Hot, dry conditions this summer left many gardeners feeling helpless to save their flowers and decorative arrangement materials, but not Mary Beth Bowers.
Bowers uses native Kansas wildflowers and pasture plants to create arrangements and decorate her two homes north of Marion, as well as to share with others.
“Natural gardening is the best,” Bowers said. “You don’t have to plant, weed, or water. I am just amazed at what has survived this summer, and at how native plants adapt to the conditions. There is just so much stuff out there to learn about.”
Bowers, who will give a class on exploring native plants of Kansas as part of the Butler County Community College adult learning classes offered this fall, grew up in Marion County and developed a love for native plants at an early age.
“My dad had a dairy and it was always my and my sister’s job to get the cows in,” she said. “I loved walking through the pastures and checking out the wild stuff growing. I was always asking my dad what certain types of plants were; sometimes he knew, sometimes he didn’t.”
Bowers said she soon realized that some common names for plants were not always the same from one family to the next.
“There was this one beautiful plant in the field that had bright orange flowers,” she said. “We called it Hoffman’s plant, but I later found out my parents called it that because it grew in our neighbor Hoffman’s field, not because that was its original name.”
Since childhood, Bowers interest in wildflowers and plants blossomed. Now she identifies many native Kansas plants by their common name and their scientific names. She also knows what their historic uses might have been, all the way back to Indian times.
“I’ve really gotten into the medical uses of native plants and flowers,” she said. “There is so much to know, you just have to take the time to learn it.”
For many years, Bowers made native flower arrangements and sold them at Marion’s Farm and Art Market. She already gave a presentation on wildflower decoration earlier this year, and consequently has quite a collection of dried native Kansas plant and flower specimens.
At a Boy Scouts meeting, Bowers told how Indians and early settlers used flannel mullein for toilet paper.
“The leaves are very soft and thick, soothing I guess,” she said. “The Boy Scouts loved that one.”
Bowers said Indians also used flannel mullein to stun fish so they could catch them easier.
“The small seeds put off a toxin, that when they sprinkled them on the water, it temporarily stunned them,” she said. “I tried it once, but it didn’t work too well for me.”
Bowers said some common native plants visible along Kansas highways and in native pastures at this time of the year included gay feather (liatris) and echinacea, or coneflowers.
“There are some beautiful ones out there now,” she said. “I just love to dry them and use them in arrangements.”
Bowers said she loves to pay attention to native plants wherever she is, sometimes to the distress of her husband if she is driving.
“People think Kansas is boring,” she said. “But there is so much out there, so much that used to play an important role in the health of the people who knew about them.”
Bowers said Indians used rose hips to stay healthy, and one rose hip seedpod has as much vitamin C as an orange.
“I suppose they ground and chopped it up, and steeped it in water for tea,” she said. “You can also make jelly from rose hips.”
Other native Kansas plants, such as curly cup rosin weed, or sumac, also have medicinal value, she said.
“There is a similar variety of curly cup rosin that was used in cough syrup until the 1950s,” she said. “And you can make a bitter, tangy tea from berries on a sumac shrub.”
Bowers said there were many other uses of wild plants that fascinated her, like the use of yucca pods for soap lather, and the use of yucca plant spines, or the leaves, as needles for sewing. She explained that teasel, a common stickery pasture plant, was once used by the wool milling industry to raise the nap of wool as they spun it onto spools.
Many other plants in Bowers collections simply have an interesting part to play in her decorative arrangements. Some of her favorites include evening primrose, ironweed, broomweed, and goldenrod galls.
“The balls on these dried goldenrod stalks are actually made by wasps,” she said. “They crawl into the stem during the growing season, lay eggs, and the plant forms a gall around it.”
Gray sage, milkweed, and many other plants also have a place in Bowers heart, and homes, as she decorates the three-story house she and husband Greg live in, and the guesthouse on their yard with natural treasures.
“I just love the natural beauty the plants provide, and I am always wondering if there is something more I don’t know yet, like maybe one of these is a cure for cancer, or has some additional use,” she said. “I never get tired of learning, or talking, about them.”