Native plants are ever gaining popularity as gardeners seek specimens with high ecological value in support of declining insect pollinator populations. Among the almost 2,300 plant species known to be native in Illinois, our native shrubs are often overlooked and underappreciated in the landscape. However, many offer a wide variety of ornamental attributes along with high pollinator value.
Smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) is one of only two hydrangea species native to Illinois. This small and often overlooked native shrub is much more prevalent in southern Illinois, although it occasionally occurs in our part of the state as well. Its dainty lacecap flowers attract a wide range of pollinators and its foliage serves as food source for the caterpillars of two native moths, lending ecological value to this attractive, shade-loving native.
Noteworthy plants in natural areas can be the superstars of landscaping when gardeners learn to harness their natural tendencies and display their most virtuous attributes. One group of plants that I have often underestimated are sedges (Carex spp.).
Each spring as temperatures warm, there is a narrow window of weather suitable for plant growth prior to tree leaf out. During this time, the forest understory begins to awaken as some of our earliest emerging native plants take advantage of the unique conditions.
On a recent trip to southern Illinois I couldn’t help but notice an incredibly unique native plant whose evergreen foliage is reminiscent of something from the tropics, making it seem so out of place in the winter landscape of Illinois.
In recent years, gardeners have become increasingly interested in maximizing the benefits their garden spaces can provide for pollinating insects. We know that these important insect friends are struggling with declining populations reported by research from around the globe, which had put additional emphasis on the need for more pollinator habitat.
Plant identification can be incredibly challenging for beginning botanists or even experienced plant people. There are tons of terms to learn and understand just to start identifying plants by leaves and other plant parts. Throw in a leafless winter, and it makes for a difficult skill to develop with confidence.
While this winter has brought little ice and snow cover, this past weekend’s winter weather put a coating of ice on most smooth surfaces. Gardeners, businesses, parks and others with landscaping near walkways must apply deicing salts for safety, but these products can harm plant life.
Fall flowers are some of the best of the year since they take a whole season of waiting to finally display their splendor. Beyond their beauty, they provide a valuable food source for pollinators late in the growing, which can be especially important for migrating species such as the monarch butterfly.
Shrubs are often overlooked in autumn, typically playing second fiddle to overtopping shade trees that steal the fall display. However, quite a few deciduous shrubs have spectacular fall color to offer in the landscape. In many settings these smaller woody plants can help provide eye-level fall interest in the garden as blooms fade and many of the herbaceous plants we rely on for beauty throughout the growing season just don’t have as much appeal.
Amid all the pollinator conservation efforts in recent years, many gardeners have transitioned areas of lawn and other uses to vibrant pollinator gardens. As homeowners search for new spaces to install pollinator habitat, many have questions about how and where to place these important oases of floral resources in the landscape.
Many gardeners are starting to integrate more and more milkweed into their landscaping in support of monarch butterflies. Plants in the milkweed genius (Asclepius) are the exclusive food source for monarch caterpillars, making them incredibly important in the race to sustain imperiled monarch populations across our continent.
It is always interesting to observe plant diseases and try to unravel the mystery of how a particular plant became infected and to look toward solutions. So many of these ailments have an incredibly fascinating path to infection, often including multiple species when you consider the pathogen, host and potential vector species.
This week, June 21-27, 2021, is National Pollinator’s Week, which is a time set aside by congress to honor and appreciate the amazing process of pollination. Governors in all 50 states have also acknowledged this special week by making their own proclamations to recognize pollinators in their respective states.
The ornamental value of landscape trees can be weighed by a variety of attributes, from interesting bark in the wintertime or colorful blooms in spring to the character of leaves that persists during the growing season. However, the foliage that embellishes branches to create a summertime canopy of beauty is often lost in the sea of green chlorophyll that fills the plant world during the growing season. I have always been interested in landscape trees with unique or interesting foliage that can provide a different splash of foliar color in summer.
This past Saturday, we celebrated 15 new graduates of our Master Naturalist Training. The graduation day festivities included group presentations to showcase outreach projects they worked together to develop over the past few months. There were some very well-developed projects presented, and all did a great job of relating science and nature to their target audience.
Spring is a time of abundant blooms as well as one of the best times of year to establish new woody plants in your landscape. This year, consider adding one, or all, of my favorite Illinois native spring-flowering trees to your landscape, and you’ll enjoy spring floral displays for years to come.
This past week’s warmer weather has been an exhilarating blast of spring when contrasted with the icy, extreme cold just one week earlier. The warmup has spurred many of us to get back out in the garden to start getting ready for spring. While our landscape beds and gardens will be places of burgeoning spring beauty as plant life begins its annual revival in the coming weeks, they are also ecological hotspots of awakening spring life in the insect world.
The snow-blanketed wintertime landscape often lacks the beauty we can recall from other times of the year when plants were in bloom or filled with wonderful green foliage. It leaves both humans and wildlife searching for plant life that retains interest either in the form of ornamental beauty for us, or shelter and habitat for all the animals that share our landscape.
The plant kingdom has not always had the diversity we know today. It has taken hundreds of millions of years of evolution to bring about the diverse, complex group of flowering plants known as angiosperms. And for many millions of years prior to the emergence of angiosperms, the plant kingdom consisted of primarily of gymnosperms.
Plant names provide the botanical vocabulary we use to describe the plant world to each other. They are important descriptors that facilitate both backyard gardening and scientific study by establishing a widely agreed upon naming convention of species. In our current system of plant language, each plant species has a formally established scientific name as well as a less formal and more regionally applicable common name.
Native plants are becoming a larger part of our built environment each year as more and more gardeners begin to recognize their value. Natives support local ecosystems and wildlife habitat in ways that are increasingly important as our human footprint on the landscape grows. From professionals to backyard gardeners, there is a growing demand for native plants, especially as many realize their ornamental and functional value in the landscape as well.
Fall is an excellent time to add new trees or shrubs to the landscape and many of us have already taken advantage of mild weather and sunny days to get new plants in the ground. With the lion’s share of work complete after digging, planting and mulching are finished, we often overlook some of the final steps to prepare new woody plants for winter.
Images of witches, skeletons, and other specter abound this time of year. But we really don’t need to look much beyond the natural world for a dose of spooky entertainment? This week, I’ve compiled my list of the top four spookiest native trees that all offer some great Halloween-related attributes everyone can enjoy on All Hallows’ Eve.
For many gardeners, an entire season of continuously blooming plants is a primary goal. Not only do these fantastic flowers deliver ornate beauty throughout the year, but they are also greatly beneficial to pollinators by providing a continuous food source of pollen and nectar. Since many plants have a limited flower display, sometimes only spanning a few weeks, it is often difficult to find the right arrangement of plants for an entire growing season of continuous blooms.
The term native often means different things to different people. Most definitions draw a line between geography and time scale which typically is demarcated by the point of human intervention or influence on the landscape. I really like this definition from the Forest Service in 2012, “A native plant is an endemic species that occurs naturally in a plant community, ecosystem, ecoregion, or biome habitat without direct or indirect human involvement.”
This past week was National Pollinator Week, a time set aside to celebrate the amazing and monumental task that pollinators perform each and every growing season. Worldwide, animals pollinate about seventy-five percent of all plant species, and about ninety percent of all flowering plants. And we all know that it takes a pollinated flower to produce so many of the fruits we depend on in our human diets, with animal pollination being responsible for about one of every three bites we take each day.
Nothing beats the light and airy look of tall, distinctive grasses in a landscape arrangement. The fluffy seedheads and slender, and attractive stems practically dance in the wind on breezy days, adding texture as well as a structural element to any landscape bed.
For many years, there was a trend toward more ornamental and non-native grasses. Recently, there has been a growing interest in incorporating our native prairie grasses, given their inherent adaptability to our climate and their exceptional ecological value.
It has been another difficult spring for sycamore trees across central Illinois as near bare canopies of this tree stick out among the fully developed leaves of neighboring trees. However, this doesn’t necessarily spell doom for your sickly looking sycamore. It’s all caused by naturally occurring fungi that tends to ebb and flow with our spring weather over the years.
A properly planted and well located tree can last longer than a human lifetime, so tree selection is an important decision.
Invasive species can be characterized as any non-native species that is introduced to a new location, has the ability to spread and causes some kind of harm. Across Illinois and around the globe, invasive species cause significant ecological and economic damage each year. In the ever globalizing society we live in, these exotic invaders are a result of either accidental or intention mixing of biota around the planet. Humans have a long history in this mixing process and as we have become better and better at moving around the planet, the rate of invasive species introductions has parall
We all have our favorite spring wildflowers for one reason or another. Maybe they are part of a native plant community we visit often, such as a close-by natural area or favorite park trail? Perhaps our preference comes from the plants we are able to cultivate at home, in our own gardens? For me, it’s certainly hard to pick one favorite, I probably have a list a mile long of my “favorites”.
Trees represent some of the most long-lived vegetation in the landscape. As such, these perennial, woody plants are also some of the highest valued plant material in our yards, parks, and urban areas. Tree identification is an important first step in understanding the care of these invaluable plants that often take an entire human lifetime to develop into the mature, cathedral-like shade trees that line our city streets and shade our homes.
Warming spring weather is often enough motivation to get many of us out looking for the first blooms of the growing season. In my home garden, snow crocus (Crocus sieberi) is about the only plant that has started to show life over recent days, reaching full bloom sometime earlier this week. If your garden is still as bare as mine, our local natural areas are a wonderful place to observe native spring wildflowers and some early performers are already beginning the show for 2020.
Over the past 200 years or so, orchids have went from a mysterious and challenging plant, barely sustained in cultivation, to a fixture in many homes and businesses. Today, easy-care varieties of these beautiful flowering houseplants can be purchased just about anywhere, including the supermarket checkout lane. In the last decade, plants in the orchid family have become highest selling potted plants in the US horticulture industry, exceeding the previous leader, poinsettias.
The late winter is often a time of anticipation for spring flowering, when many gardeners watch for the first signs of early blooming bulbs. However, one unique woody plant is currently in full bloom putting on the first flower display of spring in the Illinois landscape.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Autumn is not only a time of brilliant fall colors, but also a time to observe the annual bird migration that spans our continent. Many of our feathered friends travel amazingly great distances to reach warmer climates with abundant food for winter. This lengthy journey spans thousands of miles, requiring birds to expend a ton of energy in the effort. As our avian counterparts make their annual retreat to warmer climates, it is critical that they build up fat stores prior to embarking on their trip and maintain this energy reserve by finding more food along the way.
Most of us think of tree leaves when we think about beautiful fall foliage, but many ornamental grasses provide wonderful fall color that often extends well into the winter season. Right now is an excellent time to observe these grasses in the landscape and consider how we might integrate them into our own gardens.
This week marks the half way point for the 2018 Illinois Ginseng Harvesting Season, which runs from the first Saturday in September through Nov 1. Did you even know that ginseng grows in Illinois, let alone the fact that there is a regulated harvest of this valuable native plant?
Among the plants that grow in the Illinois landscape, poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is perhaps the most notorious. This plant is certainly well known by name among most gardeners, nature goers and outdoor folks, but many are unable to identify it correctly in the field. The result of misidentification and subsequent exposure to the resinous oil, called urushiol, produced by this plant can cause anything from an itchy rash to a severe allergic reaction.
Visitors to the downtown Champaign area last month may have noticed an odd addition to the One Main Development landscaping. Over the course of May, an increasing number of mysterious white trees appeared out of nowhere. Who placed these ghost trees? Where did they come from?
Native plants are typically defined as vegetation growing wild in an undisturbed area at the time that scientific records began. Specific climate, soils and other environmental factors, define a plants native range. Our area is fortunate enough to have a large diversity of both prairie and forest plants that call central Illinois home.