Monday, October 28, 2013

A Great "New" Reference on Weeds

Two days ago, the Wichita Chapter of the Kansas Native Plant Society had a native plant seed exchange and sharing time, to which I was invited.  (Well, truthfully, the entire public was invited.  I was also asked to share a little information about Sedgwick County Extension, and I brought along some native plant seeds and seedlings to share.)  It was an enjoyable gathering, as such gatherings of like-minded people often are, and it was a good place to meet people with similar interests, to learn about programs and plants that I wasn't familiar with, and - hopefully - to find new and useful reference material.

I was indeed lucky this time.  Krista Dahlinger, as the official representative of KNPS, was selling some books for the organization, including Weeds of the Great Plains, published by the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, most recently in 2003.

Somehow I've managed to miss this book before, and I wish I hadn't.  It has full page, color photos of each main "weed" that it covers, plus a couple smaller photos, also in color, highlighting important characteristics.  There is a line drawing for each plant as well, giving a sense of its structure.  For me, as a homeowner/wildlife enthusiast/gardener/native plant geek/prairie restorer/Master Gardener, the most important parts were in the brief, well organized descriptions. 

These descriptions included the origin of each species (whether native or not; if not, where it was from), and the standard descriptions of growth form, height, flowers, leaves, stems and so forth.  Then there was a section "Where Found" which included habitat information, as well as the states and general areas the plant was found within the Great Plains region.

The next section, "Uses and Values", was a little heavy on the value for livestock (not too surprising, in a book put out by an ag department) but it also included wildlife value and occasional decorative or landscape uses. 

A separate section on the potential for livestock poisoning was occasionally also included, which got EXTREMELY detailed.  Sometimes this section seemed to get overly cautious, to the point where I began to understand a stockman's tendency to just say, "The heck with it!", and spray broad-leaved herbicides everywhere.  Note:  I hate that practice and feel it is entirely inappropriate...but reading this book and its huge number of cautions, I begin to understand the attitude a little more.

One of the last several sections about each plant was often "Historical", giving uses by Native Americans and early settlers for native plants and even, for non-native plants, sometimes going back to Europe or Asia to tell about the plant's usage in its country of origin.

"Losses" was another section occasionally included.  This section highlighted financial losses that could occur (and why they would occur) if the plant under discussion was a major or regular component of the vegetation.  For example, several of the plants that produced burs reduced the value of wool being sold.

The last concluding section was often "Similar Species", which highlighted other species related to the primary one being discussed.  Although these descriptions were brief, they were accurate and accessible; more than once I was able to identify a plant through its mention in this section, even though I was just leafing through the book.

Some tips I picked up?  Well, I've been trying to identify this little vine that I've seen growing for some years in the draw - I learned that it is Climbing False Buckwheat (Polygonum scandens), a native, vining perennial.  It's considered quite beneficial for wildlife, although it can get aggressive and smother its neighbors when conditions are too perfect for it.  (Note:  I've had absolutely NO problem with climbing false buckwheat and, in fact, only notice it occasionally in the fall.)

I learned that the term "sumac" is derived from "shoe-make", referring to the tannic acid that this plant contains, which was used in tanning leather.  It's always bugged me when people refer to this group of plants as "shu-mac" - now I realize that they are just using a form of the name that is closer to its historical roots!

And the last bit I'll share (although far from the last tidbit I learned) is that marijuana is NOT native to North America.  I thought it was a native, since Jefferson grew it as a crop and since it grows wild in many places.  Marijuana is actually a native to Asia and it was first introduced onto the Great Plains in the 1880s.  It was grown legally as recently as World War II, for hemp production, and it has escaped - naturalized - into the wild.  (No, I don't have any photos of marijuana!)

It can be hard to find good, reliable information on "weeds", and I feel like I've found it in this book.  If you live in the Great Plains, I highly recommend Weeds of the Great Plains as a great reference about a maligned group of plants.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Colorful Kansas

There's a myth that Kansas is black and white and gray all over.  I don't know where that could have started....

Dorothy aside, it's fall around here and on my way back from town this morning, I decided to stop and capture a few shots of some of the fall color I'm seeing around the area....

The smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) seems late to turn this fall, but it's sure putting on a show!

Each patch seems to have a slightly different hue to it.  Soil differences?  Exposure?  Simple genetic variability?  I don't have an answer.

One of the problems with collecting fall leaves in Kansas is that you have to be careful NOT to pick up poison ivy leaves.  For example, this clump of poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is coloring beautifully.  They're tempting, but look - don't touch!

Poison ivy is another plant that bears different colors in different settings, so you have to be particularly careful to watch for their distinctive leaf shape.  Sometimes the clumps of poison ivy sport white berries - this is a dead giveaway to their identity, especially combined with "leaves of 3".

Smooth sumac is not poisonous, although its fall leaves are colored in similar shades of red and orange.  Not only do the leaves of smooth sumac have many more leaflets than those of poison ivy, the sumac berries are born in upright clusters and are dark red and fuzzy.

So far I've been showing poison ivy in its shrub form, but in Kansas there are 3 forms of this tricky plant:  shrub, understory "forb", and vine.  Like the shrubs, right now the poison ivy vines are also in full fall color.  Here is an old osage orange tree (Maclura pomifera) growing in a hedge along the road, with poison ivy growing up its trunk and smooth sumac at its base....

Not bad color for a black and white state, is it?!

This grove of large cottonwood trees near the river is sporting several vines that are trumpeting fall right now.

The first vine I noticed was the Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), glowing several shades of deep red.

Looking more closely, I noticed that the yellowish green leaves below the Virginia creeper actually belonged to another vine, raccoon grape (Ampelopsis cordata).

A little less dense, poison ivy was nearby and showing off colors of orange and yellow and peach.

Cottonwoods (Populus deltoides) are just starting to turn their brilliant fall yellow.  Occasionally I was able to get a photo that included a cottonwood beginning its fall transformation.  Here is a cottonwood, with a nice clump of smooth sumac at its base and, if you look closely, a bit of poison ivy adding a touch of orange and yellow to the tapestry of leaves.

How many of these fall beauties do I actually want to add to my yard?  Well, I'd love to have smooth sumac!  I collected some berries and scattered them this morning.  I've also transplanted a couple plants that I've dug up from willing donors, but I'm not sure if they've survived.  Since sumac is a colonial plant, individual stems don't have many roots when dug out, and I planted them away from the house where, for better and for worse, I don't see them regularly to keep tabs on them.  I wouldn't plant smooth sumac in a small yard, but it's a gorgeous addition to acreage.

As far as cottonwoods, I have a couple large ones down in the draw.  I'd love to have more up in the "yard" area, but they have to be native Eastern Cottonwoods.  The horticultural "seedless" varieties are some weird mix of Populus genetics that don't do well around here, succumbing to cottonwood beetles just as they get up to true tree size.

Poison ivy?  I'd love NOT to have that species, but it's pretty hard to live anywhere in Kansas and not have poison ivy cropping up!  The more land you have, the more poison ivy you'll have.  At least we've decreased the amount of it we harbor - there are no more 30' patches!

We have raccoon grape, too.  It's a very aggressive vine, so I don't encourage it, but we do have it, and the birds love its tangles and berries.

Finally there's Virginia creeper.  I love Virginia creeper and I've had a few small plants show up in the flower beds.  I've left one or two, training them as groundcover.  If I had a privacy fence, I'd bury it in Virginia creeper.  However, I don't have any fences except the chain link one around the lagoon and, since I don't want it growing on either the house or garage, I'm taking each newly found baby plant on a case by case basis as to whether it stays or goes.   Each of us lives dangerously in their own style, I guess!

Here's to fall - colorful, even in Kansas!

Friday, October 04, 2013

A Local Biodiversity Study

One of the projects I've been aching to do for a long time is a simple species list of all the various plants and animals that I find on our 10 acres, preferably with notes as to when I've seen them, whether they have come in naturally or I've introduced them, whether they are native, and so forth.  For plants, I consider this a personal "Accession Record".  For animals?  Just a "Biodiversity Record", I guess.

I've tried several times to initiate this project, first on paper, then with an open source database, then on 3X5 index cards - but each time my platform became unwieldy quite rapidly.

I'm trying again, but this time I'm feeling much more optimistic:  I've finally spent the money to get Access, a database I've successfully used before to follow complicated lists of plant material, when I kept the worked on the plant sale team for Mobile Botanical Gardens.  It's going to take an incredibly long time to input 7 years of species data, but I'm going to keep plugging away at it to the best of my ability.  Who knows?  When I'm done, this might actually come in useful for some graduate student somewhere!

Right now I'm trying to decide if I want to include all life forms in one big database, with separate tables for plants, vertebrates, insects, etc.,  or if I want to have a separate database for each major category I plan to keep track of.  Any suggestions from those of you who have attempted something of this sort?

To make this database doubly useful, I'm going back through my photos to organize and edit them in conjunction with my species' lists.  That, in itself, is a huge project, but after transferring my data 3 full times over the summer (as I attempted to upgrade to a new computer and then dealt with my initial lemon) I've lost all of the organizational links to my photos and I have to recreate the photo organization system anyway.  It seems like a good time to weed out less than optimal photos, finalize species identifications as much as possible, and do a bit of basic coordination between the photos and the biodiversity database.

It's rather fun to be going back through my old photos so carefully.  I'm finding "gems" that I forgot I had seen in the yard, like this Cocklebur Weevil on hedge parsley.  I haven't seen any examples of this species recently and I had forgotten I had noted this one in the yard, about a year after we first moved in.

Do you keep a species list for your yard or garden?  If so, what do you keep track of?  I'd love to hear about other people's experience doing this, personally or professionally.  Maybe I can avoid any more costly, time-consuming mistakes!

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Shoulder to Shoulder, The Asters Begin to Take Center Stage

It's October and the asters are coming into their full glory.

In my garden, aromatic aster is the biggest player.  Bigleaf aster is actually about bloomed out.  The short, pink, 'Dream of Beauty' aromatic aster is already completely done.  However, the heath asters, both in the gardens and in the prairie, are in full bloom now.  One seedling aromatic aster has come into full bloom too...

...and there are sporadic single blossoms on the other aromatic asters throughout the garden.  One of these sporadic blossoms, next to a heath aster in full bloom, gave me an interesting photo opportunity to show off the contrast between the different sizes and textures of the blooms found on these two, wonderful, native species.

The single purple bloom is, of course, the beginning salvo in the barrage of blooms about to break forth on this aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolius).  All of those little, light green balls will be purple blooms in a week or so.  The mass of small white flowers at the bottom of the photo is the top portion of the heath aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides), which is in full bloom right now.  

By now, at least among gardeners who enjoy and use native plants, aromatic aster has a well deserved reputation for hardiness and a beautiful, bountiful display in the fall garden.  It serves as a leafy green filler for most of the summer.  Heath aster, though, has escaped most people's notice.  Rather than lush or beautiful, its foliage is "interesting" and consists of tiny, dark green leaves that stay close to the wiry stems of the plant.  In late September, the branches become covered with small, white, daisy-like flowers which, like most asters, are beloved by pollinators.

I have a lot of heath aster in the Back 5 Acres.  I used to dismiss it as rather boring and "weedy."  Two years ago, though, I noticed that the masses of heath aster gave a lacy effect to the fall grassland, which was otherwise looking rather sparse due to severe heat and drought.

After seeing the pleasant effect of the heath aster in the Back 5, and after loving the trailing effect of Snow Flurry heath aster in my front garden,...

 ...I think I'm purposely going to add a little more heath aster into my main flower beds.  It could make a nice texture contrast, both during the time it's mainly a finely textured, green "bush" and later when it's loaded with tiny, white blooms.

Speaking of asters and their gorgeous bloom displays in the fall, it's fascinating to go back through my old photos and note overlapping bloom periods.  Each year is a little different. This year almost all of the goldenrod is already finished, including the Wichita Mountains goldenrod, while the peak of the aromatic asters is still a week or more away.   Two years ago, I took this photo of aromatic asters and Wichita Mountain goldenrod blooming together on October 16th....

This year the goldenrod will be brown by the time the adjacent asters bloom.

I guess it's all part of the challenge of gardening - you do your best to plan bloom sequences and arrangements, but the plants are living creatures and will do what they need to do to survive.  Each year the weather throws in a curve ball or two or three, too. Thankfully, the changes are for the better almost as often as they are not.  Meanwhile, I never seem to tire of the ever-evolving display of beauty just outside the doors of my prairie home.

Baby Jabba - There's at Least a Little Amphibian Reproduction Occuring Around Here!

Busy times lately:  dear friends came in for a nice, long visit and my uncle & aunt from Norway were also in town for a week!  Needless to say, although I did get some pictures taken, I didn't get to any blogging - either reading or writing.

Then, too, there's the government shutdown.  I wanted to take my uncle & aunt to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, but by the time our schedules coincided, the shutdown had shuttered the Preserve.  Their loss for not being able to experience the tallgrass prairie;  Strong City's & Cottonwood Fall's loss because we were planning to spend the day, complete with visits to local restaurants and galleries.

We won't get into the fact that my husband is an "essential" civilian employee on McConnell AFB....

Last but not least, I'm bummed because the shutdown has also shuttered the USDA's Plant Profile site, which I love to visit.  I check out the ranges of native plants, as well as exploring the variety of species found within certain genera.  I feel half blind right now, without this reliable resources to go to.

Now, having wasted more than enough time on Facebook sharing my opinion of the government shutdown (as well as contacting all of my elected representatives about the issue), I've decided it's time to catch up a little on editing, organizing and sharing some of the photos I've been taking.

This summer I've been excited to see and hear about quite a few, different, small amphibians making their appearance.  It's been many years since anyone around here has seen the large emergences of tiny frogs and toads that used to occur annually when my family first moved here in the early 1970's.  It's even been rare to see a single small toad or frog in recent years, although larger ones are not uncommon.

This summer, though, I've seen a couple small toads in the garden - mainly at night - and even a small frog or two.  Usually these sightings are quick glimpses, but last week I had small toad with a death defying wish to be seen, trying valiently to share the mulched path to the trashcans with me for a day or two.  To my knowledge, he/she survived the experience, although I haven't seen him recently.

As well as wanting to be seen, he also apparently wanted to have his picture taken.  I had to go back inside to get the camera, but he was still waiting for me when I came back out.

In fact, he struck several different poses for me.

Based on my Amphibians, Reptiles, and Turtles in Kansas, I believe this guy to be a young Woodhouse's Toad, Anaxyrus woodhousii.  This is, like so many toads, a species that is normally active at night, so I don't know why I was seeing this little one so often during the day, but I appreciate making his acquaintance.

A last note, especially for those of you who have swimming pools.  Check your filters regularly!  A month ago, a friend asked me to clean out their pool filter while they were away for a while.  The first time I cleaned it out, I found about 10 living, and many more dead, baby narrowmouth toads.  I rescued the living and put them in the shrubbery around a nearby fish pond.  Several days later, when I cleaned the filter out again, I found 2 adult frogs, as well as innumerable small frogs and toads again caught in the well of the filter.  Luckily, this time most of them were alive and I was again able to rescue them.  I don't know what the answer is to this problem, but I sincerely doubt this was an isolated incident, especially as dry as our area has been in the past few years.  With more and more pools being built, I suspect this is an increasingly large cause of mortality in our local amphibian populations.

How is the amphibian reproduction going in your part of the country?