Advantages to Using Ornamental Grasses in the Landscape

As I was preparing for my next Native Plant School class on the Wonderful World of Grasses, I was reminded why I love grasses in the landscape.  Here are a few thoughts about why ornamental grasses are such an important component of a successful habitat garden.

Versatility

There is so many different ways you can use ornamental grasses in the landscape.  Distinct grasses introduced into your landscape will serve different purposes.

I love the way shorter grasses like prairie dropseed look along a walkway or border. Combine these grasses with shorter perennials and it really sets off the edge of a planting bed. Ornamental grasses are a great alternative groundcover to traditional turf grass such as fescue, too.

I use larger ornamental grasses typically as a backdrop for medium to tall perennial wildflowers or as a screen to hide something like a gas meter or transformer.  These taller varieties billow out to create volume as they grow to fill in spaces. They also can be used to punctuate the design as focal points.  Grasses are structure plants that mix well with other seasonal wildflowers such as black-eyed Susan or asters.

Varied Appearance

When it comes to ornamental grasses, there is one for just about every landscape situation. The distinct features, varied heights, forms, colors and varieties give you options to diversify and contrast plants in your landscape. Fine or coarse foliage of green, blue, purple, tan and red hues planted together with interesting seedheads add visual interest and texture in winter. All these features lead your eyes through your outdoor space. As the grasses transition into fall, many develop attractive fall color and interesting seed heads. In the winter, taller grasses capture snow and move with the gentlest breeze.

Sorghastrum nutans GOLDEN SUNSET® (‘MNYG318153’ PP33776) Photo by Walters Garden
Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Twilight Zone’ PP27432 Photo courtesy of Walters Garden

Easy Maintenance

Over the past few years, more and more people are including ornamental grass in their landscape. As we have said they are versatile and beautiful. They are also reliable in our unpredictable Kansas climate. Grasses are a low-maintenance landscape option once established. The deep roots help grasses combine well with other perennials. They don’t need fertilizer because that will make them grow quickly and flop. They grow on their own without the need for pruning or maintenance. We usually cut our grasses back in late winter around February or March in preparation for spring.

Environmental Benefits

Photos by Iralee Barnard

Most ornamental grasses and especially warm season grasses such as switchgrass and big bluestem are resistant to heat and drought. They don’t require a lot of extra moisture through the growing season which conserves water in the garden. Overall, native or ornamental grasses are pests or disease free which reduces the need for pesticides, so you don’t pollute local waterways.

As I mentioned earlier, grasses have deep root systems that are great at holding soil and eliminating erosion. Probably the biggest advantage of including ornamental grasses in your gardens is that they create habitat. Wildlife and pollinators use grasses for overwintering, resting, and sourcing food. Grasses are familiar elements of the natural environment for wildlife. Add a few grasses and see what and who arrives in your yard.

Purple Prairie Clover – KNPS 2023 Wildflower of the Year

I recently wrote a brief article on purple prairie clover for the newest edition of the Kansas Native Plant Society newsletter and thought it would be relevant to cross-promote on our blog.

Purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea) is the Kansas Native Plant Society 2023 Kansas
Wildflower of the Year
(WOY). Found throughout Kansas, this erect perennial from the bean family (Fabaceae) grows with multiple simple or branched stems in height of one to three feet tall. Its preferred habitat is medium to well-drained, full-sun, dry upland prairie. Extreme drought tolerance is thanks to a deep taproot. The newer genus name (replacing Petalostemon) honors 17-18 th century English botanist, Samuel Dale.

Photo by Michael Haddock

The dense thimble-like clusters of tiny flowers help purple prairie clover stand out with a
splash of color amidst emerging prairie grasses in June and early July. The ¼” purple flower
has five petals and five yellow anthers. Each less than 1/8” pod or seed capsule contains a
single yellowish-green or brown seed. Delicate leaves are alternate branching and pinnately compound with 3-5 narrow, linear leaflets.

Line drawing by Lorna Harder

This non-aggressive, nitrogen-fixing legume is a popular choice for any prairie seed mix or
sunny flowerbed. It is common to see various types of bees and other pollinators gathering
nectar from the flowers of purple prairie clover. The vegetation is larval food for southern
dogface and Reakirt’s blue butterflies.

Photo by Michael Haddock

The drawings are by Lorna Harder and the photographs are by Michael Haddock. To see
more Dalea purpurea photos by Michael Haddock and a detailed species description, visit kswildflower.org.


Past KNPS WOY Selections

2022 Dotted blazing star (Liatris punctata)
2021 Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum)
2020 Blue wild indigo (Baptisia australis var. minor)
2019 Woolly verbena (Verbena stricta)
2018 Cobaea penstemon (Penstemon cobaea)
2017 Plains coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria)
2016 Golden alexanders (Zizia aurea)
2015 Green antelopehorn (Asclepias viridis)
2014 Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium species)
2013  Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)
2012 Lead plant (Amorpha canescens)
2011 Prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera)
2010 Catclaw sensitive briar (Schrankia nuttallii)
2009 Prairie larkspur (Delphinium virescens)
2008 Fringed puccoon (Lithospermum incisum)
2007 Purple poppy mallow (Callirhoe involucrata)
2006 Blue sage (Salvia azurea)
2005 Rose verbena (Glandularia canadensis)
2004 Missouri evening primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa)
2003 Large beardtongue (Penstemon grandiflorus)
2002 Fremont’s clematis (Clematis fremontii)
2001 Thickspike gayfeather (Liatris pycnostachya)
2000 Maximillian sunflower (Helianthus maximilliani)
1999 Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)
1998 Black-sampson echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia)

Shiny New Plants for 2023

In one of the horticulture magazines I received this week, I was drawn to an article about some shiny new plants for 2023. I don’t know what it is about new plants, but I like to see the unique, unusual and up and coming each year. It is one of the great things about gardening – there are always new plants on the horizon. Like some people wait for the new models of cars, gardeners wait with anticipation for the newest varieties and forms of vegetables, flowers, grasses, trees and shrubs. I can’t afford a new car, but I can afford a few new plants.  

As I look at some of these new plants, I have to temper my enthusiasm. New isn’t always better. I have been burned by some of these shiny new plants in the past. There are some plants that are interesting, but will they grow here? Will they hold up to the rigors of the Kansas climate like true native plants do?

Natives – Always a good place to start

For obvious reasons, we promote the use of natives in the landscape – the same plants you would see growing out in the prairie are well-adapted to grow in Kansas.  If properly matched to your site, a community of native plants will thrive with little input once established.  This mixture of plants is a perfect habitat for wildlife (including pollinators) and requires less water and no pesticides over time.

Butterfly weed and Pale Purple Coneflower

With that said, is there a place for some of these new varieties in the landscape?  In my opinion, yes.  Certainly, there are some new plants that are NOT worth trying. These are usually discernible. They will wilt and/or struggle to grow in the Kansas climate. Think of a summer day with 30 mph south winds. That will make or break many of these new plants. However, a handful of new forms each year, if tested and tried, will survive the hardships of our climate.  

Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’, Schizachryrium scoparium ‘Twilight Zone’ and Aster oblongifolius ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ are a few examples of garden worthy ‘nativars’ for Kansas.  These sure forms have so much to offer in the garden. Their form, texture, color, habit, or blooms along with resilient qualities make them good choices in sunny locations. My approach to landscape design has always been to mix and match natives and varieties of natives. I like the predictability of some of these selected plants that can be combined with true natives to still create a layered, attractive and interesting combination of plants that creates habitat for wildlife. 

Twilight Zone Little Bluestem. I love that purple cast to the foliage. Photo courtesy Walters Gardens.

Yes, natives and selections

Again, not every new plants is appropriate for our garden situation, especially in Kansas. It is up to you how to determine how purely native you want your landscape to be. I take the “yes, native and ‘some others’” approach to my garden design. Sure there have been some duds regarding new plants that didn’t pan out, but others have been a success. 

To me there is value in having as diverse a landscape as possible, both native and ‘nativars’. Only by testing and trying these new plants will we be able to determine if they have the staying power in the garden. Do your research and choose wisely. I have become very selective/skeptical when it comes to new plants, but I can always find a place for a few new plants each year worth taking a chance on. Diversity attracts diversity. 

P.S.  Vegetables/edibles are in a whole other ball game when it comes to new plants and varieties.  Heirloom varieties are important because they hold the original genetic code and generally taste better.  However, newer varieties and selections are disease resistant, vigorous, and typically yield better. Another trend with vegetables is growing edibles in containers on your patio or deck. Who doesn’t like to walk onto your deck and pick a fresh tomato?

New Native Plants for Florakansas

“New native plants” is a misnomer we use a lot throughout our blogs and newsletters. In fact, they have been here for eons! But we get pretty excited around here when we can add a lesser-known native to our inventory for the first time. “New” just means newly available to our customers. Thanks to growing demand for natives in the landscape industry, more wholesale growers are expanding their offerings, which means we can expand our FloraKansas selection.

Solidago flexicaulis, zig zag goldenrod

A goldenrod that prefers shady, woodland conditions, Solidago flexicaulis can be found in far eastern Kansas and throughout the Ozarks, all the way to the east coast! This plant presents a great opportunity to get some color and pollinator attraction in shaded areas. Its name refers to the zig zag pattern of blooms up the stem. To identify it from other shady goldenrods like Solidago odora or Solidago caesia, look for the wide leaves with dramatically serrated edges. Companion plants include wild geraniums, columbine, and jack-in-the-pulpit.

Fritzflohrreynolds, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Douglas Goldman, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Clinopodium arkansanum, limestone calamint

Rob Routledge, Sault College, Bugwood.org (Cropped by uploader), CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

At less than a foot tall, we don’t want you to accidentally pass this one by! Limestone calamint is found growing in the open glades and rocky prairies of Missouri and Arkansas, along with a few populations scattered in New Mexico, Texas, and the upper Midwest states. Tube-shaped flowers typical of the mint family will attract plenty of pollinators. Plant in soil that is well-drained, rocky, and slightly alkaline, in full to partial sun. Plant with similar sized friends that like rocky soil too, such as blue grama grass and perky sue.

Rosa carolina, pasture rose

Photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Most roses you see in the flower shop or floral department of the grocery store are not native roses. Not even close! Shipped from all over South America, they have made us forget the simple beauty of our own native rose species. Wild roses may not have the massive, overstuffed blooms and countless layers of petals, but these natives are much easier to care for, provide tons of nectar to insects, and smell heavenly. Pasture rose is 1 to 3 feet tall and likes open, sunny exposures. As a native species, it is more resistant to rose-rosette disease than ornamental types. Very thorny, these roses can be used to form low hedges or a living fence.

Viola pedatifida, prairie violet

Photo in public domain at Wikimedia Commons

These diminutive and inconspicuous native plants live their life in the prairie understory, shaded out by taller species all around them. Blooming in spring, they are great next to sidewalks and in areas you pass by frequently so you don’t miss them! Prairie violets very closely resemble the other species of violet we carry, Viola pedata (bird’s foot violet), but that one has orange stamens and prairie violet does not. Both are host to many butterfly species but they do not spread as aggressively as common violets. These look great with crocus, and spread nicely underneath grasses like little bluestem.

Spring will be here before you know it! Which native plants will you add to your garden in 2023? Check our FloraKansas page for updates about the spring event.

New Year, New Plants

Winter is a great time for gardeners to curl up on the sofa and pore over seed and plant catalogs. Every year I try to order a few new plants to spice up our inventory and widen our species diversity. Just looking at all those beautiful blooms to choose from gets me excited for spring! Luckily, when I am ordering plugs and bulbs to grow in the greenhouse, I get to spend hours doing just that. Here are some new adaptable plants we will be offering at our spring FloraKansas:

Gazania linearis

Gazania linearis flower, photo by S Molteno, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

This tough South African native is hardy to zone 5 and loves dry conditions. An extremely long bloomer, showing off its sunny yellow flowers for much of the summer, it only reaches six inches tall. Strappy grass-like foliage can be thick and form a ground cover. This plant is right at home in rock gardens and tough spots that don’t get much irrigation. Pair with native flax (Linum perenne) and fame flower (Talinum calycinum).

Peony Itoh x Pink Double Dandy

Photo from GrowingColors.com

Itoh peonies, also known as intersectional peonies, are stronger and larger than regular garden peonies. A rare and hard-to-find hybrid between tree peonies and garden peonies, they are becoming more readily available these days. Known for fantastically huge blooms and an upright habit, never flopping over in the rain like other peonies do. This is a new introduction, with blooms boasting a bright pink center and paler pink edges. It makes a great centerpiece of any garden, or show-stopper when planted in groups along a driveway or border.

Heuchera ‘Peachberry Ice’

Coral bells is a favorite shade plant for many people. Colorful foliage, low maintenance, dainty blooms – it has a lot of appeal! Given a bit of moisture and some protection from sun during the hottest parts of the day, coral bells is long lived and easy to grow. This new selection from Proven Winners has a showy range of copper to blush leaves and a bushy habit. We are excited to try it out on our grounds if we can find the right spot.

Dianthus ‘Red Rouge’

Dianthus is a stunning late spring early summer bloomer, and good for pollinators too! Photo courtesy of Walters Gardens

Dianthus, also known as cheddar pinks, is a tough little plant that loves sun and hot weather. The single blooming variety (seen above) is also great for pollinators, and pairs well with Kansas native Hymenoxys scaposa and Sporobolus heterolepis, both short and sun loving as well. Dianthus tend to rot if the roots stay moist too long, so be sure the soil has good drainage. Plant along sidewalks and at the front of the garden border.

I never get tired of researching new plants and trying them out on our grounds and in the greenhouse. Look out for our next post all about the new Kansas natives we have added to our inventory for the upcoming spring sale. Hopefully dreaming of these beauties will help you get through the long winter still ahead. And when the ground thaws, we can all get our shovels dirty once again!

A Few Favorite Plants

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

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

Amsonia hubrichtii ‘Butterscotch’

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

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

Aster oblongifolius ‘Raydon’s Favorite’

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

Scutellaria resinosa ‘Smoky Hills’

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

Scutellaria resinosa Photo courtesy of Craig Freeman

Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Twilight Zone’

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

Little Bluestem Twilight Zone Photo courtesy Walters Gardens.

Diervilla lonicera x ‘Kodiak Orange’

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

Fall color of Kodiak Orange

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

Plant Profile: Goldenrods (Solidago sp.)

Right now in prairies, woodlands, roadside ditches and home gardens, wonderful displays of native grasses along with wildflowers blooming yellow, white, and lavender are putting on quite a show. The yellow wildflowers are most likely either sunflowers or goldenrods. Each is quite beautiful and teeming with pollinators.

Solidago ‘Wichita Mountains’ blooming in the Compassionate Friends Garden

Goldenrods are just as diverse and variable as sunflowers. While many landscape plants have already reached their peak and the flowers have faded by September, goldenrods have become the stars of the show as they brighten up the landscape. Their golden yellow autumn inflorescences are striking.

In spite of their attractiveness, goldenrods have a reputation for causing allergies. In truth, this is unlikely, because goldenrod pollen is large and heavy and is not carried by the wind. Rather, it is giant ragweed (Ambrosia sp.) that is spreading pollen through the air at the same time.

These wildflowers are insect-pollinated by many wasps, moths, beetles, honey bees, monarch butterflies and other beneficial pollinators searching for a sip of nectar. In total, 11 specialist bees and 115 different caterpillars need these plants. There are around 50 species of insects with immature forms that feed on the stems of goldenrod. In addition, seeds and foliage provide food for some birds and mammals. Across the board, goldenrods are of huge value to wildlife and one of the keystone wildflowers for pollinators.

Gray Goldenrod-Solidago nemoralis

Goldenrods are adaptable to a wide range of conditions in nature, making them a great choice as a landscape plant. They grow naturally in soils from wet to dry. Even the drought conditions we have been experiencing have not kept these denizens of the prairie from blooming. There is a goldenrod that will grow in your garden.

For all their positive attributes, there are goldenrod species that don’t belong in a formal garden. Canada goldenrod for example is a highly aggressive species that spreads by underground rhizomes and seed, ultimately pushing out other smaller desirable plants. It will take over a garden in a couple of years. However, in a prairie setting with the deep roots of native grasses and competition from other plants, it can be mostly kept in check. That is why we recommend clump-forming goldenrods as a more reliable choice for the landscape relegating those aggressive species to the prairie or outskirts of the landscape (along a fence or in an alley) where they are free to roam and spread.

I like Solidago rigida, Solidago nemoralis, Solidago ‘Wichita Mountains’, Solidago canadensis ‘Golden Baby’, and Solidago ‘Fireworks’ for sunny areas. For shade, I choose to plant Solidago odora, Solidago ulmifolius or Solidago caesia. It is safe to say that goldenrods are powerhouse plants that deserve a place in your native garden.

Rigid Goldenrod-Solidago rigida (top) and gray goldenrod (bottom)
Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’

Plant Profile: Kentucky Coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus)

When one thinks of the Great Plains, trees are often the last thing to cross one’s mind. Surprisingly this region is home to a number of species that have found their way into yards and parks throughout the United States. The honey locust, American elm, black walnut and silver maple are as common in front yards as they are along streams and patches of woodlands of the plains. One of the more beautiful native trees found in this region is the Kentucky coffeetree, a member of the legume family. Kentucky coffeetree can be found along the eastern portion of Kansas. The tree derives it name from a common practice among early Kentucky homesteaders of grinding the seeds to make a coffee-like drink.

Mature Kentucky Coffeetree (Wikipedia)

Though somewhat uncommon in landscape plantings, the coffeetree offers many ornamental attributes. A large tree, it can reach 60 feet in height with a 30 foot spread. As of March 2022, the Kansas Forest Service state champion Kentucky coffeetree, located at Fort Leavenworth, currently stands at 100 feet tall. As the tree matures, the bark forms scaly ridges with curled edges. In winter the ascending branches present a picturesque silhouette against the winter sky. Written descriptions have labeled the tree “clumsy” looking after the leaves drop. While young trees can appear awkward their first few years, mature specimens develop stout trunks and main branches, reminding one of their innate toughness and durability.

In spring the tree may be slow to leaf out, but the patient observer is soon rewarded with bipinnately compound, bright green leaves with dainty, ovate leaflets that give the tree a soft, fine textured appearance throughout the growing season.

The bipinnately compound leaflets

Kentucky coffeetrees are individual male and female trees. The botanical term for plants with male and female flowers on separate individuals is dioecious, a condition also found in Ginkgo, juniper, and Osage orange. Flowers appear in May and June as graceful racemes. The male flowers are somewhat inconspicuous and green-yellow, while the female flowers are somewhat larger and pale yellow-white. Both types of flowers are quite fragrant. Each of these flowers are favorites of pollinating insects.

Creamy white flowers in the spring (Wikipedia)

Fall color is often a subdued yellow and female plants will often produce a reddish brown pod filled with incredibly hard, round, slightly flattened seeds. The hard coats allow seeds to lay dormant in the ground for long periods of time until weathering and soil bacteria wear down the tough shell, allowing germination to occur if temperature and moisture are adequate. Professional growers often soak the seed in concentrated sulfuric acid to thin the coat enough for water and gas exchange (a dangerous practice for the average home gardener). Another option is to use fine sand paper to sand down the shells so several seeds will potentially sprout. Don’t sand too much.

Bean-like pods and seeds of Kentucky coffeetree

Due to the coffeetree’s large size and the sometimes “messy” pods from the female trees, it is often not the best selection for the average yard. However, it is well-suited to large open areas, along streams and in park settings. It is not particular about soil, but best growth occurs in deep moist ground. Drought tolerant, it experiences very few problems.

In the wild, small colonies of coffeetree can be found when new trees form from the root suckers. This is usually not a problem in the landscape if the tree is mulched and regular mowing occurs around the tree. Transplanting in most successful with small plants, because the tree develops a course fibrous root system that limits the transplanting success of larger trees.

In the Arboretum’s bird watch area, a small coffeetree is planted just below the big bridge.

I like good coffee. Lucky for us that our coffee supplies for drinking are more than adequate, but one should still consider this beautiful, tough native tree for your landscape.

Spring Ephemerals: Don’t wait!

Because of the tendency for some spring ephemerals to go dormant in hot weather, there are a handful of plants we only offer at the spring Florakansas event. Shooting star, liverleaf, and jack-in-the-pulpit are all beautiful woodland species and that show off in spring then disappear for the rest of the year. If you wait until fall to buy these beauties, you likely won’t find them on our greenhouse benches! Though Florakansas is over, we still have some of these plants in stock, and I will be happy to chat with you via email if you’d like to purchase them.

Hepatica americana

Hepatica blooms very early in spring, sometimes even through the snow.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Also known as liverleaf, this petite plant puts on small star shaped flowers and is very hardy. Great in moist to medium-dry shade, it will perform in the garden without any fuss. The flowers can be white, or even a light blue or pink at times. Blooms close up at night and open on rainy days, a charming movement in the early spring garden. The leaves hug the ground at only 2-3″ tall, so it fits well near edging or walkways.

Dodecatheon media

Shooting star comes in pink and white. Whichever color you choose, they are sure to delight as they spring up in April on leafless stems. With a flower unlike any other, this native oddity is a conversation starter and always a welcome harbinger of warmer days to come. Plant in a part shady spot where the soil won’t become waterlogged, as they may rot. Once finished blooming in May, the plant disappears completely only to surprise you again next spring!

Arisaema triphyllum

Photo by Fanmartin via Wikimedia Commons
Native range of A. triyphyllum according to the USDA plants database

Jack-in-the-pulpit is a fascinating plant that looks more like it belongs in the tropics than in Kansas. Native to eastern Kansas and much of the mid to upper east coast, this plant spreads slowly underground to form lush colonies of lobed leaves and spathe blooms. The blooms are green externally, but often turn burgundy red inside, eventually giving way to interesting red fruits in fall. But take care, though they may look delicious, these fruits are not edible!

Other spring ephemerals that go dormant during summer and are only offered in spring are Mertensia virginica (bluebells) and Podophyllum peltatum (mayapple). Though Florakansas has ended and the shopping hours are over, if you still need a few plants please email arboretum@hesston.edu to reach a staff member and we will be happy to help.

All About Asters

Spring hasn’t even started and I am already looking forward to fall. Why? Asters. They are hardy, long-blooming, and attract tons of pollinators. Planning ahead and planting asters now will ensure you have lots of color through October and even into November. If not now, then by the time they are blooming and you remember how much you like them… it will be too late!

There are lots of great asters available at our biannual Florakansas fundraisers. Sun-loving, shade-tolerant, and a myriad of colors to choose from, it can be overwhelming to decide on a variety. Check out Scott’s previous blog on asters to learn about a great variety of native asters. Here I will cover only those not included in that blog, as well as new varieties available at our upcoming FloraKansas event.

Aster lateriflorus ‘Lady In Black’

‘Lady In Black’ is quite showy with dark foliage and masses of bright flowers. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Calico aster is a lesser known species, but has a lot of garden potential. The ‘Lady in Black’ variety has dark foliage and white to blush colored flowers with pink centers. It looks great planted in masses, paired with sturdy grasses around it for support like Panicum ‘Northwind’ or ‘Purple Tears’. Its arching stems are graceful, and add a lot of energy and movement to a prairie garden or meadow planting.

Aster sericeus

File:Symphyotrichum sericeum (15354337036).jpg
Aster sericeus has a light purple flower, slightly cupped foliage and wire stems. Photo from Wikimedia Commons
By: peganum from Henfield, England, CC BY-SA 2.0

One of my personal favorites, it is often overlooked for flashier species. Silky aster is diminutive but tough as nails, and its wiry stems offer nice contrast to its light green, hairy leaves. It has a silver tint to it, especially from a distance, so it adds a wonderful cool tone to any hot, sunny place in the garden. It has a somewhat prostrate habit, so it benefits from sturdy plants around it for support. I’d pair this with Schizachyrium ‘Jazz’ or even some old fashioned lambs ear as both would bring out the blueish-silver tone of the foliage.

Silky aster is native throughout the Flint Hills and mixed grass prairie areas.
Map from USDA plants data base.

Aster novae-angliae ‘Grape Crush’

New England asters are known for their late blooms and towering height. As much as they are loved by pollinators, gardeners have come to curse them for becoming too tall and floppy. ‘Grape Crush’ is a shorter, denser variety. It keeps a much tidier habit and has a deep purple color. We will also have ‘Purple Dome’ New England type, which is very similar but perhaps with a slightly earlier bloom time. We are excited to try planting some ‘Grape Crush’ around our grounds this season!

Also available this spring…

  • Aster nova-belgii ‘Anton Kippenberg’ (a New York type that doesn’t flop, blue flowers in early fall)
  • Aster ericoides ‘Snow Flurry’ (less than 6″ tall, full sun/dry soil, toughest plant around)
  • Aster leavis ‘Bluebird’ (full sun, tall and floriferous!)
  • Aster divaracatus (white flowers, good in shade)
  • Aster cordifolus (white to bluish flowers, taller than A. divaricatus, good in dry shade)
  • Aster dumosus ‘Woods Blue’ and ‘Woods Purple’ (very short and compact)

Name Change

Note that many aster species have formally changed their taxonomic name to Symphyotrichum. Due to modern research and genetic study, botanists have found that not all asters belong in the same group, so Symphyotrichum is a new genus name that will help us better understand this huge family of plants. In our native plant guide you will find this name change already in action.