This time of year, wildflowers go wild and paint the prairie in splashes of orange, red, purple, blue, white and yellow.
Drive along the back roads and dare to be wowed. Recent rains have come at just the right time.
“The wildflowers are just like farm crops,” said Wichita naturalist Jim Mason. “It depends on what the weather has been and the rain is timed.
“You can have good years for some and not so good years for others. Each has its own schedule. And whether that matches up to Mother Nature is variable each year.”
It’s a great year for butterfly milkweed, a splashy bright orange plant in the Flint Hills that nurtures monarch butterflies and bees. The same plant is yellow farther west in Kansas, such as in Stafford County, and is a deep brick-red near the Kansas-Nebraska state line, Mason said.
“It’s one of the few orange flowers in Kansas that is native,” said Jeff Hansen, a board member of the Kansas Native Plant Society.
And while cattlemen often care much about the grasses found on the Kansas prairie, the wildflowers are just as important, said Barry Barber, district conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Cowley County.
“Every plant on the prairie has value,” Barber said. “When I was fresh out of college, I talked in terms of good plant and bad plant. I’ve learned over the years there is no such thing. All have a purpose, and you have to figure out how to work with them.”
They shouldn’t be killed or sprayed, Barber said, without first knowing what kind of diversity they bring. Plants such as the purple prairie clover and the catclaw sensitive briar take nitrogen out of the air.
“They take free nitrogen out of the air that we are breathing and fix it down into the soil,” Barber said. “That’s fertilizer in the soil for free. How can you beat free?”
Some of the plants now springing up in the wild may not have flowers but are considered mighty fine eats. Lambs quarters, a dusty green plant with goose-foot-shaped leaves, can be eaten like spinach or kale: mixed in salads, sauteed with other vegetables or used in soups.
Early settlers looked for it because it is one of the first plants to sprout in the spring and early summer and is packed with nutrition, Mason said.
“A lot of people weed them out of their yard,” Mason said. “I’ll nibble on one if it is young and tender.
“But you need to use caution. If you are somebody that uses a lot of herbicides, you don’t want to eat it.”
Daisy fleabane is seen almost everywhere, in ditches and pastures. Early pioneers collected the flowers to rid homes and campsites of fleas and other unwanted pests.
“The fleabane flowers all summer long,” said Jeff Davidson, a longtime extension agent with K-State Research and Extension and a watershed specialist in southeast Kansas. He led a wildflower tour this past weekend in the Flint Hills.
“Fleabane repels bugs and has a weak repellant. The job of pioneer girls was to cut a fresh bouquet of daisy fleabane to stick in the sod shanty. It needed to be fresh. Fleas-be-gone – that’s where it gets its name.”
Across the state, there is diversity in wildflowers. Tall ones like the flannel mullein plant with its yellow showy flowers can grow to be more than 7 feet tall. Short ones such as the catclaw sensitive briar grow close to the ground, as does the purple poppy mallow, sometimes known as winecups.
Some plants are at their best in the early morning and close their petals as the day wears on, such as the common spiderwort, Hansen said.
“We have gotten rain, and it came at the time when things needed rain,” Hansen said.