An August Walk Through Our Tallgrass Prairie

The hot and humid weather of July and early August finally breaks, and I take the opportunity to grab the camera and head out to the prairie. My first impressions are of yellow – waves and waves of yellow flowers covering the prairie. As I walk in and begin looking around, I start distinguishing different yellows and seeing many other colors dotted here and there.

First to greet me are the orange-pink seed capsules of spotted St. John’s Wort. Last month the plant was in full bloom with lovely yellow, five-petal flowers — and this month’s pointy pods, fat with developing tiny black seeds, are as attractive as the flowers.

I remember from previous years where a patch of prairie gentian (Gentiana alba) is located, so next I go searching to see if I can find the low-growing plants amongst all the grasses and taller blooming plants. I find several clumps of the barrel-shaped, greenish-white flowers. The flowers are tipped with a blush of pink, and I really like their unique shape.

The green spikes of blue vervain (Verbena hastate)—with their small, purple-to-lavender-rose colored flowers—are found here and there throughout the prairie. The flowers open, just a few at a time, starting from the bottom of the spike and moving upward. The seeds persist on the spikes and provide a seed source for birds in the winter. At one time, Native Americans roasted and ground the small seeds to make meal.

Another blue-flowered plant is blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica). On the upper part of the 3- to 5-foot leafy stem, one-inch light blue flowers grow from the area where the leaf meets the stem. A showy plant when in bloom, it can be found in open woodlands, along streams and in moist areas from the Midwest to the East Coast.

Last month the milkweed was in bloom, and this month, seed pods take the place of the fragrant purple flowers. Like lots of kids, I used to open these pods and pull out the silky strands attached to each brown milkweed seed. If they were ripe enough, even a light breeze would scatter the seeds and fill the air with the soft milkweed down.

The importance of milkweed to monarch butterflies is well known. The females lay their eggs on milkweed plants, and the caterpillars that emerge spend their lives eating and growing on the milkweed. The “milk” of the plant is somewhat poisonous to other animals, a gift that helps protect the monarchs from predators.

Speaking of butterflies, there are many sizes and colors dancing across the flower tops in the prairie. I notice that when they stray to the bordering soybean field, they don’t stay. The soybeans are tall, lush and green, but not a weed, a flower or any other bit of life is seen to mar the orderly rows. The juxtaposition of rich, noisy prairie diversity against the quiet, sterile, conventionally farmed bean field is striking and a testament to biodiversity.

Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum) is a plant valued by Native Americans and settlers alike for its medicinal properties. The spike-like white flower heads dot the prairie, often growing next to the still-blooming echinacea.

There are only three yellow-flowered plants blooming, but the height of the two of them cause them to dominate the parts of the prairie where they are flowering. Cup plant (Silpium perfoliatum) grows up to 8 feet tall and has showy 3-inch yellow flowers at the top of the plant. Cup plant is so named because the large, paired leaves clasp the stem in such a way as to join together and form a shallow cup that collects rainwater.

Compass plant (Silphium lacinatum) also grows up to 8 feet tall and has 3- to 4-inch yellow flowers like those of the cup plant, but they are located on tall flowering stalks. The plant is also sometimes called rosin weed due to the gum-like material formed in the upper part of the plant during flowering. Native Americans and pioneer children chewed this “gum.”

The third yellow-flowered plant, stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida), is just starting to open and is not as noticeable as the towering Silphiums.

It’s so easy to move through the prairie from one flower to the next, but the Frontier prairie is, after all, a tallgrass prairie, and that means grasses – big bluestem, little bluestem, switchgrass and sideoats grama grow happily among the many flowering forbs.

See you in September!

by Kathy Larson

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