Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Redbuds in the Powell Gardens Landscape

Eastern Redbuds (Cercis canadensis) have been in glorious bloom from Powell Gardens' Gatehouse through the gardens and into its wildlands. Here is a planting off to the side of the Gatehouse where some flowering dogwoods (in white) set them off. We planted redbuds at the gatehouse landscape as they are such a great choice for beauty through the seasons and a native plant that reflects our spirit of place.

Redbuds adorn the front of the Visitor Center; someday they will arch over and shade the walks from the parking lot to the building. There are a few whitebuds planted to give a bit of sparkle and depth to the planting. They are naturally an understory (small) tree doing well at the edge of a woods but give a nice "human scale" to a landscape. They set off the huge presettlement trees of shagbark hickory (center in the above image) and Swamp White Oak (right) along with a middle aged Pin Oak (left).

Redbuds are often multi-trunked and the trunks often recline with age. Each tree develops a distinct form so I think of them as living sculptures. If you like lollipop trees, then the redbud is not a good choice for you. It is also not a good choice for restricted spaces. Redbuds are about as long-lived as us and can be rejuvenated by removing old trunks and allowing basal sprouts to replace them. They are short-lived because they are partially pioneer species. They colonize old fields and disturbed areas and become a nurse plant to future trees that eventually grow up and shade them out. Rebuds bloom best in full sun but will be OK in light shade with a lighter bloom.

Redbud trunks are a work of art always covered with blue-gray and chartreuse lichens and throwing off a few clusters of flowers to boot! The lichens cause no harm and are epiphytic; remember Alice algae and Freddy fungus to a lichen to each other in this organism of two. At the base of a redbud trunk the old bark flakes off to reveal maroonish inner bark.

Redbud trunks often become gnarled and hollow. Again, think living sculpture with redbud!

Here redbuds are a good companion to a Wildgoose Plum (Prunus munsoniana) just past the Gatehouse.

Redbuds are often wild companions with Redcedars (Juniperus virginiana), which set off their blooms to a tee. This composition is near the Gatehouse.

Oklahoma Redbud is a selection from a more southerly subspecies (or species?) of redbud (Cercis canadensis ssp. reniformis). Oklahoma Redbud is slightly later blooming with rosier flowers, glossier leaves and has a more upright, compact stature. It is a better choice for boulevards and other restricted spaces. Oklahoma Redbud is actually a cloned cultivar selected from the Arbuckle Mountains of Oklahoma but has proved hardy to the Greater Kansas City area.

Powell Gardens has an extensive collection of redbuds from around the world. This is the only known hardy selection of Chinese Redbud (Cercis chinensis 'Ames') from the North Central Experiment Station in Ames, Iowa. You can view them at the Visitor Center trolley stop. It is a large shrub with earlier blooming, rosy flowers. It is not available at nurseries, which carry the selections 'Avondale' and 'Don Egolf'. Both of these are hardy to only -10F. If we have a cold winter like in decades past, they will be killed to the ground.

Here is the rare Afghan Redbud (Cercis griffithii) from Afghanistan. It has flowers almost the color of our native redbud and you can see it at the south end of the Visitor Center. It is also not hardy below -10F but we have not had weather that cold in more than a decade.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

"RED"buds, Kansas City's Premier Spring Flowering Tree

From Powell Gardens to across Greater Kansas City the Eastern Redbuds (Cercis canadensis) are in their glory. The flowers are not red but a blue-pink--like raspberry sherbet--a distinctly North American color. It is such a refreshing hue, complementing the emerging acid lime greens of spring. Underplant native blue wildflowers like violets, woodland phlox, Jacob's ladder, Virginia bluebells and blue-eyed-mary and you will make your planting sing. Redbuds are named "canadensis" because they were found west of the Appalachians (once all west of them was called "Canada.") They are a great plant that celebrates the spirit of America's heartland from the lower Midwest to the mid-South.

Here's a redbud you will meet on the way to the Powell Gardens chapel. The white flowering tree in the foreground is the Plant of Merit cultivar 'Royal White' and the best white flowering selection of "whitebud."

Here is a mix of wild and planted redbuds near the parking lot to the Powell Gardens chapel. A seedling flowering dogwood is just starting to bloom too (lower right). The chapel landscape at Powell Gardens is where we display every variety of redbud available and there are many new selections of this beautiful native plant.

Whitebuds (Cercis canadensis 'Alba' ) adorn the chapel landscape and always look best with a few "true" redbuds for contrast.

The pearl or blush pink flowering redbud is the cultivar 'Pauline Lily.' It is difficult to find in nurseries and usually available only at specialty mail-order nurseries. Look for our tree by the Chapel trolley stop.

This pale pink blooming redbud is the cultivar 'Rubye Atkinson' and can be seen on the meadow side of the walk to the chapel.

he redbud cultivar 'Tennessee Pink' has shocking true cherry pink flowers!

'Tennessee Pink' redbud close up!
Come out and see Powell Gardens' collection of redbuds and take a special moment to bask in the beauty of this most showy of our wildflowers. More about redbuds and what a fantastic landscape tree they are in a future blog.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Plums' Bloom Herald Spring's Butterflies

My hands down favorite time of year is now: when the wild plums bloom. They herald the season of spring butterflies, many of which can be seen at no other time. Wild Plums are valuable plants for the landscape as their pollen and nectar rich flowers attract a plethora of beneficial insects and pollinators. Last night I hiked up on the Byron Shutz Nature Trail and admired their flowers abuzz with life from honeybees to tiger swallowtails. Their aroma brings back fond memories from childhood on my grandparent's Iowa farm, where they used to bloom down the fence rows. My grandmother would make a wild plum-apple jelly from them that was always a treat. Their scent brings back her laugh and feel of her loving hands. I have written an unpublished story of the wild plum and how it should be cultivated in every Midwestern landscape.

Here's a close up bloom of a wild plum transplanted next to the hort cabin. There are actually four species native in the area and all are relatively similar: American Plum (Prunus americana), Wildgoose Plum (Prunus munsoniana), Hortulan Plum (Prunus hortulana) and the depicted Bigtree or Mexican Plum (Prunus mexicana). I've seen all but the Hortulan Plum growing wild at Powell Gardens and all will be displayed in the Heartland Harvest Garden.
Matt Bunch discovered this Luna Moth on the Hort Cabin's front porch. It is my favorite of our wonderful moths and usually its first brood emerges when the plums bloom--right on schedule again this year! Pairing insect emergence with blooming plants is much better than looking at the calendar--it is officially known as "coincide" and it is especially important for pest control. I found another beautiful Luna moth up on the Nature Trail sitting on the prairie grasses. Adult Luna Moths have no mouth parts and cannot feed, but their caterpillars eat the leaves of walnuts (and hickories, persimmon and sweetgum, though I have never found them there).
I saw 19 species of butterflies yesterday including numerous Eastern Tiger Swallowtails. This one is sipping salts from wet gravel and he let me take his picture. The Powell Gardens Byron Shutz Nature Trail is a great place to observe butterflies but is extremely wet with our more than double average rainfall. Be sure to wear waterproof duck shoes or boots as we cannot fix wet areas without causing more damage (ruts) at this time.
I saw more Goatweed Leafwings (a velvety orange butterfly) than ever before yesterday as well as numerous Falcate Orangetips, which I always feel are indicators of a good season and don't necessarily emerge every year. The orangetips are a butterfly that can only be seen in April--small white butterflies with bright almost fluorescent orange wingtips on the males. I was relieved to see Monarch butterflies too! You may know they suffered a devastating winter because of lumber poaching in their tiny overwintering "preserves" in Mexico. Look up KU's Monarch Watch web site for all the gory details. I have seen at least five Monarchs that made it back!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Peak of Spring!

Spring has exploded with a bonanza of flowers, butterflies & birds at Powell Gardens. Because of technical problems I cannot share images at this time but shall as soon as possible!

Precocious (spring flowering) magnolias and daffodils were in peak bloom last weekend. The lovely yellow Butterflies magnolia is currently in full bloom.

This weekend of April 26-27 will be peak bloom for redbuds. Dogwoods are budding well and may be quite showy by the weekend if the warmth continues. We are two weeks behind recent bloom times this year.

Wild plums opened yesterday and are in full bloom along the nature trail. A hike on the nature trail requires water proof footwear because of all the rain! Butterflies have emerged en masse and are at peak of spring numbers. The high ridge of the nature trail is where they "hilltop" on warm days. Butterflies go to the highest point around to search for a mate. Trail markers 18-20 are the best areas.

Spring bird reports are pouring in and beautiful Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings, Baltimore Orioles and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have all returned. They are looking for feeders because mother nature is so far behind this year. We will be putting up oriole feeders outside the Cafe shortly and the hummingbird garden nectar plants will be planted next week.

The azaleas should be in peak bloom during the Spring Plant Sale weekend May 3-4. Be sure and check out our website ( for the list of plants available at our plant sale. Friends members only get the first pick on Friday night (May 2) from 5-7pm. You may join or renew now!

Stay tuned for some images of the magnolias -- we have the best collection in the mid USA.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Precocious Magnolias of Powell Gardens

Powell Gardens has one of the most extensive public garden collections of magnolias outside the East and West Coasts. The magnolias that bloom before the leaves emerge are known as "precocious" magnolias. All have native origins in Eastern Asia where the Yulan (Magnolia denudata) is widely attributed as being the first plant ever cultivated by humankind for its beauty rather than its food value. We have planted a Yulan just before you enter our new Heartland Harvest Garden just for that contrast! Native American magnolias bloom later in spring and into early summer -- an adaptation to North America's wild mood swings of spring weather. The American Cucumber Magnolia (Magnolia acuminata) the only magnolia with yellow in its flowers has been hybridized with the Asian precocious magnolias to create some of the new precocious yellow-flowering cultivars. This was first done by the Brooklyn Botanical Garden.

Magnolia 'Gold Cup' is a hybrid between the Yulan and American Cucumbertree Magnolia. It's huge goblet flowers have a yellowish base but I would have named this plant 'Ivory Cup'! This plant is currently in bloom at the Visitor Center Trolley Stop.

Magnolia 'Butterflies' is probably the most yellow of the precocious hybrid magnolias. It is becoming more widely available in the nursery trade and always a stunning bloomer at Powell Gardens -- it has never failed to bloom! Its only drawback is that a small tree takes about six years to be covered in flowers. (The backdrop magnolia is Magnolia 'Royal Crown.')

The open flowers of Butterflies Magnolia are like yellow waterlilies. Our largest plant is at the Visitor Center Trolley Stop.

Magnolia 'Royal Crown' has huge 10-inch blooms. It usually begins to bloom in late February and is subsequently ruined by frosts and freezes. This year it held off to bloom spectacularly BUT we grow it for its secondary bloom in June. The June bloom is awesome with huge pink, better formed flowers set against the green foliage. This tree grows next to Butterflies at the trolley stop.

Magnolia 'March 'til Frost' has dark goblet shaped flowers and blooms fully in March (April this year!) and sporadically all through the season until fall's frost. This tree is also at the Visitor Center Trolley Stop.

The common Saucer Magnolia (Magnolia x soulangiana) has several exquisite cultivars that are hard to find and usually just available mailorder from specialty nurseries. This is the fabulous cultivar 'Lennei Alba' with its exquisitely formed, pristine flowers.

Rustica Rubra Saucer Magnolia is another fabulous cultivar with deeper, better formed flowers with good repeat bloom through the season. We planted it around the front of the Kauffman Garden's orangerie. Colonial Nursery has nice balled and burlaped plants of this beauty this year.

The "Little Girl" magnolias are becoming immensely popular and combine the purple color of the Chinese Lily Magnolia (Magnolia liliiflora) with the frost hardy, Japanese Star Magnolia (Magnolia stellata). The combination is sterile but it has flower power with frost tolerant, later bloom and good repeat bloom in the summer. Jane Magnolia is depicted and is the most like the saucer magnolia. It is also the most widely available of the "Little Girls."

Ann Magnolia is a good bushy cultivar of the "Little Girls." It has orchid pink flowers in abundance and can be seen in the Visitor Center's Courtyard. This cultivar is widely available at local nurseries.

Pinkie Magnolia is my favorite of the "Little Girls" with the best formed, best color in my mind. You can see it next to 'Butterflies' magnolia on the Trolley Stop. It is very difficult to find and usually available only mailorder.

Randy Magnolia is another one of the "Little Girls" that is now difficult to find. I like it here in the Rock & Waterfall Garden where shady conditions favor it to have less, more widely spaced blooms that are so showy now. The Little Girls will grow in full sun to shade but have more blossoms in the sun.

The Northern Kobus Magnolia (Magnolia kobus 'Borealis') was a cloud of white flowers. This is probably the largest growing of the precocious magnolias and is found wild on Japan's north island of Hokkaido. It can easily grow to 50 feet tall! Wendy Powell just sent me some images from the Brooklyn Botanical Garden showing many of their mature magnolias in bloom. Powell Gardens has set the stage for spectacular displays of spring flowering magnolias for years to come! This is but a small taste of the 90 cultivars on display at Powell Gardens, though as a young garden our plants are still small.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Powell Gardens, melding native and exotic plants

Powell Gardens is a unique marriage of native and exotic plants. I took this picture yesterday because it is such an interesting composition. The drifts of planted, non-native daffodils (Narcissus spp.) are showy and beautiful but they are woven into the native grasses and other native plants. No native plant dares have such large flowers this early. The small tree center left is a native redbud (Cercis canadensis) and usually one of our first showy flowering native plants. It's not yet in flower though it was flowering by now for the prior 11 springs. The evergreen is a wild seedling of Eastern Redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) and the tree overhead is a Post Oak (Quercus stellata) with a few marcesant leaves still clinging to its lower branches.
We weave in non-invasive exotic plants to enhance the aesthetic experience of Powell Gardens but keep the natives as the warp and weft to celebrate our spirit of place. Without the native plant "bones" to the garden, we would look like anywhere in the world. In late summer (with the daffodils dormant) this image will show no exotics with billowing native grasses, wild sunflowers, goldenrods and asters.

The cool spring of 2008 has made many of the bulbs look like the images in the catalogs for a change (Most bulbs are Dutch grown where the maritime springs are much cooler). Ice Follies Daffodil (shown) has a creamy to yellow center, but in our more typical warmer springs the flower are never as yellow and just look creamy white. Daffodils are a reliable, deer resistant showy flower for spring. Their clumps persist and can naturally multiply into extensive drifts. They do not self-sow or become invasive. They are true spring ephemerals and go completely dormant by midsummer.

Blues are one of my favorite flowers and the native blue-flowering plants are not yet in flower. Here deep blue 'Delft Blue' Hyacinths (Hyacinthus orientalis) and Grape Hyacinths (Muscari armeniaca) put on a show in the west seating area of the Island Garden. The color theme for this space is quiet contrasts between blue and scarlet. If you visit you will see the scarlet Tulip praestans 'Fusilier' which provides the contrast. Shortly, native Woodland Phlox (Phlox divaricata) and Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica) will be the natives providing the blue color to this planting.

Forsythias are as flamboyant as ever this spring. New hybrids of these often ubiquitous shrubs have really made them more interesting landscape plants. This is the newer cultivar 'Gold Tide' which is a low grower and Plant of Merit (green sign depicted). Look for our planting near the Visitor Center trolley stop. Forsythia's flower power in early spring make them dear to many with spring fever. They are mostly sterile hybrids and pose no threat of escaping to natural areas.

Our native Fragrant Sumac (Rhus aromatica) is also in bloom now with yellow flowers but the flowers are tiny and not so showy. Fragrant sumac's flowers are nectar rich however and are important early nectar source for many insects. Fragrant sumac is a better plant than forsythia through the seasons with striking red, fuzzy berries against its lush green foliage in summer, and vibrant orange to scarlet fall color. Fragrant sumac will never outsell Forsythia because gardeners are apt to buy their plants in spring, not thinking through the whole seasons and what a plant has to offer the landscape. Fragrant Sumac can be seen in the parking lot (where we only display plants native to Kansas and Missouri), Island Garden and Perennial Garden. Drifts of wild fragrant sumac can be seen on the Nature Trail.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Daffodils and Magnolias

The Daffodils a.k.a. Narcissus are blooming in colorful drifts of cream to yellow and orange throughout Powell Gardens. If you have not been to Powell Gardens in a while we have planted more than 100,000 more bulbs in the past couple seasons. The early magnolias are also in full bloom -- foliated in fragrant flowers of blush pink and white.

Larkwhistle Daffodil is a Cyclamineus Narcissus that has naturalized well over the past seven years on the Island Garden (in front of the arbor).
Here a drift of Tete-a-tete and a few Jetfire Narcissus contrast with blue-flowering Siberian Squills (Scilla sibirica) in the Rock & Waterfall Garden.
Star Magnolia's (Magnolia stellata) elegant and fragrant white flowers have really shone this spring. They have attracted more insects than usual because they are blooming nearly a month behind schedule. Painted Lady and Question Mark butterflies as well as myriads of honeybees have been visiting their blossoms.
A Star Magnolia is foliated in flowers with no leaves to take away from their exuberance. They leaf out after flowering.
A honeybee visits the bloom of Leonard Messel Magnolia (Magnolia x loebneri 'Leonard Messel'). Leonard Messel has turned out to be one of the hardiest of all spring blooming "precocious" magnolias. It was a chance seedling in an English Garden and originally thought to be hardy only to zone7. Luckily gardeners are always trying plants to test their limits and we now know this hybrid is hardy through zone 4 and one of the best for the Minneapolis-St.Paul region. It does great in Greater Kansas City too, having blooms that are tolerant of some frost.
All photographs taken by Alan Branhagen at Powell Gardens on April 7, 2008.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Chapungu: Sculpture in the Garden

Powell Gardens' CHAPUNGU, Nature, Man & Myth sculptures are carefully being placed in the garden. This display of art in the garden is scheduled to open on May 10 but to place more than 50 sculptures weighing a ton or more each takes time. A visit now will give you a preview of what is to come but the viewing the display in its entirety with proper interpretation will provide the best experience.

Troy Young in our maintenance department uses our backhoe to pull the sculpture from its crate and transfer it to a garden vehicle. The sculpture is "Horse" by Ephraim Chaurika, made of serpentine and weights 1,600 lbs. The artist stated "When I saw a horse for the first time, it took my breath away. So strong and proud and yet so beautiful. I will always try to capture that in the stone."
Here Troy gently lowers "Horse" to a garden truckster.

The final destination is reached by a Bobcat where Powell Gardens' maintenance staff and Chapungu curatorial staff make the final placement. Note the sheets of plywood laid down to not disturb the ground or brick paths. You will find "Horse" in the Perennial Garden.
The sculptures are arranged in a story of themes and Nature can be observed in the Perennial Garden. This sculpture is "Wild Horses" by Fungayi Mwarowa.
Look for "Myth" sculptures on the Island Garden to the Rock & Waterfall Garden. "The Mudzimu Bull" sculpture by Joseph Ndandarika is made of serpentine and can be seen on the Island Garden. "The sekuru (respected elder) has died. We pass his spirit into a young bull. After two years the bull will be killed and the spirit is released to the ancestors."
"Man" themed sculptures are in the landscape between the visitor center and the lake. "Chief's Advisor" by Joe Mutasa is made of lepidolite. "The advisor presents a balanced picture so that chief can make a fair assessment."

The most moving of the sculptures is "Melancholy Girl" of opal by Tapfuma Gutsa. This front on shot startled me and I can't explain the beam of distorted light off the sculpture's head. Tapfuma states: "As a child I was so happy and so carefree. Now I am saddened by my life and our family circumstances."
We are so blessed in this country I cannot imagine a life in such a country of turmoil like Zimbabwe.
The sculptures are very beautiful and masterful. They tell a universal story of the human experience, very moving if you take the time to carefully observe their nuances and read the artist's story.
All photographs taken by Alan Branhagen on April 8, 2008 at Powell Gardens.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Butterfly Season Begins

Saturday was the beginning of butterfly season. I always count on the first butterflies to emerge or arrive with the opening of the first insect pollinated wild plants. That first flower the butterflies imbibe nectar from and help pollinate is the Fragrant Sumac (Rhus aromatica). A quick hike on the Powell Gardens - Byron Shutz Nature Trail to the "hilltopping" ridge revealed nine species of butterflies on Saturday.

The first butterfly of the season this year was the Goatweed Leafwing. I saw about half a dozen of these brilliant orange butterflies on Saturday on the trail. They overwinter as adult butterflies so often emerge on warm winter days. You can see them regularly now that they have fully emerged from hibernating. This picture was taken by Betsy Betros and is of a female butterfly (the male is more evenly orange that seems to glow in the spring sunshine). Betsy is writing a new book about butterflies of the Kansas City Region that will have its preview at the opening of our butterfly garden on May 31 and be published by our Festival of Butterflies in August.

Red Admirals made their appearance on Saturday. It is interesting to me that we do not know for sure whether the first butterflies seen are ones that emerged from hibernation or immigrants from farther south. I saw three, two of which were definitely worn from a long flight or a long winter!

Saturday's butterfly list included:
Cabbage White
Spring Azure
Goatweed Leafwing
Eastern Comma
Gray Comma
Question Mark
Mourning Cloak
Red Admiral
Painted Lady

When the wild plum blooms, we can have nearly two dozen species of butterflies out on the nature trail. Part of the trail follows the highest ridge around and this is why it is such a special place to observe butterflies. Butterflies "hilltop" -- that is they go to the highest point around to find a mate. You can see inordinate congregations of butterflies perusing our trail for this reason as well as for its good habitat and plethora of early spring flowers from shrubby wild plum and fragrant sumac to herbaceous biscuit root and prairie-plum.