burning bush

This past week, the vivid red leaves of our native maples have really stolen the show, reaching near peak fall color for the year.  I have always loved the brilliant red colors of autumn leaves, making burning bush (Euyonomous alata) an old favorite of mine. However, in recent decades this plant has emerged on invasive species lists from the East Coast to the Midwest, which has forced me to take it off my personal list of recommended landscape plants.

Fall color is beginning to paint tree canopies around central Illinois, making the next few weeks prime time for taking in the beauty.   Among our native trees, sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua), red maple (Acer rubrum) and sugar maple (Acer saccharum) typically get credit for the most beautiful and colorful display, but many of Illinois’ native oak trees put on a wonderful show of their own.

This past week, I visited several Central Illinois prairies to catch a last glimpse of waning flowers and look for pollinators.  I was pleasantly surprised to see an old favorite in full bloom as the beautiful and minute, yet brightly yellow flowers of Partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasticulata) filled the prairie edges, adding a speckling of color.   Partridge pea is an annual, native plant that frequents prairies along with a wide range of other locations such as, abandoned fields, railroads, roadside ditches and other disturbed areas.

Fall annuals can breathe life into waning gardens late in the growing season, filling in among fading flowers to add beauty and interest.  Mums seem to be the quintessential fall annual, although perennial in our area if established early enough in the season, packing the garden centers with blooms ranging from yellow or orange to deep red and purple. 

Urban trees provide beauty and definition to our cities and most of us have a love and appreciation of these denizens of the boulevard and backyard.  In recent years, a body of research has emerged showing even greater benefits than previously understood to both the environment and our existence as humans. 

Most folks think of spring as the ideal planting time for trees and shrubs.  However, fall offers a nice planting window with some added benefits over the spring season, making it my favorite time of year to establish woody plants.

Fall weather can create ideal planting conditions, with temperatures cooling off and roots requiring less moisture.  In addition, we typically get a good amount of fall rains to help ensure adequate soil moisture going into winter. 

This time of year, daylilies are far from the center of attention in most landscapes.  The beautiful, vibrant flowers that adorn the scapes of most traditional varieties earlier in summer have long faded, leaving a much less interesting plant that very much resembles a clump of grass. As their name implies, each flower only lasts one day, yielding to subsequent flower buds that open for a period of just a few weeks in many cases. 

On a beautiful, fall-like morning last week, a group of East Central Illinois Master Naturalists met around the tailgate of a truck at Meadowbrook Park in Urbana.  Everyone was handed a pair of hand pruners and a few paper bags before heading out into the Meadowbrook prairies. Urbana Park District Natural Areas Coordinator, Matt Balk, began the day with a description of the objectives he hoped to accomplish and then lead the group off toward the first area of prairie.

In the last few years, my wife has added sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) to various locations in our landscaping and vegetable garden as an impromptu filler where we had unused space or an empty spot from something that didn’t make it through the winter.  The towering plants adorned with bright yellow, often dinner plate sized, flowers have been a showy and interesting addition.  At maturity, the flower heads are filled with seeds that are a favorite among songbirds and other wildlife on our property.   From an ornamental standpoint, the interesting addition of extreme height is an

How many times have you been kept up at night worrying about a poisonous plant?  Hopefully, for most of us the answer to that question will be ‘not many’.  For better or worse, humankind has not always had a well-defined separation from the plant world as we often see today. 

illinois forest

The management of Illinois’ forests has become an increasingly difficult task for landowners focused on maintaining and enhancing native plant diversity.  I have often thought of it as a similar process to weeding a vegetable garden, with a diverse mix of our native forest trees as the vegetable crop and the weeds being everything from invasive species to some of the our native trees that tend over populate or dominate woodlands without some type of natural disturbance.  

As you might imagine, my family spends a considerable amount of time out observing the wonders of the natural world, and I am always fascinated by the way my kids view and interpret things in nature. Many times, their straightforward and simple perspective makes me feel like such a dummy. There is certainly wisdom in their innocent perspective.

I always love it when a particular plant that I know from the natural world doubles as a landscape plant.  Not everything that is beautiful in nature can handle what we throw at it in human landscapes, some native plants are just too sensitive.  However, one old favorite of mine from wetland habitats across Illinois is quickly becoming a new favorite in landscape situations as well, not only it for its beauty or its great benefits to pollinators, but also for its overall adaptability in the landscape. 

Historically, our part of Illinois has been more prone to ice storms than the northern or southern part of the state.  Based on over 50 years of weather data from the Illinois State Water Survey, our area of Illinois (including Springfield, Bloomington and Champaign) is likely to have an average of 5 days of freezing rain per year.  Whereas the rest of our state will only receive an average of 3-4 days of freezing rain. 

The eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea) is perhaps one of the most beautiful native prairie flowers in Illinois.  Its delicately fringed, white flowers gently unfurl from the bottom to the top of its inflorescence over a 7-10 day period during late June and early July in Illinois prairies, but only if conditions are right.  This plant is quite sensitive to annual fluctuations in weather which greatly influences flowering each year.  In good years, up to forty beautiful blooms may adorn flower spikes that reach high into the tip-tops of the prairie to lure in pollinators.

The ‘Annabelle’ hydrangea is a cultivar that was originally collected from a wild specimen in southern Illinois and remains one of the most popular in production today.

The ‘Annabelle’ hydrangea has been a mainstay of the ornamental shrub world since its release in the 1960’s.  This showy shrub is filled with beautiful snowball-like flowers that adorn its spindly branches each summer.  The blooms begin as pretty green puffs that turn white at maturity, often lasting 6-8 weeks throughout June and July, and gradually changing to a tan color to provide interest throughout fall and winter.   

Bird migration is perhaps one of nature’s greatest feats, easily observed each spring as waves of species arrive from warmer climates each week.  I always enjoy watching the spring progression, observing our bird feeders and the woodlands and natural areas around our house for the first signs of each particular bird’s arrival. 

June weather in Illinois is some of the best of the year. After our overly wet spring, I am sure most area gardeners are looking forward to sunny skies ahead and anxious to wrap any spring gardening plans that were delayed.  Sunny June skies will be a welcome addition to the 2019 Vermilion County Garden Walk as last year was a bit rainy.   This year’s event features a number of garden spaces that Master Gardeners are well acquainted with, but the general public often doesn’t visit. 

What kid doesn’t love those maple ‘helicopters’?  I grew up with two large silver maples (Acer saccharinum) in our yard and can always remember the late spring ritual of playing with one of the best toys ever produced by nature, the maple samara.  These winged seeds rapidly go from tiny flowers to mature seeds over the course of a just few months each spring.  I can remember playing with the odd looking seeds in so many ways as a kid, with their awesome helicopter action when falling through the air being the central component of most of that play.  

Boxwood shrubs are perhaps one of the most planted evergreen shrubs in landscapes around the Midwest.  Although they are typically fairly hardy in our area, many suffer from winter injury.  In addition, there are a number of other ailments for this shrub that gardeners should be aware of including a new and very serious threat called boxwood blight.

Imagine spending years establishing and cultivating a beautiful landscape on your property, only for it to be destroyed in a heartbeat from a severe storm.  Couple that with a limb through your roof and you have a real disaster on your hands!  Who do you call?  What do you do about your roof?  How will your garden ever recover? In the past two weeks or so, Master Gardener Pam Hohn and her husband, Chris, have faced a steep learning curve on this matter following extensive damage from a recent tornado.

A startling report on global biodiversity was release by the United Nations this week noting an alarming trend in worldwide species extinction.  We, humans were pegged as the primary cause of an increase in extinction rates to the highest levels in human history.  Specifically, around 25% of the species assessed are threatened, suggesting that one million of the eight million known species of plants and animals are at risk of extinction.

For gardeners, weeds represent one of our biggest challenges each growing season.  These formidable foes are relentless in their quest to invade spaces and rob the plants we love of precious water and nutrients.  Left unchecked they are equipped to out compete and shade out our garden plants and veggies, consuming the space for themselves.  Some basic understanding of weed lifecycles can go a long way in the yearly battle to maintain our gardens and landscapes.

In many communities there are iconic trees that nearly everyone recognizes and admires in passing during daily life.  The spreading, stately tree at the corner of University and Prospect Avenue in Champaign is certainly a historic and interesting specimen.  I cannot count the times that someone has asked me, “what kind of tree is that?”, nor can I count the times that I have sat at the stoplight on University Ave admiring that tree as I waited. 

Now that March has went out like a lamb, these warmer days we are really motivating me to get out into the garden and set things in motion for the 2019 growing season.  Right now is a perfect time to direct seed many of our cool-season vegetable crops, but don’t go too wild with planting or you may wind up with more to harvest than your family and some lucky friends can consume.  One great way I have found to spread out the harvest, creating a continual supply for at least part of the growing season, is through succession planting. 

This past week, many folks around Champaign-Urbana and surrounding areas may have noticed plumes of white smoke gently rising in the distance or caught the scent of what seems to be the well-known smell of a campfire.  It is special time of year when a tiny window of time emerges for the application of ecological burns to promote the health and diversity of native plants in many of our local natural areas.  This practice is by far one of the most important processes that natural areas managers can recreate in parks and preserves to boost the health of prairie ecosystems.

Nothing signals the coming of spring quite like a daffodil (Narcissus psuedonarcissus) in full bloom.  After winter slumber as bulbs beneath the ground, these tiny plants emerge very early in the year to put on a spectacular flowering display each spring.  These delightful harbingers of the spring season actually have some interesting evolutionary adaptations which allow them to thrive in a wide variety of environments, making them such great performers in our landscapes and gardens.

creekbed garlic mustard

It’s beginning to feel more like spring and I know that many of us are anxiously awaiting the awakening of the plant world.  Although we all know spring is sure to come, it would be nice to have some assurances on the timing and date of warm weather’s arrival.  Unfortunately, that’s just not possible without a truly working crystal ball.  However, there is some very important information about the seasonal habits of plants we can surmise from collection of phenology data from year to year.

Winter is an excellent time for reflection on the past year’s growing season and any gardening successes or failures to account for next year.  In this season of multitudes of seed catalog mailings, I have found it to be an ideal time to set gardening goals for the coming year during the down time associated with the shortest and coldest days of the year.

I have always found it motivational to first focus on what I can accomplish prior to leaf out and the coming growing season.   One of the primarily activities that can be done in the dead of winter is pruning. 

The cold of winter is absent in the Danville Area Community College (DACC) greenhouses right now, making them a wonderful oasis of green plants and horticulture in action.  The 6,125 square foot facility, located in the heart of the Danville College’s campus is operated by various students and instructors in the Horticulture Program.  It not only serves as a lush collection of beautiful tropical plants, but also houses a number of ongoing experiments related to coursework or specific projects developed by the DACC horticulture staff.

Last Tuesday marked the 210th birthday of the famous botanist and naturalist, Charles Darwin, who is most well-known for his groundbreaking work on the science of evolution.  In 1859, Darwin published his most noteworthy book, titled “On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life” which was a foundational work that defined our current understanding of evolutionary biology.  In this book, Darwin describes how all species on earth have descended from common ancestors over time, which has become a foundational concept in scie

The emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis) is an insect from Asia that has plagued our native ash trees in Illinois since 2006.  This pest was first introduced in 2002 around the Detroit area and has rapidly spread across Michigan and Indiana to infect most of Illinois today.  Sadly, the emerald ash borer will eventually wipe out our native ash species in Illinois as we know them, leaving a major void in our urban forests and natural areas since ash is currently so prevalent.

Winter time is somewhat of a downtime for deciduous trees.  After a growing season’s worth of beautiful foliage, culminating in the wonderful fall display of color, woody plants enter the long, cold season of dormancy that is part of their annual life.  For many of us, this is not a time of arboreal beauty or great ornamental value, but rather a time of dull, bare tree canopies cast against our wintery skies.  However, I find winter as a time to reflect on one of the most often overlooked aspects of tree beauty, which lies in the character of their bark. 

spotted wing drosophila

In our increasingly globalized society, invasive species have become somewhat of a way of life as we continuously intermix the world’s biota. Plants and animals from other continents tend to find their way to our landscapes and often are here for good.  As a gardener, it’s difficult to keep up with the pace at which new invasives pop up.  It’s even more difficult to figure out what these invasives mean to our home gardens and how they may impact our future plant choices.

The last thing any homeowner wants this time of year is a cold draft from the outdoors.  We humans have become exceedingly good at sealing up all of our indoor spaces in the interest of trapping heat during the winter or cooled air during the summer.  These type of improvements in home construction, insulation, and the overall sealing of our “building envelop” have gone a long way in reducing our energy costs, and our carbon footprint. 

The Fourth National Climate Assessment was released last fall in two volumes, containing information about how climate change is affecting the physical earth system across the US and a detailed assessment of how those changes now, and in the future, will impact our country.  The report documents aspects of climate change already measured across the US and paints a dismal outlook, with climate change occurring faster than projected by past assessments. 

Tomatoes are one of the most planted garden crops in the US, with several common problems here in central Illinois that can be managed through fairly simple cultural practices.

Nothing beats a homegrown tomato!  Even when in season, the store bought varieties just cannot compare to a fully ripe tomato harvested at its peak from your own garden.  So many gardeners across American choose tomato plants for their garden each year for this reason, making it the most planted garden crop in the US. 

Apple trees in our area are in full bloom this week.  Unlike peach trees which suffered cold damage, many apple trees in central Illinois seem to have endured.

Winter injury is a common problem among fruit trees grown in our area and this year’s up and down spring temperatures resulted in damage to flower buds across central Illinois.  Cold weather in some years can bring damage to many ornamental tree species as well, impacting much anticipated spring blooms.  In fact, injury from cold weather is likely the most important limiting factor in plant species distribution around the globe, which is why most gardeners pay careful attention to cold hardiness maps.

This rhododendron shoot is infected with the pathogen Phytopthora ramorum, displaying the typical symptoms of ramorum blight. PC UI Plant Clinic

In early July, the Illinois Department of Agriculture submitted a press release detailing the detection of a new pathogen in Illinois that threatens our native oaks. This non-native pathogen is the causal agent for a very serious disease known as sudden oak death. However, there may be some good news in this incident, thanks to swift action by the agency and others to rapidly identify and quarantine infected nursery plants.

Butterfly milkweed is the only Illinois milkweed with orange flowers, which provide a showy display each summer, often blooming a second time around early

In recent years, milkweeds have gained attention from the public due to their exclusive relationship with the imperiled monarch butterfly.

I think many of us are familiar with common milkweed (Asclepius syriaca), which reminds me of childhood leaf picking experiments to see the characteristic sap of milkweeds. Before I knew the exact species name, I knew this plant was a milkweed and it had milky sap. However, there are more than 20 native milkweeds in Illinois, and I am always amazed that many people are unaware of the majority of this interesting and diverse plant family.

The green foliage in this picture is bush honeysuckle, which is an invasive species that dominates forest understories in Illinois. If not weeded out...

The management of Illinois’ forests has become an increasingly difficult task for landowners focused on maintaining and enhancing native plant diversity. I have often thought of it as a similar process to weeding a vegetable garden, with a diverse mix of our native forest trees as the vegetable crop and the weeds being everything from invasive species to some of the our native trees that tend to overpopulate or dominate woodlands without some type of natural disturbance.

The blueberry, commonly known as one of our “superfoods”, was not grown in cultivation until 1912 due a previous lack of understanding about their very specific soil requirements.

It’s hard to imagine a foodscape without blueberries. My family grows them, picks them, eats them fresh, and freezes a good supply for the rest of the year. Throughout winter, we regularly eat them in smoothies, pancakes, and other baked goods. The fruits freeze well and keep for months in our deep freezer. 

This non-native, kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa ‘Klipka’) was bred for variegated leaves which may greatly affect insect leaf feeding.

There is a growing body of research supporting the use of native plants in landscaping to preserve local biodiversity and sustain native wildlife populations. Currently, much of our urban plant composition is not comprised of native species, based on the general public’s historical preference for non-native, exotic plant materials. Numerous studies have found that these non-native plants outnumber native species in U.S. landscape settings from urban to suburban or rural areas.

Hollies are symbolic of the holiday season, providing beauty in the landscape as well as abundant berries for native birds. Photo Credit: Diane Plewa, Illinois Extension Plant Clinic

Broad-leafed and evergreen holly species have long been a symbol of Christmas and other winter holidays and traditions.  The dark green, prickly foliage combined with contrasting bright red berries can really be a show stopper in the winter landscape providing both ornamental beauty and food for wildlife as berries persist into winter.

Poinsettias are the quintessential holiday house plant with nearly 30 million sold each year.

Are you searching for the perfect holiday gift for that plant lover on your list?  Hoping to inspire a new plant enthusiast with the ideal plant-related gift? Houseplants are one of the best and most affordable gifts for someone interested in a plant-themed gift this holiday season. 

Before you select that perfect specimen from the ranks of holiday plants for sale, it is helpful to consider some basic care requirements to be sure your plant’s recipient will be set up for success.

Parkland College Horticulture Instructor, Theresa Meers, teaches Master Gardener Trainee, Margaret Briskin, about succulents at tour of the Parkland greenhouses during the 2019 Master Gardner Training Course.

Recently, an Illinois Extension colleague of mine was gracious enough to share an extremely rare find from the early days of horticulture extension and outreach at University of Illinois.  The publication dates back to 1915 and is focused on gardening with native prairie plants.  I found it utterly fascinating to read this piece of literature and think about the context to which native and perennial plants were presented to the early 20th century a

The sweet potato produces more biomass and nutrients per acre that any other food crop, making it a globally important agricultural crop.  Photo Credit: Andrew Holsinger, Illinois Extension

So many foods are epitomized by their annual appearance in Thanksgiving feasts, with sweet potato often right alongside the turkey and stuffing. This plant also has an interesting world history as both a food-security and subsistence crop in developing countries as week as a delicacy if Thanksgiving Feasts in other parts of the world.

Many herbs, such as this sage plant, are cold hardy perennials that still may be harvest for fresh use despite the early Halloween snowfall this week.

Although our Halloween snow provided a beautiful wintry accent to autumn leaves, it marked a stark end to the growing season for most plants. Many area gardeners were tuned in, harvesting the last of their still-viable vegetable crops ahead of the snow.

Houseplants provide beauty as well as a plethora of human health benefits during winter although indoor plant care can often be challenging this time of year.

Winter is a stressful time for many plants in the landscape, given the drought conditions brought on by freezing temperatures and the effects of extreme cold.

Although these stressors typically don’t impact our houseplants the same way, indoor plants experience their own form of winter stress, making wintertime one of the most common times of year for the decline or death of houseplants.

This young swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor) has retained its leaves while the maples on either side have already dropped theirs.  Many of our native oaks keep their leaves all winter as young trees.

Not all trees shed their leaves in coordination during fall. You may have noticed that some trees are still holding their leaves this week, and many of those will likely hold them until spring.

Each winter, I get a number of questions on this topic as folks ponder the “not-so-deciduous” deciduous tree in their landscape. Are these trees considered deciduous or evergreen, or somewhere in the middle?

Finding more ways to make our urban forest look like a natural forested ecosystem can really benefit wildlife by provided a greater heterogeneity of habitat.  Consider less fall cleanup this year and go with the “natural” look.

Ready for some tips to lighten the load with fall garden cleanup?  Breaking a few old habits can make a big difference for native wildlife by leaving some winter habitat elements in place. 

Winer injury is a common problem among fruit trees grown in our area and this year's up and down spring temperatures resulted in damage to flower buds across central Illinois. Cold weather in some years can bring damage to many ornamental tree species as well, impacting much anticipated spring blooms. In fact, injury from cold weather is likely the most important limiting factor in plant species distribution around the globe, which is why most gardeners pay careful attention to cold hardiness maps.

Last week the spring beauties (Claytonia virginica) in Lodge Park, near Monticello, were absolutely stunning. These tiny, ornate wildflowers adorn the forested trails at Lodge and other woodlands throughout central Illinois providing us with a sure sign that spring has arrived each year.

Rain gardens are one way for homeowners to use garden design as means to mitigate storm runoff by capturing and detaining water before it leaves our properties. Although these carefully designed gardens function as tiny rainwater detection areas, you wouldn't know it unless they were inundated with storm water. When it's not raining, they are attractive gardens filled with pollinator habitat and native plants with beautiful blooms.

beet growing with title "it's hard to beat a good beet"

Mentioning the ripe beets coming out of the ground this time of year doesn't get much excitement out of my kids, but they are certainly a favorite of mine. I have such fond memories of fresh beets from my grandmother's garden. She served them pretty regularly as a side, fresh when possible, and canned the rest of the year, and I actually enjoyed them quite a bit when I was a kid. The hearty root crops are edible top to bottom, relatively easy to cultivate, and quite productive for the garden space they occupy.