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MY LIFE WITH PLANTS: Return to Kansas

By Jim Bishop.

On a white-hot day in July of 1965, our family returned to Wichita. The thermometer at a roadside bank sign said it was 105. Florida had been warm and humid, but never this hot. My father was transferred back to Kansas to work on a second power plant, next to the one he worked on four years earlier. We dreaded leaving our beloved South Florida --my brothers and I had taken up snorkeling, swimming and exploring the nearby swamps. I was developing a serious interest in plants and knew that Kansas was not nearly as interesting. However, I think the move was most difficult for mother who left behind her many friends, parents (they had retired and lived nearby) and the garden she had created. Though we didn’t know where we would be transferred after Wichita, we took solace knowing we would move again in two years.

We lived on the far west side of Wichita…just before the Great Plains started in earnest and the wheat fields stretched all the way to the horizon. Our brick ranch house had a Bermuda lawn and bag-worm infested juniper foundation plantings. The only blooming plants were 3 sickly roses beside the front porch. The backyard had two full grown silver maples and one sycamore tree – which let us experience some fall color and the joys of raking leaves. The perimeter of the lot had a 15 foot hedge of cedar trees. After a particularly rainy period, odd-looking apple-sized fleshy growths with orange tentacles appeared on the cedar branches. I now know that these were the spores of cedar-apple rust. The rust has a strange life cycle and requires that apple and cedar trees grow nearby. A couple of ornamental flowering peach trees next door poked through the hedge and each year put on a beautiful display for a couple of weeks.

Raking leaves with my brothers

Fortunately, we were able to take long trips to more interesting locations, including frequent trips to my paternal grandmother’s home in Branson, Missouri. My older brother and I attended Boy Scout camp in the southern Colorado Rockies and the next summer in southern Wyoming. Our family took a car trip to Yellowstone. Along the way we stopped in tiny Belgrade, Nebraska, where my mother was born and lived until her veterinarian father lost everything in the Dust Bowl and moved back to his parents’ home in Pennsylvania. We were amazed at the enormous silos of Nebraska corn; the rugged Badlands, Black Hills, and Mount Rushmore of South Dakota; the scenery of Yellowstone and the Tetons; and the fossils of Dinosaur National Monument.

Being in the middle of America’s bread basket, almost every open space was planted with winter wheat, immortalized in song as amber waves of grain. Imported from the Ukraine for dryland farming, winter wheat is planted in the fall, germinates, lies dormant until the spring, and is harvested in the early summer. Snow fences were strung across the fields to capture the moisture from drifting snow. Farmers’ fields were frequently lined with windbreaks of a native Texas plant, Osage-orange (Maclura pomifera). The sharp-thorned trees, in the mulberry family, were one of the primary trees used in 1934 WPA project "Great Plains Shelterbelt“. At the height of the Dust Bowl, the project was as an ambitious plan to modify weather and prevent soil erosion in the Great Plains states. We would use the orange-sized fruits in closets to deter spiders.

Across the street from our house, next door to the neighbor in whose basement we took refuge whenever we heard tornado sirens, was an incredible tall sparse tree. It would rain pollen, leaves and seeds on the neighborhood. It was America Elm, Ulmus americana, and succumbed to Dutch Elm Disease decades ago.

Our piano teacher’s house sat in giant field of zinnias and petunias that her husband grew from seed. In wet spots along roadside fences, native tiger lilies, Lilium superbum, bloomed with abandon in early summer. Another neighbor grew what my mother called “flags”, better known as bearded iris. I thought they were the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. Most everyone grew a patch of vegetables, usually corn, tomatoes, squash and melons. For a Boy Scout merit badge, I would grow my first vegetable garden and harvest a few green beans and summer squash; however, I really wanted to grow a giant field of zinnias.

Jim Bishop has been a member of SDHS since the first meeting in 1994 and became SDHS president in 2011.

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