This time of year, I look for those little surprises in the landscape that extend the season of beauty in the garden. Asters in September and October and the native grasses in the late fall and winter punctuate the landscape with form, texture and color. One shrub that is a thrill for me to discover in the fall is American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana).
During the summer, American Beautyberry is nondescript and often overlooked. It has an open, loose appearance with medium green, opposite leaves. Dense, lavender-pink flowers develop from the axils of the leaves in June.
But the real show starts in August and continues through November, with fruit set so abundant that the stems are encircled with brilliant violet to magenta, round berries that are one quarter inch in diameter. These berry clusters appear along the stem, providing a spiraling whorl of color. Many birds including cardinals, mockingbirds, and robins adore the berries, which are stunning in fresh or dried arrangements.
This shrub thrives on neglect. It fruits more abundantly in full sun, but grows best in partial shade. An area with morning sun and afternoon shade is the preferred location. Provide medium to moist soil close to paths and walkways so all who pass by can enjoy the berries. This shrub would grow well as a colorful, informal backdrop to perennials, but looks best when used for naturalizing, or in mass plantings.
American Beautyberry is native to much of the eastern and southern United States. It is hardy to zone 6 so I treat it like a perennial, since it will die back to the ground each winter. This will not affect the flowering. The plant will bloom and produce fruit on new growth each year. It matures to about three feet tall and two to three feet wide. In warmer areas, it can reach eight feet tall and eight feet wide.
We have offered this attractive native shrub at our plant sales, but most people don’t know what it is. As the name describes, it’s a native shrub with beautiful berries. Find a place in your landscape for American beautyberry.
Do you have an out-of-the-way plot of ground that needs to be vaccinated from the maladies of soil erosion or a lack of biological diversity? Is this planting area safely physically distanced from other more manicured areas of your landscape? Would you like 2020 to be remembered for something other than COVID-19? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, I have a selection of very easy-to-grow native plant species that will establish your prairie landscape area faster than a coronavirus infects a church choir.
Brad’s PPE (Prairie Pandemic Elections)
Illinois bundle-flower (Desmanthus illinoensis) – a nitrogen-fixing legume with seed heads that are as attractive as its flowers
river oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) – the only shade-oriented species of the bunch that originates from stream corridors of Eastern Kansas
beebalm (Monarda fistulosa) – the flowers attract bumblebees and the vegetation can be used make mint tea
common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) – this favorite host plant for the monarch butterfly also has very sweet aroma when flowering
gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) – stunning splashes of yellow when this species blooms in mass
compass plant (Silphium laciniatum)
rosin weed (Silphium integrifolium)
cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum)
prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum)
The genus Silphium offers four very hearty species that have so much to offer. Learn more about these species from a previous blog post.
western ironweed (Vernonia baldwinii) – this is the taller and more robust cousin of our plant sale favorite ‘iron butterflies’ ironweed
tall joe-pye weed (Eupatorium altissimum) – few species will attract more pollinators than this Eupatorium
brown-eyed susan (Rudbeckia triloba) – so beautiful and so invasive
tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum) – not all thistles are bad as I discuss in an earlier blog post
Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) – goldenrods are famous for their color and pollinator attraction in late summer and few are heartier than this species
Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani) – learn more about this and other sunflower species that could be considered good pandemic picks in an earlier blog post
See an earlier post I wrote about these late summer blooming “undesirables” and all the loads of insects they attract to our Arboretum landscape.
Prairie Ecosystem vs Prairie Gardening
In a diverse and thriving prairie ecosystem where these native species typically reside, a dense matrix of competitive prairie grasses and grazing animals help keep them in check. You could say that the prairie plant community has a herd immunity against these aggressive, super-spreader species.
But when you plop these species into a nutrient-rich, urban prairie garden with mulch and plenty of moisture, they grow seemingly with reckless abandon. They don’t have the same competitive prairie environment or grazers regularly eating them back to keep them in check. They spread quickly with rapidly expanding root systems and prolific seed production. These pandemic picks are long-haulers that will quickly (within a five years) take over slower and lower growing species, and you won’t need contact tracing to know where they came from. Therefore, we’ve learned (the hard way from some of our thankfully forgiving members) that these pandemic picks with their tall, rank growth do not belong in a small, more manicured garden.
So, given this information, you may ask…why recommend these pandemic picks that would make one symptomatic of a foolish gardener? Or, to put it more bluntly, WHO in the world is this CDC (Center for Dumb Consultation) that is giving you this advice!? Dyck Arboretum, of course!
The species I’m recommending provide colorful, aesthetically-pleasing blooms, soil erosion control, interesting vegetation, host plant food for caterpillars, and loads of nectar for pollinators. These species are extremely drought tolerant and will survive fine without care from you. And as an added bonus, they provide hearty competition for and crowd out annual plants like giant ragweed, a pollen emitter that makes you want to don your N-95 mask this time of year!
The major disclaimer I will offer and the key to being happy with these pandemic picks in your landscape is choosing a remote place where they can all be quarantined together. The more physical distance you can give this cluster planting location, the less likely their seeds are to invade more manicured areas of your prairie landscape. The only care this planting needs is an annual mowing/cutting in winter or early spring. Add some flammable tall grasses to the mix like big bluestem, Indian grass, and switch grass, and you can burn it annually instead.
To learn more about these species, visit the Kansas Wildflowers and Grasses website. A handful of these species are available through our FloraKansas native plant sale. Zoom on over to Dyck Arboretum in the coming days of September 10 (for members) and September 11-13 (for general public). All of these species can be found on our grounds. Bring a paper bag, catch me at FloraKansas, and I’d be happy to show you where these species can be found and give you permission to collect seed.
Get in early on this pollinator-friendly planting trend now as it may soon go viral!
Caryopteris, also known as bluebeard, is a family of shrubs native to Mongolia and northern Asia. When I first started working in the nursery trade, I regarded bluebeard as just another in a long line of fast and convenient non-native landscape shrubs. Boring and over-planted, I didn’t think it was anything to sing about. Now that I have planted it and cared for it myself, I have changed my tune!
Bluebeard may be non-native, but it still attracts a myriad of pollinators. Within a just few minutes of observation, I saw a silver spotted skipper, some orange skippers, carpenter bee, digger wasp (Scolia dubia) and many types of flies nectaring on a Caryopteris bush. It can be a nice addition to a pollinator garden, as long as that garden also includes some host plant natives as well.
When blooming in late summer and early fall, bluebeard is very showy. The dusty blue-violet blooms are stacked one on top of the other. But even without flowers, this shrub holds its own — the foliage comes in dark green or a light chartreuse, a huge benefit when trying to create a spectrum of greens in the garden. My favorite is ‘Sunshine Blue II’ with its light foliage and darker blooms. To create an eye popping contrast, plant them with dark-leaf shrubs like Ginger Wine ninebark. Or, mirror their neon hue elsewhere in the garden with a Tiger Eye sumac.
Caryopteris is perfect for the lazy gardener. It stays under 3 feet tall and takes minimal trimming and very little water. In our zone it tends to die back over the winter, so cutting a bit of the twiggy wood off the top before spring growth begins is all you need to do. I see why people love it now; convenient and easy makes for a great landscape addition!
There are lots of perfect places for bluebeard — in your home’s foundation plantings, out by your mailbox at the curb, or tucked into your prairie garden. Luckily, fall is a great time to plant! Find this and many more great picks at FloraKansas, our native plant festival and fundraiser.
Every plant sale I find myself enthusiastically telling customers, “This is my favorite plant!” And every plant sale, that plant changes. Lets be honest, every DAY that plant changes! I am always finding new favorite plants that excite and inspire in the landscape. I have been especially impressed with the new shrubs and perennials in my home landscape. With little care and sporadic watering, they have beat the odds and survived in my laissez-faire landscape. Here are a few of my new favorite plants.
I found a few of these growing in the gravel under the benches in the Arboretum greenhouse and couldn’t bear to throw them away. I planted them in my native flower bed at home. A few tiny succulent leaves and a thin, hair-like root has turned into a huge, wonderful plant! Fameflower has never been a big seller, and it never caught my eye until now. These flowers bloom for weeks and weeks, the flowers opening and closing every day. Because they are succulent, they thrive in hot, full sun areas and require little water.
This shrub has been a favorite for a long time, but I had never planted one for myself. In the same genus as lead plant, it shares those lovely, pollinator-attracting purple spikes in late spring to early summer. The leaves are delicate and pea-like, and they are a favorite food of the silver spotted skipper caterpillar. I planted two of these shrubs in a low spot near the edge of my yard where water often collects after rain. They are thriving! To keep them from getting leggy, I plan to trim them back every spring.
No, this is not that terrible invader purple loosestrife taking over US wetlands. This is it’s well behaved native cousin. Wing-loosestrife has been a wonderful addition to our tiny rain garden area, and has come back from the brink of death multiple times when I have forgotten to water. That’s my kind of plant! Hummingbirds, long tongued bees, and skippers are all known to nectar on winged loosestrife.
More favorite plants to come….
This fall I hope to make a few additions to my beds. I need to add some filler and texture to my side yard, so I will plant mountain mint. A long blooming, drought tolerant favorite of pollinators, the white flowers will help blend the colors of the bed into a cohesive look. Pair that with the airy-ness of sand love grass and the charisma of cat claw sensitive briar, and I think the garden will shape up nicely!
All of these plants and many more soon-to-be favorites are available for purchase at our FloraKansas Native Plant Festival September 10-13. Check our website for information about our member-only day, curbside pick up procedures, and Covid19 updates relevant to the sale.
Last week while splashing around in a lake in Missouri, I noticed a shoreline of shrubs blooming and covered with pollinators. And wouldn’t you know, someone had just recently asked me to recommend some shrubs for wet areas in their landscape. (Yes, there ARE wet places in Kansas.) The first example was right in front of me.
Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)
That shrub I saw blooming along the lake was buttonbush. This deciduous shrub is commonly found in moist to wet areas in full sun to partial shade. It can persist even when submerged for a time. The lustrous leaves shine in the sunlight. In early to mid-summer, the unusual, fragrant flower balls of this native shrub are magnets to a host of pollinators.
I have seen up to two dozen swallowtail butterflies on one plant when in bloom. It has a rounded-upright habit ultimately reaching 8-10 feet tall and wide. ‘Sugar Shack®’ is a shorter form that works well in the landscape. Fruit persists into winter, adding winter interest.
Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)
Elderberries are under appreciated as landscape plants. Even in the wild they often blend into their surroundings. They are only noticed when they burst into bloom in early summer with dense clusters of white flowers. Pollinators seek out these flowers and cover the flat-topped bundles.
Consider planting elderberry shrubs in a drainage area or part of the yard that always floods – they thrive in excess water. Many people use the raw elderberries in jams, wines, and home remedies. ‘Adams’ and ‘York’ are two types of elderberry we recommend for heavy fruit production. You must have at least one of each for best fruiting.
Dogwoods (Cornus sp.)
Some of the shrub dogwoods (Silky Cornus ammomum, Cornus racemosa and Cornus drummundii) are good options for wetter areas in the landscape. Each is a little different in height, shape and habit. However, they all offer creamy-white blooms in late spring or early summer. While in bloom, these shrubs are teaming with pollinators. Birds and other wildlife will eat the fruit that is produced. ‘Red Rover’ is a compact selection of silky dogwood with attractive blooms, bluish fruit and nice fall color.
Black and Red Chokecherry, Aronia melanocarpa and Aronia arbutifolia
Possumhaw, Ilex decidua
Winterberry, Ilex verticillata cultivars and hybrids
Spicebush, Lindera benzoin
Arrowwood Viburnum, Viburnum dentatum
Blackhaw Viburnum, Viburnum prunifolium
Rusty Blackhaw, Viburnum rufidulum
As it turns out there are very few plants that will grow in soil that is constantly saturated. These shrubs are more tolerant of wet sites than others. Obviously, all plant roots require oxygen in order to function and grow properly. These shrubs persist in soil that lacks oxygen or is periodically flooded without succumbing to diseases and site related problems.
Prairie gardens can sometimes be seen as messy. I have heard it many times while discussing garden plans with Arboretum members. They don’t want it to look too wild. This is a very natural tendency; humans like order, we like patterns, we don’t like chaos. But it is evident by the decline of bird, amphibian, and pollinator species that our desire for the tamed, picture-perfect lawn is ecologically unreasonable.
“What is good in terms of ecological function is often disorderly, and what is neat and tidy is often not sustainable.”
– Planting in a Post Wild World, 2015
Joan Nassauer of the University of Michigan does some excellent writing, thinking and teaching on the idea that humans will respond better to ecologically friendly landscapes if they look intentional, framed, and well managed. I think the first and easiest way to achieve this for beginner prairie gardeners is to carefully manage plant height. Choosing short plants preserves sight lines, scales down the planting, and helps the viewers of your landscape more feel comfortable, less hemmed in by foliage. Here are some of our favorites!
Petite Garden Performers
Hymenoxys scaposa (prairie sunshine)
Hymenoxys has become a new favorite landscape plant for me. Perfect near sidewalks and in tight spots. It is a tiny little powerhouse of bloom if you keep it in full sun. Beware of planting it in a wet spot; soggy soil shortens its lifespan.
Scuttelaria resinosa (skullcap)
This plant makes a short, rounded clump of purple-blue flowers. It thrives in dry, poor soil and isn’t as aggressive as other mint family plants. As a bonus, it also has some interesting medicinal benefits.
Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’
Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’ offers all the great qualities of Amsonia – colorful fall foliage, blue spring blooms – but stays under 18 inches. Wonderful as a filler plant for any gaps in the garden.
Oenothera macrocarpa (Missouri evening primrose)
Missouri evening primrose is an underused landscape plant. Less than a foot tall, this spring stunner is great around sidewalks or trailing ever-so-slightly off rock edging. The blooms are large and eye catching early in the season.
Sporobolus heterolepis (prairie dropseed)
Last but not least, prairie dropseed is a short prairie grass that can be used to blend different colors and species together. Because grass acts as a unifying element it helps to lead the eye from one area to another.
All these plants will be available at our spring FloraKansas Native Plant Festival. Staff members will be there to help you choose the best plants for your space. We can make recommendations for a beautiful, ecologically friendly landscape.
If you have been walking through the Arboretum over the past few weeks, you probably noticed the deciduous holly. Ilex decidua gets so much attention because of its incredibly lustrous fruit of red, orange, and yellow. As the leaves fall away each year in November and December, the fruit magically appears and remains on the tree for most of the winter.
These colorful berries are not a preferred food of birds, but become more appetizing when snow covers the ground. Often trees are completely stripped of berries in a couple days after a heavy snow, because other food sources are not readily available. Many birds, including cedar waxwings, flock to these trees to feed on the fruit later in winter.
Deciduous holly requires male and female plants to produce fruit. Tiny white flowers appear before the leaves in March and April. We have several male selections planted in close proximity to the female plants to assure the development of the attractive fruit each year. It is best to keep the fruit producing female plants in the foreground and tuck the male forms out of sight. We have used the branches with fruit cluster as holiday decorations.
Habit and Site Preferences
Deciduous holly, or Possumhaw as it is often called, is a small tree or large shrub that grows 15-20 feet tall. The smooth gray bark of the trunk and branches hold the fruit on the upper half of the plant. Here in the Arboretum, we have both tree forms and suckering shrubs. Either is attractive and the suckering shrubs making a nice screen. As their name indicates, they are deciduous, dropping the leaves in autumn to fully reveal the berries.
These deciduous trees grow best in full sun or partial shade. Trees are more vigorous and produce more berries in full sun. We have several along our creek channel and some around our parking lot. They are quite adaptable to wet or drier conditions.
A few selections at the Arboretum:
‘Council Fire’ – An upright, rounded form growing 15′ tall and 10′ wide, this plant is superior for its ample fruit production and retention in clusters along the stems.
‘Red Escort’ – This is a male selection (pollinator) with glossy leaves and a habit to 20′ tall.
‘Warren’s Red’ – This cultivar grows on the eastern border of the Arboretum parking lot. It is very hardy and consistently produces fruit. It is more shrub-like and upright, ultimately reaching 15’ tall.
‘Sundance’ – Nice tree form to 10’ tall and 8’ wide. It has the longest lasting fruit, which is orange-red.
We are planning to have several deciduous holly varieties at our spring FloraKansas Native Plant Festival. Check out our Native Plant Guide for these cultivars along with Ilex verticillata varieties. Each will give you great winter color and habitat for the landscape. We love their hardiness and toughness as well as the beautiful fruit. Why not give them a try?
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!
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.
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.
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.
Few plants are as visually striking to me in spring as woodland phlox with its showy lavender color, blooming mid to late April in Kansas. Woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata) is a woodland understory species with a vast native range that covers much of the Eastern U.S. (including the eastern third of Kansas) and Canada.
A Book About Phlox
Jim Locklear, a former director for Dyck Arboretum of the Plains, published in 2011 the book Phlox: A Natural History and Gardener’s Guide. In his description of woodland phlox (he calls it timber phlox), Jim highlights just how perfect this species is found to be: “It speaks volumes that horticulturists in eighteenth-century Europe just left timber phlox alone. While they started refining the other phloxes coming in from the American colonies as soon as they got their hands on them–making selections and breeding new hybrids–they found little reason to fiddle with timber phlox. What could be done to improve upon the earthy, cerulean mood it brought to the springtime garden? Today, timber phlox is an essential element of the shade and woodland garden on both sides of the Atlantic, valued for the bluish hues of its fragrant flowers and its early season of bloom.”
Growing Woodland Phlox
Growing woodland wildflowers in historically prairie-adapted Kansas can be a struggle. Even under the shade of city shade trees, the hot, windy summer conditions here still make it challenging to replicate a moist, cool woodland understory environment where these plants thrive. But among the spring woodland wildflowers I’ve inserted into the shady areas of my home landscape, woodland phlox seems to be one of the easier species to establish. It is even spreading specifically in the locations where I have planted it.
Missouri Botanical Garden (MOBOT) provides the following for the best conditions in which to grow woodland phlox: “Best grown in humusy, medium moisture, well-drained soil in part shade to full shade. Prefers rich, moist, organic soils. Appreciates a light summer mulch which helps retain moisture and keep roots cool.” As with any new planting, be sure to give it regular water as needed for the first year, and since it is a woodland species, supplemental water after that during hot summer droughts.
MOBOT further describes that the genus name is derived from the Greek word phlox meaning flame in reference to the intense flower colors of some varieties. The species epithet divaricata means spreading. Woodland phlox attracts butterflies and hummingbirds.
Conveniently, woodland phlox is showing off its flare along the path to our Dyck Arboretum greenhouse to the delight of the throngs of people visiting during our spring FloraKansas Plant Festival happening this weekend. Consider adding woodland phlox to a shady location in your landscape and enjoy its “earthy, cerulean mood” for many springtimes to come.
Over the past several months, as I have been working on landscape designs for homeowners, I have been noticing a few trends.
First, homeowners are increasingly interested in native plants. They understand the benefits of utilizing native plants both to the environment and the wildlife they are trying to attract. The advantages of native plants have been noted in previous blog posts.
Secondly, they want something interesting happening/blooming in their landscape throughout the year.
To help fill these needs, I have come up with a list of my favorite plants for the landscape that I try to work into most designs. If you need help with your landscape or have questions about using native plants, give us a call or come to the FloraKansas Native Plant Festival. We would be happy to visit with you.
As you know, each landscape is unique and only a handful of these plants will work in specific yards, but they are all hardy and easy to maintain. These sun loving perennials have beauty and landscape value too. Here are some of my favorite native or adaptable plants to use for a sunny landscape in South Central Kansas:
Switchgrass (Panicum ‘Northwind’)
This grass is incredible! Do you need a vertical element in the landscape? Then this is the grass for you. The upright clumps have wide steel blue leaves that turn a golden yellow in the fall. The unique flower panicles emerge in September and are held towards the middle of the clump close to the foliage. Ultimately, it reaches four to five feet tall. I love this grass because it will not fall over.
Threadleaf Bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii)
This is an all-season perennial with fantastic ornamental features that make it stand out from other wildflowers. In May and June, clusters of small powder blue, star-like flowers top the strong stems. The stems are encircled with soft, narrow leaves resembling pine needles, making each plant look like a small shrub with feathery texture and incredible fullness. I have found them to be extremely hardy, drought tolerant and very low maintenance. Other forms worth considering are Amsonia ‘Storm Cloud’ and Amsonia ‘Butterscotch’
Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis)
At one time, this was one of the top selling grasses nationwide. It is a favorite of mine because it is long-lived and tough. It is so tough they are planted en masse in street medians. The fine textured leaves and airy, fragrant panicles are a nice addition to any landscape. Each clump can reach 12-18 inches wide and up to 24 inches tall. The entire plant turns shades of orange and yellow in the fall, providing multiple seasons of interest. It is great in a border, as a groundcover, in an informal prairie setting, or as an accent to other short or mid-range perennials. I like to mix it with short heath asters, purple poppy mallow, evening primrose or Missouri black-eyed susan.
Purple Poppy Mallow (Callirhoe involucrata)
Some like it hot, but these like it really hot. The deep tap root of Purple Poppy Mallow sustains it during times of drought. These roots are starchy and supposedly taste like a sweet potato. (I don’t know if I am that hungry, but it may be worth a try.) The magenta cup-like blooms appear throughout spring and into summer. I like to interplant them with low grasses or shorter perennials that bloom later in the season, such as blazing stars or goldenrods. The stems hug the ground and ultimately spread 24-36 inches wide and 6-12 inches tall.
Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’ (Penstemon digitalis)
I love this penstemon in the perennial border. The pink flowers in spring have just a blush of white and develop interesting seed heads. It adds outstanding form and texture to any landscape throughout the year. Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’ is a beautiful selection of smooth penstemon with reddish-purple foliage that is attractive even when blooming is complete.
Aromatic aster (Aster oblongifolius)
This diverse wildflower grows throughout the state, and is more drought-tolerant than other aster species. Its name alludes to its fragrant purple/pink flowers and foliage that exudes a pungent aroma. This species typically grows about two feet tall, but shorter varieties also exist. Garden-worthy varieties include ‘Dream of Beauty’ (one foot tall with pink blooms), ‘October Skies’ (2’ x 2’ with light blue flowers) and ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ (3’ x 2’ with light blue flowers).
Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Butterfly milkweed is a stout one to two foot tall perennial with a deep, coarse, fibrous root system. Flowers vary in color from deep orange-red in the eastern part of its range to lighter orange and finally yellow farther west and south in Kansas. Unlike the numerous other milkweeds found in Kansas, butterfly milkweed does not exude a white milky sap when the stem is cut or a leaf is removed.
Do your garden a favor and include some butterfly milkweed. Its many ornamental and functional assets, plus its rugged character will make it a focal point in the summer garden for years to come. Plus, you will be rewarded as pollinators such as Monarchs seek out this beautiful native wildflower.