Plant Profile: Goldenrods (Solidago sp.)

Right now in prairies, woodlands, roadside ditches and home gardens, wonderful displays of native grasses along with wildflowers blooming yellow, white, and lavender are putting on quite a show. The yellow wildflowers are most likely either sunflowers or goldenrods. Each is quite beautiful and teeming with pollinators.

Solidago ‘Wichita Mountains’ blooming in the Compassionate Friends Garden

Goldenrods are just as diverse and variable as sunflowers. While many landscape plants have already reached their peak and the flowers have faded by September, goldenrods have become the stars of the show as they brighten up the landscape. Their golden yellow autumn inflorescences are striking.

In spite of their attractiveness, goldenrods have a reputation for causing allergies. In truth, this is unlikely, because goldenrod pollen is large and heavy and is not carried by the wind. Rather, it is giant ragweed (Ambrosia sp.) that is spreading pollen through the air at the same time.

These wildflowers are insect-pollinated by many wasps, moths, beetles, honey bees, monarch butterflies and other beneficial pollinators searching for a sip of nectar. In total, 11 specialist bees and 115 different caterpillars need these plants. There are around 50 species of insects with immature forms that feed on the stems of goldenrod. In addition, seeds and foliage provide food for some birds and mammals. Across the board, goldenrods are of huge value to wildlife and one of the keystone wildflowers for pollinators.

Gray Goldenrod-Solidago nemoralis

Goldenrods are adaptable to a wide range of conditions in nature, making them a great choice as a landscape plant. They grow naturally in soils from wet to dry. Even the drought conditions we have been experiencing have not kept these denizens of the prairie from blooming. There is a goldenrod that will grow in your garden.

For all their positive attributes, there are goldenrod species that don’t belong in a formal garden. Canada goldenrod for example is a highly aggressive species that spreads by underground rhizomes and seed, ultimately pushing out other smaller desirable plants. It will take over a garden in a couple of years. However, in a prairie setting with the deep roots of native grasses and competition from other plants, it can be mostly kept in check. That is why we recommend clump-forming goldenrods as a more reliable choice for the landscape relegating those aggressive species to the prairie or outskirts of the landscape (along a fence or in an alley) where they are free to roam and spread.

I like Solidago rigida, Solidago nemoralis, Solidago ‘Wichita Mountains’, Solidago canadensis ‘Golden Baby’, and Solidago ‘Fireworks’ for sunny areas. For shade, I choose to plant Solidago odora, Solidago ulmifolius or Solidago caesia. It is safe to say that goldenrods are powerhouse plants that deserve a place in your native garden.

Rigid Goldenrod-Solidago rigida (top) and gray goldenrod (bottom)
Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’

Fall Planting of Native Grasses

One of the questions we get at every fall plant sale is “can we plant these grasses now?” The answer is “yes, we encourage fall planting of native grasses”, but with some caveats.

Here are a few questions to answer before you jump into planting native grasses this fall such as:

  • Is your area ready to plant now?
  • Are you able to water it daily for the first few weeks and into the winter if needed?
  • Do you have the right location for these grasses?

I tend to err on the side of caution for late fall planting because losses can be incurred. However, you can be successful if you follow a few guidelines.

Around South Central Kansas, our first average frost is October 15. Typically, we plant native grasses as soon as possible in late August or early September to give them more time in the ground to get established. As a general rule, it is best to have native grasses in the ground three to four weeks prior to the first fall frost. This will give the plant time to get established with roots fully attached to the soil to absorb water and nutrients through winter.

Prairie Dropseed planted last fall

This attachment by the roots to the soil is so important because it keeps the grass from being heaved out of the ground. The natural freezing and thawing of the soil during the winter can be extremely strong, pushing partially established plants out of the ground and breaking roots, which results in desiccation and death of the plant. Properly establishing plants before winter will protect them from this force.

Another factor to successfully transplanting grasses in the fall is soil temperature. Typically, native grasses will continue to grow (root) with soil temperature above 60 degrees. So installing grass plugs in August through mid-September is a proven strategy, because soil temperatures remain optimum until after the first frost.

Switchgrass after one year of growth

We have had success with planting native grass in the fall. The most obvious benefit of this approach is that the grasses will break dormancy next spring fully established and ready to grow. As temperatures warm they will have a head start over early spring plantings.

Note: It is always good practice to check the soil around fall planted perennials (including grasses), trees and shrubs during the winter for moisture. If the top one to two inches of soil is dry, it is good to give them a light watering. Remember, they are dormant so they don’t need much.

Warm Season Grasses for fall planting:

  • Big Bluestem Andropogon gerardii and cultivars
  • Sideoats Grama Bouteloua curtipendula
  • Blue Grama Bouteloua gracilis
  • River oats Chasmanthium latifolium
  • Pink Muhly Grass Muhlenbergia reverchonii
  • Mexican Feather Grass Nassella tenuissima
  • Switchgrass Panicum virgatum and cultivars
  • Little Bluestem Schizachyrium scoparium and cultivars
  • Indiangrass Sorghastrum nutans
  • Prairie dropseed Sporobolus heterolepis

Cool Season Sedges and Grasses for fall planting:

  • Appalachian Sedge Carex appalachica
  • Bicknell’s Sedge Carex bicknelli
  • Pennsylvania Sedge Carex pensylvanica
  • Rosy Sedge Carex rosea
  • Texas Sedge Carex texensis
  • Bottlebrush grass Elymus hystrix
Mexican Feather grass planted in the fall of 2020

Disturbance

While walking on the island recently, I saw a change in the vegetation this year. During the renovation we brought in new soil, drove around, made new ruts, and stirred up the seed bank below. This disturbance altered the landscape enormously, and it will take years to transform back to what it was, if ever.

Annuals

Partridge pea, not usually found on the island, is colonizing happily there after our renovation.

The first thing I noticed is how many more annual plant species there are on the island. Some are weeds – like velvet leaf, Abutilon therophrasti – and some are native species, though they may be unwelcome spreaders, like annual sunflower. These either arrived with the new soil, or were churned up to the surface while driving with heavy equipment. When annuals appear suddenly in a bare patch of an otherwise mature and established prairie, with a little help they will disappear just as quickly. We cut the seed heads off to stop them from returning next year, and soon they will be outcompeted by the perennials and grasses.

But I do hope some annuals stick around! Partridge pea, a favorite of mine and host to Sulphur butterflies, has appeared on the island once again, and I’d like to see more of it seed out. This plant loves tough, disturbed areas, so it is no surprise it showed up here.

New Animal Activity

Pointed stump left by a beaver on our island

We have noticed our aspen trees falling one by one, and see the sharp points of their chiseled trunks. We have a beaver on our island! While we have never caught sight of it, it is obviously enjoying our grounds immensely. With the aspens mostly gone from the center of the island, the views have changed. Visibility is better to the east and it is sunnier in the sitting area.

Beavers are shapers of entire ecosystems, and they are integral to rivers and streams. And while I love the idea of having a beaver around, our pond is in fact not a natural water way, and too many of our memorial trees are at risk from our industrious friend. But he sure has caused his share of disturbance around here! The shrubs growing beneath the aspens appreciate the increased sunlight, I am sure. We successfully lived-trapped one of the two beavers, and relocated it to a new pond with the permission of the property owner.

It was no easy task, but we relocated this beaver to a stream that needs its services more than our own.

Who Are You?

There have even been a few perennials popping up that are new to me. These might have been in the soil for years, but sprouting only when given open soil and right conditions. One of these is narrow leaf golden aster. A lovely little plant making its debut right along the edge of the gravel path. There is also a large, very conspicuous patch of Rudbeckia subtomentosa that I didn’t know we had on the grounds. Just when I think I have seen every inch of our grounds, it is nice to be surprised by these new flower faces!

Rudbeckia subtomentosa, also known as sweet henry or sweet coneflower. Several large clumps are just finished blooming on the edges of the island.
Heterotheca stenophylla, narrow leaf golden aster, growing happily on the rocky edges of the island path.

Please DO Disturb

Prairies, even tiny ones on the island or in our residential gardens, are meant to change. Nothing is static in nature, and when we humans want it all to stay orderly, predictable and exactly the same year after year, we are playing a losing game. It’s much better to embrace the changes in our gardens and landscapes, and even encourage them.

Some perennials will live fifty years, while others may only live five. Everything has its expected lifespan, so when those bare spots appear in your garden, consider throwing out some native annual seed like Coreopsis tinctoria or partridge pea. These will fill the gap, provide lovely blooms, then fade away once your other plants cover the soil. After all, prairie landscapes evolved to be disturbed, either by fire, flood, or the thundering of bison hooves. Each of these creates open soil for new plants to grow and compete with the existing grasses and forbs.

Are you looking to create a dynamic, ever-changing prairie habitat of your own? Visit FloraKansas Native Plant Days next week and ask staff what native plants will work best in your landscape.

Plant Profile: Kentucky Coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus)

When one thinks of the Great Plains, trees are often the last thing to cross one’s mind. Surprisingly this region is home to a number of species that have found their way into yards and parks throughout the United States. The honey locust, American elm, black walnut and silver maple are as common in front yards as they are along streams and patches of woodlands of the plains. One of the more beautiful native trees found in this region is the Kentucky coffeetree, a member of the legume family. Kentucky coffeetree can be found along the eastern portion of Kansas. The tree derives it name from a common practice among early Kentucky homesteaders of grinding the seeds to make a coffee-like drink.

Mature Kentucky Coffeetree (Wikipedia)

Though somewhat uncommon in landscape plantings, the coffeetree offers many ornamental attributes. A large tree, it can reach 60 feet in height with a 30 foot spread. As of March 2022, the Kansas Forest Service state champion Kentucky coffeetree, located at Fort Leavenworth, currently stands at 100 feet tall. As the tree matures, the bark forms scaly ridges with curled edges. In winter the ascending branches present a picturesque silhouette against the winter sky. Written descriptions have labeled the tree “clumsy” looking after the leaves drop. While young trees can appear awkward their first few years, mature specimens develop stout trunks and main branches, reminding one of their innate toughness and durability.

In spring the tree may be slow to leaf out, but the patient observer is soon rewarded with bipinnately compound, bright green leaves with dainty, ovate leaflets that give the tree a soft, fine textured appearance throughout the growing season.

The bipinnately compound leaflets

Kentucky coffeetrees are individual male and female trees. The botanical term for plants with male and female flowers on separate individuals is dioecious, a condition also found in Ginkgo, juniper, and Osage orange. Flowers appear in May and June as graceful racemes. The male flowers are somewhat inconspicuous and green-yellow, while the female flowers are somewhat larger and pale yellow-white. Both types of flowers are quite fragrant. Each of these flowers are favorites of pollinating insects.

Creamy white flowers in the spring (Wikipedia)

Fall color is often a subdued yellow and female plants will often produce a reddish brown pod filled with incredibly hard, round, slightly flattened seeds. The hard coats allow seeds to lay dormant in the ground for long periods of time until weathering and soil bacteria wear down the tough shell, allowing germination to occur if temperature and moisture are adequate. Professional growers often soak the seed in concentrated sulfuric acid to thin the coat enough for water and gas exchange (a dangerous practice for the average home gardener). Another option is to use fine sand paper to sand down the shells so several seeds will potentially sprout. Don’t sand too much.

Bean-like pods and seeds of Kentucky coffeetree

Due to the coffeetree’s large size and the sometimes “messy” pods from the female trees, it is often not the best selection for the average yard. However, it is well-suited to large open areas, along streams and in park settings. It is not particular about soil, but best growth occurs in deep moist ground. Drought tolerant, it experiences very few problems.

In the wild, small colonies of coffeetree can be found when new trees form from the root suckers. This is usually not a problem in the landscape if the tree is mulched and regular mowing occurs around the tree. Transplanting in most successful with small plants, because the tree develops a course fibrous root system that limits the transplanting success of larger trees.

In the Arboretum’s bird watch area, a small coffeetree is planted just below the big bridge.

I like good coffee. Lucky for us that our coffee supplies for drinking are more than adequate, but one should still consider this beautiful, tough native tree for your landscape.

Great Plains Skink

Great Plains Skink (adult form) from my urban garden in Newton, KS (May 28, 2009)

Increasingly, I find enjoyment in the wildlife attracted to my native plant gardens. One species I’ve especially loved seeing has been the Great Plains Skink (Plestiodon obsoletus). For at least 13 years (since I took the above photo), I have observed this species coming and going from under my garage or deck, around the foundation of my house, and to and from my native plant gardens. The combination of these habitats appears to provide suitable cover, food, and thermoregulation for this ectothermic (cold-blooded) reptile.

Identification

The adult Great Plains Skink averages 7-9 inches in length (as large as 13″) and is the largest, most common, and most widespread (nearly throughout the entire state) of the seven skink species in Kansas.

Great Plains Skink range map from the Kansas Herpetofaunal Atlas

Coloring ranges from tan with dark brown markings to light gray or olive. The following photos show some of the variations in colors and markings for this species from juvenile to adult.

Natural History

In addition to my urban gardens, it is referenced in the book Amphibians, Reptiles, and Turtles in Kansas (Collins, Collins, and Taggart, 2010) that the Great Plains Skink commonly inhabits open, rocky hillsides with low prairie vegetation. Their diet consists of spiders and a variety of insects such as grasshoppers, crickets and beetles.

Breeding occurs in May after which pregnant females dig deep burrows under rocks and lay 5-32 (average of 12) eggs. After a 1-2 month incubation period, hatched young skinks may take several years to reach sexual maturity.

Diversity in the Home Landscape

Landscaping with native plants leads to attraction of a variety of wildlife species. This bigger picture food chain or ecosystem connection between plants and the animals they support has become one of the most interesting and satisfying incentives of incorporating as much native plant diversity into my home landscape as possible. Whether these plant-animal or predator-prey interactions attract butterflies, monarchs or birds that eat them, birds in general, large beetles, fireflies, cicada killers, preying mantids, bats, or skinks, I’m intrigued with observing every single connection and the underlying story it tells.

I’ll leave you with the following observation…from just last night. We added a red fox to the list of species that has visited our urban home landscape. It spent about an hour in a tussle with a flexible plastic downspout tube in one of our gardens. This particular shade garden is where I have most recently seen a skink in recent weeks. Was “skink-in-a-tube” the cause for this entertainment? Will I see the skink again in this area? Whatever the case, I will enjoy continued observations and looking for answers.

Is there still a skink somewhere in this photo?

Flower Form and Function

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

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

Coevolution

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

Keeping Your Form

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

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

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

Hybridization

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

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

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

How to keep it all straight?

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

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 vital 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!