Smitten by Mason Bees by Rita Lynn

We hear a lot about the plight of the honey bee, its reduced numbers, and its susceptibility to diseases, Africanization, parasites and hive collapse.  We also hear about the critical need for pollinators, being reminded that a third of our food supply and a third of the feed for our meat sources depend on bees for pollination.

            Surprisingly, the majority of crop pollination is performed not by honey bees, but by native bees that do not produce honey.  For example, of the 1700 bees trapped for a study in a West Virginia forest, only 34 were honeybees.  The remainder consisted of a variety of native bees.  In addition to native bees being more prevalent than we might realize, they are also much more efficient pollinators than honeybees.  It takes about 360 honeybees to pollinate an apple tree, but just 6 native orchard mason bees can do the same job!

            Like many native bee species, mason bees (Osmia spp.), also called orchard mason bees because of their emergence when fruit trees are flowering, are solitary creatures.  They form their nests in proximity to other mason bees, but they do not interact with them.  Each female bee is a queen, and she inhabits and maintains her own home.  They are called by some “the gentle bee,” in that they rarely sting, and people can approach the nest without risk.  If a mason bee should somehow be threatened enough to sting, the reaction is more like a mosquito bite than the sting of a honey bee or a wasp, and the sting does not trigger an allergic reaction in sensitive people.  These factors make them the ideal “pet” pollinator for our urban gardens.

            Mason bees will pollinate almost any flower within 100 to 300 feet of the nesting site.  Early in the season, dandelions might provide pollen, but mason bees usually emerge just when the fruit trees need their services.  The queen then gathers the pollen, lays an egg in her nesting tube and deposits pollen for nourishment.  She then encapsulates that egg with a wall of mud.  She continues this process of laying eggs, usually putting 6 to 10 in each tube.  (As you might have gathered, this nest construction gives rise to the mason bee name.)  The queen is able to lay eggs that will be female bees first, and then lay eggs that will develop as males closer to the opening of the tube.  This process continues for the six-week lifespan of the queen.  During the summer, the eggs develop into larvae and then small, egg-shaped pupae.  The following spring, if they are developing in the wild, the male bees will emerge first and be available to mate with the females as their emergence follows. 

            My interest in mason bees stems from a display at Reiman Gardens two or three years ago.  The exhibit demonstrated several simple methods for attracting these bees to yards and orchards.  Specifically, mason bees have four crucial needs: pollen, mud, safe nesting tubes, and protective quarters for the nesting tubes.  A fifth element - harvesting and storing the bee cocoons under refrigeration from fall until blossoming begins the following spring - could also be added for improving the likelihood that bees will survive over the winter. 

            With regard to nesting holes, mason bees use tubes with openings 5/16ths inch in diameter and a length of about 6 inches.  In the natural setting, the bee might use a hollow reed or a woodpecker hole.  To house them in our yards, we can provide holes made of paper or reeds.  The pieces of bamboo that are often provided for that use are not ideal, because they cannot be opened for harvesting the cocoons without injuring them.  Plastic drinking straws are also not recommended, because they do not allow good air circulation and promote fungal growth.

            Numerous structures can serve as the protective home.  The structure needs to be deep enough, or have a protruding roof, to protect the nesting tubes from the weather.  You can buy relatively expensive wooden homes of several designs, you can construct a home from lumber using instructions provided in the sources below, or you can even use a mailbox or a large PVC pipe.  The home then needs to be mounted on a solid, east-facing surface that is protected from wind, at about head height.   


  Because of the process of enclosing each egg with a wall of mud, a source of moist clay mud within 20 to 50 feet of the nest is of critical importance.  Once you have all the elements in place, you can purchase mason bees from sites listed below in groups of 10 cocoons.  Then it goes without saying that application of insecticides, if done at all, must be done very carefully to avoid killing the very bees that you have so enthusiastically invited.  Note, however, that it is too late to start mason bees this year, and at least one of the online sources is sold out of mason bee cocoons for this season.

            In fall, to protect the bee cocoons from winter elements, predators and diseases, it is recommended that you harvest the cocoons.  I won’t go into this process here.  It’s all clearly explained in the sources shown below.  And do log in to the websites listed if you are interested in mason bees or any other of the bee species native to our area.  These websites offer a user-friendly wealth of background information as well as complete instructions for raising native bees.  They also provide a source for acquiring the materials needed and the actual bee cocoons.

            Incidentally, Cedar Falls code allows homeowners to keep bees as long as written permission is obtained from adjacent property owners.  Waterloo City Hall informs us that there is no problem putting up a mason bee house within city limits to attract and assist local bees.  However, if you intend to import any bees, you need a special permit unless you live in an A-1 zoning district.  If you intend to import any mason bees, we would urge you to first check with your local government regarding any restrictions or permit requirements for your location.

            Wouldn’t it be great if we ourselves could supply pollinators for our gardens and neighborhoods?  It’s one of those small steps we can take to add quality to our environment.  It’s also an activity that adds fun and interest to our yards for people of all ages.



SOURCES - click on the topics at the top of the page for extensive information


Arboretum Volunteers Rock and Bowl!

We at the Arboretum believe that our volunteers are the best!!


Their hearts are so big that they also spend their time volunteering for other organizations.


Many of our Scarecrow Committee and Weed and Unwind Volunteers went to Pursuing Picasso to paint bowls for the Northeast Iowa Food Bank's "Empty Bowls" event. The beautiful bowls that they painted will be auctioned off at the event, which takes place May 14th at 5:30 PM at the Five Sullivan Brothers Convention Center in Waterloo.


The event is held in order to raise awareness and educate the community on hunger. Tickets for this event are $25 and all money raised will go towards the Northeast Iowa Food Bank. Contact the Food Bank at 319-235-0507 for more information. 


Thank you to our volunteers for helping to make the Cedar Valley a great place, in more ways than one!

Right in Your Own Backyard by Rita Lynn

An article in the new (February/March 2015) National Wildlife magazine highlights a Rutgers University study of biodiversity in cities around the world.  Contrary to the belief that the very nature of an urban environment limits the variety of wildlife to a few of the same species (such as pigeons and rats), this study found that cities support large, varied, and area-specific populations of wildlife.  At the same time, communities in many places are deliberately managing their green spaces to promote biodiversity.

          Despite this encouraging news, flora and fauna face ever-increasing pressure from habitat loss as a result of human activities.  Around the middle of the last century, landscaping trends began to favor exotic ornamentals, as opposed to native plants, surrounded by manicured lawns kept green and weed-free with chemical fertilizers and pesticides.  These practices, still commonplace today, have disturbed the balance of the ecosystem and have banished many wild animals from spaces they had previously occupied.

          Back in 1972, two U.S. Forest Service researchers, Richard DeGraaf and Jack Ward Thomas, recognized these trends.  They studied ways to counter their   effects and turn urban backyards into mini-habitats for wildlife.  The men then wrote the article, “Invite Wildlife to Your Backyard,” which appeared in the April/May 1973 issue of National Wildlife magazine.  Partly as a result of that article, the National Wildlife Federation’s Certified Wildlife Habitat® program was born.  In the 40-plus years since its inception, over 150,000 homes, schools and entire communities have been certified as wildlife habitat.   

          The Certified Wildlife Habitat® program is ongoing, and I recently completed the certification process for my yard.  The requirements are quite simple and can be met by someone with as little as an apartment balcony.  You need to show that you are providing:

  • Food – flowering plants, shrubs and trees, and possibly supplemental feeders, to supply the foliage, nectar, pollen, berries, seeds and nuts wildlife need to survive
  • Water – clean water for drinking, bathing and reproduction from natural sources or human-made features such as birdbaths and rain gardens
  • Cover – places to hide from people, predators and weather, such as vegetation, brush piles, shrubs and dead trees
  • Places to raise young – bushes, trees and wildflower meadows, for example, which can also be the vegetation used as cover, where animals can raise their young

          Once your yard has the elements to meet these basic wildlife needs, you can apply to the NWF for certification of your property as wildlife habitat.  Further, if you have taken steps specifically to invite birds to your yard, you can receive Advanced Certification.  For this, you need to have provided at least three bird-specific features.  Eliminating insecticides, having a bird feeder, maintaining a bird bath of some kind, planting native nectar plants for hummingbirds, and installing bird deterrent window reflectors are some measures that qualify for this certification.

          We View readers could have quite an impact if a good number of us made – or have already made - the special efforts to support wildlife in these ways.


“The Birth of NWF’s Habitat Program,”

“History of the Backyard Wildlife Habitat Program,”

“Creating Bird-Friendly Urban Landscapes,”

Be a Host to Monarchs by Rita Lynn

        We hear about and see images of the amazing migration of millions of monarch butterflies from the United States and Canada to southern California and Mexico.  We also hear that the number of monarchs in these migrations is declining drastically, partly as a result of habitat loss in the monarch breeding areas here in North America.  Land development in the U.S. is consuming 6,000 acres of wildlife habitat per day!  Since Monarch caterpillars feed exclusively on milkweed plants, 90% of which grow in agricultural areas, monarchs in particular are affected.  The widespread use of chemical herbicides in agriculture and the related increase in genetically modified crops result in even more milkweed loss. 

        In addition to milkweed plants, monarchs require nectar from flowers for nourishment.  Without nectar, the butterflies are deprived of the energy needed for reproduction and then for completing their journeys to their overwintering areas in the south.  This need for host plants for larva and energy sources for adults is shared by all butterflies.

        An organization called MonarchWatch is a comprehensive source of information about monarchs.  One of their efforts, Monarch Waystations, focuses on creating, conserving, and protecting monarch habitats.  These are natural spaces that provide the resources the butterflies need for both reproduction and nourishment.  MonarchWatch encourages the development of such habitats in small home and school gardens as well as in areas as large as parks and nature centers. 

        A mere 100 square feet of garden space (a plot 10 feet by 10 feet, for example) is enough for an effective monarch habitat.  The total area can be split among several sites on a property.  Because both butterflies and their preferred plants are sun-loving, the locations should have at least six hours of sun daily.  The plant population needs to include both milkweed plants – preferably at least two different varieties – as well as at least four nectar plants.  These plants should be close enough together to provide shelter from weather and predators, and the area needs to be pesticide-free.  Ongoing maintenance of these areas is then required to sustain the habitat.

        Once your butterfly garden is ready for these beautiful guests, you can have your site certified by MonarchWatch as a Monarch Waystation.  What a great effect we View readers could have on not only butterflies, but also bee populations, if we embrace this effort and create butterfly havens in our landscapes.  And by sharing information and displaying certification documents, we can encourage our neighbors to join in the effort.


“Monarch Waystation Program,”

“Monarch Waystation Certification Requirements,”

“Creating a Monarch Waystation,”

Holiday Cactus By Pat McGivern

Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter Cacti are collectively called "Holiday Cacti," named for the season in which they bloom.  The first two are members of the Genus Schlumbergera, and will be the topic of this article.


            Thanksgiving and Christmas Cactus are possibly the second most common plants (after poinsettia) enjoyed in North American households in December, but they had their origins in the tropics.   They are from the plant family Cactaceae, or cactus, and the Genus is now known as Schlumbergera, but older works may refer to the prior name of Zygocactus.  


            These are succulent perennials which lack spines and are native to the South American tropics of Brazil, high in the Organ Mountains north of Rio de Janeiro.  Like many tropical cacti, these holiday favorites are epiphytes, which means they live on other plants, using the other plant as substrate, or a place to live.  (As opposed to a parasitic plant, which uses its host for nutrients).


            The true "Christmas Cactus" is considered to be Schlumbergera x buckleyi, a hybrid between S. truncata and S. russelliana produced in the late 1840's by William Buckley in England.  This true Christmas Cactus has flat stem segments (cladodes) which are arcing, and the stem segment edges are scalloped.  The flowers are pendent (hang downward) and are symmetrical, with petals evenly surrounding and no bend in the flower.  While this plant is very popular and long lived, it is not the usual plant seen in stores for December holiday sale, as it blooms a bit late for December holiday marketing.  They have been kept  as holiday houseplants since the 1800's, and have been known to live for 60 years or more, thus may be passed from one generation to the next. The flower colors are traditionally red, but also range to magenta and magenta with some white.          


            The plants most often sold as "Christmas Cactus" are actually Schlumbergera truncata cultivars, known as Thanksgiving Cactus.  They bloom about a full month

or more before true Christmas Cactus, timely for holiday sales, but blooms may not last until December 25.  The stem segments are more erect and spreading, and have

soft points at each end.  The flowers of the Thanksgiving Cactus are asymmetrical with the bottom petals bent back, and the flower bends upward at the ovary, so that

the flower appears to bloom more horizontally outward. (Through my research for this article, I realized that my old plant in the photos is not a true Christmas Cactus,

but has the upright stems, pointed leaf segments, and bent flowers of a Thanksgiving cactus.  It typically is in full bloom early November and again in March).  Flower colors have been developed to range from almost pure white to a deep reddish violet. 


            Both of these types of tropical or jungle cacti appreciate moist soil with good aeration such as a peat based potting medium, bright indirect light, and cooler temperatures to set their flowers.  The flowers are "thermo-photoperiodic," meaning both cool temperatures and days and nights of fairly equivalent length trigger the budding.  The plants can be easily propagated by taking a leaf segment, and planting it a quarter of its length deep in slightly sandy soil and keeping moist.  They do not need a lot of fertilizer, feeding only two to four times per year prior to the end of October is recommended.  They also reportedly bloom better when slightly potbound.  These easy to care for plants can bring a wealth of indoor bloom just when we Iowans may need it most!         

Apple Facts! By Rita Lynn

                                                            FUN APPLE FACTS

                                                    By Rita Lynn

The number of distinct apple varieties grown by Americans in the 19th century was around 14,000.  Today, only about 90 varieties are grown commercially.  “A Curious Tale: The Apple in North America,”

Apples are native to the mountainous regions of Kazakhstan, where apple trees grow to 60 feet tall and, in some places, are the dominant species in the forest.  “Winter Banana, Northern Spy and King Lucious: Apples in North America,”

Taken from “Apple Facts,”

  • 2,500 varieties of apples are grown in the United States, and 7,500 varieties are grown throughout the world.
  • The science of apple growing is called pomology.
  • It takes the energy of 50 leaves to produce one apple.
  • Apples are a member of the rose family.
  • Apples have 5 seed pockets, called carpels.  The number of seeds depends on the variety of apple as well as the vigor and health of the tree.
  • Archeologists have found evidence that humans have been enjoying apples since at least 6500 B.C.  They were the favorite fruit of ancient Greeks and Romans.
  • In colonial times, apples were called winter banana or melt-in-the-mouth.
  • A person in the United States, and in Europe as well, consumes about 46 pounds of apples and apple products annually.
  • An average apple tree can produce 840 pounds of apples in a year, although trees take 4 to 5 years to produce their first crop. 

And finally, here’s one last bit of information that caught my attention.  It has to do with Fuji apples, one of my favorite varieties.  Fuji apple history goes back to Thomas Jefferson, not only a founding father of our country, but also an avid horticulturist.  He grew a wide variety of fruits and vegetables on his estate in Virginia and was known for his love of propagating exotic cultivars.  Edmund Charles Genet, French minister to the U.S. between 1793 and 1794, is believed to have given Jefferson a cutting from an apple tree.  Jefferson is said to have passed the cutting on to Caleb Ralls, a Virginia nurseryman, who grafted the cutting and disseminated that variety, called “Ralls Genet,” throughout Virginia and into the western territories.  It was one of the most popular apples among growers in the Ohio valley for many years.  In the 1920’s, however, commercial orchardists began to focus on fewer varieties of apples, and older cultivars like the Ralls Genet fell into disuse.  Fortunately for us, eager Japanese breeders came along in 1939, dipped into the U.S. apple gene pool, and crossed the Ralls Genet with the Red Delicious.  The resulting variety, released in 1962, was named “Fuji,” after the horticultural center’s city.  By the time the source article was written in 2005, it had become the third most popular apple in the U.S., after the Red and Golden Delicious varieties.  Whether or not other varieties have overtaken it since then, it’s still one of the apples at the top of my list!

APPLE TREES FOR THE FRONTIER The Story of Johnny Appleseed By Rita Lynn

          Many of us grew up hearing the story of Johnny Appleseed – how he roamed the countryside barefoot, wearing tattered, cast-off clothing and a dinner pot for a hat, scattering apple seeds from his leather sack as he went.  We heard that this wiry, eccentric man befriended a wolf, slept in a hollow log and was accepted by all he met.  The legend grew as legends do, partly from this man’s own love of spinning tall tales about his adventures.  Recently, a friend asked just how it was possible for these seeds to grow into productive trees, when the apple trees we grow these days have been grafted onto other rootstock.  And what kind of apples was he planting?  Bees and other pollinators see to it that apples grown from seed rarely produce the same kind of apple as the parent, and, indeed, tend to produce apples of low quality.

          In truth, the real Johnny Appleseed was a somewhat different but equally fascinating character.  He was born John Chapman in Leominster, Massachusetts in 1774, the son of a Revolutionary War militiaman and hero.  John apprenticed at a local orchard as a youth and, in his late teens or early twenties, set off westward.  He did, in fact, wear simple clothing, and he did also prefer to walk barefoot, even in winter.  Befriending animals, Native Americans and others he encountered seems, too, to be fact.   Throughout his travels, he stayed with families or bedded down outdoors overnight.  He was a very religious man, spreading the pacifist teachings of the Church of New Jerusalem along with his apple seedlings.  Opposed to any practice that involved harming or killing any other living thing, he is said to have been one of the earliest vegetarians in a time when hunting game was the way people put food on their tables.  Incidentally, Chapman also knew and grew a variety of medicinal herbs and offered the herbs and his knowledge of their uses as he traveled. 

          Contrary to the image of his tramping through the wilderness randomly scattering apple seeds, he was actually quite an entrepreneur.  Apples were an essential commodity for living in those days, and many land contracts required that settlers establish orchards on their new homesteads.  This created a steady market for apple seedlings, and John Chapman stepped in to meet the need. 

          After taking discarded apple seeds from cider mills, he grew his first apple seedlings on land he acquired in Pennsylvania.  From there, he gradually moved westward, scouting out land in areas he thought likely to be settled by pioneers.  All the while, he carried his supply of free apple seeds and established his apple seedling nurseries.  By keeping himself ahead of the flow of settlers, he was able to have seedlings available when the newcomers had cleared their land and were ready to plant their orchards.  He sold the seedlings to the settlers for a small amount of money, he bartered for other goods, or he gave them to people unable to pay.

          As to growing apples from seed, a few facts shed light on the rationale for this practice.  The only kind of apple native to North America is the crabapple.   You can imagine that it would have been nearly impossible for immigrants to bring grafted trees or even seedlings in their belongings when they came to the new country.  It would also have been difficult for pioneers to carry this type of material when they moved westward into the new territories.  Both these groups of settlers had to make do with the bags of seeds they were able to stow.  Although grafting was being done, it was not common practice until the 1800’s.  Prior to that, growers thought that such trees would be weak and decline in vigor.  Furthermore, apples grafted on rootstock imported from Europe did not thrive in the North American climate.  Chapman himself believed that cutting a scion from a tree damaged that part of the tree, a procedure that ran contrary to his unwillingness to harm any living being.  He believed that good apples could and should be grown from good seed planted in good soil.

          In these early times, high quality in apples was most likely not a priority.  Settlers might have eaten some apples out of hand, and they used some for desserts and apple butter.  Most apples, however, were needed for feeding livestock, making vinegar, and producing hard cider.  They used the vinegar to preserve their foods, as a condiment, for cleaning and for a variety of other purposes.  Hard cider, although mildly alcoholic, was the drink of choice for the entire family.  It is said that a person might consume as much as a gallon of cider a day and was consequently in great demand.  For these utilitarian purposes, any apple would do.

          Thus, by providing an endless supply of apple seedlings, John Chapman was able to make a living for many years.  He continued to move further into new territories, using wilderness land or land offered by others, building crude fences around his nurseries to keep out foraging livestock and wildlife, and returning to his various plots from time to time to tend and harvest the seedlings. Later, he actually bought several pieces of property in Ohio and as far west as Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he again established nurseries.  As an example of the scope of his enterprise, his nursery near Fort Wayne encompassed forty-two acres and accommodated fifteen thousand trees.  By this time, although still healthy and vigorous, he was in his late sixties – a very old age in those days.  He sustained his simple, individualistic lifestyle until the age of seventy-one, when he died of pneumonia at the home of friends in Indiana.  An inventory of his possessions indicated that he left “an old mare, thousands of apple seedlings, and five pieces of property.”  (Worth book, listed below)  Noted in another source (Brooklyn Botanic Garden article), his property amounted to 1200 acres.  

          Much more information is available for those who have an interest in this amazing man, or in the history of apple growing in the United States – a topic for another article! 

Sources and Resources

Johnny Appleseed: Select Good Seeds and Plant Them in Good Ground, by Richard Worth, Enslow Publishers, Inc., 2010  (Note: this is a juvenile book but with good documentation)


“A Curious Tale: The Apple in North America,” (Brooklyn Botanic Garden),

“The Story of Johnny Appleseed – Legend vs. Fact,”

“Apple Cider Vinegar History in early America,”

“Who Was Johnny Appleseed?”

Also available from the Waterloo library but not used for this article:

Johnny Appleseed: The Man, The Myth, The American Story, by Howard B. Means, Simon & Schuster, 2011



Sculpture in Real Life

by Rita Lynn

back in the 16th century, wealthy European landowners had their groundskeepers create three-dimensional gardens from plants and flowers.  Now called “mosaiculture,” this type of living sculpture uses mostly annuals and flowers, and sometimes perennials, in the process of creating two- or three-dimensional works of art.  Use of the multiple individual plants distinguishes mosiaculture from topiary, in which a single plant - usually a shrub - is pruned to a specific shape.

In mosaiculture, large sculptures and other hefty pieces that are to be raised off the ground require a welded steel framework.  Drip irrigation systems are usually installed once the basic structure has been constructed.  The skeleton is then filled with the growing medium.  Some use a mixture of peat and soil, and others combine clay, straw and manure.  The whole work is then covered with netting.  Such major sculptures can be years in the making and can weigh thousands of pounds.

Much like creating a pattern with mosaic tiles, designers then use plants of various hues, textures, and sizes to achieve the desired effect.  Plugs of individual plants are inserted into the soil medium by poking holes in the netting.  Larger pieces use a staggering number of plants.  Even a modest ten-foot square can include up to 1,500 plants.  Finally, once the sculpture is on display, it has to be pruned and maintained, sometimes being watered several times a day, to retain its original appearance.

Some of the most spectacular displays of mosaiculture are contests sponsored by the Mosaicultures Internationales of Montreal.  These exhibitions take place every three years in Montreal and other selected cities throughout the world.  For an idea of the enormity, complexity, and beauty of these works, take a look at .  You’ll be amazed!

Are you inclined to try this at home?  You could start with a small skeleton shaped of chicken wire or a similar firm but moldable mesh material.  A drip irrigation system could be installed at this time.  Next, fill the sculpted shape with your soil mixture, packing it firmly.  Finally, wrap the entire piece with netting.  Then, for the living surface, use plants with colored foliage for most of the design.  Consider sedums, grasses and ground covers.  When available, native plants are a good choice, because they have the best tolerance to our climate.  Flowering annuals can also be used, but be sure to choose varieties that will retain their size and color throughout the life of the sculpture.  After the plants have been added, you can put sphagnum moss around them.  The moss will not only cover empty spaces, but it will also help retain moisture.  Once finished and on display,  check at least daily to be sure all parts of your figure have enough water, and prune it as needed - every week or so - to maintain its appearance.  

Whether or not you’re industrious enough to try your own sculpture, be sure to visit our Arboretum to see the beautiful peacock mosiaculture.  Although not quite on the scale of the pieces created for international competition, it is nevertheless a wonderful work of art and a great gift to those who see it.


“Mosaiculture... More Than Just Topiary, They’re Living Sculptures,”’re-living-sculptures

“Mother Earth, in Plants,”

“About Mosaiculture,”

“Behind the Scenes: Mosiaculture: a complex, meticulous art,”

“In Montreal, Marvels of Green Sculpture,”

“Amazing Plant Sculptures at the Montreal Mosaiculture Exhibition 3013,”

“A Creative Expression: Mosaiculture,”

“Imaginary Worlds: A New Kingdom of Plant Giants,”





A New Look at Zinnias

By Rita Lynn

        The Arboretum is honoring zinnias this year.  If you joined in the spring, you even received a package of zinnia seeds.  These flowers have been in our gardens for generations.  They’re so common that many people, even those who aren’t gardeners, recognize them by name.  Because they’re so common, you might by-pass them in your spring purchases in favor of more exotic species.  This could be a mistake considering all that they have to offer.

        Surprisingly, the native variety of zinnias the Spaniards first encountered in Mexico was unattractive enough that they named them “mal de ojos,” or “sickness of the eye.”  Surely, we would be very unlikely to call the beautiful zinnias we have today anything so disparaging.  Their present name honors the German botanist Johann G. Zinn, who wrote the first description of the plant in the 18th century.  Although 20 species have since been identified, most of our present day varieties have been developed from the species Zinnia elegans.  A notable handful of others have been developed from the species Z. angustifolia and Z. haageana.

        Knowledge of the characteristics and needs of these garden stand-bys is helpful in choosing the variety you plant.  In general, zinnias available from the Z. elegans cultivars come in the widest variety of colors, many flower forms and a full range of sizes.  However, they are the most susceptible to powdery mildew.   They also require dead-heading to maintain flower production.  On the other hand, narrow leaf zinnias – those developed from Z. angustifolia – are highly resistant to powdery mildew and require little dead-heading.  Look for the Crystal, Profusion, and Star series that are in this category.  Finally, Z. haageana, or Haage’s zinnias, are also mildew resistant but do require some dead-heading.  Persian Carpet varieties are from this group.

        Most likely, zinnias’ popularity comes at least partly because they are so easy to grow.  The seeds are relatively large, making them good candidates for handling even by children.  You can direct sow the seeds into the garden when the soil and air temperatures have warmed, or, for a head start, you can start the seeds indoors 6-8 weeks before the last frost.  Be aware, however, that zinnias don’t fare well in being transplanted, so you would want to put the seeds in peat pots that can be set directly into the ground without disturbing the seedling roots.  Then, within 8 to 12 weeks, you should be enjoying your flowers.

        Zinnias prefer full sun and a well-drained soil.  When you plant them, be sure that you follow spacing recommendations.  Good air circulation around the plants is the best way to reduce the likelihood that the plants will suffer from powdery mildew and other diseases.  Drip irrigation, as opposed to wetting the leaves by watering from above, is recommended for the same reason.  By way of insect damage, zinnias are susceptible to aphid, thrip, stem miner and caterpillar infestation.  Again, good cultural practices are the best deterrent.  Healthier plants are more resistant to pest damage.

        For cut flower displays, whether you want a large, stunning, long-stemmed flower in a vase, you prefer a bunch of small blossoms in a cup, or you want a colorful mixed bouquet, zinnias can fill the bill.  In fresh flower arrangements, zinnias will last a week or more.  Zinnias can also be dried for everlasting bouquets and wreaths.  Double-flowered varieties are best suited for this purpose, because they hold their shape best.  You can dry them by harvesting them when they are at their peak, removing the leaves, and hanging them upside down out of direct light.  You can also replace the stems with wire and use one of a variety of drying media.

        I don’t know about you, but considering the ease of cultivation, the range of color, size and form, and their desirability in both outdoor and indoor displays, I’m ready to take another look at what’s available in zinnia seeds and plants next year.  Meanwhile, let’s relish this year’s zinnia display at the Arboretum. 


“Year of the Zinnia,”





The Life and Legacy of Aldo Leopold

By Paul Kammerdiner

Reading has always been and continues to be one of my favorite pastimes, as a result I read everything and I mean everything! I even reads signs in places like the Arboretum. Have you taken the time to stop and read the informational signs here? We have brown signs for directions, black signs for identification of trees and plants, and we have green signs to just tell you about neat stuff. These green signs are aimed at education and there are several of them lined up along the path in the Arrival Garden where you begin your journey through the grounds.

This one is at the end of the path where it turns uphill and is an introduction to an important individual, closely related to many of the concepts we stand for.

For those that come to this place to relax and enjoy trees, flowers, and the attractions of a green space; the question; why is it here? may not enter into the thought process. It may not even for those of us who work to bring this place to life. However, places like this exist because of ideas and philosophies of others that have gone before. When we think of pioneers in conservation, ecological thought, and preservation of the natural world; names like John Muir, Rachel Carson and John James Audubon come to mind. Ranked right up there with them is one of Iowa’s native sons; Aldo Leopold.

Rand Aldo Leopold was born in Burlington, Iowa January 11, 1887; the "Rand" was eventually dropped. His house overlooked the Mississippi River. Aldo Leopold's early life was highlighted by the outdoors. His Father would take the children on excursions into the woods and taught his oldest son woodcraft and hunting. Aldo showed an aptitude for observation, spending hours counting and cataloging birds near his home. A sister, Mar,y would later say of her older brother, "He was very much an outdoorsman, even in his extreme youth. He was always out climbing around the bluffs, or going down to the river, or going across the river into the woods”. Aldo decided at an early age that forestry was to be his vocation. So when in 1900 Gifford Pinchot who oversaw the newly implemented Division of Forestry in the Department of Agriculture, donated money to Yale University to begin one of the nation's first forestry schools Aldo determined to attend. In order to be accepted to Yale, his parents agreed to let him attend a prep school in New Jersey. He arrived at his new school in January 1904, shortly before he turned seventeen. He was considered an attentive student, although he was again drawn to the outdoors and Leopold spent much time mapping the area and studying its wildlife. Leopold studied at the prep school for a year, during which time he was accepted to Yale. Because the Yale Forest School granted only graduate degrees, he first enrolled in Sheffield Scientific School's preparatory forestry courses for his undergraduate studies.

Leopold's entry in the YaleSheffield Scientific School yearbook, 1908

Upon leaving Harvard he embarked on his career of choice and in 1909, Leopold was assigned to the Forest Service's District 3 in the Arizona and New Mexico territories.

In 1911, he was transferred to the Carson National Forest in northern New Mexico. Leopold's career, which kept him in New Mexico until 1924, included developing the first comprehensive management plan for the Grand Canyon, writing the Forest Service's first game and fish handbook, and proposing Gila Wilderness Area, the first national wilderness area in the Forest Service system.

On April 5, 1923, he was elected as an Associate Member of the Boone and Crockett Club a wildlife conservation organization founded by Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinell.

In 1924, he accepted transfer to the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin and became an associate director. In 1933, he was appointed Professor of Game Management in the Agricultural Economics Department at the University of Wisconsin Madison the first such professorship of wildlife management. Leopold lived in a modest two-story home close to the campus with his wife and children. Today, Leopold's home is an official landmark of the city of Madison.

He purchased eighty acres in the sand country of central Wisconsin. The once-forested region had been logged, swept by repeated fires, overgrazed by dairy cows, and left barren. There he put his theories to work in the field and eventually wrote his best-selling A Sand County Almanac (1949), finished just prior to his death. Leopold died of a heart attack while battling a wild fire on a neighbor's property.

Aldo Leopold was a true pioneer as well as a gifted writer; he developed a unique perspective on what it means to manage the wonders of our natural surroundings. He taught that even in the midst of development we needed to preserve at least some portion of the wilderness and to restore as much as we can to its original state. One of his most famous concepts was the land ethic quoted below:

“The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land... In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.”

I like to believe that the Arboretum is an example of our commitment to the land. Even though the Cedar Valley is still somewhat rural, we are seeing more and more development and encroachment on the natural beauty of our surroundings. Here, however, we promise a tranquil oasis in the midst of the concrete jungle. A place to learn and to enjoy being outside. By planting trees and restoring habitat, we provide a place for wildlife to thrive as well as an opportunity for all to learn about what our little corner of the world looked like before we got here. Come join us and as you wander the grounds and pause to rest on one of the wooden benches; you might like to know that the design of the bench came from none other than Aldo Leopold.


All information in this article was taken from

Emerald Ash Borer Information

Shamrocks or Oxalis?

In this month of March, when Irish heritage is celebrated, we frequently see plants for sale called "shamrocks", but are they?

What is a shamrock? The term comes from the Gaelic word "seamrog" which means "little clover."

The early Celtic peoples considered shamrocks as a charm against evil spirits, and this pagan tradition was adapted by Christian missionaries to represent the symbol of the Trinity. It is now an emblem of Ireland.

There are many species of clover, even just in Ireland. In 1893, botanist Nathaniel Colgan published a study in the Irish Naturalist. He wrote: "I was take into hands once more the inquiry into the species of our national badge..." He sent requests to many of the Gaelic speaking counties for specimens of the original shamrock "certified as genuine by competent authorities." He also received roots from Trinity College Botanic Garden, and in Dublin from "three different itinerant vendors, each of whom was required to exercise the most scrupulous care in the selection of the genuine plant from the obviously miscellaneous collection in her basket." Botanist Colgan planted the 35 specimens he received, which grew into 4 different varieties of clover, but the "decided preponderance" grew into Trifolium repens, otherwise known as white or Dutch clove, which is the clover variety that Iowans most commonly see in their yards. Today, it still appears in Ireland that more than one type of clover may be sold as "shamrocks".

So what are we seeing in local stores this month? These are usually species of Oxalis, which is the largest genus in the wood-sorrel family. There are over 800 species of Oxalis, and they are most abundant in the Southern Hemisphere. The leaves of most Oxalis have three leaflets, and are shamrock like in appearance. Some leaves and flowers are light sensitive and tend to close up at night.

Oxalis regnelli, which is a South African native, is frequently sold in March labeled as a "shamrock". It has the bright green leaves, which close in evening, and bright white flowers.

Oxalis triangularis is another common species, with purple leaves which have a rose pattern, and pink flowers.


Both of these Oxalis have fleshy, rhizomatous bulbs, and can be easily transplanted outside to enjoy all summer. They prefer semi-shade and rich soil, and would need to be potted prior to fall frost to assure survival. They are easy to grow indoors in good light, and can cheerfully bloom all winter. You don't need to luck of the Irish to be successful with Oxalis!

The Beauty of Mexico

by La Rae Randall

At the beginning of February, my husband and I traveled to the beautiful country of Mexico for our honeymoon. During this trip, we stayed in Cancun and traveled to the ancient Mayan city Chichen Itza as well as the last Mayan city Tulum. During our wonderful week-there, we experienced not only spectacular weather (84° and sunny the entire time!), but also the beautiful flowers and plants of the Yucatan Peninsula.

The Yucatan Peninsula was once completely jungle. With such a lush environment for growing, it’s easy to understand why it fosters such interesting plants! Of course, all flora is adapted to the host climate; to survive in the jungles of Mexico, plants must love heat, humidity, and being near water.

One prominent native plant that is seen throughout Mexico is Agave. Agave, a succulent, has thick, waxy leaves that hold water in them. Every part of the Agave plant is edible and was once a major food source for the Mayan people. And, as many know, this plant (specifically, Blue Agave) is used to make tequila, which can only be legally made in Mexico.

Cordyline (above) is a palm-like plant that is native to tropical climates. It has a striking appearance as its magenta color is unusual for a plant. We saw the cordyline everywhere we went!

This flower is called Bougainvillea. It is an extremely hardy and versatile plant that can be seen in many different colors. I mostly saw this flower in pink and red, as show (sorry about the blurry photo!).

Here are a few other photos just in case you’d like to pretend it’s 84°.

"Agave." Better Homes & Gardens. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.

"The International Cordyline Society." The International Cordyline Society. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.

"All About Colocasia Plants." Colocasia Plants. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.

"Bougainvillea 101." Bougainvillea Growers International. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.

Gardens and Greenery in Alaska-January 2014 View

by Rita Lynn

During my tour of our incredible state of Alaska last summer, I kept at least one eye open at all times to gardens and vegetation. I wanted to know what grows there, and how Alaskans use their “green thumbs." I didn't get to the coldest parts of the state, but I got as far north as Fairbanks and as far south as Sitka. My travels took me to the tundra areas of Denali National Park and to the temperate rain forests of the southeast coast. No matter where I was, the flora offered beauty and bounty.

As is the case everywhere else, weather is a big factor. In Fairbanks, the growing season in the past 20 years or so has lengthened to about 105 days, although killing frosts as late as June 5 and as early as August 19 have occurred in that same time span. Wilderness areas show the characteristics of the boreal forest. Only six species of trees - spruce, poplar, larch, birch, aspen and tamarack - survive there. In the understory you find such plants as equisetum, commonly known as woodland horsetail, and bunchberry, a dwarf dogwood. For the home gardener, starting seeds indoors in flats or buying seedlings is necessary to grow most flowers and vegetables. On the other hand, garden plants can bask under the midnight sun. Once in the ground, plants have the benefit of daylight up to 24 hours a day, allowing them to grow quickly while they have the chance, and encouraging the development of brilliant blossom color. I spent several hours at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Georgeson Botanical Garden. It was July, but peonies, among a healthy array of other flowers, were in full bloom and absolutely stunning. Other exhibits spotlighted vegetables which, with the long days, grow to phenomenal size. Informative signage noted that a cabbage grown in an area near Anchorage, for example, weighed in at 127 pounds. (That's a lot of sauerkraut!) Researchers associated with the garden are experimenting with the use of black mulch to warm the soil, allowing earlier planting and growth, thereby extending the growing season. Could such a technique be of use here in Iowa in years when spring takes its good old time, like it did last year?

Vegetation in the southeast coastal areas is affected by conditions quite different from those further north and inland. This is a temperate rainforest, so the problem isn't temperature as much as it is available sunlight. Temperatures are actually more moderate than ours in Iowa - cooler in the summer, and not as cold in the winter. With all the moisture, wilderness vegetation is lush. Forests are dominated by the Sitka spruce, Western hemlock and red alder. The understory sports such plants as ferns, blueberry and salmonberry shrubs, and the dangerously thorny devil's club. Within the cities of Juneau and Sitka I was particularly impressed with the displays of flowers. Perhaps the colors seemed more brilliant because the weather was so drab when I was there, but it was as if residents, after their long and dark winter, defy the often dreary weather by putting color in every available space. City parks were showcases of flowers, and flowers lined the sidewalks and filled people's yards. People who have vegetable gardens have best success with cooler season varieties such as lettuce, plants in the cole family, and root vegetables. Warm season crops such as tomatoes require protection and usually do not produce well, because they just can't get enough warmth and sunshine. Southeast Alaskans also harvest from the sea, incorporating seaweed and coastal plants such as beach asparagus, along with lots of fish and other plentiful seafood, into their diets.

If we moved to Alaska, our houseplants would need artificial light in the winter (as would we), and we'd have to make significant adjustments to our gardening practices. But, like the folks who live there now, if we wanted a garden, we could certainly have a bountiful one. And if we were in search of awesome natural beauty, we would find that in abundance, even though it comes in forms much different from that in Iowa.

All about Poison Ivy-December 2013 View


By Rita Lynn

             Early this fall, when trees were just barely starting to show color, I was walking in the woods and spotted brilliantly colored leaves on vines growing up trunks of trees. These splashes of red, orange and gold stood out in the woods and pierced an otherwise gray day with beauty. As I suspected, closer inspection revealed that the show was being put on by poison ivy.

            Everyone who spends any time outdoors should be able to identify this plant because of its ability to cause uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous rashes to susceptible people. Perhaps you have heard the saying, “Leaves of three, let it be!” The plant does indeed have clusters of three leaflets, with one leaflet at the end of the leaf stalk (petiole), and the other two leaflets arising opposite each other lower on the petiole. These lower leaflets are often shaped like mittens, but in truth, the color and shape of the leaves is highly variable. Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) grows in many forms, from bushy plants to vines that climb entire trees, and it is found all across the United States. Oil, technically called “urushiol,” produced by all parts of the plant and most potent in the sap, is what causes reactions in human skin.   

            Not everyone is sensitive to this oil. Some people haven’t been bothered by it and some get just a slight, short-lived itchy rash. Beware, however, if you haven’t ever reacted to poison ivy. Sensitivity can develop at any time, so it’s best just to avoid exposure no matter what. You can get a rash from touching any part of the plant, by being sprayed by the oil as the leaves are cut, or even by touching an object or an animal that has come in contact with the plant. Your skin absorbs the oil quickly, some say within half an hour. Therefore, washing with detergent - or even plain running water if that’s all that’s available - as soon as possible is important.   Once the oil is on an object, however, it is very stable and can remain potent for as long as a year. Consequently, contaminated objects need to be carefully discarded or thoroughly cleaned.

            Treatment for mild cases of poison ivy rash involves using topical medication available over-the-counter. Interesting home remedies to relieve itching from such irritations include using heat in the form of hot water or a hair dryer, applying the sap from jewelweed, or spraying with deodorant containing aluminum. In the most susceptible people, the initial rash can develop into inflamed, swollen lesions with open weeping sores that can last for two or three weeks and may require medical intervention. Even worse, people have been known to suffer from exposure to their lungs from breathing smoke when poison ivy is burned, sometimes resulting in a need for hospitalization.     

            If you discover poison ivy growing in your yard, eradicating it requires caution and may take some time. By no means should you burn the plants or try to pull them up your bare hands. The best time to start the elimination effort is May through July when the plants are flowering. Spraying with glyphosate (sold as Roundup and other herbicides) is the safest method, although other plants in the area might be damaged. Vines should be cut off about 6 inches above the ground and the stump treated with the glyphosate according to package directions. The plant spreads by its tough roots as well as by having its seeds dispersed by birds. Eradication may take several applications of herbicide and efforts over several seasons.     

            Scourge that it is to humans, animals and birds are not affected by urushiol. There is much to be said in defense of poison ivy on their behalf.  Small animals, birds and insects use poison ivy for shelter, and birds then feed on the insects hidden in the vines. Mammals such as deer browse on the foliage. Perhaps most importantly, poison ivy produces grape-like clusters of white berries. Robins, grosbeaks, chickadees, finches and juncos are some of the birds that are attracted to the berries, available in fall and winter when other food is scarce. And dare we mention its function as a hardy ground cover, or that it is truly beautiful in the fall? So when you see poison ivy in the wild or even in a remote area on your property, stay away from it, but try to remember that it is a treasure to the environment and to the rest of the animal kingdom.


“Poison Ivy,”

“Poison Ivy,”

“Poison Ivy,”

“Poison Ivy Control,”

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