Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Goldenrod spider
Getting Buggy about Summer

Justin Evertson

When it comes to insects and spiders (arthropods) in the landscape, many people tend to think of little critters that cause problems and that we wish would go away.  We think of stings, itchy bites, damage to plants/vegetables and the sheer creepiness of so many species.  That’s too bad, because the vast majority of arthropods are either benign or are actually very beneficial to the world around us.  It’s easy to enjoy butterflies, with their colorful wings and fluttering movements.  We should also learn to enjoy many of the other arthropods in the garden.  A few that are worth a closer look include:
       Goldenrod Spider.  The goldenrod spider (Misumena vatia) is a type of crab spider that exists throughout North America where it’s typically found waiting for prey on either white or yellow flowers.   What is most fascinating about this spider is the ability of the female to change color from yellow to white, depending on the type of flower it inhabits.  This camoflauge can make the spider nearly invisible. A goldenrod spider can grow to about the size of a dime and is often found on daisies and goldenrod flowers, thus its common name.   
       Soldier Beetle.  The soldier beetle (Chauliognathus pennsylvanicus) gets its common name from a bright red species in England that reminds people of a soldier’s coat.  In Nebraska, the beetle looks quite similar to a lightning bug (and is related to it, but doesn’t “light up”).  Soldier beetles are beneficial in two ways: they are predacious and eat many problematic insects including aphids, and they help pollinate flowers when feeding on nectar.  Soldier beetles are found most often on yellow-flowering plants such as false sunflower, goldenrod and helenium.  They are also quite common on milkweeds.
       Red Milkweed Beetle.  Just as its name implies, the red milkweed beetle (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus) is found on milkweed plants, typically the common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).  It is thought that the beetle, much like the monarch butterfly, gets a measure of protection from predators by feeding on the milkweed plant and thus becoming very distasteful.  The beetle grows to about 1/2” long, possesses distinctive annulate (segmented) antennae and is often found in great congregations on host plants.  Although its bright red and black-dotted markings give it an intimidating appearance, this beautiful insect is completely harmless. 
       Insects and spiders should not be thought of primarily as things to kill or avoid, but rather should be enjoyed and celebrated.  As summer heats up, take time to explore the fascinating world of the insects around us.  Check out the myriad forms colors, shapes and sizes.  It’s truly an amazing world, and one which none of us can do without. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Perennials that Beat the Heat

Bob Henrickson

        Every year it’s the same thing, we know it’s coming, but it can’t be avoided. I’m talking about the dog days of summer, the summer doldrums, or simply July and August in Nebraska. The weather this time of year, with daytime highs in the 90’s, lows in the 70’s, test my patience as a gardener. The sultry, humid air forms a haze without any breeze, clinging to my skin. When there is a breeze it’s more like an oven fan turned on high, sucking the moisture out of my parched landscape. My garden needs some rain, but it’s not likely to come anytime soon.
        I have to admit that gardening through the summer doldrums usually made me cranky until I decided to do something about it. I was tired of babying my landscape plants and flowering perennials through the heat of the summer. Maybe it has something to do with my concern for conserving water, but I decided not to garden with plants that need my help all the time.  Instead I started using low-maintenance perennials that survive, even thrive, on their own and don’t wilt in the relentless summer sun. There are a plethora of perennial plants that have adapted to grow in harsh climates, under droughty conditions and thin soils. But it takes a special plant that dares to bloom this time of year, let alone grow and survive.
        I have always admired plants that seem to enjoy blooming in hot weather. Perennial favorites like the lavender-blue spikes of Russian sage, the dependable black-eyed susan, purple coneflower and ‘Autumn Joy’ sedum, have become mainstays in the border. We can also mention the ‘Moonbeam’ coreopsis, dazzling daylilies, garden phlox, yarrow, hosta and the striking hardy hibiscus. All of the previous plants are excellent choices for the hot summer perennial garden, providing beauty without much care. Thankfully, there are many more summer bloomers to choose from that are starting to gain the attention they deserve. The next time you think about planting consider some of the following plants to beat the summer heat.
        Patrinia (Patrinia scabiosifolia). The lush leaves of this plant look like those of the common Scabiosa plant forming a dense 2’ mound by early summer. The small bright yellow flowers are held in airy clusters high above the foliage in August to 4’ high. They may be cut and brought indoors, the fragrant flowers lasting a long time. They are excellent companions for almost anything and are great for hot, humid summers.
Wild quinine
         Wild Quinine (Parthenium integrifolium). This long-lived native perennial is also called American feverfew because its flowers resemble that of the common feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium). The large, flat-topped flower clusters, containing numerous small balls of snow white flowers, top the plants in summer. It grows in sand or clay and usually the stems fan out from a thick root to form a tidy clump about waist high. It has large, serrated leaves that are rough to the touch.
        Blackberry Lily (Belamcanda chinensis). The 2” showy orange flowers of this plant, each peppered with red spots are, unfortunately, very fleeting. The pear-shaped pods, however, are persistent and contain shining, black seeds for which the blackberry lily is named. The long sword-like leaves resemble that of Gladiolus. This 3-4’ plant is easy to grow in sun or part-shade. Another species, sold as ‘Hello Yellow’, has handsome gray-green leaves and unspotted, yellow flowers on 2’ plants.
        Wild Petunia (Ruellia humilis). This durable native has small petunia-like, lavender blue flowers that open in the morning and slide off by the heat of the day. Fortunately, the 1-2’ high plant gives rise to new flowers daily, extending the blooming season for weeks. These are short-lived perennials that can colonize an area by seed and for this reason combine well with short prairie grasses.
Blackberry lily
        Leadwort (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides). This attractive plant produces dense growth of glossy green foliage making it a fine groundcover for sunny areas or with afternoon shade. The intense, gentian blue flowers will start appearing in late July and last through the heat of August. In the fall the foliage can turn a bronzy red, contrasting nicely with the flowers.  Leaves emerge late in the spring.
        Scarlet Globemallow (Sphaeralcea coccinea).This western Nebraska native covers itself with small coral red flowers from early to midsummer on ankle-high plants. The attractive leaves are covered with fine hairs, giving them a soft gray-green appearance. This sun and heat loving plant makes a fine groundcover for naturalizing among short prairie grasses like blue grama or little bluestem.
        Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum). The rigid sandpapery leaves align themselves in a North-South direction to escape the direct rays of the midday sun. The large leaves can be up to 15” in length and are deeply cut like a giant pin oak leaf. The plant flowers in August with dozens of large yellow sunflower-like flowers along a 5-7’ rough, tough stem. It benefits from full sun, poor soil and being ignored. Too much TLC results in lanky weak plants. Bold and impressive!
        Dotted Gayfeather (Liatris punctata). The dotted gayfeather is the most drought tolerant of the gayfeathers, with roots extending deep in the soil. It has microscopic dots on the underside of the leaves. In late summer the stiff flowering spikes are covered with feathery clusters of purplish-pink flowers to 2’ high. Each plant has a corm that can live for decades and give rise to dozens of flower stalks each year. This is one tough plant that thrives in the summer heat.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Milkweeds: Beauties & Beasts
Jim Locklear, from NSA Botanical Bit Archives

Some plants should be in every garden. Others should be kept out at all costs. The milkweeds qualify on both counts.
            The milkweeds (genus Asclepias) are a large group of plants, with some 120 species in the Americas and Africa.  We have 17 species here in Nebraska, occurring in a wide variety of natural plant communities, including tallgrass prairie, sandhills prairie and wetlands.
            Two of our native species in particular have proven their merit as garden plants, being both beautiful and well-behaved.
            Butterfly milkweed (A. tuberosa) is the best-known and most widely-grown.  A showy wildflower in its native prairie habitat, butterfly milkweed also makes an outstanding garden perennial.  Its popularity is due to its prolific clusters of bright red-orange flowers which smother the rounded, 1-2’ tall plants.  Not only are its orange tones (sometimes ranging to yellow) uncommon among garden perennials, the flowering season of butterfly milkweed comes toward the end of the early summer rush, when many gardens are entering the doldrums.  On top of all this, butterfly milkweed is a butterfly magnet, bringing even more color and animation to the garden.
            Swamp milkweed (A. incarnata, photo above) is less commonly cultivated, but more gardeners are discovering its attributes.  It has a different growth form than butterfly milkweed, with slender, willowy stems that can reach 5’ in height, topped with clusters of fragrant, purplish-red flowers.  As the name implies, the native habitat of swamp milkweed is wet, marshy sites, but it adapts very well to typical gardens and residential landscapes.  It also is highly attractive to butterflies.
            Excepting these two, the majority of our milkweeds are not recommended as garden plants, unless milkweeds are the only thing you want in your garden.  Some are especially adept at taking advantage of disturbed habitat like roadsides and agricultural land, and would swamp a flower bed like Husker fans on O Street.
            While most should be kept at arm’s length from the garden, all of our milkweeds are worth getting to know up close in the wild.  Milkweed flowers are among the wonders of the natural world, rivaled in complexity only by the orchids.  As with the orchids, the pollination biology of milkweeds is fascinating, with milkweed flowers designed to snag the foot of a visiting butterfly, wasp or other insect so that it picks up a “sack” of pollen to carry to another flower.
            Whether you bring them into your garden, or enjoy them in the wild, milkweeds are a beautiful and fascinating part of the rich flora of Nebraska.         

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Bush Type Clematis: A Garden Treasure

 Bob Henrickson, Nebraska Statewide Arboretum
 Clematis is often called “queen of the vines,” and for good reason. I can’t think of another perennial vine that offers as much versatility in both form and color. Clematis (KLEM-a-tis) is a member of the ranunculaceae or buttercup family. One recent classification recognized 297 species of clematis, not to mention the numerous garden hybrids. Many gardeners think of clematis as vines that twine around a mailbox, trellis or arbor, producing masses of large, open-faced flowers. It’s true that most clematis are woody deciduous climbing plants, however a few are herbaceous, dying back to the ground in winter and emerging from the base in spring.
The clematis plants I’m going to describe are the shrub or upright clematis that are great for individual specimens or allowed to weave as a groundcover through a shrub or perennial border. These shrubby plants have handsome, compound leaves and showy bell or urn-shaped flowers, followed by silky seed heads. I have found these bush clematis to be hardy, very easy to grow and long lived in the garden when provided full sun to part shade and rich, well-drained soil. The shrub clematis selections have become easier to find in the garden center and recent breakthroughs in breeding have greatly expanded the selection of these valuable yet overlooked garden plants. I will focus on varieties that are both available and suitable for the Great Plains garden. 
Fremont's Clematis, Clematis fremontii. A Plains native, this clematis grows like a herbaceous perennial, up to 20” high. Its thick, leathery leaves emerge in early spring, followed by attractive 1” urn-shaped flowers with thick blue to purple petals, blooming in May. Like most clematis species, it can take several years to grow into maturity. This long-lived gem is one of my favorite garden plants and combines well with other spring bloomers, such as pasque flower or prairie smoke. It was named in honor of John C. Fremont, the famous explorer of the American West and the first to catalog this plant in the 1840s.
Ground Clematis, Clematis recta ‘Purpurea'. Ground clematis can be trained to climb, but is usually left alone to crawl along the ground or tumble down a bank or low wall. It has attractive rosy-purple new leaves in spring that turn green as the season progresses. In late spring and early summer it produces masses of small, white, star-like flowers. The vanilla-scented flowers are followed by silvery seedheads.
‘Mongolian Snowflakes’ Clematis, Clematis hexapetala ‘Mongolian Snowflakes’. This shrubby clematis grows into a sprawling 3’ high mound of rich, dark green linear leaves with parallel veins. In late spring, it is topped with clusters of 1” white, fragrant flowers, soon followed by feathery, bright silver seed heads. Both the flowering stems and the seed heads are excellent as cut flowers, each with a long vase life. This drought tolerant clematis is easy to grow in any sunny, well-drained site. ‘Mongolian Snowflakes’ was selected for its copious clusters of larger 1 1/2” flowers.
‘Mongolian Gold’ Clematis, Clematis fruticosa ‘Mongolian Gold’. This is a dwarf shrub with woody stems up to 3’ high and dark green foliage. In late summer, the clumps are topped with 1” yellow, intensely fragrant, bell-shaped flowers. Its non-clinging stems can lean against a support or allowed to tumble over a low wall. It is very drought tolerant and cold hardy and grows best in full sun and well-drained soil.
Rock clematis, Clematis columbiana var. tenuiloba. This prized rock garden clematis has ascending or erect 6” non-vining stems with longer stems trailing or leaning on neighboring vegetation or rocks. The slender, light blue flowers are held above the foliage in a nodding fashion. Prefers part shade and thrives in clay, limestone rubble or garden loam. When well-established this clematis is very long-lived. This lovely Black Hills native is hard to find, but worth looking for.
Sugarbowl Clematis, Clematis scottii. This beautiful rock garden clematis is from the southern foothills of Colorado’s Front Range, yet its winter hardy to 30 below. This non-vining clematis is slow to get going, but is a long-lived perennial when grown in rich, well-drained soils and full sun to part shade. It has showy 1” deep blue, bell-shaped flowers followed by fuzzy seedheads. 
Tube Clematis, Clematis heracleifolia var. davidiana. This China native is a tough clematis, with handsome, dark green leaves forming a 4’high perennial shrub. In late summer it is topped with lightly scented clusters of small, pale blue flowers that open with recurved petals. This easy-to-grow clematis needs full sun or the blooms will be sparse and the plant will be floppy. The seedheads are also very attractive. The cultivar ‘China Purple’ has deep purple-blue flowers.
Bush Clematis, Clematis integrifolia. This is the most common herbaceous clematis, growing up to 2’ tall with nodding steel blue flowers over upright clumps with many stems. This summer bloomer needs full sun or the plant will be floppy. If you prune the plant back after flowering, it will bloom again in late summer or early fall. Look for splendid new cultivars of bush clematis hybrids, such as ‘Olgae’ with large blue, bell-like flowers; ‘Rosea’ with clear sugar pink bells; ‘Arabelle’ with deep blue-mauve 3” flowers; and ‘Hanajina’ with purple-pink bells.
Mrs. Robert Brydon Clematis, Clematis x jouiniana. I grow this hardy, easy-to grow clematis as a groundcover between large shrubs. It’s a vigorous, non-clinging vine with many small bluish-white flowers in late summer to fall. In cold climates it dies back to the ground in winter and you’ll have to cut the stems back in early spring. Growing to 10’ it can be tied, allowed to cascade over a wall or used as a groundcover over an old tree stump. 

(Photos of six-petaled, Mongolian Gold and Fremont's clematis)