Shade Plants in Their Natural Habitat

On vacation in early July, some friends and I explored Devil’s Lake State Park, Wisconsin. Rocky and rainy, with lushly forested slopes, it is a very different landscape from my beloved Kansas. While hiking I saw many of my favorite shade plants living in situ, outside the confines of our carefully cultivated gardens. To spot them in their natural habitat is always a thrill!

Devil’s Lake State Park offers well kept hiking trails, rock climbing and water recreation.

Jack-in-the-Pulpit

Jack-in-the-Pulpit was growing along the hiking path ringing the lake. Easy to confuse with poison ivy because of its three leaves, colonies of them grow in part sun locations. In early spring their fluted blooms appear, inconspicuous in yellow and brown. In hot locations they will conserve their energy and go dormant for the summer.

Arisaema triphyllum, Jack-in-the-Pulpit

Ferns

Ferns were growing out of every crag, reaching their delicate fronds upward. Kansas does actually have many of our own native ferns, but they are much harder to find than those in wetter climes. I was really having a hard time keeping up with our hiking group because I was so fascinated by the diversity of ferns around us! I saw christmas ferns, lady ferns and wood ferns all in less than a mile’s walk.

The dots on the underside of the fern frond are spore clusters called ‘sori’.

Coral Berry

I also saw groups of coral berry (Symphoricarpos) growing in the understory, their fruits shining in the dappled light of afternoon. There are lots of cultivars of this plant quite suitable for sunnier locations. They make wonderful bushes for foundation plantings or filler amongst other shrubs.

Luckily you don’t have to go all the way to Wisconsin to see these beauties. All the plants listed in this post will be available at our fall FloraKansas Native Plant Festival fundraiser! Call or email Arboretum staff for more information.

Every grass has its flower.

Grasses are tenacious harnessers of the prairie.

This humble family survives the open plains and thrives in niches that others are too flamboyant to endure. Their incredibly deep roots protect them from drought, and their tall silica-rich stalks scatter the next generation. 

Though often thought of as a backdrop for peaking wildflowers, grasses are actually flowering plants themselves. They evolved to stand and spread under vast, harsh skies. While their fraternal twin the orchid family grew alluring petals and fragrances, the grasses grew into tall and limber pollen casters. Well after the first flowering plants and more recently than the dinosaurs, grasses diverged from other buds as minimalists. 

They found resilience in simplicity. 

Smooth brome, Bromus inermis

Without a need to attract insects to jumble their genes, grasses didn’t have to spend masses of energy on lavish pageantry. They dug their roots in deeper, grew a few more stickers, and when grazers or burns mowed them down, they came back sprawling. 

Minimal beauty

Their flowers stayed small and muted. They lost their petals and rearranged their bracing bracts into something more hardy. When pastures bloom, their shy brilliance pokes out of camouflaged grains. They exist as rows of envelopes, smaller florets, braiding themselves into a diversity of branching inflorescence

Illustration credit: Barnard, 2014.

Grass flowers adorn themselves with what looks like a string of pollen-covered lanterns. From within, a curious set of small internal leaves will swell, pushing feathery stigmas and powdery anthers out of the floret. 

Grasses are anemophilous, “wind loving.” Although their blooms are only half as vivid as their stalks, many make small colorful gifts to the breeze. The female pistil can come in silver, yellow or deep periwinkle, whereas the male anthers can flaunt yellow, orange, green, crimson and even lavender-purple. 

You can see them displaying their small wares right now along the grounds of the Arboretum: blue grama, big bluestem and brome all in their summer suede. 

Beginners to winners

Another reductionist adaptation is their use of spiny awls. You probably know them better as stickers. These extra bristles get caught in fur and socks to be pulled across the prairie. Some awls are bent, some are straight and some will even twist and untwist with fluctuations in humidity, screwing themselves into the earth. 

They may have replaced fragrance for practicality, but ultimately it’s had major payoffs. Swaths of pasture persist through drought, fire and storm. Twenty percent of all wild plants in the Great Plains are grasses. Not only do their populations outnumber any other group of flowering plant, their distribution is sweeping. By weight they account for 70 percent of all crops. 

Truly subdued prominence. 

Resources: Barnard, Iralee. Field Guide to the Common Grasses of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska. University Press of Kansas, 2014

June Prairie Blooms

This past week I had the opportunity to trek into the Flint Hills.  I always enjoy spending time immersed in a prairie setting.  It makes me feel small in a great big world.  It makes me keenly aware of the great diversity and complexity of the prairie ecosystem.  It also reminds me how precarious these settings are and how important they are to our survival and the life cycles of so many different things.  Here are a few of the prairie blooms I saw in June:

Catclaw sensitive briar (Mimosa quadrivalvis var. nuttallii

The vibrant pink disco balls of catclaw sensitive briar stand out in the landscape.

Narrowleaf Coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia)

Narrowleaf Coneflower

Leadplant (Amorpha canescens)

The silvery green foliage and dark purple blooms of leadplant are striking in the landscape.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

Millions of these bright yellow blooms dot the prairie hillsides.

Bee balm (Monarda fistulosa)

These flowers are a favorite of many pollinators.

Prairie Coneflower (Ratibida columnifera)

Columnar coneflower reaching for the sky

Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) Photo by Brad Guhr

Sullivant’s Milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii)

Large pink clusters of blooms on Sullivant’s Milkweed Photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

This is just a handful of flowers blooming right now in the Flint Hills. With all the rain, the prairies are lush and full of life. I would encourage you to take time to find a prairie near you, even our own Prairie Window Project, and enjoy our native habitat. I was amazed how alive the prairie was with sights and sounds of wildlife and pollinators. It was worth taking in the view of earth and sky.

Gardening with Purpose

We have seen an abundance of blooms this spring. All this beauty and wildlife activity, particularly pollinators, has reminded me again about the roles our gardens play in benefiting our small corner of the world.  We can garden with a sense of purpose that helps wildlife ecologically.  With Pollinator Week quickly approaching (June 17th – 23rd), I thought maybe we could take a moment to think about our gardens in a different way. 

Garden with your goals in mind

When we garden, each of us has an opportunity to develop a native wildlife habitat, to design our garden to attract pollinators and wildlife, and to create a safe space where horticulture, imagination, and ecology are reflected purposefully in our garden design.  We need to think with the end-goal in mind.  By creating living sanctuaries, depleted and endangered native bees and butterflies can easily find the food, shelter and water they need for their survival. 

This is a small way you can show you care, maybe even rediscover your own humanity.  Along with others in your neighborhood who develop habitat gardens, you will help the predicament of these beneficial insects.  Even a small garden can have an impact.  Think of it as a way you can reconnect with nature in a very personal way as you care for your corner of the earth.

Monarchs

Statistics show that the monarch butterfly population in North America has declined by over 90% in just the last 20 years.  This is disheartening.  One of the biggest factors in monarch decline is the increasing scarcity of its only caterpillar host plant: milkweeds. Without milkweeds, monarchs can’t successfully reproduce or migrate, resulting in the species declines. If you plant milkweeds in your own garden you can help reverse the fortune of these beautiful insects.  You can be part of the ultimate solution, which is to provide the plants monarchs need for their life cycle.

Honey Bees

The plight of the honey bee and the collapse of entire colonies has garnered nationwide attention.  However, many of our native bee populations are in danger too.  Scientists continue to track dwindling populations of native bees, including the possible extinction of some species.  The native pollinators are key components of a healthy ecosystem.  Habitat loss, the use of pesticides and insecticides along the introduced diseases threaten their lives.  These bees often lack season-long food sources, which is obviously important to their vitality.  

Choose Native Plants

Native plants can help us alleviate some of the problems pollinators face.  Native plants have the ability to grow in our soils, are adapted to the climate, look attractive, control erosion, create beneficial habitat and are the preferred food source for many of these pollinators.  By establishing habitat gardens that use native prairie plants, we can improve their plight in this world.  Recognizing that we can make a difference should be motivation to at least begin to help them. 

Stewardship starts at home

Stewardship and conservation can start with our gardens. Despite size limitations, these prairie gardens are an important part of conserving the prairie and the wildlife that depend on them. You might be surprised how much your garden can do to reverse some of these trends.  Imagine your garden combined with hundreds of other small prairie landscapes.  True, it is not the expansive prairies of the past, but it does make a difference.  Your garden can be a piece of the patchwork of prairies.

Kansas Native Ferns

At FloraKansas Native Plant Festival our customers were surprised to see we offer Kansas native ferns. Perhaps they were surprised to hear Kansas even had native ferns! With our hot, dry summers and deep-freeze winters, Kansas does not seem like hospitable environment for delicate, shade loving plants. However, we have several naturally occurring fern species in the state that are hardier than you might think. They are fascinating to observe growing in the wild, but also make excellent additions to your shade garden.

Royal Fern

Osmunda regalis var spectabilis


According to fossil records, the royal fern family (Osmundaceae) dates back about 365 million years. 3 to 4 feet tall (shorter in poor, drier soil), this fern becomes a large and impressive specimen in the shade garden. O. regalis var spectabilis grows happily in the far eastern part of Kansas and throughout the eastern third of North America. Royal fern has attractive bright green foliage and rust colored spore plumes. It prefers moist, somewhat acidic soil and shade though it can handle sun if the soil is kept wet. This fern can live up to 100 years if planted in the right location!

Royal fern is an easterly species, occurring from the Ozarks through the southeastern US and north into eastern Canada.

Christmas Fern

Polystichum acrostichoides

This festive native fern grows in far southeastern Kansas. According to Missouri Botanical Garden, it “…typically grows in a fountain-like clump to 2′ tall and features leathery, lance-shaped, with evergreen (green at Christmas time as the common name suggests) fronds.” If you love boston ferns but want something perennial, this is a great option. When planted in an average moisture, shaded area it will spread slowly to form a colony.

If you are up for some botanizing, head to these southeastern counties in moist, partially wooded areas to catch a glimpse of these ferns.

Sensitive Fern

Onoclea sensibilis

Onoclea is unique native fern, with arching fronds and oblong, creeping rhizomes. Getting its name from sensitivity to frost, O. sensibilis is surprisingly hardy. It can easily survive the cold dry winters in Kansas, Nebraska and even the Dakotas. This species is native to the eastern half of North America as well as far eastern Russia and China. According to Wikipedia, you can help your ferns survive the winter by leaving dried fronds on the plant instead of clearing them away.

There are many more native ferns I could include here, from the marginal woodfern found in Wilson, Elk, and Greenwood counties to the tiny rock ferns growing among the monoliths at Rock City in Minneapolis, KS. Get out and do some fern hunting, or buy a few at our fall sale to enjoy for years to come.

Garden Trends in 2019

Over the past five years, we have seen some interesting things happen regarding native plants.  People are learning about native plants and matching plants up with their local conditions.  More and more people are seeking them out to include in their landscapes.  Here are a few of the emerging garden trends regarding native plants:

Wildlife-friendly plants

I keep coming back to this idea of beautiful AND good.  Aesthetics are important and we all want attractive landscapes, but of equal importance is this feeling that what we are doing is good for everyone and everything.  It can be intimidating to change the way you garden or landscape.  Choosing plants just because they are visually appealing simply isn’t a good enough reason anymore.  Creating a habitat using plants that are adapted to your site is a far better approach to landscaping.  Designs that have attractive combinations of wildflowers, grasses, shrubs and trees may initially capture our imaginations, but more and more people are wanting these plants and landscapes to provide additional benefits. Our gardens must now not only look good, but also do double duty to provide for pollinators, attract birds and other wildlife, develop habitat and positively impact the environment.

New England Aster with Monarch

Pollinator gardens

It has taken a while, but native plants are finally getting the attention they deserve.  They are viable alternatives to many of the overused plants you see in so many landscapes.  There are literally hundreds of plants that will fit into your landscape design.  Whether it is a true native species or “nativar” (a hybrid or new selection of a native plant), these plants offer qualities that will beautify the landscape and attract pollinators, too.  For people who live in prairie country, it may be easy to take our native plants for granted. Yet these plants, with their simple form and subtle beauty, can make attractive additions to the home landscape.

Pale Coneflower

Water-wise plants

We don’t think often enough about the water we use. It is a precious commodity. Remember the 2011 and 2012 drought in Kansas? We were using tremendous quantities of water to keep our landscapes alive. It made us evaluate each plant according to its response to these extreme conditions.  Obviously, some plants did better than others and we lost some plants those years. It made us think critically about our plant choices and irrigation practices. A beautiful and resilient landscape that uses little, if any, supplemental water is an achievable result.  A few changes like adding some native plants can make a big difference.

Kansas gayfeather with tiger swallowtail butterfly
Photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

It seems to me that these trends for 2019 have something obviously in common – native plants.  Native plants are not the “be all” and “end all” solution, but they provide a good starting point to solving some problems you encounter in the landscape.  With so much to consider when designing or redesigning your landscapes, don’t overlook native plants.  You will be rewarded time and again by their unique beauty and deep roots. 

Harbingers of Spring

You may be tired of scraping the frost off your windshield in the morning and perhaps you grumbled while shoveling snow from your sidewalk last week (we had 3″ on 2/20/19 at Dyck Arboretum). But don’t believe Punxsutawney Phil when he predicts six more weeks of winter or become dismayed by this year’s colder spring or higher number of cloudy days than usual. Warmer weather is coming and there are harbingers of spring out there if you pay attention.

Increased Photoperiod

We are gaining roughly two minutes of sunlight every day since the December 21 solstice. The weather may have been unpredictable and cloud cover variable the last couple of months, but we can rely on the daily incremental increase of daylight like clockwork as the sun gets higher in the sky. More light means more warmth and plants/animals respond to these changes in photoperiod.

Bird Behavior

Changes in bird behavior help mark the changing of the seasons. Bird songs seem to be more prevalent in the morning recently. I heard House Finches and Northern Cardinals here at the Arboretum both singing on a morning last week (2/20/19). I would suspect that means something with regard to territory and mating. The courtship ritual of the American Woodcock is a sign of spring around dusk to twilight in early- to mid-March. Hearing their nasal “peent” while faintly seeing them circle skyward before tumbling to the ground is an interesting and memorable experience.

American Woodcocks are mostly nocturnal and difficult to see during the day where they reside in brushy wet meadows. A good time to see or at least hear them is during the early evening hours of the early spring mating season. (Photo Credit: David Seibel, Birds In Focus)

Harris’s Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos for me are signs of winter and their migration north signals spring. They are still around here in late February, but their numbers are dwindling and their presence will soon be scarce. American Robins do overwinter here, but their behavior of eating fruit will soon turn to poking around in the soil for food as soil temperature and earthworm activity increases. One can track the spring movements of wildlife, and particularly Robins, including those sighted, getting earthworms, nesting and moving in waves at Journey North.


A change in the foraging habits of American Robins from eating fruit to worms is a subtle sign of spring. (Photo Credit: Judd Patterson, Birds In Focus)

To become more in tune with birds around you, learn more about common to rare birds, their migration patterns, behaviors, songs, food preferences and more, consider joining Kansas Ornithological Society. Be sure to sign up for emails from their Kansas Bird Listserv through which you will get regular reports from experienced birders around the state.

And if you ever wonder what migrating birds are doing when they are not in Kansas, check out this very cool story about the migration of Grasshopper Sparrows and Upland Sandpipers.

Insect Activity

On warm days I look forward to seeing insects beginning to fly and move about. That means host plants and flowers are coming out or will soon be found as well. The presence of insects as food means that birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, fish and predatory insects will have something to eat. Insects are an important basis for the food chain of wildlife around us.

But perhaps the most recognizable and celebrated insect out there is the monarch butterfly. Journey North again is a good place to track monarch movements as well as the emergence of their ever-important host plant, milkweed and when/where monarchs are laying eggs on milkweed. The first monarch adults were observed along the Gulf Coast this weekend (2/23 and 2/24) and I expect that we will start seeing our first monarchs in Kansas by early April.

Monarch ovipositing on common milkweed at Dyck Arboretum, April 10, 2017.

Flowering Plants

Then, there are the emerging plants. The first I know to bloom here at Dyck Arboretum every year is witch hazel. As the warm sun came out one afternoon last week (2/20/19) and above-freezing temperatures melted that morning’s snow, this early-blooming shrub burst with flowers.

Hamamelis vernalis – vernal or Ozark witch hazel, Feb. 20 at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains.

As its two common names suggest, vernal or Ozark witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) is a spring-blooming shrub that originates from the Ozarks of southern Missouri.

You have to look closely because vernal witch hazel is not an extravagant bloomer.

During warm winters, vernal witch hazel starts blooming here at the Arboretum as early as mid-January and during cold winters as late as early March. Over the last few cold weeks of February, I’ve watched seemingly struggling flowers wait partially open for their time to shine. And last week this harbinger of spring did not disappoint.

On warmer days to come, flies and bees will be attracted to the nectar of these tiny, dime-sized vernal witch hazel flowers.

The flowers of Prairie Gold® aspen (Populus tremuloides) ‘NE Arb’ are starting to emerge outside the doors of our Visitor Center. Soon the fuzzy catkins of this fast-growing tree with origins in Nebraska will emerge so the wind can disperse its pollen.

Prairie Gold® aspen
(Populus tremuloides) ‘NE Arb’ fuzzy catkins emerging Feb. 22, 2019.

And finally, the common urban tree, silver maple (Acer saccharinum), is one of the spring harbinger flowers you will probably not see, but many of us will know when it starts blooming. The airborne pollen of these not very showy wind-pollinated flowers will soon fill the air and activate itchy and watery eyes and noses (Click HERE if you want to delve a bit more into the differences between wind- and insect-pollinated flowers). I have learned that these unappealing sensations caused by wind-pollinated maples and elms early in spring are harbingers too. Locate your anti-histamine medications and roll out a welcome for spring.

Silver maple (Acer saccharinum) flower buds (Feb. 22, 2019) about to burst.

A Look at the Past, A Glimpse of the Future

Over the past few weeks, I have been doing some cleaning in my office.  It is a New Year’s resolution of sorts, but definitely needed.  I had mountains of papers that had not been looked through in quite some time.  Some of it was worth keeping, but most of it needed to be tossed. 

Through this purging, I was again reminded of how far the Arboretum has come.  Committee meeting notes, board meeting agendas, programming ideas, fundraising updates and past newsletters made for interesting reading about the Arboretum’s past and reminded me how it has continued to grow through the years.

The Vision

Harold and Evie Dyck wanted a place that reflected the Kansas landscape –  a prairie garden with gently rolling hills, walking trails, native plant displays for people to enjoy and stopping points along the way for quiet reflection.  The early mission statement: “The Dyck Arboretum of the Plains exists to foster an appreciation of the natural beauty of Kansas” , focused the development of the grounds and educational programs.  Steady progress was made in the first few decades after the first tree was planted in 1981.

First Tree (Bur Oak) planted on October 10, 1981
Aerial view of the Arboretum and the walking path around the pond , early 1980s
Picture of the island , early 1980s
Bald cypress near the bird watch area, early 1980s
Kansas Wildflower Exhibit and Prairie Shelter, 1990s
Island Planting in summer, 1990s
Harold and Elva Mae Dyck, early 2000s

A Living Prairie Museum

“No color photo or painting, no floral arrangement or pressed wildflower, nothing we take from nature can ever quite capture the beauty, the complexity or the ‘feel’ of nature itself.  The Dyck Arboretum of the Plains is a living prairie museum, affording each visitor a rare opportunity to experience this remarkable habitat firsthand, up-close and personal.”

“Within the space of these 13+ acres, you can traverse a prairie landscape…to see and learn about hundreds of different varieties of trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and grasses indigenous to this region.”  (Excerpt from an early Arboretum brochure.)


A New Mission for a Lasting Vision

“The Dyck Arboretum of the Plains cultivates transformative relationships between people and the land”.  Today, this mission not only refocuses our work on the interconnectedness of people and the land, but also recognizes that the bond we share with plants, animals, water and soil are constantly forming and transforming.  Whether caring for our own garden patch or visiting the awe-inspiring tallgrass prairie of the Flint Hills, being in nature changes us.

FloraKansas Native Plant Sale, 2014
Insect sweeping activity, Samplemania 2012

I believe Harold and Evie would be amazed at how far the Arboretum has come since those humble beginnings.  With the Visitor Center, Prairie Pavilion, and the new Prairie Discovery Lab, the Arboretum is able to reach even more people interested in learning about Kansas’ prairie landscape.  We are so grateful for their dedication to that original vision for this garden. 

An increasing number of people now see the importance of protecting the prairie.  Like Harold and Evie, they seek to understand, have empathy for, and connect with this unique landscape on a very personal level.  Their vision seems to have come full circle.

Stately Natives

This past Monday, at the swearing in of the new Kansas governor, some native plants from Dyck Arboretum got their time in the limelight. Cuttings from our grounds of evergreens, red twig dogwood, big bluestem and more were featured in the inaugural stage decorations out front of the state house. These natives are perfect for floral arrangements, and are also great performers in the landscape.

Dried grasses, evergreens, mixed with vases of white tulips brought a formal feel to the event while still showcasing Kansas flora. Photo by Jerry Jost

Originally, the volunteers helping to plan the inauguration festivities were looking for potted evergreens, tiny pines and spruces, lined up neat and tidy. When they contacted the Arboretum for those plants, I disappointed them — we don’t have a huge stock of evergreens outside of our sale times. But I asked, “Why not something native? Why not something that reflects the beauty of Kansas in January?” Needless to say, they were right on board.

Kirsten of Blue Morning Glory Studio was the perfect florist to take on this challenge. She regularly designs with native, home-grown and wild sourced elements. She graciously invited me to partner in the process. I have done some small floristry projects in the past, a few weddings or special events, but nothing quite so grand as this! I was immediately energized by the opportunity to work with native material from the Arboretum grounds I know so well.

The Plan: Dyck Arboretum would provide native plant materials, Kirsten will provide vision, expertise, schematics, LOTS of white tulips, and I will deliver the plant material and assist with the build at the Capitol.


My car was completely packed with plant material. So full and fragrant with evergreens, in fact, we had to drive to Topeka with the windows down.

Blue Arizona cypress made up a huge part of the display, really tying into the blue of the inauguration stage and harkening to the blue dominating the Kansas state flag. The cuttings smell fresh and citrusy, making them fun to work with. Arizona cypress (Hesperocyparis arizonica) grows well here in Kansas, making a nice privacy hedge or evergreen shelter for birds. Native to the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, it can handle drought and extreme conditions.

(Left) Arizona Cypress tree in the Northwest corner of the Arboretum. (Right) Cypress foliage

We used eastern red cedar, with its comparably greener hue, to balance the colors and make it look lush and “friendly”, as one of the state house volunteers described it. Our ‘Canaertii’ cedars in The Mother’s Garden are good at resisting the brown/yellow cast that cedars tend to take on over the winter. Deep green and well-berried, with an open branching habit, these cedars are much more attractive yard trees than regular cedars,
and come in handy at Christmas time for making wreaths and swags.

Florists always use some optical magic to make a focal point appear within an arrangement. This time we opted for the deep browns and blacks of rudbeckia triloba seed heads. This native is a mainstay on our grounds and in many landscape designs. Hardy, long lived and brilliantly yellow, it blooms early to mid summer and stays standing tall into winter. Harvest for your own dried arrangements or leave it outside for birds to nibble on.

Rudbeckia missouriensis seed heads from the Gjerstadt garden on Arboretum grounds.

As with any floral design, we needed some accent plants — just a little something to excite the eye. A few sprigs of red twig dogwood, a graceful arc of alder branch (complete with catkins!) were perfect additions. The alder trees on our grounds are not native and are in pretty rough shape from the harsh Kansas living, but they still produce adorable little cones that make excellent design elements or craft material.

Governor Laura Kelly with Kirsten Bosnak and I, plus our handy helpers Bob and Chris.

I am so happy to have been a part of this unique design process with Blue Morning Glory Studio, and to create displays that honor Kansas’ prairie heritage. If you are interested in creating your own floral displays with natives, the first step is to integrate them into your landscape and live with them through the seasons. Attend one of our upcoming Native Plant School classes, our FloraKansas Native Plant Festival, or stroll the sidewalks at Dyck Arboretum to be inspired by the native flora and re-energize your relationship with the land.

Fungus Among Us

Working on the Arboretum grounds means I have the joy of interacting with native plants and animals every day. I get to watch newly-planted trees sprout their first leaves and newly hatched goslings sprout their first feathers. I see migratory birds on their way north and south, caterpillars turning into butterflies, spiders wrapping up their breakfast of grasshoppers, and the cozy tunnels made by fastidious skunks and armadillos. But by and large my favorite living thing to observe here at the Arboretum is fungus.

That’s right – that crusty yet slimy, multicolored, spore-producing stuff that grows quietly all around us.

If you want to acquaint yourself with the world of mushroom identification, buy yourself a small, simple guide to get started. I got this handy book for only $2 at the UW Madison Arboretum gift shop and have found it very useful for beginners.

Fungi is a much misunderstood life form (and no, I am not just talking about my coworkers Brad and Scott, fun guys though they are!). While people often come to visit Dyck Arboretum to watch birds or spot their favorite wildflowers, I have yet to hear anyone shout in delight, “Guys, look over here! A stinkhorn mushroom colony!” And such a shame – I have seen so many weird and wonderful fungus (and fungus-like) creatures at the Arb that I can’t help but be enthralled by them.


In our Prairie Window Project the dense mat of grasses and plant debris create a rich environment for fungus. These tiny mushrooms, only the size of dimes, were scattered throughout a ten-foot square area.

Plant or Animal?

Perhaps you noticed I used the word ‘creature’ for fungi in the above paragraph. Aren’t mushrooms just strange, fleshy plants? No. Technically speaking, a fungus is genetically more similar to you and me than it is to a plant. In scientific nomenclature, fungi occupy their own Kingdom (there are 6 major Kingdoms of life, for animals, plants, bacteria and so on). Fungi do not photosynthesize like plants, and cannot make their own food (autotrophy). Like us, they must feed on other organisms to survive (heterotrophy). Fungus do not have roots, stems or leaves, and do not store energy as a starch like plants do. They reproduce by releasing spores into the environment, or by simply breaking apart (fragmentation) or budding (growing a clone).

I spotted these beautiful shelf fungi growing on a fallen log at UW Madison Arboretum.

What am I Looking At?

The first step into nerding out over fungus is to classify your observations. It is a tricky job, and scientists today are still in a tizzy about the genetic ancestry of fungus. For the layperson, let’s stick to the basics: yeasts, molds, and mushrooms are all types of fungus. Mushrooms are perhaps the most charismatic and well known fungi – shelf-like, gelatinous, or toadstool shaped, they spring up seemingly overnight. What we see as a ‘mushroom’ is only a small part of the organism, just the fungus’s reproductive organ. The rest of it exists as a massive web of string-like hyphae in the soil or decomposing wood.
There are several trees around the Arboretum in various states of natural decay sporting impressive shelf fungi. (Or perhaps they are spore-ting it?) But don’t be fooled – lichen, commonly found growing on trunks and tree branches, is NOT fungus. It is actually a combination-creature; algae, cyanobacteria, and fungus all sharing a body to create a new being, with an endless array of forms.

I see some flat grey lichen growing here, but I can’t tell if these charming little white growths on our Prunus virginiana are lichen or fungus – they cling like lichen but the sort of soft, furry characteristic of fungus. Perhaps a reader can help me out on this one!

Where to Look

People may assume Kansas is not a good place to find fungus – much too dry and hot. Not only do we have some delicious edible mushrooms growing wild in Kansas but a plethora of other fun-to-hunt (but potentially toxic!) fungus. In fact, they grow almost everywhere on the planet and have countless forms, colors, and methods of life. Scientists only know of 120,000 species, but estimate there are millions more waiting to be discovered.
To find your first fungus, search around decaying wood piles or heavily mulched garden beds. Check carefully and often around tree stumps; different mushrooms will feed on the rotting roots at different stages of the decay.

This red-belted bracket fungi (maybe Fomitopsis pinicola?) formed on the trunk of a long dead redbud tree near our parking lot. This beauty was almost 12 inches across!

On your next visit to Dyck Arboretum, be sure to get a peek at some magnificent fungi on our grounds. Hunting for fungus, in all its forms, is a meaningful way to interact with nature and build a relationship of wonder and respect for the land we live on.