The Gardens at Kansas State University bring community to campus

The Gardens at Kansas State University play a dual role in their community. Located on campus with no entry fees or gates to separate them from the public, they welcome visitors from the local community and beyond.

Since the gardens were started in 1875, they have provided a living laboratory for horticulture students to practice plant identification, installation and garden design and more. Today, the gardens provide project-based learning opportunities for students in a wide variety of disciplines across the university.

“The K-State Gardens are truly an extension of their classroom experience,” said Scott McElwain, director of K-State Gardens.

A growing campus

‘Hesperus’ Daylily 1950 Stout Silver Medal Winner

That original 1875 site was eventually swallowed up by construction of a new university building, and the gardens moved to their current location in 1978.

Today, they have developed 7 acres out of a 19-acre master plan that encompasses a conservatory built in 1907 (and later relocated to the new site) and a water-retention pond. Plans call for a variety of gardens—from formal designs to wetland and woodland habitats—to be developed, as fundraising is available.

The K-State Gardens are privately funded, and McElwain is well aware that developing the entire master plan will depend on the availability of resources to maintain the final product. But success tends to build upon itself, and as the gardens have evolved, McElwain says he’s seen a growing appreciation for them among the wider community.

“As we’ve seen maturity in the plant material and we’ve expanded the gardens, we’ve really created something that the community, not just the department of horticulture, takes pride in,” he said. “I’ve definitely seen a growth in the appreciation of the gardens and what we have created here.”

Cultivation via community support

A Friends of the Gardens group provides ongoing support, and the site has become a well-loved location for special events, weddings and more.

The Iris Collection has hundreds of different varieties, mostly Tall Bearded, but there are also some Dwarf and Siberian varieties. The family of Leon and Mary Delmez began the collection with a donation of 174 Iris. The collection continues to grow with donations from the Flint Hills Iris Society and others.

Each year, the Flint Hills Iris Society, along with The Gardens at K-State, host an Iris sale generally the last Saturday in July. Proceeds from this sale benefit the Iris collection, providing funding toward their permanent home in the Conservatory Garden.

The Daylily Collection began with a gift of 250 Hemerocallis cultivars from the Leon and Mary Delmez estate in the fall of 1996. The collection includes the Stout Silver Medal winners starting with the 1950 ‘Hesperus’ daylily and leading up to more modern varieties. The Stout Silver Medal, the highest award a daylily cultivar can receive, is given in memory of Dr. Arlow Burdette Stout, who is considered to be the father of modern daylily breeding in North America.

The new Peony Collection was established in the fall of 2015, thanks to the generosity of the Magnus, Lynch and Benton families in memory of Lena and Herman Magnus. The collection now has nearly 150 different varieties of herbaceous, tree and Itoh peonies.

Teaching gardens

Since the gardens are open to the public 24-7 and have no resources to staff tour guides, McElwain had long been interested in creating some kind of educational signage that could give visitors just enough information, without being so large as to overpower the look of the gardens.

When he learned about Plants Map through the American Public Gardens Association, he saw a solution. On the Gardens at Kansas State University Plants Map profile, virtual visitors can explore the gardens’ collections of peonies, daylilies and iris.

McElwain likes that Plants Map’s interactive plant signs and tags allow the gardens to show people what different varieties look like in bloom, even if they’ve visited off peak. The QR codes on the tags allow enthusiasts to use their smartphones to access detailed information, without taking up too much room on a garden sign.

“It gives us an opportunity to have that right on the label where they can use their smartphone and scan that and pull up a picture,” he said. “It’s fun to see people interacting with it.”

It also allows the garden to further the educational mission of the university that houses it, by providing opportunities not only for students, but also for the surrounding community to learn more about plants.

“I really believe all gardens are teaching gardens,” McElwain said. “We try to engage both students and the community in everything we do.”

Rare bloom grows more community interest 

While peak seasons for K-State’s collections of iris, daylilies and peonies are perennial draws, recently, officials at the school recently learned what kind of attention can result from a bloom with a far less predictable schedule.

In late June, K-State’s “corpse flower” (Titan arum) produced a rare bloom. The plant has been in the university’s possession for 15 years, residing in the care of assistant professor of landscape and horticulture Dr. Chad Miller.

The corpse flower is a tropical plant native to Indonesia. New plants require seven to 10 years or more of growth before they bloom, and subsequent blooms can come anywhere from two to 10 years later. Adding to that drama, the blooms are known to emit a stench that resembles that of a rotting carcass, meant to attract pollinators that feed on dead animals. In addition to the smell, the blooms put out heat, another signal to nocturnal creatures who use temperature as a means of finding food.

All of this added up to a popular draw that McElwain says brought many new visitors to the gardens. Since the K-State Gardens located on campus are free and open to the public, it’s hard to gauge exact numbers, but staff counted well over 2,000 people visiting during the time the bloom was anticipated and promoted on social media.

“There were long lines, it was a revolving door,” he said. “The interest in something unique like that, it’s great publicity for our program and the gardens and getting people interested in plants.”

To learn more, follow the Gardens at Kansas State University on Plants Map.