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.

Little Bluestem Varieties

Schizachyrium scoparium, also known as little bluestem, is the official state grass of Kansas. And for good reason! It is found in every county of Kansas, produces an incredible amount of biomass per acre, and is host to nine species of skipper butterflies. No fertilizer or fuss required, it will grow well in harsh conditions and poor soil. Little bluestem is a great grass to add to your landscape if you want something ecologically beneficial, water-wise, and colorful.

Variety vs Species

Because it is such an impressive plant, little bluestem has gotten a lot of attention from the horticultural industry. Professional breeders have selected and cultivated many new varieties. Humans have been selecting and breeding desirable traits into plants for thousands of years, so we are getting quite good at it by now. Customers looking to buy little bluestem have a lot of options to choose from in terms of height, habit, and color palette. While they are all still S. scoparium, they all offer something different that might benefit a certain landscape use. Below is a comparison of several options and their traits to help you decide.

Little bluestem is known for its fine foliage and multitude of colors.

S. scoparium

The straight species, as we say, is the regular old wild type. S. scoparium that’s propagated by seed is genetically diverse from every other little bluestem growing around it. In contrast, most cultivated (named) varieties are propagated by division, meaning they are exact genetic copies of each other. This ensures the same coloration and habit. But if you don’t need that kind of aesthetic assurance, the classic little bluestem is a great option. You’d find this growing in prairies, pastures, and field edges. Pros: genetic diversity, great for restorations, wildlife areas or pastures, usually cheaper than branded varieties. Cons: floppy, not as colorful as other options, height is less predictable.

‘Jazz’ Little Bluestem

Foliage height: 1.5 to 2 ft
Total with bloom: 2.5 ft
One of the main differences between bluestem cultivars is height. ‘Jazz’ is a great solution for folks who want bluestem, but need it to be shorter than the regular species. A variety brought to market by Intrinsic Perennials, ‘Jazz’ usually stays under 24 inches and has a very bushy, upright habit. Pros: short, full and fluffy, upright. Cons: not as colorful as other options

Here you see two types of little bluestem in winter. ‘Jazz’ on the right, is shorter and fuller than the ‘Twilight Zone’ next to it. They also have subtle differences in color.

‘Twilight Zone’ Little Bluestem

Foliage height: 2 ft
Total with blooms: 4 ft
Known for its incredible coloration, ‘Twilight Zone’ is a fan favorite. Year after year we sell out of this one, and even our suppliers can’t keep it in stock. It has a powder blue coloration on the grass blades, followed by deep purple tips in fall. Mid-height, it is not as tidy and compact as Jazz but still stands up well with minimal floppiness given the right conditions. Pros: unbeatable blue color. Cons: too tall for some applications, may flop if partially shaded or in rich soil.

Adding lots of cool tones to the garden, ‘Twilight Zone’ works well with companion plants in purple, blue and yellow, such as Russian sage, gayfeather, golden Alexanders, and alliums. Photo courtesy Walters Gardens.

‘Blaze’ Little Bluestem

Foliage height: 2 ft
Total with blooms: 3 ft
If you like red, ‘Blaze’ is the choice. This variety is lush and green all summer, then packs a punch in fall with its deep red/orange/pink tones that delight all winter. ‘Blaze’ was actually bred as a high-yield pasture grass in the 1960s, but has been lauded for landscape use because of its beauty. ‘Blaze’ is especially nice in mass plantings. Pros: red fall and winter color, vigorous growth. Cons: flops easily if soil is too rich

The deep red stems of ‘Blaze’ provide high contrast to the fluffy white seeds. Photo by Emily Weaver

I could go on and on about other favorites like ‘Standing Ovation’, ‘Prairie Blues’ and ‘Carousel’. No matter which little bluestem you choose, it will be a great low maintenance plant providing habitat and beauty all year long.

A Winter Garden to Look Into

This time of year our focus changes a bit as we transition to spending more time inside. You look longingly outside at your garden, anticipating warmer weather and the arrival of spring. We are not restless yet, but for those of us who garden and love to dig into the soil, it helps if we have something to look at through the kitchen window or sitting in our living room. Here are some plants to consider adding as you “look into” your winter garden.   

Form

Flowers fade into buttons, globes, plumes, spikes, daisies or umbels that can be emphasized with the play of light and motion. These expired flowers are attractive even after they are done blooming.  

  • Coneflowers: These dark seed heads are attractive with native grasses and are favorites of overwintering birds.
  • Asters: Swaths of these fall blooming perennials provide structure and decent fall color. 
  • Amsonia: Blue flowers in the spring and attractive color in the fall
  • Prairie Dropseed: This is one of my favorite grasses. Fine foliage, airy seedheads, and golden orange fall color that mixes well with many other shorter perennials.
Coneflowers with little bluestem

Texture

This garden design element refers to the surface quality of the plant. Whether coarse or fine, textural plants combined with interesting forms are quite dramatic in the winter landscape.    

  • Switchgrass: There are so many varieties to choose, from tall to short and from green to red leaved. You really can’t go wrong by adding some of these native grasses to your garden. 
  • Rattlesnake master: This unusual native has attractive gray-green foliage and starry white blooms in the summer. As it transitions into the winter-the whole plant turns tawny gold.
  • Little bluestem: The fine stems of little bluestem add bright color to the stark winter garden.   
Fall color of Amsonia with Northwind switchgrass and Oktoberfest Maidengrass

Fruit/seeds

This element in the garden is often overlooked or removed before the birds need them. For birds that take winter residence in your garden, the right mix of plants creates a habitat that is fun to watch. 

Composite flowers like blackeyed susan, coneflower, blazing star, sunflowers, and goldenrods are vital food that birds seek out. 

  • Crabapples: Most of ornamental trees have persistent fruit that are utilized later in the winter as other food becomes scarce.
  • Blackhaw Viburnum: This native produces abundant fruit that taste like miniature prunes. Birds and other wildlife love them.   
  • Sumac: The reddish fruit atop these native shrubs are a favorite of Chickadee and Titmouse. 
Robin on a crabapple tree (Photo Credit: Judd Patterson, Birds In Focus)

Stems

Stems are not noticed until everything is bare, but can provide something interesting and beautiful to look at in the winter.

  • Red/Yellow twig dogwoods: They explode with color especially with snow.
  • Big Bluestem: Forms with brilliant red fall color are the best with regards to standing out in the landscape.
  • Seven-Son Flower: Great exfoliating bark on this fall blooming small tree. 

Shelter

This can be a brush pile or evergreen of some type. Each provide shelter and safety for wildlife during the cold winter months.   

  • Taylor Juniper: This upright form of our native evergreen also has fruit that the birds need. 
  • Alleghany Viburnum: Tall semi-evergreen shrub with attractive fruit and leathery leaves. 
  • Brush pile: Brush piles create shelter that conceals and protects wildlife from predators and weather. Situate the brush pile where you can enjoy wildlife viewing. 

 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is ViburnumRhytidophylla_EWeaver_14July2002_00371-Copy.jpg
Alleghany Viburnum fruit and evergreen leaves

In the winter, there are fewer times of satisfaction from the garden. If you have only a few plants to watch in the winter landscape, make sure it’s enough to keep it interesting.

Snow captured by switchgrass

Plant Profile: Black-eyed Susan

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia sp.) are one of the most recognizable summer-blooming wildflowers. Their bright yellow flowers explode in the summer and are covered with all sorts of pollinator activity. Bees, flies, butterflies, and beetles feed on its nectar and pollen. The fruiting heads also provide seed for birds over the winter.  Here is a look at a few species and cultivars worth trying.   

Missouri black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia missouriensis)

In the wild, Missouri Black-eyed Susan grows in rocky limestone glades, barrens, and tallgrass prairies. It ranges from Illinois and Missouri, south to Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Although not native to Kansas, I have found it very resilient and quite adaptable to various growing conditions. It has large bouquets of bright yellow flowers atop 18” stems. The foliage is narrow with the leaves and stems covered with a dense fuzz. It’s a nice addition to the front/middle of any border or informal meadow landscape. 

Missouri Black-eyed Susan

Brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba)

This native gem can be found in eastern Kansas and on into much of the southeastern Great Plains. It grows naturally in open woods and savanna areas with medium to moist soil. Each plant can produce loads of charming, warm yellow daisy flowers with brown button centers. It keeps pumping out blooms through much of the later summer through fall. The slender branched stems are surprisingly sturdy and help the plant reach an ultimate height of three to four feet. It is a wonderful habit plant with blooms for pollinators and seeds for birds. It does self-sow, so know that it will move around. You will need to selectively weed plants out of your landscape, if you are agreeable to that sort of thing. 

We have carried a cultivar of Brown-eyed Susan called ‘Prairie Glow’ with attractive flowers of burnt orange with yellow tips surrounding a chocolate center cone. ‘Prairie Glow’ prefers full sun to light shade, and is also adaptable to many soil conditions.

Brown-Eyed Susan

Sweet Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia subtomentosa)

Sweet black-eyed Susan grows throughout much of the central and eastern Great Plains in low, moist soil of thickets, creek banks, pastures, prairie ravines and ditches. The flowers are spectacular and rival sunflowers in quantity of blooms, if the root system can find consistent moisture. A large variety of insects love the nectar and/or pollen of Sweet Black-eyed Susan and flock to the blooms during July, August and September. 

This is a great plant for a full sun to part shade location, but only when there is ample moisture. It will not endure dry soils. Plant it by a stream, water garden or pond where water is available on or near the surface. ‘Henry Eilers’ is a nice cultivar discovered in Illinois as a stabilized mutation with rolled or quilled ray petals. This cultivar reaches five feet tall and two feet wide. ‘Little Henry‘ is a shorter form which grows 3 to 4 feet tall but has the same quilled flowers.

Photo courtesy of TERRA NOVA® Nurseries, Inc.
www.terranovanurseries.com

Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

There are many forms of this poor man’s daisy, because it is so easy to hybridize. Typically, the species is found in full sun to part shade in mixed and tall grass prairies as a short-lived perennial or annual. It seeds readily and is a favorite to include in many prairie seed mixes. The bright yellow blooms from June through September are a welcome sight in any landscape from prairie to wildflower seeding. Some cultivars available are ‘Cherry Brandy, ‘Prairie Sun’, ‘Cherokee Sunset’, ‘Indian Summer’, ‘Autumn Colors’, ‘Denver Daisy’, ‘Goldilocks’, ‘Goldrush’, ‘Rustic Colors’, ‘Sonora’, ‘Toto Gold’, and ‘Toto Lemon’.

Cutleaf Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata)

This species grows in similar habitats to sweet coneflower – moist soil of creekbanks, thickets and open woods. A cut leaf coneflower really stands out in full sun and adequate moisture. The leaves are deeply lobed and the large, wide clumps, two to four feet across, can reach five to six feet tall.  Each stalk can have multiple large flowers with a greenish-yellow central cone. They bloom from July to October.  A garden worthy cultivar of cut leaf coneflower is ‘Herbstonne’.

Orange Coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida)

This eastern United States black-eyed susan is one of the most widely used in horticulture. Many cultivars, varieties and subspecies are incorporated into landscape designs. The native form thrives in glades, meadows, and prairies.  Rudbeckia fulgida var. deamii, Rudbeckia fulgida var. fulgida and Rudbeckia fulgida var. speciosa are two of my favorite native forms of orange coneflower. They grow well in landscapes with medium to moist soil and plenty of sun. These clumps slowly spread by rhizomes ultimately forming a dense mat of dark green leaves. The blooms pop up from July through September. 

‘Goldsturm‘ was a popular cultivar, but it has been used less because it has issues with septoria leaf spot and powdery mildew. New forms like ‘American Gold Rush’, ‘Little Goldstar, and ‘Viette’s Little Suzy‘ have resistance to both septoria leaf spot and powdery mildew. These are great alternatives to ‘Goldsturm’. 

Rudbeckia ‘American Gold Rush’

Giant Coneflower (Rudbeckia maxima)

Prairie Dropseed (foreground), Rudbeckia maxima, and yellow coneflowers

I love this coneflower for its blue green leaves and large coned flowers in June and July. It makes quite a statement in the landscape with flower stalks to six feet.  Native to Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana, I have found it to be quite adaptable. It appreciates regular moisture but can handle some dry periods.  Birds eat the seeds from the large cones during the winter. 

There is a Rudbeckia for just about any landscape situation with full to part sun and wet to dry. Pollinators love them and birds too. Add some to your garden for their late season bloom.

Plant Profile: Columbine

As I put together lists of plants according to the season that they bloom, I often come up short on spring blooming plants. In a prairie, many plants are slow to get growing in the spring until warmer temperatures spur growth.  One of the more tried and true spring blooming perennials I like to include on my lists, especially in partial sun areas, is Aquilegia canadensis, or columbine.

The Columbine flower

Columbine is one of the most popular plants for shade.  However, it grows quite well in sunny spots with morning sun and afternoon shade.  This spring blooming (May-June) woodland native is essentially two flowers in one! It has an inner yellow flower surrounded by a delicate spurred outer flower. These nectar-rich blooms are a favorite of butterflies, other pollinators, and even hummingbirds in the spring. 

The typical red/yellow flower of our native columbine

The name

Its scientific name and common name reference a couple of birds. The genus name Aquilegia comes from a combination of the Latin word “aquila” (meaning eagle for the five spurs resembling an eagle claw) and the Latin word for “columba” (meaning dove, for five doves nestled together).

The leaves

The blue-green foliage elongates in the spring, with reddish stems topped by the elegant flowers. After blooming the stems dry. I like to cut back these flower stems to the rosette of foliage.  If you leave the flower stems, the brown capsules, full of black seeds, will fall and seed themselves in your garden for next season. Occasionally, the foliage will be infested with leaf miners. Simply cut the foliage back to remove the unsightly leaves and let it regrow a new rosette of lobed leaves. Then you can distribute the seeds in other areas where you would like some more plants.

Caring for Columbine

Columbine is easy to establish in partial sun to full shade conditions. It is quite adaptable, growing in wet to medium dry soils.  It makes a nice combination with golden alexander, blue star, false sunflower and sky blue aster. A pink version of Aquilegia canadensis was actually discovered in Marion County, Kansas by the late Al Gantz and introduced by Dyck Arboretum of the Plains.

Beautiful pink columbine flower from Marion County, Kansas

As you put together your plant list for a design or matrix planting, don’t overlook the obvious. Columbine is a wonderful woodland wildflower that should be brought out of the shadows. Include it in your design as a filler to add an early pop of color in the spring in your partial shade/sun site.

Wetland Wildflowers

With the recent rainfall, I have been reminded that native plants are a wonderful and underused means to create a natural setting around a water feature or low area in your landscape. Most prairie wildflowers and grasses don’t do well in soggy soil and excessive moisture results in rot and other deadly diseases. However, there are a handful of plants that grow in wet areas within a prairie or along pond margins. These wetland wildflowers appreciate wet feet and some even thrive in standing water. Rather than radically altering the drainage of a soggy, poorly drained site within your garden, try some of these plants that grow well in such conditions. 

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

As the name implies, swamp milkweed prefers wet locations in full sun to partial shade. Here at the Arboretum we have it growing next to the pond and stream. In the wild, it is found in prairie seeps and potholes, at the edges of marshes, and in wet ditches. Swamp milkweed grows 3 to 4 feet tall and blooms from July, August and early September. The vanilla-scented flowers are typically pale pink to rose-purple and are a favorite for migrating monarchs. 

Swamp Milkweed in bloom

Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum)

This tall, native perennial is found in moist meadows and marshes. The attractive leaves and purple spotted stems fill out this 6 foot tall wildflower. The rosy-pink bloorms in mid to late summer are a favorite of many pollinators. Joe Pye weed performs best in moist to wet soils in full sun. Smaller forms like ‘Baby Joe’ and ‘Little Joe’ are nice alternatives if you don’t have much space. 

Eutrochium maculatum ‘Gateway’

Blazing Star- (Liatris sp.)

You don’t typically think of blazing star as a wetland wildflower, since most species prefer dry sites. However, there are several species of Liatris that can handle wetter conditions. Kansas gayfeather (Liatris pycnostachya) and dense blazing star (Liatris spicata) are typically found in moist prairies and meadows. These blazing stars grow 3 to 4 feet tall with narrow, lance-like leaves and blooms in mid- to late summer.  The pinkish purple flowers grow on 12- to 18-inch-long, upright spikes.  Flowering begins at the top of the spike and moves down the stem.   

Liatris pycnostachya and gray headed coneflower on the pond edge

Other wetland wildflowers

  • Acorus calamus – Sweet Flag
  • Actinomeris alternifolia – Wingstem
  • Aster novae-angliae – New England Aster
  • Eupatorium perfoliatum – Common Boneset
  • Filipendula species – Meadow Sweet
  • Galium odoratum – Sweet Woodruff
  • Helenium autumnale-Helen’s Flower
  • Helianthus angustifolius – Swamp Sunflower
  • Hibiscus species – Rose Mallow
  • Iris virginica – Southern Blue Flag
  • Lobelia cardinalis – Cardinal Flower
  • Lobelia siphilitica – Blue Cardinal Flower
  • Mertensia virginica – Virginia Bluebell
  • Monarda species – Bee Balm
  • Physostegia virginiana – Obedient Plant
  • Pycnanthemum tenuifolium – Narrow Leaved Mountain Mint
  • Ratibida pinnata – Gray headed Coneflower
  • Senna hebecarpa – Wild Senna
  • Thalictrum dasycarpum – Purple Meadow Rue
  • Tradescantia sp. – Spiderwort
  • Verbena hastata – Blue Vervain
  • Veronicastrum virginicum – Culvers Root
  • Vernonia noveboracensis – Ironweed

Native grasses are quite adaptable, but several grasses and sedges can grow well in moist to wet soils. Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), switch grass (Panicum virgatum), prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata) can be found in roadside ditches, prairie bogs, and along pond edges. There are many native sedges such as gray’s sedge (Carex grayi) that perform well in moist soils in partial to full sun as well. 

If there’s a drainage problem in your yard, you may be inclined to install a dry creek bed or a French drain. But don’t be too quick to go to all that work. An alternative route is to simply use plants that prefer to live in wet areas. Match plants that are native and naturalize in wet conditions. Wetland wildflowers have adaptations to grow in wet soil, so they are effective landscaping solutions for areas with drainage issues.

Colorado Cousins of our Kansas Native Plants

Hikers passing through high elevation mountain meadows often catch glimpses of a number of familiar flowers. In fact, many of the mountain meadow natives are closely related to our Kansas native plants.

With nearly daily rain showers, the subalpine grassland meadows of the southern Rocky Mountains are bursting with wildflowers this summer. Rocky Mountain subalpine wildflowers are adapted to high elevations with cooler, shorter summers, longer, colder winters, and intense sunlight. Small, silvery, sun-reflecting, hairy leaves, ground-hugging growth habits, and clumps of showy pollinator-attracting flowers help these Colorado species survive. With a short growing season, flowers are produced and set seed in what seems like record time.

Kansas natives often share similar adaptive features—silvery, fine, hairy, leaves, and similar pollinator-attracting showy flowers –enabling them to survive Kansas’ long, hot summers and cold, dry winters. Although time and physical barriers have separated most Colorado and Kansas native plants into unique species, a few remain as a single species. Let’s take a look at a few of these Colorado cousins.

Raspberries blooming on Raspberry Mountain in early July in the shadow of Pike’s Peak. Photo by Janelle Flory Schrock.

Columbine (Aquilegia spp)

Kansas’ wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) blooms during the cooler, moister spring months of the year, and seed is immediately dispersed. Blue columbine (Aquilegia coerulea) – Colorado’s state flower – blooms in July, taking advantage of the sunshine and warmer days of summer in the high mountains.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) doesn’t change species between Kansas and Colorado, but the blooming time does! While yarrow blooms in late spring in our Kansas prairies, in subalpine mountain meadows, it blooms in July, taking advantage of the sunshine and pollinators of mid-summer. There is little chance that, should they be grown together, cross-pollination could occur between these quite different ecotypes.

Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum)

Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum) is another wildflower species that remains the same from Kansas to Colorado. Again, the time of flowering differs. Kansas individuals bloom in spring, and Colorado individuals bloom during similar temperature conditions that occur at the height of the high altitude summer.

Alpine Parsley (Pseudocymopterus spp.)

Members of the carrot and parsley family are commonly found in both Kansas and Colorado. Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) grace our gardens in spring, while high mountain meadows are filled with the yellow umbels of mountain parsleys in July.

Primrose (Oenothera spp)

The white, night-blooming showy evening primroses (Oenothera speciosa) typically appear in May and June in Kansas. Come July, their diminutive Colorado cousins, (Oenothera spp) make their appearance in rocky niches and along trails.

Locoweed (Oxytropis spp.)

Locoweed (Oxytropis spp.) fills Colorado mountain meadows with patches of bright pinks, blues and lavenders. Like the wild indigoes (Baptisia spp) that brighten Kansas prairies and pastures, locoweed is a nitrogen-fixing legume. Both are also toxic to cattle, sheep and horses.

Ragwort (Packera spp.)

Ragworts (Packera spp.) are delightful yellow flowers of shade and sun. Colorado’s ragworts are commonly found along a trail’s edge in July. Kansas’ golden ragwort (Packera plattensis) is one of the first wildflowers to brighten winter-weary landscapes in April.

Penstemon (Penstemon spp)

Penstemons (Penstemon spp) are abundant in the Rocky Mountain subalpine meadows in July. Generally short in height and with smaller flowers, they nonetheless add deep, rich lavenders, blues and purples to rocky niches and trailsides. Their taller Kansas cousins precede them, blooming in late spring.

Jacob’s Ladder (Polemonium spp.)

Hike through a subalpine, shaded, moist forest, and suddenly you may encounter a faint scent of skunk, indicating that you have stepped on Jacob’s ladder, a lovely blue-flowered species that hugs the ground with ladder-like leaves. In Kansas, Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans) is a woodland spring ephemera with striking blue, bell-shaped flowers, and yes, the scent of skunk!

Shrubby cinquefoil (Dasiphora (Potentilla) fruticosa)

Shrubby cinquefoil (Dasiphora (Potentilla) fruticosa) is commonly found in high mountain meadows in July. It is just one of a number of cinquefoils that commonly grow at high elevations. Bright yellow flowers attract numerous pollinators. In Kansas, prairie cinquefoil (Dasiphora (Potentilla) arguta), also a shrub, blooms in scattered clumps throughout the summer.

Goldenrod (Solidago spp.)

Our Kansas goldenrods tend to be taller, filling the late summer prairies and pastures with swaths of yellow. They are the harbingers of autumn, blooming in late August and September. Subalpine goldenrods can’t wait that long. The diminutive Rocky Mountain goldenrod begins to flower in mid-July in the high montane meadows, adding their golden color to the seasonal procession of color.

These are just a few of the many familial relationships that exist between Kansas and Rocky Mountain native plants. Next time you travel west, take a moment to find a familiar “face” in the wildflowers at your feet!

Landscaping with Native Kansas Oaks

Filtered light coming through a stately open-grown burr oak.

There are many appealing reasons to consider landscaping with native Kansas oaks. Oaks are

  • long-lived with strong branches,
  • can grow to be large and stately,
  • provide welcome shade from the hot Kansas summer sun,
  • allow some filtered light to pass through to allow growth of understory vegetation, and
  • enhance the wildlife diversity in any landscape by attracting insects.

Native Kansas Oaks

Kansas is predominately a prairie state. Fire and grazing have helped keep grasses and wildflowers as the dominant form of vegetation for thousands of years. Kansas does, however, get enough precipitation to support trees, especially many drought-tolerant species of oaks. And when they are not being burned or grazed down to the ground on a regular basis, they can thrive here.

With the Rocky Mountain rain shadow influencing the precipitation map for Kansas, we have increasing bands of precipitation moving from west to east across the state.

Trees generally need more water than prairie grasses and wildflowers. Therefore, it is understandable that eastern Kansas climate is most hospitable for growing trees. The following Küchler Vegetation Map of Kansas confirms the association between greater precipitation and the historical presence of trees by the location of oak-hickory forests, oak savannas, and other timbered regions in the eastern part of the state.

The trees that thrive throughout eastern Kansas may also be able to grow further west into Kansas, but will be limited to locations near streams or urban landscapes where they can receive supplemental irrigation.

Using the fantastic recently published book, Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines in Kansas by Michael Haddock and Craig Freeman, I compiled the following table of the oaks native to Kansas. I have listed the 12 native oak species in order from most to least common in Kansas. I did this to serve as a guide to the species that generally have the greatest tolerance to drought conditions and that are therefore more likely to succeed even in the drier parts of the state.

Attracting Wildlife

Regarding the benefits of oaks I provided in the introduction, I want to expand a bit on the benefits of attracting wildlife.

Filtered light sustains understory vegetation

Oaks in general and especially more drought-tolerant oaks like burr oak allow more light to filter through its leaf canopy to the understory than other tree species such as elms and maples. As I describe briefly in a post about a local, large burr oak tree, burr oak savanna plant communities of Eastern Kansas were historically able to support diverse arrays of grasses and wildflowers under their canopy that promote a healthy ecosystem of biological diversity. Urban folks can follow this model and grow prairie-like native plant gardens under the canopy of oaks. This also helps explain why it is easier to grow turf grass in the filtered light conditions under an oak than it is under the shadier understory of an elm or maple.

Oaks – the best trees for supporting wildlife

Professor Doug Tallamy in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware is a big proponent of using native oaks to attract wildlife. His book Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens makes a strong case for using oaks to attract caterpillars, and subsequently birds that feed caterpillars to their young, to enhance the biological diversity of a landscape. His research shows that the oak genus (Quercus) attracts more caterpillars to its leaves, flowers, bark, acorns, and roots than any other genus of trees. In fact, this genus is so important to Tallamy that his most recent book The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees focuses entirely on the subject.

Five Favorite Oaks

While I think there are appealing components to all 12 of the native Kansas oaks, I have narrowed my focus for the purposes of this post to promoting five favorite oak species.

USDA maps denote the natural range of each species. A given tree may still thrive in say an urban area outside of this range when offered wind and drought protection from structures, other trees, and/or supplemental irrigation.
This 55′ wide by 45′ tall burr oak outside my office window is great example of how this species takes a wide-open stance when grown in full sun. The root structure cross-section drawing pasted proportionately below this tree was found in the Nebraska Conservation Bulletin Number 37.

Burr oak savannas were part of the focus of my graduate research and I simply love the majestic, strong-branched open-grown shape of this species. The shape and distinct look of a mature Q. macrocarpa specimen in winter is as interesting to me as its leafy green look during the growing season. It is bimodal in its moisture distribution, meaning it can survive in both dry upland conditions as well as low floodplain conditions. Thick, gnarly bark makes this tree more fire tolerant than most, and when top-killed, its taproot allows it to immediately re-sprout. The large acorn fruits (hence the Latin name “macrocarpa“) are food for many insects, mammals, and birds (e.g., turkeys and wood ducks). To appreciate the value of a burr oak to wildlife, click on this Illinois wildflowers link and scroll down to the impressive list of “faunal associations.” Burr oak leaves turn yellowish-brown before dropping in the fall.

The attractive ashy gray bark, toothy margined leaves and stately round shape of the drought-tolerant chinquapin oak make it an appealing landscaping tree. One-inch sweet acorns are a favorite food for many birds and mammals and the leaves turn yellow-orange to orangish-brown before dropping in fall. This species prefers well-drained soils but tolerates a variety of soil textures and moisture regimes.

Dwarf chinquapin oak only reaches a mature height of approximately 20 feet and certainly can be used in different landscaping scenarios than any of the four other medium to large landscaping trees recommended here. You may use it as a featured shrub or planted with many to form a screen. This species prefers sandy or clayey soils whereas the larger Q. muehlenbergii does best in calcareous soils. In spite of its small size, dwarf chinquapin oak can produce large quantities of acorns which along with the leaves and bark provide food for numerous species of insects, birds and mammals. This oak is known to produce underground runners to spread clonally.

Black oak is named for its dark bark color at maturity. It has a deep taproot with widespread laterals which make it a very drought-tolerant tree that is adaptable to a variety of soil types. It does especially well in sandy soils. As described for other oak species, black oak provides food for numerous insects, birds and mammals.

Shumard oak is a popular landscaping tree because of its strong branches, long life and red fall color. It is adaptable to a variety of soils and its acorns provide food for various types of wildlife including insects, birds, and mammals. Although its natural environment is along streams in Eastern Kansas, it is tolerant of drier areas further west in protected urban areas. A shumard oak I planted in my yard loses its leaves late fall, by around Thanksgiving.

Things to Think About

Tree size/location

When locating a tree, leaving room for the eventual size of the mature tree will save you or future caretakers time and money. Conflicts between growing tree branches and buildings, utility wires, city code street clearances, and branches of other trees can lead to tree trimming headaches, so consideration given to a tree’s height and spread is important. Also, the closer a tree is to a sidewalk or driveway, the more likely its roots are to alter the grade of and contribute to the cracking of that concrete.

How long will it hold its leaves?

Some oaks lose their leaves in fall, but others hold onto them until spring. I can think of a couple of reasons this may be important to you. If you like to do your leaf raking in fall, don’t choose an oak that holds leaves till spring. If you want your oak to cast shade in summer but not winter, be sure to choose an oak that drops its leaves in fall. For example, this may be an important consideration for a tree that shades a house in summer, but allows solar panels to work in the winter.

Oak leaves are slower to decompose

Know that oak leaves have higher tannin content than many other tree species, and therefore, take longer to decompose. I like to use all my tree leaves for garden mulch and since the oaks I’ve planted in my landscape are all pretty small still, this has not been a big concern. However, if you compost your leaves or have heard the myth that tannin-rich oak leaves will make your soil more acidic, read this article.

Slower growing trees still provide rewards

A common complaint I hear about oaks is that they grow too slow. Therefore, folks may opt for the short-term gain of quick shade provided by a poplar or silver maple instead of a longer lived oak. A poplar lifespan may be 30-50 years, a silver maple 50-100 years, and an oak 150-250 years. But what you gain in quicker shade with the poplar and silver maple, you give up in durability, attraction to wildlife, and passing along quality trees to future property owners. The above recommended oaks all would be considered slow to moderate rate growing trees. Do know that you can increase the growth rate of an oak with mulching, supplemental water, and fertilizer. Maybe it is the skewed perspective of an oak lover, but I would think that oaks even improve property value. And remember, a tree is planted for the next generation as much as it is for you.

New Native Plants: Part II

This is the second post in a two part series exploring new plants available at the spring fundraiser. After 22 years of Florakansas, we are still finding new garden-worthy natives to offer our community, and the commercial horticulture industry is always introducing new plant varieties to try.

Allium ‘Lavender Bubbles’

Allium ‘Lavender Bubbles’. Photo courtesy of Walter’s Gardens.

Ornamental onion is a landscaping favorite because of its tidy habit and pollinator-friendly blooms. We will have the native species A. cernuum and A. stellatum available, but when you need a bit more purple punch ‘Lavender Bubbles’ is the way to go. This variety blooms later in the summer than the well-loved ‘Millennium’, and has darker blooms.

Ephedra regliana

Ephedra regalia, known as joint fir, is a diminutive ancient plant that adds some evergreen whimsy to a rock garden or border planting. Photo by I, James Roberts, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Tolerant of alkaline soils and extreme drought, this plant can be found growing wild from Kyrgyzstan to China. A relative of ancient conifers, its showy red fruits develop in late summer. It absolutely demands good drainage, poor soil, and full sun. It would fit right in with a cactus garden or desert aesthetic.

Eupatorium ‘Prairie Jewel’

Variegated foliage of Eupatorium ‘Prairie Jewel’. Photo courtesty of Bluebird Nursery Inc.

Eupatorium altissimum is a native Kansas plant that does not get the credit it deserves. It is seen as a tall, gangly plant with small, unimpressive white blooms. I have begun to appreciate it more and more as a drought tolerant back drop plant; something to grow at the back of the garden to add height and greenery. I call the flowers ‘baby’s breath of the prairie’ because they are so useful in bouquets. The ‘Prairie Jewel’ variety has striking leaf coloration that keeps it interesting, even when not in bloom.

Calamintha nepeta var. nepeta

Calmintha nepeta var. nepeta blends into many garden styles and makes a lovely addition to the perennial garden. Photo by I, KENPEI, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

This is a plant I am very excited to try out in my own garden. Its white blooms and puffy habit make for great filler in weed-prone spaces that would benefit from dense cover and competition. Native to Europe, this mint family member carries its well-known pros and cons: it can be aggressive if left to spread unchecked, but it is beloved by pollinators.

Remember, members get first pick of the plants through pre-order services and our special Members-only Day on April 22. If you see some new plants here you just can’t live without, consider joining our growing membership of nature lovers! These plants and many more will be available to non-members April 23-26.