Songs of the Solstice

When the weather is cold and the days are short, I just want to curl up on the couch and rest. And according to prairie plants, that’s exactly what I should be doing! As much as it pains us to see our favorite plants dry up and freeze in the fall, cold weather is an essential pause in the growth cycle for some plant species. Dormancy, vernalization, and cycles of freezing and thawing are an important part of their development.

A winter sunset dips below the horizon behind a bur oak tree and a snowy landscape.
Photo by Gerry Epp

Baby It’s Cold Outside

Contrary to how we feel about it, cold weather is a very good thing for plants in our region. In fact, there are many species of plants that cannot bloom without a prolonged cold period. Apple trees cannot form proper buds without 500 to 1,000 “chilling hours”. Tulips will not bloom without 12 to 16 weeks of cold soil temperatures. And even the historically finicky peach tree will not set fruit without a proper cold spell during the winter months. This cold period for plants is called ‘vernalization’. It all has to do with needing some rest — after a strenuous growing season, many plants use the signal of dark days and cold temperatures to go into their dormant phase, an energy-saving adaptation that allows them to jump back into full blossom in the spring. Why fight the harsh winter conditions when you can just sleep through it?

On Dormancy, or Rest Ye Merry Gentle(Plants)

Dormancy is not death, it is more like a long, deep sleep. In preparation for winter, plants stop actively growing and begin to transport their sugar reserves into their roots. This means the foliage may look shriveled and dried, but the roots are more alive than ever, packed with energy to get through the winter. When they go dormant, all the internal chemical processes of the plant slow down. Isn’t that good advice for us too? Slow down, give up trying to keep up all those lush, green appearances and just focus on your roots and energy reserves! Remember to give your plants a bit of water of the winter if things get abnormally dry; they are resting, but still need moisture to stay alive until spring!

The dormant trees of the Arboretum take the spotlight during our Prairie Lights event. The lights accentuate their form and help us to appreciate them even in the off season. Photo by Amy Sharp Photography.

Let It Snow

Native prairie seeds are especially in need of cold, moist winters. These seeds have incredibly hard seed coats, called testas. The outer shell of the seed is hard for many reasons: to protect it from the elements, to prevent it from germinating too soon when conditions are unfavorable, or to survive the inside of a stomach once it is eaten and, – *ahem* – expelled. But this hard seed coat does finally break open after many freezes and thaws in a Kansas winter. Moisture works its way into the seed and helps the process along. Without deep cold, seeds would not germinate as well or at the correct time.

Seeds take many shapes and forms. Line drawing by Lorna Harder, can be found on our “Prairie Restoration” informational sign on the Arb grounds.

Winter can be a beautiful season if you know where to look. Prairie plants provide interesting textures and colors even through the darkest days of December and January. And more than being aesthetically pleasing, leaving gardens standing through winter provides the necessary habitat and shelter for wildlife to survive cold temperatures. As you enjoy your own kind of dormancy this winter solstice, I hope you find some comfort in the natural cycles of waking and rest happening all around you!

A Few Favorite Plants

It looks like winter is settling in as the forecast seems to be turning colder in the coming days. It is a perfect time to reflect on the past year in the garden. 

It has been a tough year to grow just about everything, due to the monsoon rains in spring followed by the desert dry months of summer and fall.  In spite of the high and lows, wet and dry, there are a handful of plants that stood out in the landscape – plants that flourished rather than floundered. 

Amsonia hubrichtii ‘Butterscotch’

A favorite plant of mine has been Amsonia.  I like just about all of them including, ‘Sting Theory’, ‘Storm Cloud’, ‘Blue Ice’,  Amsonia illustris and Amsonia hubrichtii.  However, I have really enjoyed the cultivar, Amsonia hubrichtii ‘Butterscotch’.  It has narrow leaves that don’t turn brown on the ends.  The pale blue flower clusters in the spring are a perfect topper to these sturdy plants.  The real show is in fall when the entire plants turns a golden orangish-brown.  The plants will get fuller over time with more and more wands of clean attractive foliage. 

Amsonia hubrishtii ‘Butterscotch’ with Aster oblongifolius ‘Raydon’s Favorite

Aster oblongifolius ‘Raydon’s Favorite’

We have carried Aster oblongifolius ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ for many years at our plant sales.  It continues to be a “favorite” of many customers and I can see why.  In the late fall, the entire plant is covered with dark lavender blooms that pollinators love.  It extends the bloom time in the garden into late October.  The plants are tidy and don’t become leggy like some of the New England asters with their dry leaves on the bottom of the stems.  It does slowly spread but can be divided, shared with your neighbor or planted somewhere else in the garden.  Drought tolerant and tough, it is a plant I have come to admire. 

Scutellaria resinosa ‘Smoky Hills’

One of Katie’s top performers in her home garden has been Scutellaria resinosa. Resinous skullcap is a compact little beauty of the short grass prairie.  The bright blue/purple flowers in summer stand out in the front of a dry sunny border.  It is drought tolerant, durable, and unique.  The neat little mounds with mouse ear grey-green leaves are charming.  It needs well-drained soil.  Plant them with Perky Sue, evening primrose or prairie zinnia.

Scutellaria resinosa Photo courtesy of Craig Freeman

Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Twilight Zone’

I have really come to appreciate grasses in the garden.  The movement and texture in the garden is nice especially through the winter. There is so much diversity and heights of grasses to mix and match in your landscape.  A beautiful little bluestem that has performed well for us has been Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Twilight Zone’.  This is not your typical little bluestem.  It displays beautiful steely-blue foliage with flower spikes of varying purple shades. It seems to be constantly changing through the seasons, slowly shifting to bright purple during autumn.  It is a taller grass that will grow 4 to 5 feet in height and reach a spread of about 2 to 3 feet.  The beautiful foliage will transition to reddish-orange in the fall.  As you know, little bluestems are favorite overwintering homes for insects and pollinators.  The seeds are winter foods for a many types of birds.

Little Bluestem Twilight Zone Photo courtesy Walters Gardens.

Diervilla lonicera x ‘Kodiak Orange’

This spring I needed some shrubs to go around the deck in my backyard.  I planted a Viburnum ‘Blue Muffin’ along with a cross-pollinators Viburnum ‘Little Joe’ to make sure they produced fruit.  There was a silky dogwood called ‘Red Rover’ along with a native bush honeysuckle Diervilla lonicera ‘Kodiak Orange’.  I have been impressed with the honeysuckle.  It never wilted compared to the viburnum and dogwood.  It developed tiny yellow honeysuckle-like flowers throughout the summer that attracted butterflies and other pollinators.  The orange-green leaves have turned yellow-orange this fall which is a bonus.  It is quite adaptable to dry soil once established.  My yard is quite shady except mid-afternoon and they thrived.  There are many non-native and invasive honeysuckles including Morrow’s honeysuckle, Tatarian honeysuckle, Amur honeysuckle, and Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.).  Although somewhat similar in appearance Diervilla are native and not invasive.  One thing I have learned about invasive honeysuckles is that they have hollow stems.  Native honeysuckles have solid stems. 

Fall color of Kodiak Orange

I hope you have been able to think back through this year and reminisce about your garden successes.  We often put so much time and effort into our gardens that we don’t step back and take in the scenery.  Also, remember that a beautiful landscape that we enjoy has ties to ecology, creating habitat and helping wildlife too.

Garden Spotlight: A Berlin Community Garden

This past summer I had the opportunity to spend several weeks visiting friends and familiar places in Germany. Having lived there for three years in my twenties, this visit provided a much-needed cure for my Wanderlust.

Turns out that when you wait so long to return to a favorite place, you see it with fresh eyes. In my twenties, I knew nothing about plants, ecosystems or public gardens. I didn’t observe my surroundings with an incessant need to identify the wildflowers growing on the hillsides or alongside the railroad tracks. It would never have occurred to me to wonder if the flowers planted in people’s gardens originated from local ecotype seed, or were imported from North America or Asia. And I was much more interested in etymology than entomology.

Though I have learned so very much in my time working at the Arboretum, I realized on this trip that I have so many questions regarding the world of plants and gardening, and I lean heavily on my colleagues for the answers. (Thank you, Scott, Brad, Katie and Lorna!) Nevertheless, I’d like to share with you some of the gardens that I saw this summer, and the questions they caused me to ask.

In this post, I’d like to tell you a little about the “Sonnenschein” Kleingartenanlage, a 96 year old community garden on the outskirts of eastern Berlin.

Kleingartenanlagen (Small Garden Allotments)

Founded in 1926, the “Sunshine” Garden includes 130 garden plots, averaging around 4,000 square feet, each equipped with electricity and water. A clubhouse and playground, added in the 1950s, sit at the center of the gardens. One edge of the gardens opens directly onto the Orankesee, a lake and nature reserve.

The original gate from 1926

These types of community garden complexes became popular in Germany, as well as in other European countries, in the late 1800s. In former East Germany, they are called simply “Kleingartenanlagen”, or small garden allotments. In former West Germany, they are called “Schrebergaerten”, named after Moritz Schreber, a psychologist who, in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, encouraged parents to get children outside and into nature to improve their health. It is estimated that there are currently 1.5 million of these community gardens throughout Germany.

As I meandered through the streets of the gardens, I was struck by how much I take for granted – the access I have living here on the prairie to open, green spaces. During times of war, these garden plots often became a source of survival for city-dwelling families who otherwise had little access to fresh produce. In recent decades, it seems they have been viewed by some as being rather kitschy and old-fashioned, but in the aftermath of the pandemic-induced gardening revival, perhaps they will see a rise in popularity.

Translation: Weeds for Sale. Due to high demand, you pick only.

Oddly enough, I felt connected to these gardeners, having never met them. But in observing how they chose to tend their small gardens, how they expressed themselves through their land stewarding choices, it was like they were introducing themselves to me, gardener to gardener. And I was appreciative of their hospitality, toward me and toward the other creatures who visit their gardens.

I took many, many pictures that day, and so I’ll leave you with a few of my favorites. May they bring you a sense of connectedness, joy and gratitude, as they do for me. Happy gardening!

Grateful for the Beauty of Nature

I am grateful for the beauty of nature which reminds me to slow down and take a deep breath.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. Photo by Brad Guhr.

How was it possible, I asked myself, to walk for an hour through the woods and see nothing worthy of note? I who cannot see find hundreds of things to interest me through mere touch. I feel the delicate symmetry of a leaf. I pass my hands lovingly about the smooth skin of a silver birch, or the rough, shaggy bark of a pine. In spring I touch the branches of trees hopefully in search of a bud, the first sign of awakening Nature after her winter’s sleep. I feel the delightful, velvety texture of a flower, and discover its remarkable convolutions; and something of the miracle of Nature is revealed to me. Occasionally, if I am very fortunate, I place my hand gently on a small tree and feel the happy quiver of a bird in full song. I am delighted to have the cool waters of a brook rush through my open fingers. To me a lush carpet of pine needles or spongy grass is more welcome than the most luxurious Persian rug. To me the pageant of seasons is a thrilling and unending drama, the action of which streams through my fingertips.
At times my heart cries out with longing to see all these things. If I can get so much pleasure from mere touch, how much more beauty must be revealed by sight. Yet, those who have eyes apparently see little. The panorama of color and action which fills the world is taken for granted. It is human, perhaps, to appreciate little that which we have and to long for that which we have not, but it is a great pity that in the world of light the gift of sight is used only as a mere convenience rather than as a means of adding fullness to life.

Helen Keller, Three Days to See

In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.

John Muir
Pale purple coneflower. Photo by Brad Guhr.

He will see the beauty, as well as the unity, of the whole, and know the two cannot be separated. We love (and make intelligent use of) what we have learned to understand.

Aldo Leopold

Follow down the leg past knee
on down where
world and body meet.

The sole you’ll find
amid the grime.
calloused pads that bruise and bleed.

Like Achilles
our strength will be
the same that makes us weak.

So descend your frame
and find your soul
hid on the bottom of your feet.

John Simmering

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

Butterfly milkweed at CSFL. Photo by Brad Guhr.

Words of Encouragement in a Drought

We have all seen wonderful pictures of lush plants and fertile prairies in magazines, on television, on social media or other websites. These plants seem to be growing effortlessly. They have beautiful blooms with scarcely a leaf out of place. That is not the reality we are living in Kansas right now. Honestly, our gardens look a little tattered and worn down from the summer they have endured. The drought has taken its toll. 

The sun sets on another growing season.

Frankly, this time of year we might feel as tired as our garden looks.  We might even question why we do it. But don’t forget that a sustainable and resilient landscape doesn’t just happen on its own. It takes a little effort, but the rewards are worth it. Consider all the benefits of a native garden:

  • Saves water.
  • Doesn’t require fertilizer or pesticides.
  • Adapts to our climate.
  • Provides erosion control.
  • Reduces stormwater runoff.
  • Restores natural habitats.
  • Preserves biodiversity.
  • Attracts pollinators.

Fortunately, the native plants have survived. There are still some blooms on goldenrods, heath asters, blue sage, New England aster and aromatic asters in spite of the ongoing drought. The grasses, though stunted, are seeding out and have attractive autumn colors. True, it can be discouraging this time of year as you compare your garden to those idyllic gardens on paper or the web, but don’t lose heart. Your habitat garden is still functioning as it should.

Pink Muhly Grass in full bloom

Fall is the time to step back and appreciate your habitat landscape for what it is. Certainly, there might be more you could add or do, but this is enough for now. A successful native garden is more than aesthetics. You understand that all of these ecological benefits are important in creating a successful garden too. When you see that your garden is inviting to a diverse group of pollinators and wildlife, you know that you are creating something worthwhile.  

Resilient autumn landscape (Aromatic aster, little bluestem, new england aster, Missouri blackeyed susan seedheads, and false sunflower)

Searching for Bigfruit Primrose

I was recently invited to Liberal, Kansas to give a talk to a garden group. While I enjoyed meeting and chatting with the knowledgeable and enthusiastic gardeners of the area, the best part of the trip was the detour we took to Clark State Fishing Lake. I knew a special subspecies of primrose grows there, and I was eager to collect a bit of seed. My partner and I spent an hour or so, on a balmy 100 degree day, seed collecting.

Broomweed (Gutierrezia dracunculoides) in the foreground, Clark County Fishing Lake seen in the distance.

A Unique Oppourtunity

Because I am rarely in the southwest corner of the state, and at this time of year the seed would be plenty dry and ready to collect, this was a serendipitous moment. I went in search of Oenothera macrocarpa subspecies incana. This regionally-specific primrose grows only in southwest Kansas and parts of the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles. While Oenothera macrocarpa is already a drought tolerant wonder plant, withstanding intense heat and dry weather like a champ, this subspecies may be even more adapted to drought based on its native range. Collecting and propagating seed from subspecies and species with historically small ranges allows us to offer more regionally specific plants to our western Kansas customers, and also brings greater genetic diversity to the Arboretum grounds.

According to USDA Plants Database, Oenothera macrocarpa ssp. incana has a limited range, and grows on some very hot, unforgiving terrain.

Late Summer Treasures

I was checking these Amorpha nana (dwarf false indigo) seeds for viability, before shoving them in my pocket, likely never to be found again.

While scouring the hillsides for primrose, we found lots of other familiar faces. There were seas of buffalo grass and blue grama to admire, growing happily even in a long standing drought. I even saw three different Amorpha species! Amorpha nana and Amorpha canescens were growing up in the dry hill sides, and Amorpha fruticosa was growing along the edge of the lake. I also encountered a completely new species for me, Stenosiphon linifolius. This member of the primrose family is called false gaura, and while it looks nothing like the primrose I was actually searching for, it gave me hope we were in the right place!

Fruits of Our Labor

I collected seed from a few species, but I do so carefully; never taking the entire supply of that location and trying not to disturb the plants too much. Seed collection must always be done with the health of future generations of plants in mind! I took two seed pods of Mentzelia nuda, one small pod of Asclepias hirtella, and a few tufts of Heterotheca canescens. All of these species would be new to our FloraKansas Native Plant Days, if I can successfully grow them.

The lake is surrounded by hills, which makes for scenic views. The water was very low, but there were still many birds about, and lots of turkey vultures circling above.
Bigfruit primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa) has large seed pods shaped like starfruit except with only 4 points. These are the type of pods we were searching for.

We walked the hills for an hour or so, driving to several locations around the lake to try our luck. It has been a very dry summer, so perhaps the plants had dried up? We saw lots of grassy debris built up, maybe it was hiding just under the next tuft?

It was terrifically, fantastically, abominably hot that day. Eventually the sun won out against our will to find the primrose and we left without finding it. I hope to visit again in spring, when they might be blooming. Then I could pin their location on my phone’s GPS so I might find their seeds easier in the fall.

Two people who should have worn more sunscreen and drank more water, but had a blast on the shortgrass prairie!

Shortgrass Prairie, Big Blue Sky

If you have the time, make a day trip to western Kansas and take in all that the shortgrass prairie has to offer. It is often overlooked as less scenic or showy than the tallgrass prairie, but I disagree. Its diminutive species and rocky outcroppings have a rugged charm that reminds me of old western movies. And the endless sunny skies remind me of the resilience that these plants must have to survive. If any of you readers do visit Clark County Lake, keep an eye out for the seeds of this much-sought after primrose! I would happily seed swap for it.

What Will This Year’s Monarch Migration Bring?

Two years ago, I reported on an unusual convergence of migratory paths during the 2020 monarch fallout event here at the Arboretum. As we anticipate an abrupt change in weather and the official arrival of fall with tomorrow’s autumnal equinox, I encourage everyone to keep an eye out for similar monarch migration events in your natural areas.

(Original publication date: October 7, 2020)

Monarch Fallout

It happened again in 2020. The convergence of the peak of the September monarch southerly migration over Southcentral Kansas was met by a strong south wind, causing a “fallout” of monarchs at the Dyck Arboretum. Rather than waste energy fighting the headwind, monarchs find a place of refuge to rest and sip nectar. I would estimate that I’ve seen this phenomenon happen five times in the Arb since 2005 and this year’s was the most memorable for a few different reasons including big numbers, fallout location, and a predator story.

Monarchs in the Hedge Row at Dyck Arboretum, 9/20/2020 – Photo by Gerry Epp

Big Numbers

The monarch numbers I observed on Monday, 9/21/2020 seemed to me to be more stunning than I can ever remember. I estimated conservatively in a report to Journey North, there were at least 500 monarchs resting in the Arboretum that day. But after giving it more consideration and talking to a local monarch tagger, Karen Fulk, I wonder if that number was more accurately in the thousands.

Karen’s many years of efforts to tag monarchs in Hesston has her keenly in touch with monarch phenology and migration patterns. She reports that the peak of migration through south central Kansas is usually between 9/22 and 9/27. This year, however, she started seeing an uptick in numbers when a cold front and north wind jump-started the southerly monarch migration a bit earlier.

Karen usually tags 300 annually during the fall migration. This year, Chip Taylor at Monarch Watch, knowing that migration numbers were higher this year, suggested that taggers order extra tags. Karen increased her number to 500 tags and was able to apply most of those when the fallout began Friday 9/18/2020 through Sunday 9/20/2020. Arboretum member, Gerry Epp, further documented this event by posting photos of the fallout on his Facebook page, 9/20/2020.

Monarchs on Seven Son Flower at Dyck Arboretum, 9/20/2020 – Photo by Gerry Epp

Fallout Location

With some repetition now in seeing these fallouts occur in the same place, I want to give some thought to why they congregate where they do at Dyck Arboretum. Karen usually tags at three places in Hesston based on the ability to catch and tag the maximum number in one place, and Dyck Arboretum is where she does the majority of her work. She estimated that 95% of her tagging this year happened at the Arboretum, based on seeing the greatest number of butterflies here.

I would hypothesize that they repeatedly congregate in the small 1/8th-acre area at the Arboretum amphitheater/pinetum for three reasons. One, they are seeking protection from the elements of wind and heat. This is about energy conservation. By escaping the wind and congregating in large groups on the north side of the dense hedge row of Osage orange trees, they are finding a microclimate that is cooler, more humid, and less turbulent than they would find on the south side.

Monarchs on Seven Son Flower at Dyck Arboretum, 9/20/2020 – Photo by Gerry Epp

Two, this location is next to a number of nectar sources. Why not rest where you can eat/drink too? Nearby native plant beds and a reconstructed prairie had a timely profusion of flowering from many species of the genera Helianthus (sunflower), Solidago (goldenrod), Symphotrichium (aster), Liatris (gayfeather), Eryngium (eryngo), and Heptacodium (seven son flower).

Three, a number of white pines in this location may resemble the trees of the Oyamel fir forests in Mexico. I don’t have any proof of this theory, but it seems plausible to me.

Predator Story

The newest wrinkle of this monarch fallout experience was the side story of five immature Mississippi kites. They were probably migrating with the monarchs and decided also to not fight the strong south wind. For a day and a half that I observed, this hungry bunch of pentomic predators took advantage of an abundant food supply. They hung out in the top of one of the white pines and took turns swooping through the monarch clouds to easily catch a snack.

Mississippi Kite Eating A Monarch at Dyck Arboretum, 9/22/2020 – Photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

Sometimes they missed catching their target, but usually, these agile insect catchers snagged their prey. Typically they would return to their perch to eat their catch, but sometimes they would eat in flight or “on the wing” as I hear experienced birders say. At one point, I counted approximately 120 monarch wings that had fluttered down to form what I’ll call a monarch confetti debris field. At four wings per monarch, that represented the carnage of about 30 monarchs. However, a number of wings had already been collected by onlookers, so it is not unreasonable to think that the number of monarchs preyed upon were double or triple what I saw.

Monarch Wings at Dyck Arboretum, 9/20/2020 – Photo by Brad Guhr

Monarch Toxicity

This predator behavior was a surprising observation. Monarch larvae eat milkweed and sequester in the mature butterfly wings and exoskeleton the milkweed toxins called cardiac glycosides. These heart poisons can seriously affect vertebrate predators, including birds, and often cause them to vomit and subsequently avoid eating them further. However, these young kites not only ate monarchs all day Monday, but they continued their feeding frenzy the next morning. Either their stomachs weren’t too adversely soured, or the calories needed to continue this migratory journey were simply too important.

A Google literature review turned up no articles mentioning this habit of Mississippi kites eating monarchs. However, a follow-up conversation with University of Kansas biology instructor, Brad Williamson, helped me understand that this observation is not so irrational. He explained that the monarch population is not 100% toxic.

“The individual toxicity depends a lot on the particular milkweed species that hosted the larval stage. Asclepias syriaca (common milkweed) and Cynanchum laeve (honeyvine milkweed) are not nearly as toxic as A. verticillata (whorled milkweed). There is an entire range of toxicity and it makes for some great mathematical modeling questions–just how much toxicity (percent toxic) in the population is necessary for protection for the entire population? How much metabolic costs are there for monarchs trying to process highly toxic host plants? Turns out that only 25-40% of the population being toxic confers protection for the remaining population.” (I will include below a bibliography on monarch toxicity that Brad Williamson provided if any of you are interested as I am in learning more about this topic.)

There were a lot of interesting biological and ecological issues at play here with these monarchs and kites. It was just one more interesting natural history story with subplots to be observed by those of us living in the Monarch Flyway. Until I’m able to one day witness the hundreds of millions of monarchs wintering in the the Oyamel forests of central Mexico, I am completely content having a front row seat to this fascinating migration phenomenon right here in Kansas.

Monarch butterflies observed at the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Michoacán, Mexico. Video by Beatrix Amstutz, February 7, 2020.

Plant Milkweed

To assist the monarchs and their annual migration, plant milkweed host plants and other native nectar plants for adults. Check out our annual spring and fall Flora Kansas native plant sales.

Articles on Monarch Toxicity

  • Brower, L. P., and C. M. Moffitt. “Palatability Dynamics of Cardenolides in the Monarch Butterfly.” Nature 249, no. 5454 (1974): 280–283.
  • Brower, Lincoln P. “Avian Predation on the Monarch Butterfly and Its Implications for Mimicry Theory.” The American Naturalist 131 (1988): S4–S6.
  • Brower, Lincoln P., and Susan C. Glazier. “Localization of Heart Poisons in the Monarch Butterfly.” Science 188, no. 4183 (1975): 19–25.
  • Brower, Lincoln P., Peter B. McEvoy, Kenneth L. Williamson, and Maureen A. Flannery. “Variation in Cardiac Glycoside Content of Monarch Butterflies from Natural Populations in Eastern North America.” Science 177, no. 4047 (1972): 426–429.
  • Fink, Linda S., and Lincoln P. Brower. “Birds Can Overcome the Cardenolide Defence of Monarch Butterflies in Mexico.” Nature 291, no. 5810 (1981): 67–70.Malcolm, S. B., and L. P. Brower. “Evolutionary and Ecological Implications of Cardenolide Sequestration in the Monarch Butterfly.” Experientia 45, no. 3 (1989): 284–295.
  • Malcolm, Stephen B. “Milkweeds, Monarch Butterflies and the Ecological Significance of Cardenolides.” Chemoecology 5, no. 3–4 (1994): 101–117.
  • Malcolm, Stephen B., Barbara J. Cockrell, and Lincoln P. Brower. “Cardenolide Fingerprint of Monarch Butterflies Reared on Common Milkweed, Asclepias Syriaca L.” Journal of Chemical Ecology 15, no. 3 (1989): 819–853.
  • Nelson, C. J., J. N. Seiber, and L. P. Brower. “Seasonal and Intraplant Variation of Cardenolide Content in the California Milkweed, Asclepias Eriocarpa, and Implications for Plant Defense.” Journal of Chemical Ecology 7, no. 6 (1981): 981–1010.
  • Roeske, C. N., J. N. Seiber, L. P. Brower, and C. M. Moffitt. “Milkweed Cardenolides and Their Comparative Processing by Monarch Butterflies (Danaus Plexippus L.).” In Biochemical Interaction between Plants and Insects, 93–167. Springer, 1976.
  • Zalucki, Myron P., Lincoln P. Brower, and Alfonso Alonso-M. “Detrimental Effects of Latex and Cardiac Glycosides on Survival and Growth of First-Instar Monarch Butterfly Larvae Danaus Plexippus Feeding on the Sandhill Milkweed Asclepias Humistrata.” Ecological Entomology 26, no. 2 (2001): 212–224.

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?

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

Wind-Pollinated Flowers

Social media is blowing up right now with photos of colorful bulb flowers including daffodils, crocuses, and dwarf irises. And why not? Who doesn’t love to see these splashes of color in a drab, brown landscape along sidewalks to stimulate our sights after a long winter?! Nobody, however, seems to be posting photos of the much greater masses of wind-pollinated flowers that have also been blooming and tickling our senses…our nasal passages, that is.

For weeks now, my eyes, nose, and throat have been growing increasingly runny and itchy. From a distance, I’ve been seeing swelling buds on trees, and last week I did some investigation. Sure enough, the first blooming trees (silver maples, red maples, and eastern red cedars) at Dyck Arboretum are in full bloom.

Silver maple (Acer saccharinum) flowers 3/16/22…do cause allergies

Insect-pollinated flowers have heavy pollen. They need to attract insects with colorful petals to carry pollen away on their hairy bodies to other flowers. Conversely, wind-pollinated flowers have light pollen that carries easily in the wind once released. They do not need to invest expensive energy on creating large, colorful petals and are thus more visibly obscure.

Airborne pollen also gets deposited in our noses, eyes, and throats. Enough said.

Silver maple flowering 3/16/22
Red maple (Acer rubrum) flowering 3/16/22
Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) flowering 3/16/15 (and the same tree was blooming 3/16/22 as well)