A Flint Hills Visit: Inspiration for Native Landscaping

The prairie and its Flint Hills environment at Chase State Fishing Lake (CSFL) provide serious inspiration for native landscaping. The CSFL vegetation, wildlife, substrate below, and the sky above collectively compose for me the most beloved and iconic landscape of native Kansas.

During my many past visits to CSFL, I have usually had an agenda that involved leading a tour group, collecting seed, or gathering butterfly data. I have never taken the opportunity to climb the bluff, sit in the prairie, listen to the grassland birds, observe butterflies and other pollinators, and watch the clouds go by. But I did just that on a recent Saturday in late June.

American lady butterfly on purple coneflower at CSFL

Pure Enjoyment

In addition to providing inspiration for native landscaping, visits to CSFL bring me pure enjoyment. During this recent visit, the steady breeze – with not a tree to stop it – was a reliable Kansas air conditioner. It kept me from thinking about the sweat-inducing effects of the hot sun. The puffy clouds overhead kept changing the light patterns and offered ever-fresh visual perspectives. In the midst of a surreal pandemic experience, when home and work routines are turned upside down and inside out, sitting on that prairie bluff was like visiting an old friend.

Big sky and clean water make CSFL a great place to fish or swim on a hot summer day

Desirable Wildflowers

The prairie wildflowers were plentiful during my visit thanks to a wet spring. The prairie plants we promote for the home landscape are in their native ecosystem here, with root systems that extend 10 to 15 feet into a matrix of limestone/flint/chert.

Rich images of plants like narrow-leaved bluets (white flowers) and lead plant (purple flowers) growing through rock are common at CSFL

In addition to a stunning display of orange and red butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), other flowering species included tuberous Indian plantain (Arnoglossum plantagineum), narrow-leaved milkweed (Asclepias stenophylla), smooth milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii), green milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora), serrate-leaf evening primrose (Calylophus serrulatus), white prairie-clover (Dalea candida), purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Illinois tickclover (Desmodium illinoense), purple coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia), narrow-leaf bluets (Hedyotis nigricans), catclaw sensitive briar (Mimosa quadrivalvis), and prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera). In your garden, these plants will attract monarch larvae (milkweeds) and other pollinators, fix nitrogen (legumes) and provide year-round visual interest.

Smooth milkweed at CSFL

Interesting Critters

The insects observed on flowers (including 17 butterfly species I noted) were plentiful. Spending time identifying and documenting insect diversity makes me want to see more of them in my landscape. Diversity of wildlife species is directly correlated to the diversity of plants in an ecosystem. Increase the diversity of flora and you will increase the diversity of fauna!

Wild indigo duskywings mating on lead plant at CSFL

In her last blog post, colleague Katie talks about the fun of identifying insects (The Mystery of the Orange Bug). I can certainly relate to the fun of trying to solve mystery insects.

The caterpillar pictured below is a new one to me. One of the identification tools and bio-networking platforms I’d like to use more is iNaturalist. Click HERE to see a couple of photos and help me with identification of this unknown (to me) caterpillar. One follower of this thread suggested the correct ID to be a salt marsh moth. I would have a hard time arguing otherwise.

Possibly a salt marsh moth on lead plant

Butterfly Milkweed

If nothing else, spending time at CSFL in late June will inspire you to fill your landscape with butterfly milkweed. It is harder to grow the same remarkable eye candy of this favorite prairie plant in richer and less well-drained soils. But in spite of my 50% success rate (at best), I keep trying. Never before have I heard somebody say that a prairie reconstruction or garden has too much butterfly milkweed!

Butterfly milkweed at CSFL

None of us will be able to completely recreate the open prairie of the Flint Hills in our urban landscapes. We can, however, take incremental steps in that direction with the plants we choose and the wildlife we attract. Visit Chase State Fishing Lake, absorb some if its good vibes, copy some of its elements with your plant selection choices, enjoy the wildlife viewing, and find new inspiration for native landscaping.

Click HERE for more of my thoughts about and photos from an earlier blog post about Chase State Fishing Lake.

How to Plan for Pollinators

It is hard to believe, but it is mid-January already.  Spring is right around the corner.  Yes, it will be here before I am fully prepared.  Are you ready for spring?  Do you know what your garden needs?  Do you know what pollinators need?  How can we sync our gardens better with nature?  These questions and many more have been rolling around in my head over the past few weeks.

I have been reading articles and reviewing plant catalogs.  My brain is in overload.   Here is one of the directions I will be taking my garden this year.  I am planning for pollinators and not just hoping they will magically appear.  So, what does that look like?  Here are a few points to consider as you plan for pollinators in your own garden this year:

Establish plants with nectar.

Pollinators depend on nectar throughout their adult life stage.  A variety of native wildflowers that grow in a sunny location and bloom at different times throughout the year provide pollinators with a constant nectar source.  Not every plant is beneficial to pollinators.  If possible, utilize native plants because they offer nectar that many native pollinators seek.  Here are some sample landscape designs to get you started.

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Bumblebee on Echinacea purpurea - photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

Bumblebee on Echinacea purpurea – photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

Think of color and form.

Butterflies can see yellow, orange, pink, blue and purple blossoms. Bees are unable to see the color red, but are very attracted to yellow and blue flowers.  Darker colors such as black are a warning sign for them to stay away.  Bees for the most part are attracted to bright colors.  So don’t wear a bright colored shirt in the garden.  Flat-topped or clustered flowers provide a place to settle for feeding.  We carry many options of native plants at our FloraKansas Plant Sale.

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Texan Crescent

Provide puddles.

Butterflies like wet sand and mud left behind by puddles or on the edge of a water feature.  They drink the water and extract minerals from damp soil.

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Pearl crescent butterflies – Photo by Dave Osborne

Establish host plants.

Host plants provide food for butterfly larvae (caterpillars).  Butterflies look for specific plants when they are ready to lay eggs.  The host plants for the Monarch butterfly are milkweeds.  If you want to help save the Monarch butterfly, include some milkweeds in your garden plan.  Here is some additional information on Monarchs.

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Great Spangled Fritillary on Sullivant’s Milkweed

Make your garden a pesticide-free zone.

Insecticides kill insects.  Herbicides kill plants, but they can be toxic to insects as well.  Pesticide-free lawns and gardens allow pollinators to survive and flourish.

Provide habitat.

Small wood piles, old logs and leaves in your garden at strategic areas provide important habitats for many different pollinators.  Bees will uses these areas to overwinter because they keep them safe from the elements and predators.  Don’t be too quick to get rid of that old rotting log.  It is just what pollinators need.

Bee Hotel Photo by John Regier

Bee Hotel – Photo by John Regier

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Bee Hotel Explanation – Photo by John Regier

Many butterflies, pollinators and native wildflowers have co-evolved over time so that each depends on the other for survival.  Wildflowers provide food for all life stages of pollinators.  In return, wildflowers and much of the food we eat are pollinated by bees, butterflies, and a host of other pollinators.  With a little planning now, pollinators will flock to your garden this year and in years to come.