Native paradise: Some unusual plants thrive in Kansas soil
Lawrence gardener Margarete Johnson will be the first to tell you that she prefers the look of many cultivated plants over some Kansas natives. She likes the birds, bees and butterflies that native species attract, though, so she finds the prettiest selections and tucks them in amongst her collection of otherwise unusual plants.
One of my favorite native shrubs, common buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentals), fills the mid-section of one flower bed. The creamy pompom shaped blossoms perfume the air nearby as bees scramble over them, dragging pollen as they go. Buttonbush can grow in just about any soil type and in some shade, although it prefers sun.
A pawpaw tree grows a few feet away. Pawpaw is a small understory tree native to the eastern third of Kansas. Johnson’s pawpaw is setting mango-shaped fruits that are sometimes described as tasting similar to a banana.
Johnson has an apricot tree (not native to this region of Kansas) in the same corner.
“The fruit on the apricot tree is usually not that good. It gets a fungus,” says Johnson. “But the flowers, the flowers in the spring are magnificent. That’s why I plant it.”
Johnson chooses some non-Kansas natives that have close relatives that grow naturally here. One example is black lace elderberry. The lacy, dark-leaved plant is a cultivated variety that is closely related to the native Midwest species.
Other relatives of Kansas natives include a Tennessee coneflower, Fineline buckthorn and multiple species of blazing star (Liatris), milkweed (Asclepias) and rudbeckia with varying common names.
Some plants were selected specifically for their abilities to attract insects and birds.
“I have five different kinds of milkweeds,” Johnson says. Despite the weed in the name, many varieties of milkweed produce beautiful and exotic-looking flowers. Milkweeds are also a well-known food source for butterfly larvae. Providing food for caterpillars encourages butterflies to stick around the garden a little longer.
Back to the unusual side, Johnson also has five different varieties of tree peonies. Tree peonies grow slowly and can be difficult to establish, so many gardeners shy away from them. Once they have taken root, though, the small shrubs require little care and produce magnificent spring blooms.
A plant called queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra) catches my eye with delicate pink flowers held on long stems above the foliage. Ironically, queen of the prairie is not native to the prairie at all but to the eastern, more-forested part of the United States.
“That’s a good rain garden plant,” Johnson tells me about the queen of the prairie. “It loves wet feet.”
Some other remarkable but non-Kansas natives that grow in Johnson’s garden are bugloss (Anchusa), bear’s breeches, Oregon grapeholly, Maltese cross, fennel, daylilies, magician deutzia, Orienpet lilies that are over 6 feet tall, and garlic.
Johnson laughs about the garlic. “I may be the only person who grows garlic for the flowers. They are beautiful.”
Johnson’s garden is also certified as a Monarch Waystation, a Pollinator Garden, and a Kansas Healthy Yard.
Applications are being accepted for Extension Master Gardener volunteer training, which begins Aug. 24. Visit www.douglas.ksu.edu or call 843-7058 for more information about the program.