Wildflowers at the Overland Park Arboretum

I hear rumors that the Overland Park Arboretum & Botanical Gardens property is a popular place for wildflower enthusiasts. What I do know is that there are at least 30 different herbaceous wildflowers identified and labeled along the trails. This doesn’t include the wild trees, shrubs and woody vines, though some of these are labeled as well. Many wildflowers are spring bloomers, ephemeral, meaning they emerge, bloom and die back to the ground (not die) before most of the leaves are on the trees.  This is one of their survival mechanisms – there is more light reaching the ground, spring rains increase moisture and the leafless trees aren’t hogging all the water. During the summer months, the wildflowers may need only enough water to keep the roots alive.
I’m using the term “wildflowers” instead of “natives” on purpose. According to the U.S.D.A, a native plant is one that occurs naturally in a particular region, ecosystem, or habitat without direct or indirect human intervention. Many native plant experts refer to specifics, such as Kansas natives or Midwest natives or native to the United States. However, not all the treasures found on the trails would be considered “true Kansas” natives, but, they are currently growing, reseeding and populating the trails and prairie beautifully.
With 30 different wildflowers growing along our trails, I’m hoping this will pique your interest and have you walking the trails soon. This advanced research will familiarize you with our winter flora, so you can get the lay of the land. When warmer temperatures and longer days arrive, you will begin to see new greenery peeking out here and there.
Our five trails – Cottonwood, Bluff, Rocky Ridge, West and International Sculpture Trail – have a different mix of species, depending on whether they are upland, rocky and dry or lowland, fairly moist and, maybe even boggy.  While performing your advanced research, switch trails and directions from day to day to give you new perspectives. A walk to the prairie will expand your wildflower exploration and if you walk far enough west, you will encounter the prickly pear cactus grove. Though cactus is probably not the first type of plant you associate with Kansas, the prickly pear cactus, Opuntia humifusa is a plant that adapts well to droughty, porous or rocky conditions, such as that found on some of our rocky bluffs.
Make time to research the wildflowers themselves.  Kswildflower.org has an excellent website. There are also several print reference books on wildflowers, including specifics on Kansas or Missouri species.  A new edition of Kansas Wildflowers and Weeds by Haddock, Freeman and Bare was published in 2015 and is an excellent reference. Commit a few early spring bloomers to memory, and add on as you go. As easy and inexpensive at it is to look over the websites, I prefer to hold a pocket reference version in my hands, dog-ear the pages, carry them with me on my hikes, and make notes.  Your research may highlight Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis, which blooms early spring. Bloodroot adapts to early bloom and pollination by having white flowers that follow the sun, creating an environment that is a bit warmer. Pollinating insects are attracted to the warmth and will visit the warmer flowers. There is a population of bloodroot labeled along Rocky Ridge Trail.
There are plant characteristics you will need to observe to identify what flower you are looking at. Many references use flower color and the number of petals, as the starting point.  If possible, observe several flowers, to get an average number of petals. Also note if the flowers are singles or arranged in clusters. Next, note the plant growth habit and leaf shape.  Some plants exhibit “basal” growth, which means their stem is very short or compacted and the only height comes from the flower stalk, for example violets or columbine. Other plants have upright or erect growth, such as goldenrod, monarda or cardinal flower. Sometimes, identifying basal growth is tricky, because the flower stalk may have leaves, but the stem leaves should look smaller or different than those close to the ground. Conversely, those with upright growth will have leaves that are similar all the way up. Viola pubescens, smooth yellow violet, has a basal growth habit, blooms early and can be found in lowland situations such as lower Bluff Loop and the lower areas of Rocky Ridge.
If you are not already a wildflower enthusiast, a few walks along the trails may stoke that fire in you. Or maybe, you’ll just enjoy the walk, as I do. Every walk I take along the trails reveals new and different wonders.
Karen Kerkhoff