Tube flowers occupy a special niche in the ecosystem. They cater to pollinators with especially long tongues, saving their nectar for the lucky few who can reach it. There are lots of tubular blooms at the Arboretum right now, so I thought we ought to take a tube tour and examine a few of my favorites up close.
With so many species to choose from, there is a Penstemon that’s right for everyone’s garden. Penstemon grandiflorus is a drought-loving species, shorter and with waxier leaves than its common, white-bloomed cousin Penstemon digitalis. Penstemon cobaea is the diva of the bunch: much showier and larger flowered, with flouncy pink bloom spikes that are more prone to falling over after heavy winds or rain (the floral equivalent of fainting onto a nearby chaise). But for all its drama, it is worth it for those huge, almost foxglove-esque flowers! All of them are a boon to hummingbirds in early summer.
There is good honeysuckle and bad honeysuckle, and you should learn the difference! Invasive honeysuckle can come in two forms: bush or vine. Amur honeysuckle (Lonicera mackii) is the bush that has taken over woodlands and displaced many of our native species. It spreads by birds ingesting the berries then *depositing* them into new areas. Forests full of this stuff have decreased value for wildlife, and become an impenetrable monoculture and a maintenance nightmare. A look-a-like species, Lonicera japonica, is a vine with a similar flower. This too is invasive in our area, and can be found climbing trees and toppling fences. If you have these species on your property, please eradicate them and replace with a native honeysuckle like Lonicera reticulata — all the beauty of clustered, yellow tube blooms, but without the nasty invasive qualities. Or Lonicera sempervirens, a red flowering vine that grows vigorously and attracts hummingbirds. Both are drought hardy too!
Amsonia (Common name: Blue star)
These small, star shaped flowers all cluster together to create a showy head of light blue in spring. But behind each star is a tiny tube! I’ve seen hawk moths, also known as hummingbird moths, flitting around these things for weeks now enjoying their nectar. Amsonia is easy to grow and likes full to part sun. Amsonia hubrichtii is thin leafed, almost needle-like in appearance while Amsonia illustris has a broader, glossier leaf. Both are hardy and can stand up to wind and drought, with excellent fall color.
Also known as bee balm, this plant has a unique, pom-pom style bloom made up of individual flower tubes. In Kansas you will most likely find Monarda fistulosa growing wild, in ditches or near streams and ponds. Monard bradburiana is a shorter, slightly better behaved cousin. Both like full sun and medium soil moisture. Monarda didyma is a common eastern US species, and does well here if given a bit of extra water. I’ve seen lots of bees, butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds on this one so it gets an A+ rating for pollinator attraction.
Tube-shaped blooms can be found everywhere if you start looking. They have a completely different structure than the classic radial flowers (roses, petunias) or composite flowers we are used to seeing (think sunflowers, echinacea, asters). The diversity of pollinators is as great as the diversity of flowers they feed on thanks to coevolution for thousands of years! Consider adding some tubular flowers to your garden, and enjoy their wacky, wonderful shape.
Recently I paused in front of a display at Kauffman Museum in North Newton that featured a pair of whooping cranes and a single Eskimo Curlew. I thought again about the two stories that are told here.
A story of loss and a story of near loss
The story of the Eskimo Curlew is the story of loss. The Eskimo Curlew was a small migratory shorebird, wintering in the Argentine pampas, and breeding in the Arctic. At the turn of the 20th century, Eskimo curlews numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Yet, in less than 100 years, they would be presumed extinct. In North America, the last individual was seen in 1987 in Nebraska. Market hunting, loss of grasslands, and grasshoppers led to its demise.
The story of Whooping Cranes is the story of saving a species. With 33 known individuals remaining in 1950, whooping cranes were also on the brink of extinction. Whooping cranes remain on the endangered species list today, but through the combined, dedicated efforts of citizens and scientists, populations have increased. Citizens of all ages and interests, familiar with their plight, are helping and tracking the whooping crane migration between Texas and northern Canada. They experience both the joy of watching these magnificent birds, and the satisfaction of assisting in the efforts to preserve this species.
The loss of the Eskimo Curlew and the near loss of Whooping Cranes are both sobering and humbling, knowing as we do, that losses in North American and global bird populations continue at an astonishing pace.
The first-ever comprehensive assessment of net population changes in the U.S. and Canada reveals across-the-board declines that scientists call “staggering.” All told, the North American bird population is down by 2.9 billion breeding adults, with devastating losses among birds in every biome … Grassland bird populations collectively have declined by 53%, or another 720 million birds.
More and more, PEOPLE in every community are concerned, and PEOPLE are making a difference. Enter the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC). The GBBC is a global event held annually on the third weekend in February. The GBBC provides a snapshot of how many and where birds are present. This year citizens from across the U.S. have submitted more than 187,000 checklists, with 665 species reported. Globally, more than 325,000 checklists have recorded 7,417 species.
The GBBC is PEOPLE at work, seeing, hearing, identifying, listing, and enjoying the birds in their yards and gardens. The GBBC is PEOPLE at work as citizen scientists, helping conservationists and scientists and PEOPLE better understand what is happening to bird populations.
The GBBC helps PEOPLE get outdoors, connect to birds, to nature, to an entire global community, as they discover that, “birds are everywhere, all the time, doing fascinating things.” The GBBC serves as a springboard for PEOPLE to care, to make a difference, to create habitats that welcome birds into local landscapes, to advocate for bird conservation at the local, state and federal levels, and to recognize a kinship with the natural world of which birds are such a beautiful and important part.
After my Native Plant School class last week, there were several good questions about native grasses that are worth addressing again.
Question 1: How do you clean up native grasses in the late winter (Feb-March)?
Grasses tend to remain attractive well into winter, providing texture, movement and continuity to the garden. However, they eventually need to be cut back in preparation for spring. We use a gas powered hedge trimmer because we have so many grasses to cut back. The stems are tough but the trimmer easily cuts through them especially compared to hand pruners or loppers.
Starting at the top of the grass, we just cut through the grasses back and forth at 2-3 inch intervals until the grass is cut down to 2-4 inches off the ground. We then scatter the cuttings around the base of the grass so that it is not too thick. The trimmer makes quick work of a five foot grass. If the pile at the base of the grass is too thick, we scatter the clippings someplace else in the garden. This way you are keeping all those overwintering insects in your yard.
In our recent Winter Lecture Series, guest speaker Heather Holm suggested an even more insect-centric approach to spring garden clean up. Gain access to her presentation HERE.
There are more than 400 different native bee species in Kansas.
An estimated 30% of native pollinators nest in pithy stems of plants such as native grasses and wildflowers.
Dead branches or logs decaying provide excellent habitat. Create a small bush pile for birds and pollinators. Overwintering butterflies and ground nesting bees can be found in brush piles and the decomposing wood gives fireflies a place to lay their eggs.
Nearly 70% of native pollinators are ground-nesting, burying into the soil to reproduce. Open soil without landscape fabric or two to three inches of mulch allow these burrowing insects to easily access the soil.
Question 2: When is the best time to plant buffalograss?
Buffalograss is a native warm-season sod forming grass. It needs at least six hours of direct sunlight for it to germinate and grow healthy. It spreads by stolens and has fine blue-green leaves. New seeded forms of buffalograss have been developed over the years such as Cody, Bison, Bowie, Plains, Topgun and Sundancer. Most of these seed forms are available online and some are available at regional Farmers Cooperatives. Seeding can be done anytime from May through August 15 as long as the soil temperatures at a two inch depth are above 60 degrees. Check out Buffalograss: Five Keys to a Successful Planting on our website.
Question 3: Can you list out the heights and mature sizes of the grasses?
One of the key components of a successful native landscape design is situating grasses. Repeating taller grasses at regular intervals looks formal while these same taller grasses at irregular intervals is relaxing and less formal. Grasses unify and blend your landscape together and they are wonderful companion plants with other wildflowers and shrubs.
Short= 4-24 inches, Examples: prairie dropseed, blue grama, pink muhly, sideoats grama, june grass, “Blonde Ambition” blue grama, purple love grass, and Nassella tenuissima,
Medium= 2-4 feet, Examples: Little bluestem, Little bluestem cultivars, Sideoats grama, Blonde Ambition blue grama, Northern sea oats, Pink Muhly grasses, “Cheyenne Sky” switchgrass, “Shenandoah” switchgrass, and sand love grass (Eragrostis trichoides).
Tall= 4-7 feet, Examples: Big bluestem and cultivars, Indian grass and cultivars, Eastern gamma grass, prairie cordgrass, switchgrass and switchgrass cultivars.
Two years ago, I reported on an unusual convergence of migratory paths during the 2020 monarch fallout event here at the Arboretum. As we anticipate an abrupt change in weather and the official arrival of fall with tomorrow’s autumnal equinox, I encourage everyone to keep an eye out for similar monarch migration events in your natural areas.
(Original publication date: October 7, 2020)
It happened again in 2020. The convergence of the peak of the September monarch southerly migration over Southcentral Kansas was met by a strong south wind, causing a “fallout” of monarchs at the Dyck Arboretum. Rather than waste energy fighting the headwind, monarchs find a place of refuge to rest and sip nectar. I would estimate that I’ve seen this phenomenon happen five times in the Arb since 2005 and this year’s was the most memorable for a few different reasons including big numbers, fallout location, and a predator story.
The monarch numbers I observed on Monday, 9/21/2020 seemed to me to be more stunning than I can ever remember. I estimated conservatively in a report to Journey North, there were at least 500 monarchs resting in the Arboretum that day. But after giving it more consideration and talking to a local monarch tagger, Karen Fulk, I wonder if that number was more accurately in the thousands.
Karen’s many years of efforts to tag monarchs in Hesston has her keenly in touch with monarch phenology and migration patterns. She reports that the peak of migration through south central Kansas is usually between 9/22 and 9/27. This year, however, she started seeing an uptick in numbers when a cold front and north wind jump-started the southerly monarch migration a bit earlier.
Karen usually tags 300 annually during the fall migration. This year, Chip Taylor at Monarch Watch, knowing that migration numbers were higher this year, suggested that taggers order extra tags. Karen increased her number to 500 tags and was able to apply most of those when the fallout began Friday 9/18/2020 through Sunday 9/20/2020. Arboretum member, Gerry Epp, further documented this event by posting photos of the fallout on his Facebook page, 9/20/2020.
With some repetition now in seeing these fallouts occur in the same place, I want to give some thought to why they congregate where they do at Dyck Arboretum. Karen usually tags at three places in Hesston based on the ability to catch and tag the maximum number in one place, and Dyck Arboretum is where she does the majority of her work. She estimated that 95% of her tagging this year happened at the Arboretum, based on seeing the greatest number of butterflies here.
I would hypothesize that they repeatedly congregate in the small 1/8th-acre area at the Arboretum amphitheater/pinetum for three reasons. One, they are seeking protection from the elements of wind and heat. This is about energy conservation. By escaping the wind and congregating in large groups on the north side of the dense hedge row of Osage orange trees, they are finding a microclimate that is cooler, more humid, and less turbulent than they would find on the south side.
Two, this location is next to a number of nectar sources. Why not rest where you can eat/drink too? Nearby native plant beds and a reconstructed prairie had a timely profusion of flowering from many species of the genera Helianthus (sunflower), Solidago (goldenrod), Symphotrichium (aster), Liatris (gayfeather), Eryngium (eryngo), and Heptacodium (seven son flower).
Three, a number of white pines in this location may resemble the trees of the Oyamel fir forests in Mexico. I don’t have any proof of this theory, but it seems plausible to me.
The newest wrinkle of this monarch fallout experience was the side story of five immature Mississippi kites. They were probably migrating with the monarchs and decided also to not fight the strong south wind. For a day and a half that I observed, this hungry bunch of pentomic predators took advantage of an abundant food supply. They hung out in the top of one of the white pines and took turns swooping through the monarch clouds to easily catch a snack.
Sometimes they missed catching their target, but usually, these agile insect catchers snagged their prey. Typically they would return to their perch to eat their catch, but sometimes they would eat in flight or “on the wing” as I hear experienced birders say. At one point, I counted approximately 120 monarch wings that had fluttered down to form what I’ll call a monarch confetti debris field. At four wings per monarch, that represented the carnage of about 30 monarchs. However, a number of wings had already been collected by onlookers, so it is not unreasonable to think that the number of monarchs preyed upon were double or triple what I saw.
This predator behavior was a surprising observation. Monarch larvae eat milkweed and sequester in the mature butterfly wings and exoskeleton the milkweed toxins called cardiac glycosides. These heart poisons can seriously affect vertebrate predators, including birds, and often cause them to vomit and subsequently avoid eating them further. However, these young kites not only ate monarchs all day Monday, but they continued their feeding frenzy the next morning. Either their stomachs weren’t too adversely soured, or the calories needed to continue this migratory journey were simply too important.
A Google literature review turned up no articles mentioning this habit of Mississippi kites eating monarchs. However, a follow-up conversation with University of Kansas biology instructor, Brad Williamson, helped me understand that this observation is not so irrational. He explained that the monarch population is not 100% toxic.
“The individual toxicity depends a lot on the particular milkweed species that hosted the larval stage. Asclepias syriaca (common milkweed) and Cynanchum laeve (honeyvine milkweed) are not nearly as toxic as A. verticillata (whorled milkweed). There is an entire range of toxicity and it makes for some great mathematical modeling questions–just how much toxicity (percent toxic) in the population is necessary for protection for the entire population? How much metabolic costs are there for monarchs trying to process highly toxic host plants? Turns out that only 25-40% of the population being toxic confers protection for the remaining population.” (I will include below a bibliography on monarch toxicity that Brad Williamson provided if any of you are interested as I am in learning more about this topic.)
There were a lot of interesting biological and ecological issues at play here with these monarchs and kites. It was just one more interesting natural history story with subplots to be observed by those of us living in the Monarch Flyway. Until I’m able to one day witness the hundreds of millions of monarchs wintering in the the Oyamel forests of central Mexico, I am completely content having a front row seat to this fascinating migration phenomenon right here in Kansas.
To assist the monarchs and their annual migration, plant milkweed host plants and other native nectar plants for adults. Check out our annual spring and fall Flora Kansas native plant sales.
Articles on Monarch Toxicity
Brower, L. P., and C. M. Moffitt. “Palatability Dynamics of Cardenolides in the Monarch Butterfly.” Nature 249, no. 5454 (1974): 280–283.
Brower, Lincoln P. “Avian Predation on the Monarch Butterfly and Its Implications for Mimicry Theory.” The American Naturalist 131 (1988): S4–S6.
Brower, Lincoln P., and Susan C. Glazier. “Localization of Heart Poisons in the Monarch Butterfly.” Science 188, no. 4183 (1975): 19–25.
Brower, Lincoln P., Peter B. McEvoy, Kenneth L. Williamson, and Maureen A. Flannery. “Variation in Cardiac Glycoside Content of Monarch Butterflies from Natural Populations in Eastern North America.” Science 177, no. 4047 (1972): 426–429.
Fink, Linda S., and Lincoln P. Brower. “Birds Can Overcome the Cardenolide Defence of Monarch Butterflies in Mexico.” Nature 291, no. 5810 (1981): 67–70.Malcolm, S. B., and L. P. Brower. “Evolutionary and Ecological Implications of Cardenolide Sequestration in the Monarch Butterfly.” Experientia 45, no. 3 (1989): 284–295.
Malcolm, Stephen B. “Milkweeds, Monarch Butterflies and the Ecological Significance of Cardenolides.” Chemoecology 5, no. 3–4 (1994): 101–117.
Malcolm, Stephen B., Barbara J. Cockrell, and Lincoln P. Brower. “Cardenolide Fingerprint of Monarch Butterflies Reared on Common Milkweed, Asclepias Syriaca L.” Journal of Chemical Ecology 15, no. 3 (1989): 819–853.
Nelson, C. J., J. N. Seiber, and L. P. Brower. “Seasonal and Intraplant Variation of Cardenolide Content in the California Milkweed, Asclepias Eriocarpa, and Implications for Plant Defense.” Journal of Chemical Ecology 7, no. 6 (1981): 981–1010.
Roeske, C. N., J. N. Seiber, L. P. Brower, and C. M. Moffitt. “Milkweed Cardenolides and Their Comparative Processing by Monarch Butterflies (Danaus Plexippus L.).” In Biochemical Interaction between Plants and Insects, 93–167. Springer, 1976.
Zalucki, Myron P., Lincoln P. Brower, and Alfonso Alonso-M. “Detrimental Effects of Latex and Cardiac Glycosides on Survival and Growth of First-Instar Monarch Butterfly Larvae Danaus Plexippus Feeding on the Sandhill Milkweed Asclepias Humistrata.” Ecological Entomology 26, no. 2 (2001): 212–224.
Increasingly, I find enjoyment in the wildlife attracted to my native plant gardens. One species I’ve especially loved seeing has been the Great Plains Skink (Plestiodon obsoletus). For at least 13 years (since I took the above photo), I have observed this species coming and going from under my garage or deck, around the foundation of my house, and to and from my native plant gardens. The combination of these habitats appears to provide suitable cover, food, and thermoregulation for this ectothermic (cold-blooded) reptile.
The adult Great Plains Skink averages 7-9 inches in length (as large as 13″) and is the largest, most common, and most widespread (nearly throughout the entire state) of the seven skink species in Kansas.
Coloring ranges from tan with dark brown markings to light gray or olive. The following photos show some of the variations in colors and markings for this species from juvenile to adult.
In addition to my urban gardens, it is referenced in the book Amphibians, Reptiles, and Turtles in Kansas (Collins, Collins, and Taggart, 2010) that the Great Plains Skink commonly inhabits open, rocky hillsides with low prairie vegetation. Their diet consists of spiders and a variety of insects such as grasshoppers, crickets and beetles.
Breeding occurs in May after which pregnant females dig deep burrows under rocks and lay 5-32 (average of 12) eggs. After a 1-2 month incubation period, hatched young skinks may take several years to reach sexual maturity.
Diversity in the Home Landscape
Landscaping with native plants leads to attraction of a variety of wildlife species. This bigger picture food chain or ecosystem connection between plants and the animals they support has become one of the most interesting and satisfying incentives of incorporating as much native plant diversity into my home landscape as possible. Whether these plant-animal or predator-prey interactions attract butterflies, monarchs or birds that eat them, birds in general, large beetles, fireflies, cicada killers, preying mantids, bats, or skinks, I’m intrigued with observing every single connection and the underlying story it tells.
I’ll leave you with the following observation…from just last night. We added a red fox to the list of species that has visited our urban home landscape. It spent about an hour in a tussle with a flexible plastic downspout tube in one of our gardens. This particular shade garden is where I have most recently seen a skink in recent weeks. Was “skink-in-a-tube” the cause for this entertainment? Will I see the skink again in this area? Whatever the case, I will enjoy continued observations and looking for answers.
I recently read an interesting article about monarch butterflies and their migration needs. The foundation of any successful monarch migration rests on a sufficient supply of native milkweeds, as these are the only plants monarch caterpillars can eat. However, there is ongoing research that suggests nectar plants besides milkweeds should receive more attention, since many milkweeds are done blooming when monarchs return to Mexico in the fall.
Adult monarchs are generalist feeders, and they need varied nectar sources. This is why succession of bloom within your garden is so important. A variety of beautiful wildflowers provide food for monarchs throughout the year, but also support many other butterflies, bees, birds and other wildlife. Yes, milkweeds are still critical to include in your design since they are both a host plant and a nectar source. But here are some other plants that will assist monarchs as they migrate:
Trees and Shrubs
Ceanothus americanus/herbaceous (New Jersey Tea) – Attractive clusters of white flowers in spring and early summer.
Cephalanthus occidentalis (buttonbush) – Interesting white flowers May-September and beautiful fall color. Likes moisture and is great for heavy clay soils.
Prunus serotina (Black Cherry) – Long clusters of fragrant white flowers in spring. Large tree with fruit for birds later in the season.
Rhus spp. (sumac) – Shrubs or small trees with useful flowers for pollinators, fruit for other wildlife and good fall color.
Heptacodium miconioides (Seven-son Flower) – Small ornamental tree with flowers in September. Monarchs have flocked to our trees while in bloom.
Sambucus canadensis (Elderberry) – Creamy white flowers in the summer atop this large wetland shrub.
Lindera benzoin (Spicebush) – Yellow-green flowers in the early spring. Shrub with fragrant foliage and nice yellow fall color.
Ribes odoratum (Clove Currant) – Bright yellow spicy scented flowers in April-May, followed by delicious black berries. It makes a nice understory shrub.
Perennials other than Milkweeds
Symphyotrichum novae-angliae (New England Aster) – Purple, pink and lavender blooms September and October are extremely important nectar sources for adult monarchs.
Other Aster species: Aromatic Aster, Sky blue Aster, and Heath Aster
Solidago sp. (Goldenrod sp.) – Bright yellow blooms in the late summer through early fall.
Vernonia lettermanii ‘Iron Butterfly’ (Ironweed) – Deep purple blooms in August and September.
Liatris sp. (Blazing Star) – Purple blooms on these diverse native perennials are a favorite of pollinators.
Echinacea sp. (Coneflowers) – These summer blooming wildflowers provide a perfect landing pad for monarchs and pollinators of all sorts. The seeds are eaten by birds through the winter.
Pycnanthemum sp. Mountain Mint – These spreading wildflowers are usually covered with pollinators of all kinds when they bloom in the summer. Give them room in the garden because they do roam.
Monarda sp. (Beebalm) – Fragrant foliage and bright pinkish blooms attract a host of pollinators.
Fuel for the Flight
Again, monarchs need milkweeds. These plants are vital to their reproductive processes. However, they need other nectar-rich wildflowers too. This is one of the weak points in their return migration journey. As they migrate south in the fall, they are not reproductive. Their goal during this part of the migratory cycle is to fuel up on late season nectar plants and build up their body fat so they can make it to Mexico and survive the winter. There, in early March of the following spring, they will leave their mountain roosts to mate, lay eggs on milkweed, and start the cycle all over again.
It is so important to provide fuel and sustenance for Monarchs and other pollinators. Available milkweeds, nectar plants, along with water, trees or other protection at night for roosting and connected habitats will help them all along the way – south to north and back again.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The wildflowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees at Dyck Arboretum have mostly slipped into dormancy here in mid November and the activity of insects they support has greatly diminished. As a result, I often turn my attention this time of the year to wildlife. This week I am focused on the eastern screech owl (Megascops asio).
The attention to this species started when colleague Katie Schmidt recently alerted me to a head poking out of a wood duck box installed along our west border this spring by member Woody Miller.
According to Kansas birding experts Bob Gress and Pete Janzen from their book The Guide to Kansas Birds and Birding Hot Spots, this small species (8″ tall and with a wingspan of 20″) is typically found in wooded habitat and is common in urban areas throughout Kansas.
Trees are essential habitat for eastern screech owls where they roost/nest in cavities and cache extra food when plentiful. Woodpecker holes, spaces of wood rot, abandoned squirrel cavities, and boxes built for purple martins or wood ducks all make for suitable abodes for the eastern screech owl. They prefer an open understory and will also make use of open parkland, farms, and suburban areas as hunting grounds.
Eastern screech owls will nest once each year and lay two to six 1.3-1.4″ long white eggs. In Kansas, they nest in spring. The incubation period takes 26 days with the female sitting on the nest while the male hunts and the young will fledge roughly a month after hatching. The young depend on their parents for food and learning hunting tactics for roughly 8-10 weeks after fledging.
Their diet includes just about any small animal including rodents, birds, frogs, lizards and even smaller prey such as insects, earthworms, crayfish and tadpoles. I even spotted one early on a summer night in my backyard waiting on a tree branch and intently watching my bat house 10 feet away, which was squeaky with big brown bat activity before a night of hunting.
Attracting Eastern Screech Owls to Your Landscape
As with any segment of wildlife, you will greatly increase your chances of attracting eastern screech owls to live near you if you provide food, water, shelter, and nesting sites. Having trees with cavities will certainly help your case and putting up a nesting box certainly won’t hurt either. Then, as we promote with so many of our posts, create as much diverse native plant habitat as possible. This habitat will attract the insects, small mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles that owls love to eat.
Each fall there are a lot of articles and checklists outlining what you need to do to make a healthy garden – a whole stack of chores that take so much time and effort. Who are you tidying for? Is all that raking, cutting, hauling, tidying, trimming and pulling necessary this time of year? I’m here to tell you to stop and take a few steps back before doing much yard and garden clean up this fall. Here’s my fall checklist for a wildlife beneficial landscape:
First, all that tidying is destroying habitat and making it more difficult for backyard wildlife to survive the winter in your landscape. Leave your perennials and grasses standing through the fall and winter. These plants are resources for wildlife, offering shelter, overwintering sites and sometimes food. Cut back perennials and grasses in early spring.
There is one exception – if you have diseased plants, cut them back now and dispose of the debris, but not in the compost pile.
DO spread mulch around trees and shrubs. A fresh layer of mulch insulates the soil from weather extremes. Two to three inches of mulch helps conserve water and control weeds. Too much mulch though can be a real problem as it seals off the soil from air exchange and makes soil go into an anaerobic state too wet for plants to thrive. Mulch is a good way to keep mowers and string trimmer away from the trunks and stems.
DO take a walk through you garden and label any plants that you are thinking about moving in the spring. Look for signs of drought stress in your landscape and remember plants that have struggled this year. Unhappy plants may need a new home and would benefit from a space with more sun, more shade, or more or less water. By flagging them now, you will save yourself some time searching for them next March or April. Use durable labels with pencil markings or waterproof pen that will not fade from the sun to mark their location. Keep in mind that some of these plants may be very difficult to identify next year.
DO assess your landscape as an ecosystem. Do you have the habitat that attracts pollinators and wildlife? Are there plant layers of trees, shrubs and perennials that mimic natural areas around you? What plants have you noticed are missing from your landscape? What is the starting point to create beneficial elements, layers and habitat in your landscape? Each different layer provides habitat and resources for different wildlife, so plan to include any missing layers in the spring.
Look up and observe any pruning that needs to be done. Look for dead or diseased wood in your trees and shrubs and take note of path encroachment by neighboring shrubs. During winter, when these plants are dormant, is the best time to prune for best plant health.
DO leave fallen leaves in place whenever possible. Don’t let them smother your lawn, but rather mulch them into the lawn with several passes of your mulching mower. If you are inundated with leaves, collect them and use them in plant beds. Leaves make excellent compost and add organic matter to the soil. It is often overlooked that leaves offer overwintering sites for invertebrates and other critters that are part of healthy ecosystems. Remove only as much as needed.
This whole growing season you have created habitat through the use of native plants. You have been careful to avoid the use of pesticides and herbicides as much as possible. Bird baths, feeders, brush piles, and nectaring plants have helped build up populations of bees, butterflies, bugs, birds and other wildlife.
You have created habitat so why destroy all that hard work by tearing it all down right now? Let the wildlife you have attracted to your landscape survive through the winter. Embrace a little untidiness. It will be worth it. Wait until March or early April to get your landscape ready for another growing season.
My phone is chock full of caterpillar photos. It seems I am constantly stooping down to examine another caterpillar, and to document what it is eating. I am a big fan of all insects, but especially these charismatic transformers. With their plump bodies and endless colors, it is not hard to see why people are becoming more interested in attracting them to the garden.
Host plants are a key part of that process. Caterpillars of all kinds often have a specific food plant or plant family that they need to survive. While I am familiar with monarchs on milkweed and swallowtails on parsley, there is a whole world of interesting host plants out there to utilize in the landscape.
My house cats can be picky eaters, but caterpillars are even worse. Many of these little creatures can only feed on a handful of plant species. Their mothers may have to fly miles and miles to find the right plant to lay her eggs on. That is why it is so important to support the native insects of your area by gardening with the native plants they have evolved with for millennia.
Recently I added a few new host plants to my mental list of must-haves for caterpillar habitat.
Aspens and willows for viceroy butterflies
Primrose and lythrum for sphinx moths
Baptisia for broom moths
Sumac for spotted datanas
Appreciate, Don’t Hate
As my knowledge of host plants grows, so does my appreciation for native plants and the intricate ecosystem they support. I am so encouraged to hear more people calling them friends rather than foes, and wanting to identify and observe rather than squish and poison. It is always best practice to pause before sprinkling that pesticide – your garden will thank you, since most caterpillars do more good than harm. Changing our perspective about caterpillars, and all insects, is key to maintaining a functional, healthy food web. If you are interested in finding more caterpillars in your Kansas landscape, reach out to the staff at Dyck Arboretum for consultation, follow our Facebook and Instagram accounts for educational content, and mark your calendars for next spring’s FloraKansas fundraiser!