Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Oh Those Goldenrods

Justin Evertson and Jim Locklear 
'Fireworks' goldenrod

        As the first hints of autumn begin to creep in, the late summer landscape becomes speckled with the yellow hues of goldenrod (Solidago spp.).  Because fall is also the major allergy season, goldenrod is often considered one of the causes of hay fever.  In reality, goldenrod has absolutely nothing to do with this malady.  In fact most plants with colorful flowers do not cast their pollen to the wind, but rather work for the affections of flying insects to spread their fertility.  The culprit is ragwood, which releases vast quantities of pollen into the September air from tiny, green, nondescript flowers.  But goldenrod comes into its glory at the same time, lining roadsides with showy drifts of yellow and gold.  Guess which catches the blame?
The goldenrods (genus Solidago and Euthomia) are a large group of plants native to woodlands and prairies.  About 16 goldenrods are native to Nebraska.  Members of the sunflower family (Asteraceae), a close look at the showy flower clusters of goldenrod will reveal they are comprised of great numbers of tiny yellow daisies. 
        There are many types of goldenrod native to the prairie regions.  One of the most common, late goldenrod (Solidago gigantea) is Nebraska’s state flower.  In late summer, it bursts on to the scene in prairie areas and road ditches across the state.  Another distinctive native is stiff goldenrod (S. rigida), which is noted for its distinctive flat plates of yellow flowers.  Several goldenrods make great additions to the flower garden, including:

·         Showy Goldenrod (S. speciosa) is a prairie native with very attractive wands of blazing yellow held above the foliage.

·         ‘Crown of Rays’ has large, golden, crown-like flowers on stiff, 2-3’ tall plants.

·         Wichita Mountains’ possesses very distinctive bottlebrush like spikes of yellow flowers.

·         ‘Golden Fleece’ is a smaller goldenrod with arching sprays of butter-yellow flowers.

·         ‘Fireworks’ is a distinctive 3-4’ tall selection from the eastern US with lacy, radiating, long lasting blooms of yellow-orange.

Goldenrod is a beautiful and easy-to-grow plant for the landscape or perennial border.  This fall, enjoy some in the prairie or plant some in your own garden.  And remember to tell the neighbors that goldenrod is completely innocent of the hay fever charge.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Kids and Nature Go Hand-in-hand

Jennifer Swerczek
     Stomping in mud puddles, digging in piles of dirt, swinging on a tire swing, catching fireflies, picking vegetable from the garden—these are all ways kids and nature go hand-in-hand. The outdoors provides an exciting place for kids to play, explore, observe, discover and be challenged. Yet, in today’s modern world, kids are increasingly disconnected from nature.  
I recently asked a seven-year-old boy what he liked about nature. He replied, “I don’t know, there isn’t any nature nearby.” Kids believe that nature can only be found in a state park or vacation spot, and not in their backyards and community green spaces. In the past, kids spent hours playing in their yard or running around the neighborhood. Today, kids spend a lot of their time indoors using a variety of modern technologies. Technology is useful but it’s no substitute for the natural world. The best way for kids to understand their place in the environment is to get out and enjoy it!
There are many ways to engage kids in nature. First of all, do it yourself! Kids who see adults engaging in nature and enjoying outside activities are more likely to participate too. Ideas for family play:
1.      Backyard campout—With the bugs and the summer heat gone, this is a great time a year to pitch a tent in the yard. Kids can listen for night sounds and guess what animals are active at night.
2.      Picnic—Kids love to eat outside! Throw a blanket on the grass and enjoy a meal together. Talk about what other animals eat and where they might “picnic.”
3.      Campfire—Cool fall evenings are best spent around a campfire. Roast marshmallows, sing songs, tell stories and look at the night sky.
4.      Dig in the dirt—Plant colorful mums or a tree in the yard. Dig out the vegetable garden and prepare the area for next season. Use leftover vegetables to start a compost pile.
5.      Nature Hike—Walk around the yard or neighborhood a few times a week to notice new things. Look for different fall colors, squirrels gathering acorns and what birds are still in the area.
6.      Scavenger hunt—Kids love searching for things! Make lists with words or pictures and see how many different things kids can find in their yard. Kids will discover diversity in their own backyard.
7.      Feed the birds—The fall and winter season is a great time to start feeding birds.  Collect pine cones, cover them with peanut butter, and roll them in birdseed. Hang them up in trees in the yard and watch our feathery friends find a treat!
8.      Visit an apple orchard or pumpkin farm—Talk with kids about harvest time. Kids can help bake treats using apples or pumpkins. Pumpkins can be used for decorations and then added to the compost pile after Halloween.
9.      Rake leaves—Kids will have fun and get lots of exercise raking the leaves. After the leaves are in big piles, let the kids jump in. Talk about why leaves are so important to a tree and why trees lose them in the fall.
10.  Nature journal—Kids like to express themselves with pictures and words. Provide them with some paper and have them find a quiet place in the yard. Kids can record what they hear, see, smell and experience in their journals.
For more ideas on how to connect kids to nature, visit www.plt.org/-every-student-learns-outside.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Sizzlin’ Summer Silphiums & Sunflowers

Compass plant
Bob Henrickson

        Having trampled through many prairies in eastern Nebraska, I have become very familiar with the big burly plants from the genus Silphium, also known as rosinweeds. In the prairie, these tall, bold-textured plants with bright yellow sunflower-like blossoms take center stage in late summer, a focal center among a sea of grasses. In the garden, these impressive, deep-rooted plants make a dramatic and pleasing addition to the back of a mixed border. The tall, stiff flower stalks add an interesting vertical element to the garden and the big leaves add contrast and weight to fine-textured grasses.  On the prairie “plant calendar” the Silphium blossom is a sign that summer is almost over, while the sunflower or Helianthus blossom ushers in the fall.
        The name sunflower refers to their habit of facing the sun from sunrise to sunset. Most of us are familiar with the common annual sunflower growing along field margins and roadsides, but the perennial sunflowers are also important prairie forbs. Ripening in fall, the seeds are ready just in time for migrating birds to gorge on as they make their way south.
        In the flower garden these beauties spread rapidly by rhizomes to form impressive colonies.  Sunflowers work best either competing with equally aggressive prairie plants like big bluestem and Indiangrass to keep them in check, or planted in an island surrounded by mowed grass. They’re very drought-tolerant and able to break through heavy soils; but if the soil is too rich or they get too much water they will flop over when blooming.
        If you’re looking for a classic, tough prairie plant to add some color late in the season, find a place in your sunny border for these bold beauties.       
        Compass plant, Silphium laciniatum. The deeply cut, rough, leathery leaves of compass plant can grow up to 20” long, like a giant oak leaf. Mature plants send up a massive flower stalk that can reach up to 10’, with clusters of large yellow flowers along the stem. Prairie grasses like little bluestem and prairie dropseed make nice, fine-textured companions to the big leaves. Most Silphiums need at least three years to mature but will reward you by living for decades.
        Rosinweed, Silphium integrifolium. The dark green, thick leaves of rosinweed, stiff and rough to the touch, are a nice complement to the bright yellow flowers clustered at the top of the stems. A mature plant will give rise to many stout, erect stems that may reach 5’ high and 3’ wide. A dependable performer and one of the best-behaved for the garden, growing well in a variety of soils from moist to dry and excellent in clay. Try as a backdrop for other perennials or grasses.
        Downy sunflower, Helianthus mollis. Beautiful butter-yellow flowers, blooming in August, complement the soft, grayish-green leaves. Growing up to 6’ tall, this species is also called ashy sunflower because the fuzzy leaves look like they’ve been rubbed in ashes. Creeps slowly by rhizomes, making this one of the best-behaved of the sunflowers. It prefers dry, well-drained soils.
        *The following natives are aggressive and best limited to prairie gardens; they are not recommended for home garden usage.
        *Cup plant, Silphium perfoliatum. According to Neil Diboll of Prairie Nursery, “the cup plant is the single best species that you can plant for wildlife.” The bright yellow flowers are a favorite of butterflies and it ranks as the number one plant for birds, providing food (birds devour the nutritious seeds in fall), water (leaves clasp the square stems to form little cups that can hold rainwater) and the large foliage also provides cover. Give it plenty of room, because this big boy can grow up to 8’ high and it self-seeds readily in open soil.
        *Common sunflower, Helianthus annuus. This species is the wild-growing ancestor of the commercially grown sunflower. It was reportedly cultivated by American Indians who selected for plants with large seeds.
        *Sawtooth sunflower, Helianthus grossererratus. This sunflower is very vigorous, forming large, robust colonies. It can be recognized by its coarsely toothed leaves and large clusters of bright yellow 2-3” flowers. This species grows naturally in rich bottomlands and wet prairies.
        *Maximilian sunflower, Helianthus maximilliani. This impressive sunflower has bluish-green, sickle-shaped leaves folded into a trough shape and arched. In late summer stout stems may reach over 6’ high, with big yellow flowers along the top 3’ of stem. The stiff stems serve as perches for seed-eating songbirds in fall. Very aggressive.
        *Prairie sunflower, Helianthus pauciflorus or H. rigidus. This widespread species is also called stiff sunflower in reference to its stout, erect stems. The blossoms, occurring singly at the tip of the central stem flower, are about 2½–4" across and have dark red centers. It grows to 6’ high. Easy to grow, but can spread and become very aggressive.
        *Jerusalem-Artichoke, Helianthus tuberosus. This sunflower is neither from Jerusalem nor an artichoke. It is a perennial sunflower that produces tubers 3-5” long that have a sweet nutty flavor. Cultivated for centuries, the “earth apple” has large coarse leaves, rough leafy stems and clusters of bright yellow flowers in fall. Very aggressive and can take over an area if left undisturbed.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Attracting Hummingbirds

Karma Larsen
There’s nothing common about a hummingbird. In size they are the smallest bird, smallest egg, smallest nest; their colors include metallic greens, blues and reds; they have the highest metabolism of any animal, with a heartbeat of well over 600 beats per minute; and they are the only group of birds that can deliberately fly backwards. 
        Their diet consists of flower nectar, sap from trees, spiders and insects, usually captured in or near flowers. It’s been estimated that not one square meter, or 40” plot of land, goes unvisited by them in any given year. Still, they may go unnoticed until hummingbird feeders are placed to draw them more readily into focus.
        Nebraska is on the migration route for four hummingbirds but only the ruby-throated hummingbird has ever been spotted in Lincoln’s Pioneers Park Nature Center, and then only on its fall migration that occurs from early August into late October. 
        If you’ve never had the privilege of watching hummingbirds closely or regularly, it is well worth the time and effort to entice them into your garden.  You can provide supplemental nourishment with a sugar-water mixture in a hummingbird feeder (4 parts water to 1 part sugar, boiled to remain fresh longer, NOT dyed red and changed frequently during hot weather) but the following plants will attract them into your yard and encourage them to stay longer. They are very territorial and chances are if one bird is attracted, more will come, so it's best to have several feeders out. And even with several feeders out, they may divebomb each other for the territory!
        As a rule, native plants contain far more nectar than cultivated hybrids. For the fall migration that begins in early August and can run almost until frost, there are lots of options. Some of their favorites are: agastache, butterfly bush, daylily, four o’clocks, gayfeather, hibiscus, hollyhock, honeysuckle, hosta, lamb’s ears, milkweed, monarda, penstemon, phlox and salvia.

Note:  With the addition of a few hummingbird feeders and lots of flowering plants, we went from seeing one hummingbird a year to seeing them several times a day from August to October during their fall migration. They are regulars now, but still miraculous to see!