing plants not rated for their zone.
  • Microclimates, which are fine-scale climate variations, can be small heat islands—such as those caused by blacktop and concrete—or cool spots (frost pockets) caused by small hills and valleys. No hardiness zone map can take the place of the detailed knowledge that gardeners learn about their own gardens through hands-on experience.
  • Many species of perennial plants gradually acquire cold hardiness in the fall when they experience shorter days and cooler temperatures. This hardiness is normally lost gradually in late winter as temperatures warm and days become longer. A bout of extremely cold weather early in the fall might injure plants even though the temperatures may not reach the average lowest temperature for your zone. Similarly, exceptionally warm weather in midwinter followed by a sharp change to seasonably cold weather may cause injury to plants as well. Such factors could not be taken into account in the USDA PHZM.
  • All PHZMs should serve as general guides. They are based on the average lowest temperatures, not the lowest ever. Growing plants at the extreme range of the coldest zone where they are adapted means that they could experience a year with a rare, extreme cold snap. Even if it lasts just a day or two, plants that have thrived happily for several years could be lost. Gardeners need to keep that in mind and understand that past weather records cannot provide a guaranteed forecast for future variation in weather.

Other Factors Affecting Plant Survival

Many other environmental factors, in addition to hardiness zones, contribute to the success or failure of plants. Wind, soil type, soil moisture, humidity, pollution, snow, and winter sunshine can greatly affect the survival of plants. The way plants are placed in the landscape, how they are planted, and their size and health might also influence their survival.

  • Light: To thrive, plants need to be planted where they will receive the proper amount of light. For example, plants that require partial shade that are at the limits of hardiness in your area might be injured by too much sun during the winter because it might cause rapid changes in the plant’s internal temperature.
  • Soil moisture: Plants have different requirements for soil moisture, and this might vary seasonally. Plants that might otherwise be hardy in your zone might be injured if soil moisture is too dry in late autumn and they enter dormancy while suffering moisture stress.
  • Temperature: Plants grow best within a range of optimal temperatures, both cold and hot. That range may be wide for some varieties and species but narrow for others.
  • Duration of exposure to cold: Many plants that can survive a short period of exposure to cold may not tolerate longer periods of cold weather.
  • Humidity: High relative humidity limits cold damage by reducing moisture loss from leaves, branches, and buds. Cold injury can be more severe if the humidity is low, especially for evergreens.

The Importance of Diversifying Landscapes

When you look at a virgin prairie (one that has never been tilled), you quickly discover a tremendous diversity of plants. Each square foot has many different species vying for sunlight, moisture, and space. Species change throughout the prairie as well from high to low, wet to dry, sun to shade, and vary even with soils. This diversity contributes significantly to the overall health and sustainability of the prairie landscape.

Prairie Window Project in September 2017. Photo by Brad Guhr.

One of the keys to successfully creating a prairie garden is including a diversity of plants suited to your site. Time of bloom and aesthetics are often considered first, but including variety is an essential element in the process too. It’s also important to think about diversifying trees and shrubs. Let’s look at some reasons why diversifying our home landscapes to include more species is so relevant.    

A Diverse Landscape is a Resilient Landscape

While each landscape is different, they all face an array of environmental pressures, such as drought, floods, pests, and diseases. A diverse landscape is more adaptable and resilient, able to endure these environmental hazards.  We have all seen shelter belts and monocultures decimated by drought, pests or disease-leaving large holes in the landscape.  If you think about it, single species or similar species landscapes are vulnerable to eradication in ways that diverse landscapes are not. 

A Diverse Landscape Attracts Diverse Wildlife

Building season long blooms benefits wildlife. Plants coming into bloom and going out of bloom mimics the prairie ecosystem. If you watch any prairie throughout the year, there are always a new set of plants blooming every few weeks throughout the growing season. Beyond building resilience, a diversity of plants attracts a diversity of pollinators and wildlife allowing them to complete their lifecycles. This is so crucial for their survival.  Patchwork prairies can serve as harbors, offering food and shelter to a broad range of wildlife. 

Butterflyweed with pale purple coneflowers and common milkweed

A Diverse Landscape is Visually Interesting

As I said earlier, often our first consideration when choosing plants is aesthetics or ornamental characteristics. I don’t want to downplay this step in the process, but I do want to encourage you to try many different types of plant species. By varying plant species, you provide visual interest, which adds character to your landscape. Some of the most inviting spaces have diverse colors, shapes, blooms, textures, layers, and heights of plants.   

A Diverse Landscape is a Dynamic Plant Community

A diverse plant palette suited for your site can look formal, but it generally requires more effort on our part to keep it looking kempt. However, an informal planting can be just as attractive. It depends on your maintenance style and preference. No matter how you want your landscape to look over time, we must prioritize the careful selection and planting of diverse prairie species.

It can’t be overstated – diversifying landscapes in the urban setting is so important. Diversity in the plants you include in your landscape attracts diversity to your landscape. This thoughtful approach to design not only enhances the beauty of our gardens but also strengthens their resilience in the face of environmental challenges.  It also promotes sustainability, conservation of natural resources, and enriches our experiences with nature.

Plant Profile: Pink Muhly Grass

Fall is the best time of year to admire the beautiful regalia of native grasses. During the spring and summer, these grasses blend into their surroundings. As autumn deepens, the wonderful fall color and attractive seed heads of these grasses are on full display.

One of the most talked about grasses this fall has to be pink muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris). A few years ago on the sidewalk in the northwest corner of the Arboretum, we established a couple groupings of these plants. This year, these swaths are topped with vibrant pink blooms.

Pink muhly with Wichita Mountains goldenrod

Pink muhly grass is not only a beautiful ornamental grass, but it is also low-maintenance. We have not done much to keep these grasses going this growing season. It gives you the best of both worlds, a showy plant that doesn’t require much time and attention.

These plants establish relatively quickly, either planted in the spring or in the fall. If you are planting in the fall, plan ahead by getting them in the ground at least a month before the expected initial frost. They are a warm season grass that needs soil at least 60 degrees to continue rooting.

In the spring and summer, the rounded, slender, long shoots of grass are dark green in color. As fall approaches, the plant produces soft, fuzzy flowers in pink or pinkish-red hues, with an appearance resembling cotton candy. As winter grows near, the flowers lose their color, but the dried plumes are still attractive.

Muhlenbergia capillaris grows well in sandy or rocky woods and clearings with good drainage. It is native to Kansas and states south and east. We grow the straight species, but the cultivar ‘Regal Mist’ is another popular variety. Other beautiful cultivars include ‘Pink Flamingo’ and ‘White Cloud’. Planting in large drifts is breathtaking.

While not as well-known as some of the other native grasses, it should be used more in landscapes because of its tolerance to poor soil and dry conditions. It needs good drainage especially during the winter, but is quite adaptable once fully established. As the clumps develop excessive thatch after three or four years, division may be helpful. Perfect for slopes; great in a container; beautiful when tucked into cut-flower arrangements.

Sunlight on pink muhly grass with side oats grama in the foreground.

For next spring, put this grass on your bucket list. You will not be disappointed. The soft watercolor effect will stop you in your tracks.