Friday, January 31, 2014

Texture in the Prairie Garden: Fine

So my last post highlighted some plants with bold foliage for inclusion in prairie gardens;  this one will highlight plants with finely textured foliage.

Finely textured foliage can also make a plant stand out in the garden - contrast is what it's all about, breaking up the masses of "medium."

Sand Love Grass:

I'm going to start here with a grass, specifically with sand love grass (Eragrostis trichodes).  Native to a large portion of the U.S., this grass is perfect for inclusion in a prairie garden.  Not only are the leaves of this grass narrow and finely textured, but the seed heads, from late summer through into the early spring, are like a fine mist of light golden-brown a really pretty, good sort of way!

The fine texture of this grass, coupled with its height of about 3' max in my garden, makes it a natural in various combinations with flowers.  Here it is with azure sage (Salvia azurea, aka Salvia pitcherii)....

and with aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolius).

So far, sand love grass makes any plant growing and blooming near it into a superstar!

The one drawback to sand love grass in my garden is that it does seed fairly prolifically.  Since I hate to throw away good plants, for the first several years I let the seedlings take hold wherever they fell and, within a couple years, sand love grass took over an area about 4' in diameter in my flower bed.  If I had planned it this way, that would have been wonderful...but I hadn't, so I've started ruthlessly (kind of) rooting out extra plants and giving them away or consigning them to the compost pile.  The little plants root out surprisingly easily, considering this plant's ability to withstand drought, and I've successfully transplanted it to several other locations throughout the yard.

Letterman's Ironweed:

I stumbled across Letterman's ironweed almost by accident at one of the Dyck Arboretum plant sales.  I love the deep purple of Baldwin's ironweed, which commonly grows in pastures around here, so when I saw a few little 3" pots of a feathery looking ironweed, I grabbed one to try.  I knew absolutely nothing about the species except the name and the look of the foliage. 

Even more amazingly (at least to those of you who know me well), I actually got this little plantling into the ground before it turned into a native plant mummy.  The tiny ironweed rewarded my courage and initiative by grabbing hold and growing into one of the prettiest, most feathery, most pollinator-loved plants in the garden!

Letterman's ironweed (Vernonia lettermannii) has become one of my absolute favorites.  It maxes out (for me) at about 18" tall and the plant forms a neat clump which is topped with feathery, bright purple flowers from mid to late summer.  Letterman's ironweed is native to a very small region of eastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas, where it grows naturally along rocky floodplains.  As is often the case with plants from floodplain habitat, this means it can withstand both periodic flooding and long dry spells.  The pollinators flock to the flowers...and I often find predators hiding among its leaves too.

For better or for worse, one thing that this wonderful plant hasn't done is to reseed itself.  So, for now, I've had to buy a couple more little baby plants, which are also beginning to grab hold.  This is a beautifully soft textured plant for a sunny spot in your garden.


Moving now from finely textured plants to a transition effect before we make it completely into ferny foliaged wonders, I'm going to break my normal rules and talk about a plant that isn't truly a native, larkspur.  Common, annual, garden larkspur (Consolida ajacis), apparently also known as doubtful knight's-spur.   (Why isn't THAT the more commonly used, common name!  Talk about evocative!)  Not only is larkspur not a native, it's also not a perennial.  Actually, it's one of the few annuals that I grow every single year, and I love it.

The foliage is sublime, in my eyes.  The plants begin to grow in late summer and fall, spending winter looking like tiny ferns sprouting in the flower bed.  As soon as spring arrives, they get serious about growing and rapidly bulk up.  By mid May they are shooting up into 24" - 36" tall plants with purply blue to pink delphinium-like flowers, which are beloved by bumblebees, hawk moths, and hummingbirds.

Larkspur can take some shade, so they are a good plant for a spot that only gets half a day of sunlight.  They are incredibly drought hardy, which is one of the reasons I love them so much.  And when they need water, they wilt very daintily - just enough to catch my attention.  As soon as I give them what they want, they plump back up and continue on as if nothing had ever happened.

When the flowers are done, the larkspur plants are done.  Seeds are rapidly produced as the plant begins to die.  By early July, it's time to pull the remains of the larkspur out of the flower bed and let the later summer flowers come into their own.

Remember my comment earlier about being loath to pull out and throw away perfectly good plants?  Well, that leads to the biggest problem that I have with larkspur:  I can't bear to pull out the baby plants, so I let the larkspur grow pretty much wherever it wants, which drives my dear husband mad.  He feels they get too thick and overpowering and unruly looking; I don't think it's possible for such a thing to occur.  About the time we're ready to come to blows over the issue, the larkspur finishes blooming.  I pull them all out, and the problem is forgotten until the next year.

It's late, and this is long enough for one post, so I think I'll finish up my "Texture in the Prairie Garden" series with a third post, the last one, on ferny textures.  Again, I welcome suggestions for other finely textured, native prairie plants - I'd love to find some more of these softies to include around the yard!


Texture in the Prairie Garden: Bold

I gave a talk yesterday at the Spring Gardening Workshop here in Sedgwick County.  As always, I'm afraid, I had more that I wanted to share than I had time to talk in. (My Uncle Ed used to call me Windy Cindy when I was a child...probably with very good reason!)  I thought it might work well to share some of the ideas and suggestions I had for "(Re)Creating Naturally Functional Landscapes in our Yards and Gardens" on my blog. 

So let me start with one of the biggest problems I've run into as I continue to develop my own prairie gardens:  texture.   Many, if not most, of the prairie plants are medium in texture.  The leaves are medium in shade of green and medium in size.  The flowers are medium in size.  The plants tend to be 3-4 feet tall and about as wide.  It's very easy to get an overwhelming mass effect, but much harder to have a variety of different textures that create interest based on contrasting sizes, shapes, and forms.

First though, before I share some of my "secrets," I'd like to point out that the triumph of the "medium" in the prairie is, in great part, due to natural constraints.  Large leaves have large surfaces that tend to lose lots of water, which isn't good for plants growing in an environment famous for extended droughts and unceasing winds.  Speaking of those winds, they have a major tendency to rip large leaves and flowers to shreds which, ironically, leaves you with medium-textured pieces hanging on.

Color is another drought issue.  Generally, the wetter the climate, the deeper the green of the plants that grow there.  Hot, dry climates favor gray-greens.  The prairie, being half way in between those two extremes (and enjoying wild vacillations between the two), tends to stick in the middle with medium green shades.  In short, "medium" is so abundant in the prairie because it works very well there.

Medium, however, presents us with a problem of "too much of a good thing" when designing interesting gardens.  So here are some suggestions for prairie plants that break out of the "medium" mold, starting BOLDLY with plants that bravely present big leaves to the prairie winds.

Giant Coneflower:

Used increasingly in professionally designed landscapes, giant coneflower (Rudbeckia maxima) steers clear of medium in almost all aspects.  In the photo below, the giant coneflower is in the bottom lefthand corner, at the front of the flower bed....

Native to the southern Great Plains, it boasts large, gray-green leaves with a soft, waxy look that stay in a beautiful low rosette for much of the year.  During early-mid summer, giant coneflower sends up 4' tall spikes crowned with a single, large "boned" bloom:  a tall central cone, surrounded by drooping yellow petals.

If you can refrain from cutting off the finished blossoms to tidy up the garden, they provide a good seed source for winter birds while giving vertical accents to the winter landscape.  The hollow, dried stems are also great habitat for solitary bees, those native masters of efficient pollination.

Compass Plant:

A classic prairie plant and widely distributed throughout the center of the country, compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) is said to have helped pioneers navigate because its large, deeply lobed leaves tend to line up in a north-south orientation in order to capture the strongest rays of the sun.

When you touch the leaves of the compass plant, you understand how it compensates for the large leaf surface that it exposes to the prairie winds:  the leaves are very rough, thick and coarse to the touch, almost like a form of sandpaper.  Despite that unappealing feel, apparently cattle graze the leaves with great relish, so compass plant doesn't last long in pastures.

Although the leaves provide a basal rosette that is only 18"-24" tall, like the giant coneflower, the bloom spike pushes up 4-5' into the air.  Unlike the giant coneflower,  though, this spike is ornamented with 3" wide sunflower-like blooms along its entire length.  Compass plant blossoms start opening at the top of the spike and slowly work their way down the length of the stem over a period of several weeks.

Again, if you leave the spike intact when the blooming is complete, it provides visual interest as well as bird food and insect shelter throughout the winter.


There are several beautiful milkweeds that provide thick, large leaves and big balls of fragrant pink blossoms for bold texture in the garden.  The three that I'm most familiar with, and that occur naturally on our property, are somewhat hard for me to tell apart, but all three are very appealing plants.  All, too, are monarch larval plants and thus VERY important to plant for trying to save one of our favorite native butterflies.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is probably the most well known of these three.  Its native distribution covers the central and eastern portions of North America.  Because of its tendency to spread by its roots, it has earned the reputation of a weed in cultivated fields and it probably wouldn't work in a formal garden, but it would be a great addition to an informal, cottage style border.

Here is a closeup of common milkweed's blooms, complete with monarch, for comparison with the next two plants.

The second milkweed, smooth milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii), is also known as prairie milkweed.  It is very similar to common milkweed, but its native distribution is much more restricted to the central prairies.  This is the one of these three "pink pomander" milkweeds that grows best for me, and it is the one that I have seen the most monarch caterpillars on.

Based on its native distribution, the third of these 3 pink milkweeds, showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa), is almost a western version of common milkweed. 

Again, here is a closer look at the bloom.  Showy milkweed's blossoms have lo-o-ong, upright "petals", giving the bloom an almost spiky appearance.  They ARE certainly showy, though, which makes them the easiest of the 3 for me to identify!

All three of these pink milkweed species grow about 30"-36" tall.  I do not know how assertively either smooth or showy milkweed spread, compared to common milkweed.  None of the three form exclusive patches, however, in any situation where I have seen them growing; thus all three should be fine in an informal garden setting.

Before I leave milkweeds, let me briefly mention a common species that is perhaps worthy of consideration for incorporation into some garden beds:  green antelopehorn (Asclepias viridis).  Frequently seen in pastures during the spring, green antelopehorn blooms very early in the season and stays quite low, topping out at 18" but more commonly about 12" tall.  While the leaves of this milkweed aren't as big as those of common, showy or smooth milkweed, they are larger than almost any other plant growing at this time of year and thus they provide a bolder texture in the landscape, too.

Found primarily in the center of the country, this plant's creamy white flowers with eye-catching, inner purplish "clubs" are an intriguing contrast to more traditionally constructed blooms.

Oakleaf Hydrangea:

Although native just to the southeast of the U.S., I have seen oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) growing as far north as Ontario.  It grows well here, too, with a bit of protection from strong summer winds and from too much summer afternoon sun.

Oakleaf hydrangea is one of my favorite shrubs.  Its large, lobed leaves are attractive throughout the growing season, but they are especially vivid and eye-catching during the fall, when they turn a gorgeous burgundy, sometimes tinged with orange.  The bark is rather cinnamon colored and exfoliates as the shrub gets larger, while the dried flower heads remain throughout the winter, giving nice winter interest in the garden. 

Oakleaf hydrangea flowers, by the way, start out a beautiful, pale lime green, mature to white, get pinkish as they age, and end up a soft gray-brown, staying attached to the plant until the newly developing leaves and flowers push them off the following spring.  This is truly a 4 season plant!


If, from a distance, you see a tree whose large, light, bright green, heart-shaped leaves make it stand out from other trees, chances are you are looking at a catalpa.  In the picture below, the catalpa is the tree in the middle.  To its left is a bur oak, to its right is an osage orange.  The bur oak and the catalpa were planted about 20 years ago, I believe, but I don't know how old the osage orange is. 

Note how much more upright the catalpa grows, and how much lighter a green its leaves are.  One of the latest blooming trees, catalpa blooms in June, after its leaves are fully emerged.  The white blossoms are wonderfully fragrant and occur in big, showy clusters above the leaves.  If we move in closer here, we can see (and smell) the sweet flowers.

Somewhat oddly, those big showy clusters of flowers develop into long, thin pods that remain on the tree throughout the winter.  I find the tree with its winter dress of dangling, long pods to be quite attractive, but I'll warn you that many people find the pods to be a nuisance, creating more of a cleanup chore than they desire.

There are actually 2 species, southern catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides) and northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) whose ranges overlap throughout much of the country.  The difference between the two species is very slight and, for all practical purposes, they function the same way in the landscape, so I will just talk about them as one species, "catalpa".

Both of these species originally had a very small native range in the southeast U.S., which you can see in the Wikipedia links above, but both were widely planted as settlers homesteaded around the country.  I have been told that catalpa was one of the primary species used to "claim" a homestead and that it was widely used for fenceposts until osage orange (a.k.a. hedge apple) was discovered to be even longer lasting in that capacity.  The wood, although very light, does not rot rapidly when in contact with the soil.

Catalpa is also known as the "fishing worm" tree.  Apparently the caterpillars of the catalpa sphinx moth were commonly used as fishing bait in days gone by.  Supposedly these hornworm caterpillars can get numerous enough to defoliate the tree...but I have never observed a single catalpa "worm", so it's not something that worries me overly much about using the tree in the landscape.

Well, such as they are, those are my suggestions for bold texture in the prairie plant palette.  Next on the list will be fine and ferny textured plants...but I'll leave those for another post.

If you've got any other boldly textured prairie plants that you think would be good in a garden, I'd love to learn about them!

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Learning Another (Fly) Stitch in the Tapestry of Patchwork Prairie

After all the hoopla of the holidays, I'm finally getting back to my projects, particularly the one where I'm learning to identify the different insects that I've photographed in the yard over the last 7 years.

With that goal in mind, I've started posting some of the insects that I can't identify on  This wonderful site has generous volunteers that identify the insects they can in photos shared by people from all around the country.

The last time I posted any photos on was almost 2 months ago, so I was rather surprised recently to get a message in my e-mail box saying that someone had added comments to one of my submissions.  Checking it out, I learned that one of the flies I had posted from early November had been identified as a particular species of tachinid fly, Archyatus marmoratus.  Which meant exactly what?

I had been pretty sure that the fly, which I observed feeding on aromatic aster blooms, was a tachinid.  And it was.  Tachinids are rather large flies that look like very hairy, even bristly, house flies.  Despite their homely appearance, they are considered a beneficial insect.  In their larval stage, they are parasitoids, because their larvae grow inside a variety of other insects and kill those insects as they grow.  Often the species parasitized is specific to the species of tachinid fly, so finding out the species of tachinid fly gave me a good chance of learning how this particular insect fit within the community of plants and animals in our yard.

Googling was in order...and rapidly accomplished.

I didn't find a lot on Archyatus marmoratus during my quick Google search, but what I did find was reassuring, even exciting.  This tachinid species is not completely host specific, but it does parasitize caterpillars in a specific group of moths, Noctuids, particularly within a group of caterpillars that includes armyworms, budworms and other pest species.  The female fly lays her eggs in the area where host caterpillars are likely to occur and, after the eggs hatch, the young fly larvae hitch onto appropriate host caterpillars when they come by.  Each caterpillar that picks up a tiny fly larva eventually gives up its life, producing one adult tachinid fly in the process.

So, for every adult fly I see, an armyworm or budworm gave its life.  For every adult A. marmoratus fly I see, an armyworm or budworm didn't make it to adulthood to reproduce.  For every adult A. marmoratus I see, a new generation of tachinid flies has a good chance of appearing to help keep next year's armyworm and budworm populations under control.  And along the way, my asters get some extra help in pollination.

All in all, it's a mighty sweet deal, despite being all wrapped up in a pretty homely package.