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)

Ecological Resolutions

Down time over the holidays while turning the calendar to the new year always feels like a good time to set sights on things I want to do to make my life more enjoyable and feel more meaningful. Planning for and embarking on challenges can be a way of establishing new habits. This year, I would like to focus more on the Land (as defined in The Land Ethic) and my connection to it. I will call them ecological resolutions and delineate them into three categories.

Land Restoration

From the Dyck Arboretum grounds to a number of public and private lands in Harvey County, there are seemingly endless opportunities to practice ecological restoration on remnant or restored native plant communities. In a grassland ecosystem, those opportunities mostly involve reversing the progress of invading woody plants through wood cutting, prescribed burning, and mowing. Woody plant invasion is a real threat for prairies today that involves regular maintenance and effort.

Woody plant invasion of the Flint Hills prairie over a 29-year period. (Courtesy of Tony Capizzo, KS Chapter of The Nature Conservancy)

Luckily, the action of wood cutting means being outside, getting exercise, creating firewood, and having fun in the process. I have fond memories of firewood cutting outings as a kid with my siblings, parents, and grandparents. While I don’t currently heat my house with wood, I have friends that do and perhaps we’ll work out some sort of bartering arrangement.

Such efforts also liberate prairie. The subsequent vigorous flowering response of grasses and wildflowers once they are released from the stifling effects of shade is what we are ultimately trying to achieve. That is probably for me the most gratifying part (even if it takes a year or two) of the whole process.

A 2009 post-burn crew at Sand Prairie in Western Harvey County (photo by Max Voran)

Selective removal of invasive/exotic wildflowers or grasses, brush mowing, conducting prescribed burns, collecting seed, and planting seed are also very worthwhile land restoration activities. This would be one of my top resolutions and a realm in which I would like to spend considerably more time in the coming year.

Wildlife Education

In a native plant garden or seeded restoration plot, we have some idea of what plants to expect to see blooming and setting seed because of our own work and preparation. The wildlife attracted to these developing plant communities, however, is much more of an unknown occurrence. I am fascinated by and motivated to learn more about the wildlife species attracted to native plant communities.

Regal fritillary butterfly nectaring on tall thistle flowers at a restored prairie near Hesston

It has been incredible to see cause and effect play out so clearly with regard to planting native plants and drawing in wildlife. These host plants and their flower nectar and seeds really do attract critters. From small gardens to larger restoration prairies, I’ve observed the influx of insects, small mammals, amphibians, birds, and reptiles, both plant-eaters and predators, in a relatively short timeline. Even when that short timeline is years in the making, the reward of seeing those wildlife species come in makes me want to install even more native plantings.

Just like anything else, building skills and knowledge in wildlife identification takes time and practice. But learning and appreciating the visual, auditory, ecological, and life cycle traits of wildlife species can be so interesting and rewarding. So then is the photography and story-telling of these species to try and inspire other people around you to plant native plants and try to attract wildlife to their landscapes as well.

I participate regularly in two events happening locally with regard to data collection of birds and butterflies. They are the Harvey County Christmas Bird Count and the Harvey County Butterfly Count. You can read more about each via the respective links and we are always welcoming new folks interested in participating. Experts lead the two counts that are great events for novice participants to learn a lot of information in a short amount of time. Organized by the National Audubon Society and North American Butterfly Association, respectively, bird and butterfly counts can be found abundantly in nearly all 50 states.

Harvey County Butterfly Count accessories

Not only do I want to commit more time to bird and butterfly citizen science, but I would like to invest more time studying insects in general. Heather Holm has published excellent books on pollinators, bees, and wasps that are educational and inspiring.

To be inspired by a great prairie ecologist that photographs and writes about wildlife regularly, I would highly encourage you to follow a blog produced by Chris Helzer of the Nebraska Chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

Urban Native Landscaping

Enhancing the urban landscapes in which we live, work, and worship with native plants can be perhaps one of the easiest and most rewarding of activities we promote here at Dyck Arboretum. I could always enjoy spending more time on this particular resolution. Adding a handful of native plants to even the smallest of areas can do wonders – both for increasing biological diversity in your landscape and for increasing your connection to the land.

Penstemon, spiderwort, prairie onion, and phlox blooming behind potted plants in my backyard in early June

Dabbling with native plant gardens in my home landscape is a labor of love in almost all months of the year. Of course, you have the popular processes of planting and watching for pretty flowers that everybody loves. But I also enjoy the time spent in these gardens weeding, mulching, picking flowers for bouquets, collecting seed or dividing plants for friends, chopping down the old vegetation, and building garden borders. It is time enhanced with the delights of observing all sorts of plant-animal interactions. I am outside and unplugged. This practice during the pandemic has been critical for helping me stay sane and grounded.

If you follow our Dyck Arboretum blog, you hear plenty on this particular ecological resolution, so I’ll keep this one brief. If you are new native landscaping, or are looking ways to enhance your native gardening process, consider following some of the best management practices suggested HERE.

Join Me!

Perhaps you would care to join me on any part or all of this quest? I’m always looking for prairie restoration and wildlife watching companions. Spending time with these ecological resolutions will add value to your life and may even enrich the natural environment around you in the process. You won’t regret it.

“Ecological restoration also involves restoring our relatedness to the wild.” ~Dwight Platt

Considering Caring for Common Ground

I am going to pull back the curtain for you regarding the potential development of some programming here at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains. This fall we have begun considering an initiative called Caring for Common Ground. Although we already promote in general the concept of “Caring for Common Ground” through much of our programming at Dyck Arboretum, we want to make the process with our membership more intentional.

Oak savanna seed collecting at Holy Wisdom Monastery. Collecting seed is an important and meaningful ritual in ecological restoration

Formalizing a Concept

The thoughts of the land conservationist, Aldo Leopold, have long been very influential to me and my work. In answering the question “What is a Land Ethic?” the Aldo Leopold Foundation offers the following:


“Ethics direct all members of a community to treat one another with respect for the mutual benefit of all. A land ethic expands the definition of “community” to include not only humans, but all of the other parts of the Earth, as well: soils, waters, plants, and animals, or what Leopold called “the land.” In Leopold’s vision of a land ethic, the relationships between people and land are intertwined: care for people cannot be separated from care for the land. A land ethic is a moral code of conduct that grows out of these interconnected caring relationships.”


Three years ago, we formalized a new mission statement: Dyck Arboretum of the Plains cultivates transformative relationships between people and the land. The concept of and language surrounding Leopold’s Land Ethic was foundational to the development of this new mission statement.

Growing the Land Ethic plaque on the grounds at The Aldo Leopold Foundation

Retreat to Wisconsin

Cheryl Bauer-Armstrong helped conceive and for 30 years has run the Earth Partnership Program at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Subsequently, the Earth Partnership for Schools Program that Lorna Harder and I co-facilitate in Kansas comes from Cheryl and the Earth Partnership Program. So, when the revered Earth Partnership team of Cheryl, Claire Bjork, and Greg Armstrong, plus Amy Alstad at Holy Wisdom Monastery, invited us to a conference called Caring for Common Ground (CCG) that had been years in the making, we couldn’t resist attending.

The Shack

Our Kansas team started by making a pilgrimage to The Shack, featured in the landmark book, A Sand County Almanac. This is the place where Aldo Leopold developed some of his thinking about The Land Ethic. We enjoyed visiting the place where many of his stories in the book took place. Walking prairie restored by the Leopold family and that is maintained today by staff at The Aldo Leopold Foundation. It felt like hallowed ground.

Our group (Kendra Flory, Lorna Harder, Karen McCabe-Juhnke, and John McCabe-Juhnke) taking in The Shack and Aldo Leopold’s restored prairie
John and Lorna birding along the Wisconsin River near The Shack
Kendra, Lorna, Karen, and Leopold Foundation Education Coordinator, McCale Carter (our tour guide for the day) taking turns reading the “The Good Oak” on the spot where that tree once existed

Conference at Holy Wisdom Monastery

We then drove 45 minutes south of The Shack to the Holy Wisdom Monastery where our conference would take place. The Benedictine sisters there are undertaking serious land stewardship on their grounds. Under the guidance of Greg Armstrong in past years and Amy Alstad in the present, volunteers are restoring many acres of tallgrass prairie and oak savanna. These restoration project areas were our learning grounds for the CCG conference.

Conference days started with gratitude, calm reflection, and hilltop views overlooking restored prairie and Lake Mendota
Karen and John McCabe-Juhnke collecting seed of bottlebrush grass
Planting seed in a degraded oak savanna
Cheryl Bauer-Armstrong (center) leads a post-planting sharing circle. The other CCG Conference leaders are from far left, Amy Alstad, Greg Armstrong, and Claire Bjork

Our conference activities involved observation and assessment of the present conditions related to soils, vegetation and wildlife. We acknowledged the past removal of Indigenous Peoples from these ancestral lands. A local Ho-Chunk tribal member served as an advisor for CCG and joined us for a session. There was discussion about the processes of land degradation that have been part of the site’s history. We reviewed ecological restoration techniques, conducted planning charrettes, and participated in seed collection and planting exercises.

Friends from Kansas and Wisconsin came together to practice ecological restoration techniques and develop a resolve for doing more land stewardship rituals going forward

Spirituality of Stewardship

Spirituality is an individual’s search for sacred meaning in life and recognition of a sense that there is something greater than oneself. Being a land steward restores ecosystem functions for the greater good through meaningful rituals. As a result, it can add value to one’s life, build a sense of place, and be a spiritual process.

Land restoration is inherently filled with ethical and spiritual dimensions. People from all religious and faith traditions certainly can bring value to this CCG process.

The writings of Leopold and Braiding Sweetgrass author, Robin Wall Kimmerer are influential to CCG. Kimmerer challenges us with the following question in our relationship to the earth. Should we be living in deep communion with the land, or looking to subdue and dominate it? Above all, this is an important question for land stewards to ask ourselves.

Pilot Study in 2022

We at Dyck Arboretum want to to do a pilot study of Kansas Caring for Common Ground (KCCG) in 2022. The first test cohort will be our small group that went to Madison. Arboretum staff, board members, and anybody that would like to help us Beta test this new program are welcome.

We envision that this will be a year-long study from January through December with one meeting per month. Homework could include individual reading, research, study and preparation for the next session. Monthly gatherings might include sharing, dialogue, and an interactive seasonal land stewardship practice. Such practices might include seed collection, prescribed burning, seed propagation, plant identification, chain saw work, planting, etc. An alternative to the monthly format for a larger group might include a one-time, whole-weekend KCCG retreat.

Regardless of format, a consistent framework for KCCG would include 1) A review of the site’s history (soils, hydrology, vegetation, wildlife, presence of Indigenous People, etc.), 2) An assessment of how conditions have changed over the last century or more, and 3) A land restoration plan for the future. Oh, and good food/drink would also be an important part of every gathering!

Going Forward with Intention

Finally, I’ll leave you with an image of the table that I sat around with friends after every evening of the conference. One adorned the table with interesting wood pieces collected from Wisconsin and Kansas that had been hand-cut, polished, stained and artistically crafted as candle holders. Another supplied delicious, slow food that came with thoughtful planning, preparation and cooking. Another provided spirited drinks with hand-harvested ingredients. It was a space filled with intention, meaning, adoration, and gratitude. May the coming year in study, conversation, and practice with Caring for Common Ground in Kansas be filled with similar such things for each other and with the land.

Discovering Host Plants

My phone is chock full of caterpillar photos. It seems I am constantly stooping down to examine another caterpillar, and to document what it is eating. I am a big fan of all insects, but especially these charismatic transformers. With their plump bodies and endless colors, it is not hard to see why people are becoming more interested in attracting them to the garden.

Viceroy caterpillars can be hard to spot. They disguise themselves as bird poo to appear less appetizing, and it works!
This one was spotted just off the sidewalk at the Arb eating willow leaves.

Host plants are a key part of that process. Caterpillars of all kinds often have a specific food plant or plant family that they need to survive. While I am familiar with monarchs on milkweed and swallowtails on parsley, there is a whole world of interesting host plants out there to utilize in the landscape.

Potluck

My house cats can be picky eaters, but caterpillars are even worse. Many of these little creatures can only feed on a handful of plant species. Their mothers may have to fly miles and miles to find the right plant to lay her eggs on. That is why it is so important to support the native insects of your area by gardening with the native plants they have evolved with for millennia.

Recently I added a few new host plants to my mental list of must-haves for caterpillar habitat.

  • Aspens and willows for viceroy butterflies
  • Primrose and lythrum for sphinx moths
  • Baptisia for broom moths
  • Sumac for spotted datanas
A group of white-lined sphinx moths devoured a primrose patch. They also like to chow down on winged lythrum (Lythrum alatum), a great native plant for wet areas.
Genista broom moth caterpillars (Uresiphita reversalis) are a cheery shade of yellow. They love Baptisia and can make the plants look quite ragged. But, by the time these caterpillars are feeding heavily in midsummer, the Baptisia has already bloomed and is done for the season anyway.
These spotted datana (Datana perspicua) caterpillars are gregarious feeders, meaning you usually find them in groups with their siblings. They munched away on this aromatic sumac (Rhus aromatica) for a few days, and tripled in size!

Appreciate, Don’t Hate

As my knowledge of host plants grows, so does my appreciation for native plants and the intricate ecosystem they support. I am so encouraged to hear more people calling them friends rather than foes, and wanting to identify and observe rather than squish and poison. It is always best practice to pause before sprinkling that pesticide – your garden will thank you, since most caterpillars do more good than harm. Changing our perspective about caterpillars, and all insects, is key to maintaining a functional, healthy food web. If you are interested in finding more caterpillars in your Kansas landscape, reach out to the staff at Dyck Arboretum for consultation, follow our Facebook and Instagram accounts for educational content, and mark your calendars for next spring’s FloraKansas fundraiser!

Insects – Motivation for Native Landscaping

Early September blooming plants are attracting loads of nectar-sipping insects right now. Host plants are green and thriving from timely rains and providing food for munching larvae. All this insect activity has led to great enjoyment for me in exploring the Dyck Arboretum grounds and my home landscape. It has prompted me to think more about my real motivation for landscaping with native plants.

Gulf fritillary nectaring on prairie dock

Plants or Insects?

For many years, I’ve claimed that my enjoyment of native landscaping was motivated by my love of plants. Indeed, their flowers, seed pods, seeds, seed dispersal mechanisms, and roots are all interesting traits and worthy of appeal. Getting to know their growth habits, moisture and light preferences all translate to the level of success I will have (or not) in establishing these plants in a given landscape. And early in their establishment, my focus is geared toward making sure they stay alive with my watering, mulching, and weeding efforts.

Common milkweed wind-blown seed dispersal mechanisms are cool to observe. But I am increasingly interested by the insects this plant attracts too (like the milkweed bug)

But as these long-lived perennials develop substantial root systems, become established, and begin to flower, I worry less about their survival. My perspective changes, turns towards what they can do for the local ecosystem. New questions arise. What insects are attracted to their flower nectar? Which insects are pollinating them and leading to seed production? What insect larvae are eating their leaves or other parts of the plant? What predators are in turn feeding on those insects?

Simple image of a prairie food pyramid (Credit: Mariana Ruiz Villarreal (LadyofHats) for CK-12 Foundation)

Plants, being at the base of the food pyramid, dictate the level of diversity that exists further up the pyramid of consumption. Small bases lead to small pyramids and bigger bases lead to bigger pyramids. So in theory, the more different species of plants I install in my landscape, the more species of insects I will host. I can specifically predict what insects I will attract to a landscape based on the larval host plants I establish. For example, milkweed species will draw in monarch butterflies. Golden alexander or other species in the parsley family will draw in black swallowtail butterflies. Willow species will draw in viceroy butterflies, and so on. HERE is a list of butterfly larval host plants.

The Insects Have It

When I stop and think about it, the most interesting parts of tours at the Arboretum are when insects are visible and busy doing their thing. Stopping with a group to watch a hatch of caterpillars devour a plant leaf and dream of what those caterpillars will turn into is pretty cool. Observing a huddle of school kids dump out a sweep net and squeal with delight at finding the baby praying mantis, massive grasshopper, or whatever other interesting insect they are not used to seeing, simply makes my day.

Milkweed tussock moth larvae feeding on common milkweed
Tour participants observing monarch caterpillars and milkweed longhorn beetles on common milkweed
3rd Graders investigating the contents of an insect sweep net

Many of the species blooming now around the Visitor Center at Dyck Arboretum are sometimes considered invasive and perhaps even uninteresting because they are common. But as I highlight in another blog post Finding Value in the Undesirables, they attract a load of insects which makes them interesting to me. Here is a collection of photos of insects taken just outside my office last week:

One particular plant, Leavenworth eryngo (Eryngium leavenworthii), is stunning due to its vibrant color and interestingly shaped features. It’s often noticed by visitors walking to the greenhouse during FloraKansas: Fall Native Plant Days. However, what most people say when they see it is “did you see the swarms of insects on that plant?!” Customers are eager to recreate such insect habitat at their homes. For this reason, I keep a bag of seed for this annual species collected from the previous year to give away.

Become An Insect Promoter

This subtitle may make many traditional gardeners cringe. I have recently followed social media groups of gardeners where the anti-insect sentiment is rabid. Pesticides are commonly recommended to get rid of insect hatches in home landscapes and the recoil response related to spiders in general can be disturbing. Even many of our dedicated members that love to buy native plants for their landscapes don’t like to see the plants they come to love devoured by caterpillars. I am on a mission to change that.

So, if you are not already an entomology enthusiast and in awe of insects, I encourage you to take on a popular motivation for landscaping with native plants. Become more open to welcoming insects. Choose native plants or native cultivars not only because you think they will be pretty, but for how they will eventually host insects, enhance the food web they support, and increase the wildlife diversity in your landscape.

Plant Profile: Black-eyed Susan

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia sp.) are one of the most recognizable summer-blooming wildflowers. Their bright yellow flowers explode in the summer and are covered with all sorts of pollinator activity. Bees, flies, butterflies, and beetles feed on its nectar and pollen. The fruiting heads also provide seed for birds over the winter.  Here is a look at a few species and cultivars worth trying.   

Missouri black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia missouriensis)

In the wild, Missouri Black-eyed Susan grows in rocky limestone glades, barrens, and tallgrass prairies. It ranges from Illinois and Missouri, south to Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Although not native to Kansas, I have found it very resilient and quite adaptable to various growing conditions. It has large bouquets of bright yellow flowers atop 18” stems. The foliage is narrow with the leaves and stems covered with a dense fuzz. It’s a nice addition to the front/middle of any border or informal meadow landscape. 

Missouri Black-eyed Susan

Brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba)

This native gem can be found in eastern Kansas and on into much of the southeastern Great Plains. It grows naturally in open woods and savanna areas with medium to moist soil. Each plant can produce loads of charming, warm yellow daisy flowers with brown button centers. It keeps pumping out blooms through much of the later summer through fall. The slender branched stems are surprisingly sturdy and help the plant reach an ultimate height of three to four feet. It is a wonderful habit plant with blooms for pollinators and seeds for birds. It does self-sow, so know that it will move around. You will need to selectively weed plants out of your landscape, if you are agreeable to that sort of thing. 

We have carried a cultivar of Brown-eyed Susan called ‘Prairie Glow’ with attractive flowers of burnt orange with yellow tips surrounding a chocolate center cone. ‘Prairie Glow’ prefers full sun to light shade, and is also adaptable to many soil conditions.

Brown-Eyed Susan

Sweet Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia subtomentosa)

Sweet black-eyed Susan grows throughout much of the central and eastern Great Plains in low, moist soil of thickets, creek banks, pastures, prairie ravines and ditches. The flowers are spectacular and rival sunflowers in quantity of blooms, if the root system can find consistent moisture. A large variety of insects love the nectar and/or pollen of Sweet Black-eyed Susan and flock to the blooms during July, August and September. 

This is a great plant for a full sun to part shade location, but only when there is ample moisture. It will not endure dry soils. Plant it by a stream, water garden or pond where water is available on or near the surface. ‘Henry Eilers’ is a nice cultivar discovered in Illinois as a stabilized mutation with rolled or quilled ray petals. This cultivar reaches five feet tall and two feet wide. ‘Little Henry‘ is a shorter form which grows 3 to 4 feet tall but has the same quilled flowers.

Photo courtesy of TERRA NOVA® Nurseries, Inc.
www.terranovanurseries.com

Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

There are many forms of this poor man’s daisy, because it is so easy to hybridize. Typically, the species is found in full sun to part shade in mixed and tall grass prairies as a short-lived perennial or annual. It seeds readily and is a favorite to include in many prairie seed mixes. The bright yellow blooms from June through September are a welcome sight in any landscape from prairie to wildflower seeding. Some cultivars available are ‘Cherry Brandy, ‘Prairie Sun’, ‘Cherokee Sunset’, ‘Indian Summer’, ‘Autumn Colors’, ‘Denver Daisy’, ‘Goldilocks’, ‘Goldrush’, ‘Rustic Colors’, ‘Sonora’, ‘Toto Gold’, and ‘Toto Lemon’.

Cutleaf Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata)

This species grows in similar habitats to sweet coneflower – moist soil of creekbanks, thickets and open woods. A cut leaf coneflower really stands out in full sun and adequate moisture. The leaves are deeply lobed and the large, wide clumps, two to four feet across, can reach five to six feet tall.  Each stalk can have multiple large flowers with a greenish-yellow central cone. They bloom from July to October.  A garden worthy cultivar of cut leaf coneflower is ‘Herbstonne’.

Orange Coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida)

This eastern United States black-eyed susan is one of the most widely used in horticulture. Many cultivars, varieties and subspecies are incorporated into landscape designs. The native form thrives in glades, meadows, and prairies.  Rudbeckia fulgida var. deamii, Rudbeckia fulgida var. fulgida and Rudbeckia fulgida var. speciosa are two of my favorite native forms of orange coneflower. They grow well in landscapes with medium to moist soil and plenty of sun. These clumps slowly spread by rhizomes ultimately forming a dense mat of dark green leaves. The blooms pop up from July through September. 

‘Goldsturm‘ was a popular cultivar, but it has been used less because it has issues with septoria leaf spot and powdery mildew. New forms like ‘American Gold Rush’, ‘Little Goldstar, and ‘Viette’s Little Suzy‘ have resistance to both septoria leaf spot and powdery mildew. These are great alternatives to ‘Goldsturm’. 

Rudbeckia ‘American Gold Rush’

Giant Coneflower (Rudbeckia maxima)

Prairie Dropseed (foreground), Rudbeckia maxima, and yellow coneflowers

I love this coneflower for its blue green leaves and large coned flowers in June and July. It makes quite a statement in the landscape with flower stalks to six feet.  Native to Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana, I have found it to be quite adaptable. It appreciates regular moisture but can handle some dry periods.  Birds eat the seeds from the large cones during the winter. 

There is a Rudbeckia for just about any landscape situation with full to part sun and wet to dry. Pollinators love them and birds too. Add some to your garden for their late season bloom.

Seeded Prairie Checkup

I recently did a seeded prairie checkup to see how our December 2020 sidewalk planting described in the earlier blog post “Seeding After Disturbance” is doing. I’ve been informally monitoring it regularly since spring and have been encouraged by the progress I’ve seen.

Sidewalk edge seeded planting site this week on 8/10/21
The same planting site on the day it was planted 12/28/20 w/ planters Janelle and Kendra

Good Germination

We’ve been lucky with the weather since this planting. Conditions to promote good seed germination have been excellent. Remember the deep freeze we had in February? While it tested our human resiliency and strained our heating bills, it was good for this seeded prairie. Adequate precipitation and freeze/thaw action commenced throughout February and March. These conditions helped work the seed down into the soil while also breaking down their seed coats to help prepare them for germination.

Warmer temperatures along with rains in April and May promoted good germination. Identifiable prairie seedlings from the planted species list identified in the earlier blog post were evident amidst the expected seedlings of annuals like ragweed, sunflower, and foxtail.

Annual sunflower, giant ragweed, and foxtail grass serve as a shading nurse crop for tender, young perennial prairie plants

Thanks to the planting areas’ proximity to a water spigot, I was able to do some supplemental irrigation during the hot, dry weeks of late June and early July to keep the new seedlings from burning up while the seedling roots were small. But periodic rains in July and early August along with mottled shade from the nurse crop of sunflowers and annual grasses provided the conditions needed to help the prairie seedlings get well established as we head into fall.

Species Identified

A brief perusal of seedlings during this week’s seeded prairie checkup helped me find and photograph 14 of the 43 species that were part of the Prairie Moon Nursery seed mix. My prairie seedling identification skills are rusty, but I was able to identify the following seedlings to at least genus and some to species.

Seedlings of these identified species are thick throughout the planting and I’m confident that a good number of the rest of the 43 species in the mix will also show up eventually.

Weed Management

Typical management for a less-manicured seeded planting is simply to mow it a couple of times during the growing season to keep annuals from going to seed. Since such an approach for a higher profile area near the visitor center may look a bit scalped and perhaps not as appealing, we are taking the approach of cutting or pulling stems of the annuals. It is more labor intensive than mowing but not an unmanageable approach for small sidewalk edge planting, and regular volunteer, Gerry Selzer, has cheerfully embraced this task.

This weedy sidewalk edge vegetation is shading and hosting a variety of prairie seedlings underneath
The rare and coveted Gerrius selzeranii

Attracting Insects

One of the main reasons for planting this diverse wildflower seed mix in addition to adding pretty splashes of flower colors, is to attract insects and biological diversity to our sidewalk edge prairie beds. In two or three years, these planted species will be flowering and attracting insects with their flower nectar and host plant vegetation. I look forward to engaging school kids and teachers with regular investigations of these sidewalk edges to learn more about relationship between prairie plants and insects.

A new black-eyed susan is already playing host to caterpillars, possibly of species of checkerspot butterfly

Overall, I’m pleased with the progress of this planting as seen during this seeded prairie checkup. Days are getting shorter and we are almost to the cooler months of this planting’s first year when I can be pretty sure that these young prairie seedlings will have deep enough roots to survive about any weather conditions. Stay tuned for future updates about the development of this planting and consider how you too might add a seeded planting somewhere in your landscape.