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.
In recent decades, insect populations around the globe have been declining dramatically. A 2019 study assessed global insect populations and determined that 40% of all insect species are in decline and some may reach extinction in coming decades if populations are not stabilized. Among the causes for these sharp declines, all were human induced, with habitat conversion to human uses topping the list followed by use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, human spread of pathogens and invasive species, and climate change.
Plants in the genus Hosta, collectively referred to as hostas, are one of the premier plants for ornamental gardens that lack full sun. These resilient perennials are a mainstay of Midwestern shade gardens and remain popular in temperate regions worldwide. However, that wasn’t always the case, leading many folks to source hostas from fellow gardeners or grow their own.
There are so many plants in nature that tend to reveal themselves during some kind of phenological event, such as flowering or fruit set, and then scream for attention. For example, consider Joe-pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), which one of my favorite native wildflowers, frequenting the partial shade of woodland openings and edges on drier sites.
Nothing beats the light and airy look of tall, distinctive grasses in a landscape arrangement. The fluffy seedheads and slender, 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 is a growing interest in incorporating our native prairie grasses, given their inherent adaptability to our climate and their exceptional ecological value.
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”.
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.
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 ‘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.
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.
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 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.
Nothing symbolizes the holiday season to a horticulturalist like a holiday cactus in full bloom. These fascinating plants are cacti, but not at all like the full-sun, desert loving specimens we commonly think of. Instead, these plants hail from the treetops of forests in Brazil, which is quite different than the desert ecosystems associated with other species of cacti. They are all epiphytes, living in mostly shaded tree tops and rooting into pockets of organic debris instead of soil.
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.
The iconic monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) has become somewhat of a poster child for the plight that many pollinators face, and for good reason. Monarch populations have experienced drastic declines in recent years for a variety of reasons, some which researchers are still trying to explain. The monarch’s charismatic appearance and large home range, spanning much of the US, has made it familiar to most anyone who has ever caught butterflies as a kid or observed visitors to their flower garden.
In the busyness of spring and planting all our annuals, such as flowers and vegetables, the perennials in our garden often get overlooked. To keep perennial plants performing at their peak, it is necessary to divide them from time to time in order to maintain vigor and flowering. As a general rule, spring flowering perennials should be divided in fall, while late-summer of fall flowering perennials are best divided in spring.
Last week as I was scouring our backyard for signs of spring, I was pleasantly surprised to notice a tiny, inconspicuous purple flower popping up all around my house, seemingly at random. Since we just moved to this property last summer, I’ve not experienced a full year to observe all the plant life that comes with it.
The tiny, solitary flower I noticed had not opened entirely yet, but it was undeniably identified by the white strip down the middle of its slender, grass-like leaves that characteristically emerge prior to the flowers. It was snow crocus (Crocus sieberi).
In recent years, orchids have become increasingly popular as houseplants, popping up for sale everywhere from smaller garden centers to big chain stores. Many of us have taken these plants home, given them plenty of TLC, only to be let down when they begin to suffer from wilting and discolored leaves. This has led to a common misconception that orchids are hard to take care of, requiring a special kind of green thumb. In reality, these plants are quite easy to care for once you understand their particular needs. In fact, it has been said that they thrive on ne
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 seed catalog mailings and New Year’s resolutions, 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 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 annual ritual of fall garden cleanup can be a toilsome, yet rewarding task. After racking up piles and piles of leaves, it is really nice to see some green grass poking through as one last gasp of summer. Cutting back the old, dead stems from garden beds can create a more manicured look for the long and bare winter season. However, it may be worth considering a scale back on fall cleanup tasks to save some needed habitat for wildlife this winter.
On a cold, dreary day with misting rain last week a group of Master Gardeners met at the Idea Garden, in the University of Illinois Arboretum, for a ritual that has occurred for many years. Each year, most plants in the “Tropicals Section” of the Idea Garden are removed from the ground and transported to nearby greenhouses on Campus. This fascinating process is completed by the Master Gardners with much care and much labor to ensure the sensitive tropical plants are safely tucked away for the winter, to be planted again next spring.
Throughout the fall season, garden centers are filled with a beautiful selection of mums (short for chrysanthemums). It is a wonderful time to plant these attractive, fall blooming plants, but some consideration should be given when planting in fall. Many folks plant mums and don’t actually do much to encourage flowering, but there are some measures you can take earlier in the season that will result in additional beauty at bloom time.