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.

Visit A Favorite Place – Chase State Fishing Lake

June is almost here and it is time for the prairie to shine. The prairie gardens we promote in our urban landscapes feature many prairie elements that start to look really nice this time of the year as well, but sometimes it is most enjoyable to visit the source prairies. One of the best locations to do this in Kansas is the Flint Hills physiographic region and specifically, Chase State Fishing Lake (CSFL).

An anvil cloud approaching CSFL

I’ve probably been there at least a couple of dozen times in the last 15 years and have found something new and fascinating each time. Years of seed collecting for our Dyck Arboretum prairie reconstruction introduced me to this place, and subsequent trips have had me return with Arboretum members, interns, family and friends as I seek to share this unique Kansas gem with as many people as possible.

My son, Ben, searching for treasures at CSFL

CSFL has its human-made construction marks, including the access road, dam, reservoir and spillway. These amenities promote easier access and recreation opportunities including camping, fishing, and swimming. The spillway highlights a series of limestone shelves where, during times of higher water flow, cascading waterfalls are a powerful sight to see. During low flow times, the shady dripping falls and clear shallow pools are a delightful destination during a hot summer day. There is nothing like a watershed made up entirely of prairie to provide a reservoir of pristine water for fishing and swimming.

CSFL spillway during high flow

My spouse, Sara, and I at a section of the CSFL spillway falls

The lake edge is a great location to witness the history of this place dating back to approximately 70 million years ago in the late Cretaceous period when Kansas was under an inland sea. Exposed sedimentary limestone features fossils including gastropods, bivalves and crinoids. During seed collection forays, my boys in their younger years would spend hours looking for fossils lakeside and I have to smile when I occasionally find crinoids around the house from their collections.

Fossils in limestone at CSFL

The wildlife is plentiful at CSFL. I don’t typically spend much time seeking it out during visits, but the diverse prairie ecosystem is teeming with insects, spiders, mammals, reptiles, and birds. Even though wild populations of bison are gone from the Flint Hills, evidence of buffalo wallows from hundreds and even thousands of years ago are still visible as small round compacted wetlands on the prairie ridge tops. It wasn’t till after a number of trips there that an accompanying herpetologist friend turning over rocks while I was collecting seed, alerted me to the fact that a diverse world of snakes and scorpions could be found under foot if you just look for it.

A focus of mine during some visits has been documenting prairie birds and butterflies. Bird species such as upland sandpipers and Henslow’s sparrows and butterfly species such as arogos skippers and regal fritillaries may have become rare throughout the Great Plains in general, but these species still thrive in the expansive prairies of the Flint Hills.

My first ever and only confirmed sighting of the rare arogos skipper occurred at CSFL

Regal fritillary butterfly (Speyeria idalia) on tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum)

Maize High School students observing the abundance of insects…

…and spiders at CSFL

The crown jewel of CSFL, in my opinion, is the prairie vegetation. Hundreds of species of grasses, wildflowers, sedges, vines, shrubs, and trees makeup the diverse skin and lifeblood of this Flint Hills landscape. Searching out flowers and seeds of these species is a like a deluxe scavenger hunt from March to November. A good reason to visit in early to mid June is to enjoy the stunning shows of butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) among dozens of other species blooming at the same time.

Flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata)

Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Finally, there is no better place to take in the grandeur of the relationship between the land and the sky. I’ve been fortunate to watch a thunderstorm roll in at CSFL and I can only imagine what it is like to witness a prairie fire there. With few to no trees to impede your view of the horizon, a ridge top there is an exquisite place to watch the sun rise and set. With only the sound of the wind and the dickcissels, meadowlarks, and grasshopper sparrows to serenade your visit, I find it one of the most enjoyable and even spiritual natural places in Kansas.

A tour group enjoying the last hours of daylight on a ridge top at CSFL

Prairie sunset at CSFL






A Day on the Prairie is Good Medicine

Well, it happened again!  I spent another beautiful day in the Flint Hills.  After several weeks of busyness, I needed some quiet and solitude – time away from the office to refocus my thoughts and recharge my batteries.  I knew just the place to go.

Deep in the heart of the Flint Hills there is a secluded pond that is stocked with Largemouth bass.  It is rare that you don’t catch a fish and this particular day was no exception.  The fish were biting, but more importantly the sun was shining, the breeze was light and the spring wildflowers were in bloom.  It was a picture perfect day.

We who live in Kansas often get criticized for the lack of beauty in the state.  While it is true that we don’t have mountains and we don’t have large forests and we don’t have beautiful sand beaches, what we do have is open prairie. We have an unobstructed, open view of the blue sky.  We have some of the best sunrises and sunsets in the world, with colors and hues that change from one minute to the next and reach from west to east.  I am amazed each and every time I pause to appreciate the beginning and the end of the day.  They are truly works of art and a gift to be appreciated.

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Quivira Wildlife Refuge at dusk. Photo by Brad Guhr.

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Quivira Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Brad Guhr.

This particular day my senses were heightened.  The Flint Hills prairie was spectacular.  I was keenly aware of the various sights and sounds all around me.  I noticed the Meadowlarks singing on the fence posts and the various birds in the Cottonwood trees near the pond.  The scissor-tailed flycatcher was doing his thing over the grasses and I could hear the call of a pheasant in the distance.  The prairie was alive with activity.

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Chase State Fishing Lake. Photo Courtesy of Bob Regier

I walked through the prairie noticing all the spring wildflowers blooming.  There was tremendous diversity from tiny violet woodsorrel (Oxalis violacea) to yellow grooved flax (Linum sulcatum) to Milkvetch (Astragalus sp.) to larger wildflowers like Blue False Indigo (Baptisia australis var. minor) and Green Antelopehorn Milkweed (Asclepias virids).   The prairie I was walking through had been burned this spring, so individual wildflowers stood out amongst the dark green grass blades.

I believe people from other states and landscapes would change their minds about Kansas if they could have been with me that day.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. Photo by Brad Guhr.

In my opinion, we take the Kansas landscape for granted, with its striking beauty, its stunning complexity and diversity and its open expanse stretching to the horizon.   It is a landscape worthy of appreciation and admiration.

If you have a chance, take a drive and spend a day on the prairie.  Why not this week?  It may be just what you need.  It certainly helped me to reconnect and left me refreshed.  It was good medicine.

Try these links to set your prairie itinerary.  Natural Kansas , Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve , Cimarron National Grasslands , Konza Prairie , Maxwell Wildlife Refuge , The Nature Conservancy of Kansas .