Roots of Native Plants

The prairie is a unique ecosystem with great diversity of plants. This diversity is extremely important because there are so many niches within the prairie. These are created by differing rainfall averages across the expanse of the landscape from west to east, different soil types and different depths of soil for plants to grow. This adaptability and resiliency of plants is correlated in part to the root systems associated with many native plants.

Photo used by permission from Nature Education-1995 Conservation Research Institute, Heidi Natura.

Plants grow in community

For so long, we have thought that the deep roots of many of these native plants translated to their ability to withstand drought and extreme temperatures. However, more research is pointing to the fact that most of the water absorption occurs in the top two to four feet of the soil profile. As it turns out, plants grow in community with each other and each above ground layer (groundcover, seasonal theme, and structure) draws moisture from different zones within those few feet of soil. This allows them to grow harmoniously together and not in competition with each other. This is the matrix planting concept, which mimics what happens naturally within a prairie. 

Narrowleaf Coneflower in the Flint Hills

Why are deep root systems important?

What we see above ground is typically only a third of the overall plant.  Roots exist out of sight and can reach anywhere from 8 to 14 feet into the soil.  Yes, these extensive roots do absorb moisture and nutrients but they do so much more.  They play an important role in helping a plant grow, thrive and improve the environment around them.

These hidden roots also:

  • Anchor the plant in the soil as plants try to reach for sunlight
  • Store excess food for future needs underground
  • Nourish the soil by dying and regrowing new roots each year, which builds top soil 
  • Fix nitrogen in the soil (legumes)
  • Increase bio productivity, by absorbing and holding toxins and heavy metals, carbon sequestration
  • Prevent erosion – fibrous roots hold the soil and absorb more runoff (as in a rain garden)
Butterfly Milkweed

I believe that native plant roots make these prairie plants resilient in the landscape. They are adapted to our local soils, rainfall and nutrients. In the 2011 and 2012 drought years, we observed native plants blooming in the fall, even after enduring 50+ days of 100 degree temperatures. This could not have happened without a healthy, sustaining root system. 

So while we learn more about the root systems of native plants and the sustaining role they play within the life of a prairie, we know that bringing native plants back into our environments continues to have so many positive benefits. Let’s work at getting more native plants into our landscapes and let them flourish.

Saturated Soils and Wilting Plants

This year we have been facing many environmental challenges from wind, drought, torrential rain for a lucky few, and now soaring temperatures. Nobody said gardening in Kansas would be easy. One of the more common problems we see in spring is wilting plants, especially those that are newly transplanted. This is true after the big rains last week and now the heat of this week. The new gardener may wonder – “what’s wrong with my plants?”

Saturated Soils

The heavy rain has resulted in saturated soil. Plants need water, but standing water for hours or even days depletes the soil of valuable oxygen. The roots need oxygen present in the soil, but as voids are filled with water, the oxygen is removed and root systems can become damaged. The fine root hairs die from lack of oxygen. These fine hair roots are vital for water and nutrient uptake by the plant. Whether it is a perennial or vegetable crop like tomatoes, the plants wilt because the uptake of water has been interrupted.

Will the wilting plants recover?

A number of factors affect the plant’s ability to overcome a flooding episode. How long the plants were flooded, drainage away from the root system, type of soil, type of plants (think about their natural habitat: some plants appreciate wet soils while other don’t), and how long the plant has been established. A newly established plant will be more affected than a mature plant.

Liatris wilting

Many vegetables crops are sensitive to flooding or saturated soils, but if the soil dries out quickly they will usually recover on their own with no help from us. Heavily mulched plants with more than two to three inches of mulch tend to stay wet too long for many perennials. If you see this wilting happening, check soil moisture. The mulch is not allowing the soil to dry out and may be damaging the roots. Rake back the mulch for a few days to encourage the soil to dry out.

If the soil stinks, then it has transitioned into an anaerobic state and everything is killed in the soil, including microbes and roots. Not a good situation. At this point it is very difficult to bring a plant back, because it is too badly damaged. Native plants generally appreciate good drainage. Root rot or crown rot are two of the most common problems, because the soil stays wet too long. As an example, narrow-leaf coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia) grows on rocky hillsides with keen drainage and no standing water. Planting one of these coneflowers in a flat garden with heavy clay soils is a recipe for disaster.

This time of year, gardeners should also be on the lookout for increased incidences of diseases such as early blight and powdery mildew. Humidity and excess moisture can quickly damage plants with these diseases, too.

Yellow Leaves

Echinacea turning yellow from too much water

Yellowing foliage can also be a problem after a heavy rain event. This is a visual indicator of compromised roots, but also the leaching out of nitrogen in the soil. Nitrogen is mobile in the soil and moves downward away from roots with moisture. An application of slow-release fertilizer like Osmocote or a liquid fertilizer will green the plant back up over time.

I only recommend fertilizing fully established perennials, i.e. plants you put into the ground last year. Fertilizing newly planted perennials will cause excess top growth without a sustaining root system. With native wildflowers and grasses, it generally takes three to five years to develop a sustaining root system.

To avoid these problems, it is critical to match plants to your site. Good drainage and keeping moisture away from the crowns of the plants will keep your plants healthy too. Don’t put too much mulch around your plants, especially the main stem. Plant your garden densely and let the plants be the mulch.

If you do mulch your garden, only put enough to just cover the soil. Usually one to two inches is enough. Allow the plants to develop roots that tap into the moisture and nutrients. We need the spring rains, but sometimes we can get too much for our newer perennials.

The first year: Getting native plants established

Originally published on May 27, 2020

The prairie communities we see are diverse and complex.  Plants, intricately woven together, crowd out weeds and harmoniously coexist.  When you look at a prairie, you only see about 1/3 of the plant.  The root systems that sustain these native plants make up the remainder, because they reach deep into the soil.  The first year is so critical to the whole process of getting native plants established. Developing these root systems properly is vitally important and the establishment period takes time.  Here are a few steps I take to get my new native plants started. 

Prairie Photo by Brad Guhr

Planting

I like to lay out the entire area by placing the plants where they are supposed to be planted.  This does a couple things: first, it helps with proper spacing of the plants and second, it helps to visualize the final outcome.  Think about mature size, rather than what the plants looks like in its infant state. 

Now that we have the plants laid out, we can start putting them in the soil.  It is critical to not plant them too deep.  In our heavy clay soils, it is best to plant them level or slightly higher (1/8 to ¼ inch) than the soil line, especially in heavier clay soil.  This keeps the crown drier, which is important for disease control.  Over time, these natives will develop at the depth they prefer to grow in. 

Lay out entire bed for proper spacing

Watering

Now that the plants are in the ground, they need frequent watering until they get established. Even drought-tolerant plants need to be watered daily until they begin to root and connect with the soil around them. Keep in mind that improper watering is the most common reason for plant loss during the establishment period. 

For me, I water each new area by hand rather than with a sprinkler. It helps me control the amount of water each plant receives and directs it to the intended plant.  I water every day for the first two weeks depending on the weather.  After that first two weeks, you should start to see new growth. 

For the next few weeks, I water every other day or every third day as needed, monitoring the planting each day for signs of stress/wilting. 

Even after this month long process of establishment, each plant must be monitored and watered through the following summer, fall, winter and spring.  Native plants are not established until the second summer. 

Remember, it takes a few years for those roots to fully develop.  If your plants are properly sited, you will not need to water much after the first full year.  However, if you must water your area during a dry period, natives will appreciate deep and infrequent watering. 

Using a watering wand to direct water on to new plants

Don’t Fertilize

People ask me all the time about fertilizing native plants.  As a general rule, I don’t fertilize our native plants especially during that first year. Think about those small plants in the ground and what will happen to them if they are fertilized. They will have tremendous top growth that is not sustainable by the small root system. This will put the plant under stress and slow its progress. 

Natives are resilient and adaptive. The deep roots most often will find the nutrients and moisture each plant needs.

Mulch

In the book Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes, Thomas Rainer and Claudia West develop the ideas of layering plants. There are usually at least three distinct layers of plants: the upper layer filled with taller structural plants used to frame and punctuate the landscape, the middle layer filled with ornamental flowering plants and the ground level that weaves the other layers together and shades the soil, which controls weeds. 

These layers mimic natural plant communities and each layer is important for the health of the plants.  A collection of plants living in community can be extremely drought tolerant and water-thrifty.

If you decide to mulch your display beds initially, only place one to two inches of mulch down and keep it away from the stems.  This is fine as the beds are first established. As they mature, less mulch is needed because, with the right care, the plants become the mulch.  Something to think about is whether you have seen mulch in the prairie?  No, the plants eventually co-mingle and intertwine to push out weeds.     

Creating a native landscape takes time.  With each new plant established comes an expectation of a brighter future. Often, we garden and landscape our yards with the anticipation of what we will get rather than what we are giving back.  By adding native plants to our gardens, we will help make our gardens not only beautiful, but also productive and full of life.

Defining Common Horticultural Terms, Part 2

We encounter many enthusiastic new gardeners at FloraKansas who have heard about the importance of planting native plants, but don’t yet have the knowledge base needed to establish a successful planting. If you’re dreaming of a flourishing prairie pollinator garden, let me unpack the why behind the what of a few more horticultural terms for you.

Host Plants

Often, the focus for our gardens is on blooms and succession of blooms, more so than host plants.  Beautiful gardens in full bloom are what we see in catalogs, magazine and books. It is natural to gravitate toward these flourishing gardens that nectar-seeking butterflies need to sustain themselves. However, host plants (food for butterfly caterpillars) will keep them coming back to your landscape for years to come.    

It’s important to plan for the entire life cycle of a pollinator. Butterflies need places to lay their eggs.  Think of host plants as the baby nurseries of the garden. Female butterflies will flit and flutter through your garden looking for the right plant to lay their eggs. Some will lay their eggs on stems, or on the underside of leaves, hidden from predators. If you have a variety of host plants, you will attract a variety of butterflies. 

Newly hatched monarch caterpillar on common milkweed (Photo by Brad Guhr)

Ultimately, the goal of any habitat garden is to provide everything those butterfly species need to complete their life cycle. Food for all stages of their life cycle, protection, and water are needed at different times throughout the year. The tiny larvae (caterpillars) will emerge and begin eating on the host plant. As they eat, they grow until they leave the plant and form a chrysalis. It is a fascinating process that you can watch unfold in your own garden. 

Here are a few host plants and the pollinator they attract:

  • Wild Lupine – Karner Blue butterfly
  • Golden alexander – Black Swallowtail butterfly
  • New Jersey Tea – Spring Azure butterfly
  • Columbine – Columbine Duskywing
  • Smooth Blue Aster – Crescent Butterflies
  • Little Bluestem – Leonard’s Skipper
  • Prairie Violet – Fritillary Butterflies
  • Pearly Everlasting – American Lady
  • Milkweeds – Monarchs
  • Paw Paw – Zebra Swallowtail butterfly
Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly on Pawpaw tree at the Arboretum, photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

Resource: Holm, Heather. Pollinators of Native Plants: Attract, Observe, and Identify Pollinators and Beneficial Insects with Native Plants. Pollination Press, 2014.

Sunlight Defined

Knowing how much light you have within your landscape is an important piece to a sound design. By simply watching sun patterns throughout the year, you will be able to determine how much sunlight your garden receives. Industry standards and labeling can then be used to assist in selecting the right plants for your landscape conditions. Here are some terms worth knowing since all plants require sunlight to grow, but differ in the amount and intensity of light needed to prosper. 

  • Full sun – Plants need at least 6 hours of direct sun daily
  • Part sun – Plants thrive with between 3 and 6 hours of direct sun per day
  • Part shade – Plants require between 3 and 6 hours of sun per day, but need protection from intense mid-day sun
  • Full shade – Plants require less than 3 hours of direct sun per day

Full Sun

Not surprisingly, this type of light describes what most prairie plants need. They enjoy open, bright sunny locations with direct sunlight for most of the day. This could also be morning shade/afternoon sun or vice versa, as long as there is at least 6 hours of continuous sunlight. Most of these plants have deeper root systems or adaptations that help them endure this light intensity for the growing season. 

Let experience be your guide when situating plants. Yes, some plants can handle full sun, but need protection for the hot afternoon sun. Or they can handle full sun with consistent moisture. This is the other reason to understand your site, including soil moisture, soil type, root competition and drainage.  All these factors directly affect plants too.  

Sun loving prairie plants

Part Sun and Part Shade

These light definitions are quite a bit different than plants for full sun.  Plants for part sun and part shade obviously require less light, more importantly, the light intensity is a key factor for their endurance and success.  Filtered sun for most of the day or morning sun afternoon shade fit the bill for situating plants.  Too much direct sunlight for too long a period will stunt plants needing part sun or part shade. 

There is often a fine line between getting too much sun that the plants suffer and getting too little light that the plants don’t bloom. For either group, providing direct morning sun is often the best choice.

Full Shade

Most shade plants require anything from the dappled shade found under deciduous trees, indirect light found on the north side of the house or deeper shade found under evergreens. In our area, growing shade plants can be a challenge because we are trying to grow shade plants in what was once a prairie environment with intense full sun. True shade plants often perish because they get too much sun, too much hot dry wind and/or too little moisture.

To successfully grow shade plants in our area, they need protection and consistent moisture. Any shade gardens must mimic the woodland environment. Loamy soils with leaf litter, consistent moisture – but not too much! – and protection from drying winds. It can be a challenge, but shade gardens can be carefully created with the proper light conditions, too.

Dyck Arboretum woodland garden with columbine, woodland phlox, white woodland aster and solomon’s seal

Watering Winter Landscapes

One key to successfully establishing plants in the fall is to periodically check them through the winter months. It has been an extremely dry fall and early winter in our area and for much of Kansas. More than likely, these new established plants are dry and would benefit from a deep soaking. Now is the time to check your plants if you have not already.

Trees and shrubs

Newly planted trees and shrubs are still growing as long as the ground is not frozen and will benefit from up to five gallons of water. Larger trees may need more water. If you have properly planted them with a small basin around the trunk, you can fill it with water and let the water percolate into the soil. This basin concentrates most of the moisture around the original root ball and those fresh new roots. I would even water trees and shrubs you planted within the last few years, because they have not fully developed sustaining root systems. Keep in mind that evergreen trees are always losing and using moisture. They are the most susceptible to desiccation during winter.

American Elm with soil basin for easy watering

Perennials

Hopefully, you were able to get your grasses and perennials established properly last fall. As part of the establishment process, roots attached to the damp soil and they were able to take up moisture on their own. As that soil has dried over the past few months, the perennials are at risk of drying out since they don’t have a deep fully developed root system. Check around the plants and water if the top couple of inches of soil is dry. Native grasses are not actively growing now since the soil temperature is below 60 degrees. But even grasses would absorb a little water this time of year, as well.

Summer and fall planted perennials and grasses, if dry, will benefit from a winter watering.

Watering options

  • Soaker hoses: Use pressure compensating soaker hoses for foundation plantings or shelterbelts
  • Overhead Sprinkler: Best for large areas of newly planted fescue or turf with competitive tree roots.
  • Five gallon bucket: Drill a small hole in the bottom of the bucket and let water slowly drain out over time.
  • Watering wand: Helps water specific plants and not overwater others that like it dryer.
  • Garden hose: Place at base of trees or shrubs and let trickle until soil is deeply soaked.

Frequency

Water every few weeks or every time the top couple inches of soil is dry. I go out and physically dig down in the soil to inspect moisture content. If I water this time of year, I make sure to drain any hoses and sprinklers when I am finished to prevent freeze damage.

It may seem like plants are fine since they are not actively growing this time of year, but it has been extremely dry. A quick inspection of the soil will tell you if you need to water or not. Be proactive and water during the winter months as needed. If you have already put the effort into planting them, why not help them along through this drought? Your plants will benefit from your diligence by producing blooms and habitat for you and wildlife next season.

Dividing Perennials

A perennial border is evolution on fast-forward, a watercolor in the rain, changing weekly as various species segue in and out of bloom – and yearly as its constituents dominate or yield, flourish or succumb, according to their natures.

John Friel from Friel World in Green Profit

Friel perfectly describes a native perennial border. Each plant grows according to its nature. Some are spreaders while some stay put or fade with competition. To keep all these plants happy and harmoniously growing together, a few plants may need to be thinned from time to time – divided so that they don’t dominate too much.

Front entrance sign will be updated with division of plants, especially grasses and asters.

When to Divide Your Perennials

As we move into spring, March and April is the best time to begin dividing perennials. You can divide in August and September, but excess growth and heat may hinder success. Dividing perennials can be stressful on the plants so dividing during times with cool, moist conditions will reduce shock. Another thing to keep in mind is that native grasses will not start to actively grow until soil temperatures reach at least 60 degrees. Grasses are often the last plants I divide in the spring. It’s good to wait until they are starting to show signs of life.       

Which Plants to Divide

  • Yarrow
  • Asters
  • Coral bells
  • Joe Pye weed
  • Liatirs
  • Monarda
  • Rudbeckia
  • Coreopsis
  • Spiderwort
  • Sneezeweed
  • Goldenrod
  • Echinacea purpurea varieties
  • Vernonia
  • Sunflowers
Black-eyed Susan is one of the easiest perennials to divide. (Photo by Brad Guhr)

Native grasses often form a “donut” – the center dies back with active growth on the outer edges. 

  • Panicum
  • Little Bluestem
  • Big Bluestem
  • Indiangrass
  • Sideoats
  • Blue Grama
Grass that would benefit from being divided

How to Divide Perennials

  • Dig the Clump

After you have identified the plants that need to be divided, the next step is to dig the entire clump out of the ground.  If the soil is dry, it is beneficial to water the area a few days ahead to soften the soil.  With well-established grasses this may be a challenge, but it is important to work at it until it is removed. Grasses are resilient and can take much abuse in this division process. I have even worked at removal with a pick axe. Remove the clump/clumps from the hole and set it aside. Brush off excess soil to reveal the growing points.   

  • Separate the growing points/crowns and replant   

Some plants are easier to pull apart than others. For instance, asters are easier to pull apart than switchgrass. Usually, I break these clumps in to 1/16th, 1/8th or ¼ pieces. Each clump needs to have a few leaves or healthy growing points and roots in order to grow. Then, replant the divisions as soon as possible so the roots don’t dry out. I put them back into the same hole from which they were removed. Plant at the same depth as before and water well. Cover any bare soil with mulch to help conserve moisture while your new divisions become established. Left over plants can be shared with friends or composted. 

  • Water well

Reestablish these divisions as you would any newly planted perennial. Water daily depending on the weather for the first two weeks. Once you see new growth, reduce water frequency to every other day or every three days. You have removed much of the supporting root system so it will take at least a season to get that back. Also, I would not fertilize the new transplants, because it will encourage top growth that is not sustainable with the new root system.

Which Plants to NOT Divide

While most perennials benefit from being divided every few years, there are a few perennials with deep taproots that are better left alone. You will be more successful planting new seedlings than trying to dig these plants out of the ground. In my experience, it is easier to start with a plant than to remove these plants. Too much damage is inflicted on the taproot. Avoid dividing these varieties:

  • Baptisia
  • Butterfly weed (Asclepias)
  • Coneflowers (Echinacea angustifolia, Echinacea pallida, and Echinacea paradoxa)

We have divided and transplanted hundreds of plants over the years and I don’t believe I’ve ever lost one. Native perennials are resilient and recover from being transplanted in about a week. They may look rough the first year, but they will really come to life the next year. Go out in the next few weeks and identify a few plants that would benefit from a fresh start.

Looking forward to spring! (Photo by Brad Guhr)

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!

The Edible Landscape

I am a big fan of a landscape that is functional as well as beautiful. Functionality might mean wildlife and pollinator attraction, water absorbing (rain garden) or water conserving (xeriscaping). But it can also mean incorporating human food plants into your perennial garden. This not only provides a healthy snack, but it encourages more interaction and participation. What is the point of a beautiful landscape if you aren’t out enjoying it?

Here is a small preview of some of the plants I will discuss in the upcoming Native Plant School class all about landscaping with edible plants. If this topic fires you up, stop by our gift shop to grab a copy of Kelly Kindscher’s Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie, a wonderful plant guide and exploration of ethnobotany on the Great Plains.

Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)

A personal favorite of mine, Elderberry is as beautiful as it is nutritious. This plant will love a low spot in the yard where water tends to collect after rains, or an area with poor drainage. It can reach 8ft tall, putting on an impressive show in late spring when covered with massive white flower clusters. Berries ripen in July, a perfect time to spend the hot afternoons in the kitchen making jams and syrups. I make a cold remedy from them that has never let me down!

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)

Persimmon (left) and PawPaw (right) both produce delicious fruit.

Everything about pawpaw seems tropical. Surely this fruit cannot be native to hot, dry Kansas…yet it is! It is an easy growing plant that can grow in full sun or partial shade and tolerates alkaline soil. To get a good fruit set you should plant more than one; though they have both male and female flowers on a single tree they are not self-fertile. The fruit is worth it! A custard-like texture with the flavor of bananas and mangos, it is perfect for pies and homemade ice cream.

Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa)

Monarda fistulosa flower, photographed by Brad Guhr

If you are short on garden space and can’t add a shrub or tree, never fear. Monarda fistulosa is a wonderful edible perennial much smaller in stature than the previous options. About 3ft by 3ft when happy and mature, the leaves of this plant make excellent tea, with a flavor reminiscent of the bergamot oil used in Earl Grey. It has a long history of medicinal use by indigenous North Americans, for everything from upper respiratory problems to sore feet. The flowers are also edible and add a citrusy, spicy punch to salads.

From persimmon to chokeberry, we have so many native plants to choose from to diversify our diets and add beauty to our home landscapes. Thanks to thousands of years of culinary experimentation by the tribes and nations of North America we have a rich ethnobotanical tradition to learn from, an example of how to learn about, appreciate and interact with food and flora.

Our upcoming class will cover some easy-to-grow native plants that have edible leaves or fruits, along with some landscaping ideas for how to incorporate them into a garden setting. Stay tuned to our website for the registration link!

High Demand for Native Plants

Micro chips, new cars, used cars, houses, lumber, bikes, bike parts, energy,. . . and native plants. People really want these things right now. As vaccinations liberate Americans from their COVID hermitage, we get to see many distinct examples of high demand leading to short supply.

We learned during our recent Spring FloraKansas Plant Sale – when we moved ~16,000 plants over a four-day period – that there is a really high demand for native plants right now. Folks have spent more time in their home landscapes over the last year and are looking to practice ecological landscaping in levels we’ve never quite witnessed. It is fun for our staff to see this high demand for plants that please both wildlife and the people who plant them. FloraKansas is at the top of our list of events that help Dyck Arboretum of the Plains fully engage our mission to cultivate transformative relationships between people and the land.

A wildflower bouquet from my spring garden including columbine (pink), salvia (purple), rose verbena (light purple), golden ragwort (yellow), ‘Major Wheeler’ honeysuckle (red), and snowdrop windflower anemone (white) helps me appreciate native plants indoors too.

But our staff also experienced the stressful side of high demand and inadequate supply, as many wholesale plant orders either didn’t arrive as planned or came incomplete with numerous backorders occurring. Like never before, we had to scramble and pivot to convince members to consider options B, C, and D of a particular grass, wildflower, sedge, shrub or tree to replace option A that wasn’t in stock.

Calm before the storm – early morning light in the greenhouse before the first day of the plant sale.

We typically order most of our native and adaptable plants for our FloraKansas sale from wholesale providers that can produce the number of plants we need much more efficiently and cost effectively. However, during times like these when wholesalers are unable to meet demand, our thoughts turn to a couple of different methods of production on our own.

Digging and Transplanting

When a plant thrives in a given location and establishes a substantial root system, it will flower, set seed, and distribute new seedlings to its nearby surroundings. It will also often spread vegetatively via roots and develop a larger diameter crown. Both of these forms of reproduction offer us and you the opportunity to produce new plants.

Here at the Arboretum, weeding beds of grasses and wildflowers offers many opportunities to dig and transplant seedlings to new locations. Our grounds manager and horticulturalist, Katie Schmidt, is always plucking native wildflowers and grasses that are spreading where she doesn’t want them and either transplanting them to new locations or bolstering our plant sale.

An aspen grove has established nicely north of our Prairie Pavilion. But as clonal species do, it is now sending up unwanted root sprouts in adjacent wildflower beds as far as 20-30 feet away from the original trees. These are perfect candidates for digging and transplanting.
Yellow coneflowers that have spread in a bed will be potted and find a new home via our fall plant sale.

I like to divide older, established plants and move divisions around my yard. This establishment of new beds in my never-ending quest to reduce square footage of lawn takes physical effort, a good soil knife, regular watering in the first year, mulching and lots of weeding. But I enjoy the process, end result, and seeing the wildlife it attracts.

Plants that I transplanted from elsewhere in my yard have established nicely in less than two years: (counterclockwise around tree) coral bells (red leaf), narrow leaf coneflower, catmint, purple poppy mallow, mountain mint, and beardtongue penstemon.

Seed Collection and Germination

Our Dyck Arboretum Prairie Window Project reconstructed prairie was planted in stages from 2005 to 2010 with local ecotype seeds. The 120+ species planted include many great wildflowers, grasses and shrubs that are not always commonly available through the landscaping trade or even through our plant sales. This reality, and subsequently an opportunity, became apparent to me as I observed and photographed the following flowering species over the last couple of weeks following our sale.

I will be watching over the next few weeks for these species to be setting seed and monitoring the right time to collect these seeds. With proper storage (i.e., cool, dry place in paper bags), stratification (i.e., cold/wet treatment for 60-90 days for most species), and hopefully good germination in the greenhouse next spring, I hope that we will be able to offer these species to you next spring.

You too can be on the lookout for seed from unique and interesting species to add to your landscape, and you don’t need to follow the labor intensive approach just outlined. Simply scatter your collected seeds into your intended planting area in the fall and let nature (i.e., gravity, freeze/thaw action, precipitation, and typical winter conditions) do the work for you. While the outcome of this approach is less certain than options described above, it is certainly easier and can add an element of surprise to your gardening adventures.