Garden Inspiration for 2021

In this season of overwhelming change and uncertainty, one of the places that has brought me solace is my home and landscape. I don’t believe I am alone in seeking garden inspiration these days.

Many people are discovering the peace that comes from gardening and adding plants to their lives. We have been stuck at home so it gave us the opportunity to focus on the immediate space around us. There’s something satisfying about planting something, tending it and then watching it grow.  It is also very satisfying to create a diverse habitat that brings wildlife to your yard.

In 2021, engaging in gardening activities will continue to be a very important and necessary part of our lives.  Here are a few bits of garden inspiration for this season of change: 

Garden as Teacher

More people than ever got back into their gardens last year. That trend will continue in 2021. Gardening can help us in so many ways and even gardening failures hold important lessons to be learned. New or experienced gardeners will embrace getting their hands dirty while growing their own food, creating a habitat garden, learning gardening basics or creating a landscape design. Many people are turning to their gardens for a place to escape, relax and unwind. 

Natives First

Sustainability has become more important to gardeners.  Gardeners are looking for information about how they can make their gardens more environmentally friendly.  Choosing native perennials that grow best in our region should be the starting point for any new landscape design. Their deep roots and adaptability will conserve natural resources.  It is crucial that you match plants to your site. For example, put plants that need more water in spots where the soil stays moist. Use our Native Plant Guide or the National Wildlife Federation’s Native Plant Finder to identify plants suited for your area.

Enhancing Nature

We are no longer gardening just for our own enjoyment, but also for the restorative effect our gardens can have on nature. Our gardens can become havens for birds, bees, and other pollinators.

Our staff recently heard a presentation from entomologist and author Doug Tallamy. He shared his vision of transforming 20 million acres of North American lawns into a “homegrown national park”.

“…each of the acres we have developed for specific human goals is an opportunity to add to Homegrown National Park. We already are actively managing nearly all of our privately owned lands and much of the public spaces in the United States. We simply need to include ecological function in our management plans to keep the sixth mass extinction at bay.”

Douglas W. Tallamy, Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard

Our gardens, no matter the size, can have an impact in sustaining wildlife and reversing the perilous trends that are endangering nature’s delicate balance.

Growing Food at Home

In this pandemic, growing your own food is both therapeutic and reassuring. Foods of all kinds have been grown is all sorts of spaces: in containers on a balcony, in raised beds, or large garden plots, homeowners are more interested than ever in growing their own food. If you want to learn more about growing your own mushrooms, join our Mushrooms in Kansas Symposium

Going Online for Garden Inspiration

This trend is not going away anytime soon. There is a wealth of information at the click of a button online. Searches can reveal more than you ever wanted to know about perennials, trees and shrubs. With limited in-person learning opportunities such as our Native Plant School classes, you can now learn just about anything from the comfort of your own home.

However, it is important that you be discerning in what you try out in your own prairie-based landscape. Take recommendations with a grain of salt, become familiar with your own piece of land and read critically. Just because it looks beautiful in Virginia doesn’t mean it should be planted in Kansas.

Curbside (Greenhouse-side?) Pickup

It is so convenient to put in an order online and pick it up two hours later at the grocery store. This trend is obviously happening at garden centers and plant sales as well.  We will again be taking orders online for our Spring
FloraKansas Native Plant Festival
. We are committed to providing a safe process for Kansas gardeners to get the gardening plants and supplies they need for their landscape spaces.     

Styles and trends come and go. There are plenty of trends to use in your garden, this year and every year after that. Ultimately, you will embrace the trends that mean the most to you. Hopefully, your garden will deeply inspire and impact you and the natural world in a positive way in 2021. 

2020 Year in Review

2020 might be considered a “dumpster fire” as I’ve seen referred to many times on social media. Our Dyck Arboretum staff felt that way at times about 2020, especially earlier in the year. Cancellation of our 10th annual Leprechaun Run, education lectures, native plant classes, rentals, Prairie Window Concert Series shows, our cornerstone Earth Partnership for Schools Program 14th annual summer institute, and so forth, sure had me feeling down in the dumps for the early part of the year.

First impressions can be deceiving. What might appear to be a destructive, out-of-control prairie fire, was actually an in-control prescribed burn where disturbance is having a beneficial effect. This could be a sort of metaphor for 2020 where things weren’t always as bad as they seemed.

When I first started thinking about a 2020 year-end blog post, I figured why would anybody want a recap of a dumpster fire?! But then I thought about all the lessons we learned about ourselves this year. Rather than avoid the subject and focus on the negative, there was a lot of silver lining effort put forth this year. We took stock of all our lemons, and were able to make a lot of lemonade in 2020.

Teachers from Truesdell Middle School give a presentation about prairie gardening lessons they have been doing with their students

The first event of a normal year is the early January one-day reunion of our previous year cohort of Earth Partnership for School teachers. It might have been a bit foreboding of what was to come in 2020 when our anticipated reunion with 35 teachers from one of our largest ever annual cohorts was diminished to a handful of hearty souls by an icy winter storm.

Teachers exploring the icy prairie landscape at Dyck Arboretum in January 2020. See photos of the Earth Partnership for Schools 2019-20 teacher cohort in action HERE

The weather disruptions continued as storms delayed our late January and late February Winter Lecture Series events featuring presentations about Kansas bird populations and distributions and the story of a beloved local bread-baking entrepreneur. Thankfully, the first two of these three scheduled winter lectures were able to be rescheduled and delivered, but the third was altogether canceled due to the pandemic.

Chuck Otte, an expert birdwatcher, extension agent, and the Kansas Bird Listserv database manager gave our first winter lecture
Sharon Entz, owner and head baker of Crust & Crumb Bakery, has incorporated her Mennonite farming heritage and expertise in milling science into her craft.
Delicious Crust & Crumb Valentine galettes served at intermission of the Prairie Window Concert Series
Missy Andersen & Her One Man Band gave the PWCS audience a great show in early February
Flagship Romance was a popular artist as part of our PWCS in early March
Little did we know that this full house crowd would be the last we would host indoors for a while

We will all have lifetime memories of events or trips or gatherings that we remember as the last that happened for us before the COVID-19 shutdown of 2020. Mine was a March 9th Dyck Arboretum board meeting where we surmised that coming events “might be a bit disrupted”. *Insert ominous music*

All of a sudden, virtual meetings were the new normal

As we know, COVID-19 shut down our social lives that second week in March and initiated a series of cancellations for Dyck Arboretum. My first step of adaptation was to figure out how to deliver a virtual presentation, as I clumsily did for a dozen folks interested in developing rain gardens.

We were sure that somehow, delivery of our mission statement would still be important whether it was safe for folks to gather in person or not

One of the events critical to our mission and budget is our spring plant sale, and the 2020 sale was racing toward us in a calendar clouded with uncertainty. We determined that we simply had to figure out a way to deliver plants safely.

We were already planning in January and February to order, grow, and deliver more plants than ever in the history of FloraKansas. When COVID hit, shipments like this one were already being delivered.

So, we put on our Arboretum big girl and big boy pants, got creative and figured out how to solve some problems. We virtually networked like crazy, bolstered our website for virtual orders, and planned for contactless curbside pickup. We learned a lot in the process and our native plant gardening members came through for us in a big way with their orders.

Curbside plant pickup in action
We certainly got our steps in early April filling plant orders for members and the general public
Fishing net check delivery

We knew that plants would not stop growing for a virus and tried to figure out how to commence with grounds maintenance activities safely without our regular cadre of retired volunteers. Local college students cooped up at home while doing remote learning heartily answered the call to help us with various grounds maintenance activities.

College student labor is very beneficial to have on hand for the labor-intensive process of conducting a prescribed burn
Native landscaping graduate student, Ashley Akers, provided invaluable assistance to Arboretum staff this summer

As we learned early on what activities were deemed to be COVID-safe, being outdoors and getting exercise was more important than ever for maintaining mental and physical well-being. Walkers on our Arboretum path were more abundant this spring/summer/fall than we can ever remember. With folks doing more gardening at home, an interest in native landscaping seemed to reach new heights.

Dyck Arboretum horticulturist Katie Schmidt, and office manager Janelle Flory Schrock answered the native plant frenzy by starting a “Plant of the Day” campaign on social media

By late summer, we became a little more savvy with remote delivery of educational materials and we delivered our first ever virtual Native Plant School. We were blown away by the interest in these classes as our members and the general public signed up and participated at three to four times the normal rate we had seen in past years.

Outdoor events such as walking meetings around our 1/2-mile path or weddings and theater events in our outdoor amphitheater became much more the norm.

Interest in outdoor weddings at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains was more popular than ever in 2020
The Hesston College Theater production of Charlotte’s Web was a huge hit this fall

The monarch migration was more memorable at Dyck Arboretum than I can ever remember in September of 2020. Not only did the butterflies stop for a few-day layover in a phenomenal way, but an avian predator enjoyed their presence as well. HERE is a more detailed telling of that story.

Monarch fallout at Dyck Arboretum in September
A confetti of monarch wings courtesy of the beaks and talons of a group of Mississippi Kites

The end of the calendar year at Dyck Arboretum has long been marked by the holiday-themed winter Luminary Walk during Thanksgiving weekend and the first weekend in December.

We knew that the usual groups of indoor gatherings in our buildings around hot drinks and cookies and close huddling around the bonfire would not happen this year. But with strict adherence to COVID safety protocols and some creativity and dedicated volunteerism from members, board members, and Hesston College musicians, we were able to say the “show must go on”. You all responded admirably and supported us heartily.

Lights in native grasses add unique ambiance when enjoying a prairie garden in its dormancy
Hesston College faculty member, Ken Rodgers, plays the piano in the Prairie Pavilion winter wonderland “snow globe” for visitors outdoors via a remote speaker
A Palette-Palooza decorating contest added nicely to the festive scene
Tri-bike excursions with neighboring Schowalter Villa residents have become a regular and welcoming scene in 2020
Favorable weather and scheduling allowed for helping Arboretum board member, LeAnn Clark and her husband Stan, with a prescribed prairie burn in mid-December
Katie utilizing the services of the “brown bomber” in late December to complete some dumpster cleanup tasks in the old field station shop in late December
Janelle planting prairie wildflower seed along a new section of sidewalk near our Visitor Center in late December

2020 was a trying year for all of us. But it also taught us something about ourselves, about resiliency, and finding something positive through adversity. You, our dedicated members and volunteers, were so critical to helping us find this positivity in what could have been a destructive year. For this, we are so very grateful.

Holiday greetings from our Arboretum family to yours and we look forward to seeing you in 2021!

A Grand Old Burr Oak

I spent time this fall with a grand old burr oak near Hesston along the Middle Emma Creek in McPherson County that caught my eye a few years ago. I introduce to you the Stucky Oak.

Burr oak at the Stucky Place

A Relic of Belonging

This tree is a stately burr oak (Quercus macrocarpa) estimated conservatively to be at least 200 years old. I find fascinating the remnants of vegetation around us that predate European settlement. Large open-grown burr oaks, like untilled prairies, are vestiges of a time shaped by climate and thousands of years of evolution.

For approximately 10,000 years since the last ice age, a warmer climate and the rain shadow effect of the Rocky Mountains have shaped the vegetation here. Plant communities existing at the location of Kansas have consisted mainly of grasslands tolerant of frequent fires initiated by lightning and Indigenous people and grazing by bison. Trees had a hard time getting established here when they were being eaten or burned to the ground every few years. Thus, prairies dominate the state of Kansas.

Oak Savannas of Eastern Kansas

As distance from the Rocky Mountains to the east increases along with average rainfall, trees more easily establish. An ecotone identified as oak savanna (prairie with scattered open-grown oaks) marks the transition from prairies of the Great Plains to the forests of the eastern states. Burr oak was the most dominant tree in this Great Plains ecotone for reasons described below. For more information about oak savannas, click HERE.

Oak savanna historical range (Credit: Guy R. McPherson, 1997)

Burr oaks in the eastern portion of the Great Plains were more likely to be found along stream corridors and especially on the east and north side of streams. Here, trees could survive better in the moister, more humid micro-climates and had some protection from prairie fires typically pushed in a east and north direction by the prevailing southwesterly winds. Fires that reached these locations were less frequent and of lower intensity as they typically would be backing against the wind. The Stucky oak along with a number of other old burr oaks dot the Stucky property located in one of these refuge areas just above the east bank of the Middle Emma Creek.

Burr oak range – USDA map
This burr oak in the foreground (let’s call it the “Sibling Oak”) is much younger than the Stucky Oak (seen in background) but still very stately. It too could be a relic of the oak savanna ecosystem present here during pre-European settlement times.

Unique Adaptations

Open-grown burr oaks growing on the prairie certainly have a different growth pattern than trees growing in a forest. Forest-grown trees have to reach vertically as they compete with other trees for sunlight. Trees growing on the prairie don’t have to compete for light and thus more efficiently orient their branches horizontally as well as vertically to maximize photosynthesis.

Old open-grown burr oaks are typically wider than they are tall (The Stucky Oak – Photo by Lamar Roth)

A tree with a relatively more shallow and broad canopy, will allow more light to filter through its branches to the understory below. This unusual, mottled light micro-climate under burr oaks harbors unique assemblages of plants not specifically found in either prairies or forests. For more on the makeup of these rare plant communities, click HERE.

Mottled sunlight penetrating through broad-reaching branches of the Stucky Oak

Fallen burr oak leaves are large, thick, rigid, curled, and irregularly shaped which keeps them aloft, and dry in the litter layer. In the spring, this persistent fuel easily burns and carries fire. Fires under burr oaks are hot enough to kill competing tree species that might invade its space, but not as hot as a grassland fire carrying more intense heat that could kill the burr oak.

Burr oak leaf and acorn litter at Dyck Arboretum

The thick, corky bark of a burr oak helps protect the cambium layer from the intense heat that could kill the tree. This trait develops on the trunk and branches of burr oak after about 10 years of growth and helps the tree survive repeated burning. For more on the biological and ecological traits of burr oaks and oak savannas, click HERE.

Thick, corky bark protects a burr oak from lower-intensity fires

Not Quite a State Champion

In 2019, I heard a presentation at the Kansas Native Plant Society Annual Meeting about the Champion Trees of Kansas Program. I’ve been curious how the Stucky Oak would stack up against the biggest trees in Kansas and recently got permission to take some measurements. Trees in the Program have a calculated point total based on the following formula: POINTS = trunk circumference in inches + height in feet + crown spread/4 in feet.

As you can see from the following table, the Stucky Oak fell short of the champion in St. George (near Manhattan) in total points. However, with a similar trunk circumference (diameter comparison is 5.6′ vs 6.5′) and larger canopy spread, the Stucky oak is only hurt in this scoring by its shorter stature. Take into consideration that a tree east of Manhattan has benefitted from more rainfall over its life and grown faster than the Stucky Oak. When doing so, it is not inconceivable to think that the Stucky Oak may indeed be an older tree.

A Sense of Place

For most houses we know, the choices of vegetation for landscaping are chosen by the people tending the home. The Stucky house location, I am guessing, was chosen because of the vegetation that already existed.

Matt Stucky and his tree

Matt Stucky is the third generation in his family that has lived in this house that has enjoyed this location and made memories here. He’s a farmer and land steward and when talking with him, you immediately sense the affinity he has for this tree. You can tell that he enjoys the thought that his kids swing under the shade of this oak and throw acorns at each other the way he did as a kid and the way his dad probably did too.

The farm name shows pride in a sense of place

Matt fondly told me the story of an elderly couple from Oklahoma that stopped by some years ago to say they got married in their 20s under the giant oak in his yard. They were descendants of the original Classen Mennonite family that settled in the area in 1874. The couple showed Matt an old photo of the occasion. The tree in the photo looked basically the same as it does now. The couple returned many summers thereafter to sit in the shade of the oak for an afternoon.

History Transcending to the Future

The thought of natural phenomena that transcend generations of people and time move me. Whether it is seeing the same constellations in the skies above known to earth’s life forms since the beginning of time, stewarding prairies that have provided sustenance to residents of the Great Plains for thousands of years before me, or paying homage to an old tree known by families of Indigenous as well as European cultures, I find such things to be very powerful.

Burr oak through the seasons (Partners in Place, LLC)

Equally as powerful for me is our responsibility to carry these stories forward. I challenge you to make a connection to stories related to the nightly traverse of Orion across the winter night sky, how a bison kill for the Quivira Indians of Kansas was like a visit to the grocery and hardware stores today, and how an oak can enhance the biodiversity of your home landscape. Embrace these connections and pass them along to the next generation.

Acorns collected from the Stucky Oak

With this spirit in mind, my friend, Lorna Harder, and I collected acorns from the Stucky Oak and hope to raise burr oak progeny. We would like to share these young trees with teachers who participate in our Earth Partnership for Schools Program and members who attend our plant sales.

The quote from Caecilius Statius, 220-168 B.C. goes “We plant trees not for ourselves, but for the future generations.” I think you know now what species I would choose.

“This oak tree and me, we’re made of the same stuff.”

― Carl Sagan

In Gratitude for the Prairie

HAPPY THANKSGIVING

from Dyck Arboretum of the Plains

The Dyck Arboretum of the Plains staff and board of trustees send warm wishes this Thanksgiving holiday. The following is a list of things we are grateful for this year.

1. The opportunity to help others. That simple truth powers all of us when things get tough.

2. Volunteers who give their time. People don’t HAVE to volunteer. People who donate their time regularly don’t get the recognition they deserve. Thanks to all who serve the Arboretum.

3. The chance to be creative. Working at the Arboretum isn’t always easy. Sometimes we have to figure out how to do a lot with a little, and find new options for getting the job done.

4. Unexpected kindness. You never know when someone will do something that takes your breath away or motivates you to keep working for our mission.

5. Generosity. There are always people who amaze me with their generosity. Each gift is not taken lightly and is always appreciated. It is an investment in the mission of the Arboretum.

6. Miracles. Sometimes, you get to see something astounding happen. Like that lightbulb moment with a child closely looking at a flower. To watch them discover beauty is a total miracle and amazing to witness first-hand.

7. Dedicated staff. And last but certainly not least, I am blessed to work with a team who love the Arboretum. During this pandemic, I have been encouraged by their can do attitude. They are always looking at the things we can do rather than the things we can’t do. Janelle, Brad, and Katie strive daily to champion the mission of the Arboretum and provide you with excellent programs and events.  I wish you could see their diligence, hard work and passion as they work behind the scenes.  I am blessed to serve with them.  Thanks so much Janelle, Brad, and Katie!
 

Enjoy this reflection as you celebrate Thanksgiving in your own unique way in 2020.

In my life, I am given spectacular skies and meadows that teach me to appreciate nature, challenges and obstacles that teach me creative problem solving, failures that help me build strength, accomplishments to teach me the value in perseverance, relationships that teach me about friendships and love, acts of kindness that inspire me to see and be the good in my world.

I am grateful for all of these gifts life has given me.

Lisa Desatnik

Dyck Arboretum of the Plains cultivates transformative relationships between people and the land.

Columnar Coneflower in the Flint Hills

Predator Profile: Praying Mantis

The Carolina mantid (Courtesy of Hebard and the Illinois Natural History Survey) from An Introduction to the Study of Insects

The praying mantis is a medieval-looking predator of the garden that could just as well be a source of a horror film. Females are known to bite the head of their male partner during copulation to prevent his premature flight and then proceed to eat him after his job is done. If newly-hatched nymphs don’t find enough insects to eat shortly after leaving the nest, they start cannibalizing their own siblings. After watching my grasshopper-eating video at the end of this post, even some meat-eaters may swear off KFC for a very, long, time.

Carolina mantid cleaning its legs (video by Henry Friesen Guhr)

Identification

Praying mantises or mantids have compound eyes in freely moving heads on a pronounced neck and are the only insect that can “look over their shoulder.” Their front legs are muscular viselike appendages with spines held in front of them. They lie in wait, ambush their prey, and then hold and eat them alive.

Chinese mantid with a grasshopper

Kansas has five different species of mantids. There are three native species and two introduced. Of our native species, two are small, uncommon, typically found in prairies, and described in Insects in Kansas (Salsbury and White) as follows:

Descriptions of our two Kansas prairie mantids

For the remaining more common three species in Kansas (Carolina mantis, Chinese mantis, and European mantis), the following is a description of each provided courtesy of Missouri Department of Conservation (mantids) with bugguide.net links to photos of each individual species:

  • Carolina mantis (Stagomantis carolina). Native.
    • Pale green to tan or mottled gray
    • Adult length 2–2¼ inches
    • The combined length of the head and thorax is about as long as the abdomen.
    • The middle pair of legs are about twice as long as the antennae.
    • Females are essentially flightless, as their wings are relatively small — when folded, they do not extend as far as the abdomen tip; usually only about three-fourths of the way down the body.
    • Males may have the wings extend beyond the abdomen tip and may fly to lights at night.
    • There is a black patch on the outer pair of wings.
    • Examine the facial shield (the part of the face in front of the antennae and between the eyes: in this and other Stagomantis species, it is long and narrow (in the Chinese mantis, it is fairly square and has vertical stripes).
    • Egg cases are somewhat flattened, elongated, teardrop-shaped structures.
  • Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis). Nonnative. Very commonly encountered.
    • Tan to pale green; tan individuals often show a stripe of pale green on the side (it’s the borders of the green front wings)
    • Adult length 2¼–4 inches or more
    • Examine the facial shield (the part of the face in front of the antennae and between the eyes): in the Chinese mantis, it is fairly square and has vertical stripes (in our native Carolina mantis, it is long and narrow and lacks stripes).
    • Flies well, often attracted to lights at night.
    • Egg cases resemble tan toasted marshmallows. They are fairly round, about as long as wide, Ping-Pong-ball size; usually attached to twigs of bushes and small trees.
    • Native to east Asia. Introduced to North America accidentally in 1896. Later, imported on purpose in hopes of combatting insect pests. Among the many insects it consumes are our smaller native mantids, and it may be playing a role, in some regions, in the declining populations of the Carolina mantis. Because the Chinese mantis has been widespread in our country for so long, it is difficult to determine what its ecological impact has been on native ecosystems. Because of the females’ large size, they have occasionally been recorded eating small vertebrates, including small reptiles and amphibians and even hummingbirds, but these seem to be relatively rare occurrences that do not have a significant impact on populations of those species.
  • European mantis or praying mantis (Mantis religiosa). Nonnative; probably the least encountered of these three.
    • Yellowish green, cream-colored, or tan.
    • Adult length 2–3 inches
    • Diagnostic feature is a round black dot on the underside of the basal joint (coxa) of the forelegs. Sometimes this black dot has a white center. This spot can be hard to see when their “arms” are held together.
    • Egg cases are rather egg-shaped, distinctly layered structures.
    • Native to Europe. Introduced to North America accidentally in 1899. Later, imported on purpose in hopes of combatting insect pests. People may still introduce them occasionally.

For a visual comparison of the ootheca for these three species, HERE is an article with photos.

Reproduction

Once the female has been fertilized and consumes the male as a “last supper” of sorts, she develops and deposits her eggs to complete the life cycle before dying herself.

Mating Carolina mantids – completion of a life cycle before the carnage

The female mixes the eggs with a frothy, protein-based material called spumaline and extrudes them onto a stem or building. This mass hardens to form a strong Styrofoam-like casing or ootheca that helps keep up to 200 eggs from drying out over the winter.

Chinese mantis “toasted marshmallow” egg casing on a goldenrod stem

The nymphs that emerge from the ootheca in spring do not have different-looking larval stages like many other insects. They resemble adult forms throughout their entire juvenile development.

Mantid nymph (dime-sized) found during an insect sweeping activity

Biological Control

It would seem just as appropriate to name this creature the “preying” mantis. I have seen many instances of mantids munching on moths, butterflies, bees and more and recently captured video of a Chinese mantis eating a grasshopper (see end of blog).

Mantids are touted as biological control agents to get rid of pest insects in gardens and greenhouses. However, the effectiveness of this approach is questionable. While they efficiently prey on insects, a small release of mantids cannot possibly control all the insects that humans consider to be crop pests. Complicating their effectiveness, mantids also indiscriminately consume insects that we consider to be beneficial pollinators as well. And since nonnative mantid species are those most commonly distributed for biological control, some rightfully worry about the impact their continued introductions may have on smaller native mantid populations.

However you find and observe mantids in gardens and natural areas around you, observe and enjoy the habits of these fascinating creatures.

Chinese mantis eating a grasshopper at Dyck Arboretum

Don’t Bug My Plants

I get a lot of calls and emails that start with “something is eating my plants!” Either frustrated or panicked, most view this development as a bad thing. To their surprise, I usually say “Congratulations!”. A bug can be a great thing.

The fact is, plants are meant to be eaten. Plants provide food for the rest of the living world, especially for the world’s insects. It is normal for the native animals of our area to nibble, chew, and sometimes completely defoliate plants. Humans forget this, much to the detriment of the biodiversity in our neighborhoods. Bugs are essential to life on earth, so we should be excited about feeding them!

Newly hatched monarch caterpillar on common milkweed. Photo by Brad Guhr

Don’t Judge a Bug By Its Diet

I like to say Congratulations, not to be flippant, but to help people reframe the situation. I explain that it is very possible they are hosting a native butterfly, moth or beetle larvae. Holes in your Hibiscus can be a good thing! By investigating what exactly is lunching on your leaves, you begin to engage deeper with your garden and with the ecosystem at large. Look carefully before you spray a pesticide; you may find an interesting little friend. You may even be able to precisely identify the bug based on what plant it is eating.

Milkweed bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) eat milkweed seeds. They cause no harm to the plant, and are actually a good friend of the gardener looking to keep their milkweed population under control.

A Funky (plant) Baseline

Plants are at the base of the food chain. They convert the most primitive form of energy – sunlight – into tangible, edible growth. This conversion of sunlight to green leaves allows everything in the food chain to function — bugs, rabbits, and deer eat the leaves, songbirds eat the bugs, snakes eat the bird eggs, coyotes or hawks eat the snake, and so on.

Plants are the foundation of a healthy ecosystem, and native plants are especially important. According to a 2018 study, “in areas made up of less than 70 percent native plant biomass, Carolina chickadees will not produce enough young to sustain their populations. At 70 percent or higher, the birds can thrive.”

Insects in our area have evolved to feed on and coexist with our native plants, and these insects feed everything above them in the food chain. If you find a bug eating your favorite plant, consider how important that little fella might be in terms of feeding the other animals in our ecosystem.

Sulphur caterpillars are voracious, defoliating their host plant in a matter of days.
But it always recovers nicely ones they pupate and move on.

Doom and Gloom for Your Blooms?

The main concern is: will my plant recover? And, most of the time, the answer is yes. Remember, plants are meant to be eaten. They have evolved all sorts of clever ways to survive, and many can survive being eaten completely to the ground. Our Senna and partridge pea plants at the Arboretum become completely defoliated by Sulphur butterfly caterpillars every year. And yet, often they have enough energy to bloom and set seed by the end of the season. Checkerspot larvae absolutely shred the leaves of our coneflowers, but up they come next year, blooming happily.

Variegated Fritillaries (Euptoieta claudia) munched my violets this spring, but never ate enough at once to hurt the plant. Watching them grow and pupate was worth the holey leaves!

Whatever you find eating your garden plants, remember to do your homework before taking action. Leave the pesticide on the shelf, and do some investigation instead! If you have aphids or spider mites in an infestation large enough to damage your plant, consider Safer Soap for a gentle approach. If you find a caterpillar, inch worm, or other larvae, it is likely not a cause for major concern or treatment.

Monarch Fallout and A Predator Story

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.

Getting ready for fall’s crescendo

As the growing season winds down, there is still plenty happening in the garden. I like to think of this time as fall’s crescendo, bringing the prairie’s annual symphony to a high point before falling into dormancy. The asters are beginning to show a few blooms while the goldenrods and sunflowers are adding a bit of sunshine to the landscape and roadsides. 

Fall is a great time to glory in the many textures and forms of our native grasses too.  Every phase of the garden is beautiful, but I have come to appreciate autumn the most. 

Asters and Little Bluestem in the fall

Life is a cycle

Each fall, the garden reminds us that we have come full circle. From winter’s dormancy to lush spring growth through summer’s blazing hot days to fall’s crescendo of color and texture, the prairie has put on another spectacular display.  Now as flowers fade, the grasses will show their true colors and everything slowly becomes lifeless and brown.  These forms, textures and seedheads standout in the landscape, extending the interest in the garden into the winter once again. 

Embrace brown

So much is happening in the garden right now.  Plants are storing energy in their roots for next year.  The browns and yellows of the foliage mean this process is complete.  Actively growing plants are only alive at or below the soil line.  This transformation can be stark, but I think it can be quite attractive. 

Just because the plant has gone dormant, doesn’t mean you need to remove it.  I challenge you to leave it up through the winter.  A prairie garden in the fall and winter with all its forms, textures and muted colors has a unique beauty that should be savored.  Let it be.  Don’t be too quick to send it to the compost pile.  

Autumn splendor of Little Bluestem

Shelter

Dormancy is important for the plants, but so many other things benefit from these plants this time of year.  Insects of all types overwinter in garden litter and tufts of grasses. Inside plant stems and at the base of grasses, insects and butterflies at different life stages are safely harbored for the winter. This is why it is so important to leave these dormant plants through the winter.  In the spring, we cut these plants down but leave the stems as mulch.  These dormant insects will wake from their winter slumber to pollinate for you next year.    

Food

Songbirds that overwinter will find flower heads such as coneflowers and sunflowers welcome food sources.  As the winter deepens, food becomes much more scarce.  These nutritious seeds are just what these birds need to get them through the coldest months.  Again, you can cut them back in February or March as you prepare for spring.  Remember to leave as much as you can on the ground as natural mulch.  Don’t carry all those beneficial insects away from the garden. 

Coneflower Seedheads

Fall’s Crescendo into Dormancy

Fall is a reminder that natural processes are at work.  Simply understanding how important this process of dormancy is to the prairie and to wildlife should guide how you manage it.  Take note how the stark contrast of the native grasses in texture, form, and hues of color against spent wildflowers gives the prairie landscape a unique beauty all its own.  Whether you are taking advantage of the cooler temperatures to work on an outdoor project or just enjoying the plants and wildlife, it’s a great time to be on the prairie. I love this time of the year. 

Switchgrass capturing snow

  

What is a Living Landscape?

What brings life to a landscape? Some say it’s the plants – after all they are alive. But what about the wildlife they attract?  In my opinion, it is a combination of the two that make the landscape vibrant and sustainable.  The plants need the wildlife and the wildlife need the plants. And we, the caretakers, benefit from this relationship. Landscaping with these factors in mind will help protect and conserve what is essential and irreplaceable -both the native prairie plant life and the diverse wildlife that needs the plants to survive. 

A robin looks for food in a native plant bed.

New Paradigm     

Gardening can be so much more than beautiful plants grouped together in neat arrangements that look good to you.   There is a new emphasis on landscapes that function similar to the vast prairies of old with diverse collections of grasses and wildflowers. This is a shift from the traditional cultural norms that have guided our landscape designs for decades. By thinking critically about the environmental relationships of plants and wildlife, such as pollinators, the traditional landscape is transformed into a design that is functional and sustainable. This “land ethic” of developing an inclusive habitat affirms our role as stewards of the land.

Goals for Your Landscape

This measured approach to landscaping is more goal oriented.  We now want the landscape we live in to be diverse, beautiful, functional, essential to wildlife, layered, compatible with our home, compatible to pollinators, practical, and so much more. These goals are possible to achieve with some basic knowledge and a willingness to continue to learn.

Nature as Your Inspiration  

Fortunately, biological landscapes or living landscapes are becoming the norm. We can have our cake and eat it too.  A garden rich in biological diversity working with the environment and not against it is possible.  Nature should be your inspiration. Simply use productive native species that grew in your area in pre-farming days to create landscapes of ecological richness that are a reflection of the new balance between humans and nature. We need to create new prairie habitats, because it is part of our personal and regional past; we need a variety of plants and animals because they are part of our continuity and hope for the future.

For more information about living landscapes, attend one of our Native Plant School classes this fall. 

The fall Native Plant Festival is also a good opportunity to learn more about native plants and what to include in your gardens. 

Narrowleaf Coneflowers blooming in the Flint Hills

  

A Flint Hills Visit: Inspiration for Native Landscaping

The prairie and its Flint Hills environment at Chase State Fishing Lake (CSFL) provide serious inspiration for native landscaping. The CSFL vegetation, wildlife, substrate below, and the sky above collectively compose for me the most beloved and iconic landscape of native Kansas.

During my many past visits to CSFL, I have usually had an agenda that involved leading a tour group, collecting seed, or gathering butterfly data. I have never taken the opportunity to climb the bluff, sit in the prairie, listen to the grassland birds, observe butterflies and other pollinators, and watch the clouds go by. But I did just that on a recent Saturday in late June.

American lady butterfly on purple coneflower at CSFL

Pure Enjoyment

In addition to providing inspiration for native landscaping, visits to CSFL bring me pure enjoyment. During this recent visit, the steady breeze – with not a tree to stop it – was a reliable Kansas air conditioner. It kept me from thinking about the sweat-inducing effects of the hot sun. The puffy clouds overhead kept changing the light patterns and offered ever-fresh visual perspectives. In the midst of a surreal pandemic experience, when home and work routines are turned upside down and inside out, sitting on that prairie bluff was like visiting an old friend.

Big sky and clean water make CSFL a great place to fish or swim on a hot summer day

Desirable Wildflowers

The prairie wildflowers were plentiful during my visit thanks to a wet spring. The prairie plants we promote for the home landscape are in their native ecosystem here, with root systems that extend 10 to 15 feet into a matrix of limestone/flint/chert.

Rich images of plants like narrow-leaved bluets (white flowers) and lead plant (purple flowers) growing through rock are common at CSFL

In addition to a stunning display of orange and red butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), other flowering species included tuberous Indian plantain (Arnoglossum plantagineum), narrow-leaved milkweed (Asclepias stenophylla), smooth milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii), green milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora), serrate-leaf evening primrose (Calylophus serrulatus), white prairie-clover (Dalea candida), purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Illinois tickclover (Desmodium illinoense), purple coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia), narrow-leaf bluets (Hedyotis nigricans), catclaw sensitive briar (Mimosa quadrivalvis), and prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera). In your garden, these plants will attract monarch larvae (milkweeds) and other pollinators, fix nitrogen (legumes) and provide year-round visual interest.

Smooth milkweed at CSFL

Interesting Critters

The insects observed on flowers (including 17 butterfly species I noted) were plentiful. Spending time identifying and documenting insect diversity makes me want to see more of them in my landscape. Diversity of wildlife species is directly correlated to the diversity of plants in an ecosystem. Increase the diversity of flora and you will increase the diversity of fauna!

Wild indigo duskywings mating on lead plant at CSFL

In her last blog post, colleague Katie talks about the fun of identifying insects (The Mystery of the Orange Bug). I can certainly relate to the fun of trying to solve mystery insects.

The caterpillar pictured below is a new one to me. One of the identification tools and bio-networking platforms I’d like to use more is iNaturalist. Click HERE to see a couple of photos and help me with identification of this unknown (to me) caterpillar. One follower of this thread suggested the correct ID to be a salt marsh moth. I would have a hard time arguing otherwise.

Possibly a salt marsh moth on lead plant

Butterfly Milkweed

If nothing else, spending time at CSFL in late June will inspire you to fill your landscape with butterfly milkweed. It is harder to grow the same remarkable eye candy of this favorite prairie plant in richer and less well-drained soils. But in spite of my 50% success rate (at best), I keep trying. Never before have I heard somebody say that a prairie reconstruction or garden has too much butterfly milkweed!

Butterfly milkweed at CSFL

None of us will be able to completely recreate the open prairie of the Flint Hills in our urban landscapes. We can, however, take incremental steps in that direction with the plants we choose and the wildlife we attract. Visit Chase State Fishing Lake, absorb some if its good vibes, copy some of its elements with your plant selection choices, enjoy the wildlife viewing, and find new inspiration for native landscaping.

Click HERE for more of my thoughts about and photos from an earlier blog post about Chase State Fishing Lake.