During the doldrums of late summer, light blue flower spikes thrusting skyward along Kansas roadsides and prairies provide welcome contrast to the yellows of the state’s many sunflowers. Pitcher sage, also known as blue sage or pitcher plant, is a delicate looking prairie native with ironclad constitution.
Pitcher sage is a somewhat common plant in the rocky areas of the tall and mixed grass prairies. This plant is an erect, hairy perennial ranging in height from one and a half to four feet with short, thick rhizomes (horizontal underground stems). Very adaptable to garden situations, it prefers drier soil in full sun. In sandy sites it has been known to self-seed, but this is seldom a problem in clay loams. The crowns can slowly broaden from rhizomes as the plant matures.
Pitcher sage blooms from late July to early October, although peak bloom is early September in most years. It is blooming right now in our Prairie Window Project in the south part of the Arboretum. The light blue flower color is common in prairies around south central Kansas. There is a cultivated variety, Salvia azurea “Grandiflora,” that displays an intense deep blue flower. Once established, it requires water only during extended dry periods.
Besides the unique light blue coloration, the flowers possess an unusual mechanism to ensure cross-pollination. The corolla is lobed with a narrow concave lip covering the style (female) and the anthers (male) which mature at different times in the same flower. The lower lip is broad and protruding, providing a landing pad for visiting honey bees, bumble bees and other pollinators. The bee grasps the platform, thrusts its head down into the throat of the flower and pushes its sucking mouth parts into the nectar glands. By this action, the bee is simultaneously pushing down on the structure at the base of the stamens. This causes them to descend from the upper lip spreading pollen on the bee’s back. As the bee visits other flowers, it spreads pollen to receptive styles.
The Arboretum grows pitcher sage for its late summer color and the bee activity it provides. The plant is a bee magnet in full bloom. It is always entertaining to watch lumbering, black and yellow bumble bees wrestle their way into the flowers in search of nectar while unwittingly carrying the promise of another seed crop on their striped backs.
Many people think that the phrase “native plant” is synonymous with “drought tolerant plant” or “dry prairie species”. But not so! Kansas is a place full of sunny skies as well as quiet, shady streams; prairies as well as ponds. I noticed at our FloraKansas event last week just how many wetland and pond species we offer. For those with small backyard ponds or even large country creek banks to restore, the following species might be perfect for you (and we still have them in stock! Find our updated inventory here.)
Caltha palustris – Marsh Marigold
Caltha is an upper midwest native, not usually found in Kansas, but can grow here under the right conditions. We don’t get enough ran to sustain swampy areas where it can run wild, but its petite yellow flowers are happy blooming along pond edges with their feet in the water. We are hoping to get them established along the Arboretum pond edges this year.
Teucrium canadense – American Germander
A colony-forming mint family plant, it can go wild in moist to wet part sun conditions! The blooms are attractive to long-tongued pollinators, and they make great additions to wildflower bouquets.
Nyssa sylvatica – Black Tupelo
A truly beautiful tree, unmatched for its red fall color. But in our region it simply cannot survive without moist soil. Planted on the edge of a stream or in a frequently flooded drainage area, it would be stunning every October.
Cephalanthus occidentalis – Buttonbush
The height of this fascinating shrub depends on the moisture it receives: growing near standing water it can be 10 feet tall or more, but in average garden soil it may only reach 6 feet. Very adaptable and easy to care for, its spherical flowers are long blooming. In June they are covered in bees, beetles, butterflies, spiders, wasps, and every other flying thing!
Lythrum alatum – Winged Loosestrife
Not to be confused with the terribly invasive purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), this petite plant sports purple flowers and wiry stems. Very adaptable, it is used in rain gardens, but thrives in garden settings given a bit of shade and semi-regular watering. The Lurie Garden of Chicago has a nice profile on this species found here.
Lobelia siphilitica – Blue Cardinal Flower
The tall blue spikes of lobelia attract hummingbirds and butterflies, but they can be finicky to grow. Clay soils that hold moisture are best, and while they don’t have to be situated in water at all times they do best in ditches and frequently wet seasonal streambeds.
While we know not many people are lucky enough to have a pond or creek on their property, for those that do, we want to continue suppling a small number of wetland plants to help you restore and improve those places.
Other water loving species to look for next spring: Acorus calamus, Lobelia cardinalis, Physostegia virigniana, and Sauurus cernuus. For more info on wetland plants, check out a previous blog post all about them!
One of the more common landscaping conundrums is deciding what to plant on steep slopes or hillsides. These areas require plants that can establish quickly, have fibrous root systems, that hold soil to control erosion, are tolerant of fluctuating soil moisture and potentially poor nutrient availability, and require little care once established.
Slopes and hillsides are already challenging because of sun exposure, and the degree of the slope only exacerbates the problem. Establishing plants from seed is the most economical choice, but is also the most subject to erosion for the first 3 to 5 years until plants get established. Often, turf grass such as fescue, buffalograss, or bermuda grass is the first groundcover choice for keeping soil in place, but mowing these sloped areas can be a challenge, maybe even dangerous. Turf does not create much habitat for wildlife and pollinators either.
There are many plants that will establish cover more quickly than seed. These native plants offer a lower maintenance alternative to a mowed lawn. The following list is just a start. Remember to plant more densely (1-2 feet apart) so the area gets completely covered with plants quickly.
The following grasses, with their extensive fibrous root systems are ideal plants to stabilize a steep area and prevent soil erosion.
Andropogon geradii (Big Bluestem)
Bouteloua curtipendula (sideoats grama)
Chasmanthium latifolium (River oats)-Can grow in sun or shade but is aggressive. It will spread by seed and rhizomes to crowd out most other plants.
Elymus canadensis (Canada wildrye)
Panicum virgatum (Switchgrass)
Schizachyrium scoparium (little bluestem)
Sporobolus heterolepis (prairie dropseed)
Achillea millifolium Yarrow
Allium cernuum Nodding onion
Amsonia sp. Blue star
Aquilegia canadensis Columbine
Asclepias tuberosa Butterfly weed
Baptisia australis False blue indigo
Dalea purpurea Purple Prairie Clover
Echinacea purpurea Purple coneflower
Eutrochium (Eupatorium) maculatus Joe-pye weed
Filipendula rubra Queen-of-the-prairie
Liatris pycnostachya Prairie blazing star
Liatris spicata Dense blazing star
Rudbeckia sp. Black-eyed Susan
Penstemon digitalis Penstemon
Symphyotrichum oblongifolium Aromatic aster
Solidago sp. goldenrod
Tradescantia ohiensis Spiderwort
Veronicastrum virginicum Culver’s root
Trees and Shrubs
Amelanchier canadensis Serviceberry
Cercis canadensis Redbud
Coruns sp. Dogwood
Crataegus viridis Hawthorn
Heptacodium miconioides Seven Son Flower
Ilex verticillata Winterberry holly
Lonicera reticulata Grape honeysuckle
Prunus Americana Wild Plum
Prunus sp. Sand cherry
Prunus virginiana Chokecherry
Rhus aromatica Fragrant sumac
Sambucus canadensis Elderberry
Viburnum prunifolium Blackhaw Viburnum
If the erosion is already very serious, you might want to consider using erosion-control blankets to stabilize the erosion area until the plants can take over the job. The erosion-control fabric works by slowing the runoff water and allowing sediments to fall out rather than be washed away. Choose a mat that will decompose over time, e.g. straw or jute, rather than something made of plastic. Start by slicing a small opening in the mat so plants can be put into the soil beneath. I recommend hand watering during establishment as much as possible since sprinkler irrigation can increase soil erosion.
For more gentle slopes, heavy mulch or pea gravel can be used to control erosion during establishment. Each slope situation is unique, but if you can, the best strategy for stabilizing a slope with plants is to establish vegetation at multiple levels—plant trees, shrubs, grasses and wildflowers. A multi-level canopy will do the best job of intercepting and slowing precipitation before it hits the ground, reducing surface erosion. Different vegetation types also provide both deep and spreading roots that stabilize the entire soil profile. Generally, it takes 2-4 years to get these plants fully established and roots anchored into the slope.
Due to the diligent nursery work of our suppliers, and a bit of searching on my part, we will have interesting new species to offer at our fall FloraKansas event, as well as some old favorites that have been missing from our inventory for awhile. We love to offer an ever-widening selection of hard-to-find natives to plant enthusiasts in our area!
Smooth rose is an easy-care native rose found in pastures from Canada to Maine and as far southwest as Kansas. Grows in clay, loam or sandy soils and likes full to part sun. Nearly thornless, this rose is much friendlier than other roses with just a few prickles at the base of older stems. Light pink blooms are visited by bees, and the rose hips of fall are eaten by various forms of wildlife.
Since its blooms are small and unassuming, you may have never noticed S. marilandica. I hope that changes! Figwort is tall with a many-branched flower spike. It is a boon for pollinators, and though it may seem spindly and weak its impact for bees is anything but. Native to the eastern third of the state and throughout the eastern US, it likes part sun to shade and a medium to moist soil.
Euonymus atropurpurecens and Sassafras albidum
These two trees have a lot in common: they have vibrant red fall color, they thrive in partial shade and moist soil, and are native to the eastern US. As we are on the edge of their native range, they need extra watering through the Kansas summer.
There are lots of nasty invasives with the name ‘Euonymus’, but described here is the native North American species. Also known as Eastern Wahoo this small tree grows 8-10′ tall in our area, sporting burgundy spring blooms and lantern-like fruits in fall.
Sassafras fits into similar landscaping situations, though it can get a bit larger. In ideal conditions it can be 60 feet tall, but on dry upland sites here in Kansas it will commonly grow to 15-25 ft. There is simply no match for its fall color and lovely variable leaf shapes. Both of these woody species form suckers if happily situated. Be prepared to mow around them or let them spread into a grove.
At our fall FloraKansas event next week we will also have Bladdernut trees (Staphylea trifolia), Chickasaw plums (Prunus angustifolia) and Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia macrorhiza). I am excited to add these species to our growing list of natives for the plant lovers of central Kansas.
Are there plants you wish you could purchase but can’t find them anywhere? Please send us your requests and we will seek them out for future years of FloraKansas.
One of the most iconic prairie wildflowers is Asclepias tuberosa, commonly referred to as butterfly weed or butterfly milkweed. From May to July, its bright orange flowers dot the prairie landscape. These attractive flowers are a magnet for many different pollinators, including the monarch butterfly.
Butterfly weed can be found in dry fields, meadows, prairies, open woodlands, canyons and on hillsides. It grows on loamy and sandy, well-drained soils, in areas that provide plenty of sun. It is consistently the most sought after prairie wildflower for a garden and the flowers work well in bouquets.
Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa): Did You Know…?
The flower color in Asclepias tuberosa ranges from deep red-orange to a rich yellow, depending on the amount of red pigment which is superimposed over the yellow carotenoid background pigments. The flower color has nothing to do with the soil type.
This species can be found in the eastern two-thirds of the state of Kansas.
Butterfly weed is also known as “butterfly milkweed”, even though it produces translucent (instead of milky) sap.
The scientific name Asclepias comes from Asklepios, the Greek god of medicine. tuberosa refers to thick tuberous roots which make it very difficult to transplant from the wild. Please don’t dig mature plants from the prairie.
Root of butterfly weed was used in treatment of pleurisy, bronchitis and other pulmonary disorders in the past. Don’t try this at home.
Butterfly weed can be also used in treatment of diarrhea, snow blindness, snakebites, sore throat, colic and to stimulate production of milk in breastfeeding women. Again, don’t try this at home.
The small individual flowers consist of 5 petals. Each milkweed blossom is equipped with a trap door, called a stigmatic slit. When insects land on their pendulous flowers, they must cling to the petals as they feed on nectar. As they forage on the flower for nectar, their foot slips into the stigmatic slit and comes in contact with a sticky ball of pollen, called a pollinium. When the insect pulls its foot out of the trap door, it brings the pollinium with it. Eventually, the insect will move on to the next flower. Should that same foot slip back into another milkweed flower’s stigmatic slit, the pollen can be transferred and pollination is completed. This process is quite amazing to watch.
Typically, it takes three years for a butterfly weed to start producing flowers.
The long narrow fruit pods develop later in summer. These hairy green pods ripen and ultimately turn a tannish-brown in the fall. Each pod contains hundreds of seed equipped with silky, white tufts of hair. As the pod dries and splits in the fall, the seeds are carried away by the breeze. Those white tufts of hair act as tiny parachute-like structures that disperse the seeds.
As with other milkweeds, butterfly weed will attract aphids; you can leave them for ladybugs to eat or spray the insects and foliage with soapy water.
Butterfly weed is a garden worthy wildflower. It doesn’t spread aggressively like other milkweeds, but rather stays as a nice upright clump. Its many ornamental and functional assets, plus its rugged character will make it a focal point in the summer garden for years to come. You will be rewarded as pollinators seek out the beautiful iconic flowers of this native wildflower. Give it a try!
One of the hardships of being a gardener is the loss of a long established tree. It is no different here at the Arboretum. We have lost a few trees that were planted at the founding of the Arboretum. The loss of these large specimen trees leave a huge hole in the landscape that will take another few decades to fill.
We continue to lose a few pine trees each year. All of our Scotch pines are gone due to pine wilt. We are now losing larger ponderosa and Austrian pines. We have a tree that is over 40 years old that was green last fall but is now totally brown, dead in less than six months. This could be due to a number of factors such as drought (although we watered it last summer into the fall), or some sort of tip blight. We believe this browning is blight. We are removing these trees as they die, which is heartbreaking.
Southwestern White Pine
This was one of the evergreen trees I recommended to plant a few years ago. It is no longer a viable alternative to some of the other two and three needle pines that have been lost to disease. We have lost a row of these due to pine wilt. Pine wilt causes a rapid decline of a pine tree in just a few months. The infected trees must be removed and burned to stop the spread.
In our parking lot median, we have slowly been losing an original row of river birch. Admittedly, this was not the ideal location for river birch. We were watering these trees almost weekly in the summer since they are not very drought tolerant and have shallow roots, which leaves them stressed in the heat sink of the parking lot. I see this same river birch scenario in other landscapes with river birch planted front yards and drier areas. Often times, these trees are struggling just as ours were unless they are receiving frequent irrigation through the summer. As their name implies, they grow best in wetter areas along streams, swales and ponds. We are replacing our river birch with a variety of deeper rooted trees such as oaks.
Autumn Purple Ash
What a big surprise this spring when this large white ash didn’t leaf out. One side has leaves, but the other side is completely bare. It has been infested with borers with have damaged the trunk, branches and stems. It showed no signs of disease last year. Even if I had seen and diagnosed the problem last fall, the treatment would not have been very effective. The result would have been the same. We are holding out hope that it will miraculously leaf out yet this spring. If not, it will need to be removed.
It is well known that pin oaks suffer from iron chlorosis, which causes a yellowing of the leaves. Chlorosis in pin oaks is usually due to a deficiency of iron in the leaves. Iron is important for chlorophyll synthesis in plants, so when it is deficient, leaves cannot make chlorophyll, resulting in a yellow appearance. Chlorosis of pin oaks is typically associated with alkaline soil pH – pH greater than 7, which is common in our area. This iron deficiency eventually weakens the tree and stunts its growth. Trees can be treated by injecting iron into the trees or trying to change the pH of the soil. However, it is better to not plant these trees in our area. We are removing these trees and replacing them with varieties that don’t suffer from iron chlorosis.
Having trees in Kansas is a luxury, especially large long-lived trees that provide wonderful shade. Kansas weather – with its extremes-wet, dry, hot, cold, and wind – are all challenges for trees. The other thing to keep in mind is that our area was originally prairie. Prairie is what grew best here, with trees relegated to creek bottoms and wetter areas. So growing trees here will always be demanding and ambitious. Even if we do everything right regarding trees in the landscape, there is no guarantee that a tree will grow and thrive.
We will continue replacing and planting trees here at the Arboretum. I believe a diverse selection of trees – different from the trees we have lost – is the answer. We will continue to lose trees, because they are living organisms susceptible to all sorts of diseases and problems. But keep planting, folks!
I read an interesting article about Echinacea (coneflowers) the other day. It highlighted the highs and lows of the newfangled coneflower cultivars over the last decade or so. You know – the ones in oranges, reds, yellows and every shade in between. It seems that many coneflower breeders are doing some soul searching and they are coming full circle, back to producing hardier varieties of our wonderful native prairie wildflowers.
One of the biggest criticisms of these bright colored coneflower hybrids has always been their (lack of) persistence in the landscape. If you were lucky, you could get one or two years out of them before they disappeared. Maybe one survived, but often you couldn’t find that variety anymore, because it had been replaced with another new form. You would have to go back and start over again with another new coneflower.
These coneflowers had other problems too. Winter kill, color fading and short bloom times soured gardeners toward coneflowers. They were not as reliable or persistent as their parents from the prairie.
I can still remember offering those first forms such as Orange Meadowbrite and Razzmatazz. These diverged from the adapted forms of Magnus, Ruby Star, White Swan and Kim’s Knee High in dramatic fashion. We no longer only had pink and white coneflowers, but a warm rainbow of colors available on the market. Everyone wanted to try some in their yards.
The problems quickly became evident and the novelty wore off. The coneflower fad stalled. Breeders began to look at coneflowers from a “whole plant” approach. A “good” coneflower was no longer identified by its unique color, but by the extended bloom times, heavy flower count, longer life span, and vibrant colors that don’t fade. Winter survival and multiple growing points were a focus as well.
Most of these colorful coneflowers are produced through tissue culture production. However, some seed forms with reliable color, such as Cheyenne Spirit and the Pow Wow series have become a cost effective alternative to tissue culture forms of coneflowers. These seeded forms are consistent, vibrant, and affordable.
The trend for new coneflowers forms and colors shows no sign of slowing. Innovation drives sales and new styles are always on the horizon. One of my recommendations is to always start with the true natives first. Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), narrowleaf coneflower (E. angustifolia), yellow purple coneflower (E. paradoxa) and purple coneflower (E.purpruea) are adapted to our climate. They are always a good bet in the landscape. Remember, the pollinators prefer these forms too.
We have been tinkering with coneflowers for a long time and that will continue. The simple prairie coneflowers that we have moved into our landscapes often don’t look the same. I believe these changes come with a price. Sure you get uncommon colors, but it is obviously not the same prairie plant. Do pollinators recognize them?
If you want to try some of these new colors, choose wisely after doing some research. One of the best new coneflowers, according to the Mt. Cuba coneflower trials, is Sensation Pink.
It started with seed collection. Throughout this past spring, summer and fall, I’ve been collecting seed for propagation of native seeds, seeds to be shared with the Dyck Arboretum, and seeds for our prairie restoration. So when I gazed out the window earlier this fall and noted the scarlet berries of False Solomon’s Seal hanging from spent stems, I collected them. I’ve never propagated this species from seed, so clearly, research needed to be done. In that process, I’ve learned more about False Solomon’s Seal, and I’ve also come to more fully appreciate it!
False Solomon’s Seal
Maianthemum racemosum (formerly Smilacina racemosa)– is an herbaceous perennial, native to woodlands throughout North America. The common name reflects its similarity to Solomon’s Seal, but False Solomon’s Seal is easily distinguished by the flowers and later berries that are produced at the ends of the stems. Indigenous people have variously used the spring shoots, rhizomes and leaves for medicinal and food purposes; and deer will also browse on it.
In spring, this plant’s stalks emerge from fleshy rhizomes. Stems are slightly zigzag and grow from 18 – 36 inches in length. Leaves are smooth and alternate with parallel venation. In late spring, up to 80 feathery, quarter-inch flowers are produced at the ends of the stems. The flowers are characteristic of the lily family, having six tepals (look-alike petals and sepals), with six stamens surrounding the central pistil. They are fragrant and attract a variety of pollinators including small native bees, flies and beetles. The berries that form contain a few seeds each. Initially they are green with purple spots, ripening to crimson. Birds and mice disperse the seeds after eating the berries and eliminating the the seeds elsewhere.
How to Propagate
False Solomon’s Seal prefers moist, rich, well-drained soils and full to partial shade. The fibrous roots can be divided and transplanted, but it takes several years to fully reestablish in a new location. When grown from seed, False Solomon’s Seal can be sown directly into the soil in autumn for spring germination in a year or two. When propagating indoors, seeds require several rounds of alternating warm (room temperature) and cold (35 – 40 F) moist stratification before planting in pots. Here again, germination may take up to two years. Patience should definitely be included as part of the seed propagation protocol for this species!
The False Solomon’s Seal I planted nearly 20 years ago has flourished along the western side of the house. It receives light shade most of the day, but it also gets blasted by late afternoon summer sun, demonstrating this species’ ability to also tolerate drier, more exposed conditions. Over the years, the False Solomon’s Seal bed has filled in and reliably produces panicles of creamy white flowers each spring, graceful arching foliage in summer and bright red berries in fall; and it continues to serve as an elegant companion plant for Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), prairie phlox (Phlox divaricata), wild ginger (Asarum canadense), and yellow violets (Viola pubescens). Slow starter though it is, False Solomon’s Seal is hearty, pollinator- and wildlife-friendly, easy to care for, long-lived, and attractive throughout the growing season – perfect for your native shade garden!
I have been reminded over the past few weeks about about the importance of keystone natives. There is a growing body of research that touts the benefits of keystone species of trees, shrubs, wildflowers and grasses to the food web. According to Doug Tallamy, landscapes without keystone plants will support 70–75% fewer caterpillar species than a landscape with keystone plants, even though it may contain 95% of the native plant genera in the area. Keystone plants must be included in your native garden design.
The food web includes, plants, insects, pollinators, birds, lizards, toads, frogs, and mammals, from rodents up through bears. Each is reliant on the other for their survival. Tallamy focuses much attention on trees that support the food web such as oaks, cherry, cottonwood, willow, and birch. However, there are many native perennials that are also key components of this food web. To provide a solid foundation for a healthy food web in your garden, start with this list of native wildflowers to include in your landscape:
Goldenrods (Solidago sp.)
These summer blooming wildflowers with bright yellow flowers can be striking in the landscape. However, they 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 that is spreading pollen through the air at the same time. The plant is 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.
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.
A diverse genus that supports 112 species of insects, asters are a valuable late-season (September – November) source of pollen for bees and nectar for bees and butterflies. During the summer, the asters are host plants to the caterpillars of some of the crescent and checkerspot butterflies. As summer wanes, asters start blooming with colors of white, purple, and pink depending on the species. Fall provides a unique challenge for pollinators and asters help with both migration and overwintering butterflies and bees.
A few of my recommended forms are Aster oblongifolius ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ and ‘October Skies’, Aster novae-angliae varieties, Aster laevis and Aster ericoides ‘Snow Flurry’ for sun. In a shady area, try Aster divaricatus ‘Eastern Star’, Aster cordifolius, and Aster macrophyllus.
Sunflowers (Helianthus sp.)
There are eleven species of sunflower recorded in Kansas. These wildflowers are not usually fit for a formal garden setting, because they spread vigorously by seeding and rhizomes. They have a tendency to push out other desirable plants. However, they support 73 species of insects, so we maybe need to find a place for them.
I’m not referring to the large-headed annual cultivars you see growing in a field, but rather the true native perennials with bright yellow flowers seen growing along the roadside in the late summer and early fall. Plants provide lots of nectar and pollen, and the seeds are eaten by many birds and other wildlife. I would encourage you to try a few sunflowers in the peripheral areas of your yard where they can spread out and have room to roam.
Monarchs are in peril. Milkweeds are one of the answers to reversing their plight. By planting more milkweeds, monarch will find these larval food sources more readily. Milkweeds are larval host plants for Monarch and Queen Butterflies and the Milkweed Tussock Moth. Many bees, wasps, butterflies and beetles visit milkweed flowers for the nectar. Milkweed plants typically produce a lot of nectar that it is replenished overnight. Nocturnal moths feast at night and other pollinators flock to these important plants during the day.
Choose butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) or green antelope horn milkweed for your formal garden and common, Sullivant’s, or whorled milkweeds for the outskirts of your property.
Blazing Stars (Liatris sp.)
Liatris are very important wildflowers. The vibrant purple blooms in summer support many great insect species. They are quite adaptive with different species growing in dry to moist soil conditions. There is literally a blazing star for just about every garden setting.
I prefer Liatris pycnostachya and Liatris aspera, but many others, including Liatris ligulistylis and Liatris punctata, are nice too.
When a new plant is introduced into the market, it is more than just a fancy name. Plant breeders work for years, sometimes decades, to perfect and patent a distinct new plant variety. Sometimes this is the work of hybridization, complicated gene editing or human-aided crosspollination. But other times it starts by finding an interesting plant in the wild that varies from its normal phenotype and reproducing it reliably in trials to get ready for the mass market. Either way, after all that work, it is exciting to see the results!
Here are two new grass varieties available at our spring FloraKansas event, both the result of finding great natural specimens growing wild and capitalizing on their landscape-worthy traits.
Sorghastrum nutans ‘Golden Sunset’
I’ll admit that Indiangrass, also known as yellow prairie grass, is not my favorite of our native species. It is always flopping over and spreading everywhere. I don’t care for its sloppy habit. But ‘Golden Sunset’ might change my mind! Selected at the University of Minnesota and in development for 15 years, this grass is known for its upright habit and early flowering. That means more time to enjoy the bright yellow feather-like plumes, and they won’t fall over in the strong Kansas wind! Great for creating a screen or living fence, or as an accent in the back of the garden. Use Sorghastrum ‘Golden Sunset’ in place of non-native and invasive Pampas grass. Sorghastrum serves as a host plant for the pepper-and-salt skipper butterfly.
Grass height: 3 ft Grass with blooms: 6 ft Plumes can be up to 12 inches long!
Andropogon ‘Karls Cousin’
Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) is an important species in the tall grass prairie ecosystem. Beyond providing an incredible amount of biomass for grazers, birds and insects, they are also well loved in the urban and residential landscape. ‘Karl’s Cousin’ is a selection found by breeder Dave MacKenzie growing on the side of the road. It was distinct and eye-catching, and after taking may divisions and many years in the trial garden, ‘Karl’s Cousin’ was named as a new variety of Andropogon. It’s much more upright than the species, with good color and strong stems and can be used as a replacement in some situations for ‘Karl Foerster’ grass, a non-native cool season ornamental grass. Where the straight species big bluestem might be too large or floppy for a city garden, this variety makes it possible to include in even small spaces.
Grass height: 4 ft Grass with bloom: 7 ft Great fall color!
Grass for Every Place
We have been planting and selling native grasses here for many years. We definitely have our favorites, like ‘Northwind’ Panicum and ‘Twilight Zone’ Schizachyrium. But there are hundreds of great grass species out there to fit any landscape. Dry, rocky soil? Try a western Kansas species like Bouteloua gracillis. Need a tall and fast growing living fence? ‘Dallas Blues’ switchgrass might be right for you. And if you have too much shade for traditional prairie grasses, consider adding sedges to your garden. While not technically in the grass family, these plants add grassy texture but can handle conditions from dry shade to full sun bogs. Keep your eye on our FloraKansas page to get the Native Plant Guide as soon as we update it for 2023, so you will know what species we have available this year.