A September Walk Through Our Tallgrass Prairie

by Kathy Larson

The first day of fall was a good time for September’s stroll through the Frontier prairie. It was a typical Iowa fall day – it started cool and mostly sunny and turned cloudy before I was finished taking pictures of what was in bloom.

Plants flowering at the time can be grouped in three categories – asters, goldenrods and sunflowers – all of which produce nectar that attracts bees, butterflies and other insects.

Two hundred species of asters are native to North America, many of them residents of the Midwest prairies. We planted three of them in the Frontier prairie and all three were in full bloom for my walk.

Sky blue aster (Aster azureus) is a diminutive plant – I found it hiding here and there among the taller plants and shorter grasses. The flowers, as the name implies, are a delicate shade of blue.

Heather aster (Aster ericoides) is a bushy, branching aster with one-inch flowers that have white petals and yellow centers. The flowers look like another native (and very common) aster, daisy fleabane, which is often considered a weed. It blooms in early summer.

New England aster (Aster novo-angliae) is among the largest of the asters, growing up to four feet high in the prairie (and as high as six feet in the garden) with flowers a little over an inch in diameter. The flowers are a deep purple, purple blue, or occasionally rose-colored. I tried for several years to get some pink ones started at home with no success, and then one year, almost by magic, one of the seedlings I let grow was pink flowered. These asters are showy, but the tall plants tend to fall over in the garden unless supported. In the prairie, the plants look neater because they are shorter and can lean on their many neighbors for support.

Last month, stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida) was just starting to flower. This month, it’s in full bloom, with waves of fragrant flowers attracting many nectar-loving insects. The bright yellow flowers are small and arranged in dense clusters at the tops of the plant.

The other species, late goldenrod (Solidago gigantea), is blooming all through the prairie and also attracting a variety of bees and insects. This yellow-flowered, wide-ranging goldenrod is the state flower of our neighbor, Nebraska.

Our prairie is home to large colonies of Maximillian sunflower (Helianthus maximilliani). Its 3-inch wide, yellow flowers trail up a single tall stem that towers over most other plants on the prairie (up to 8 feet high). Blooming goes on for about a month and the display they make when they are in full bloom is stunning. Maxmillian sunflowers are also a smorgasbord for wildlife – rabbits nibble on the young plants, various caterpillars feed on the leaves and stems, nectar- and pollen-gathering bees and insects feast on open flowers, and birds and small mammals eat the seeds.

Prairie grasses are another good source of food for prairie dwellers. While the shorter grasses, such as little bluestem,

have long since finished flowering and are dropping their seeds, two tall grasses, big bluestem (Andropogon geradi) and Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans) are at their showiest.

Big Bluestem is often the dominant grass in tallgrass prairies. Above ground, the plants grow up to eight feet tall, and the roots can extend 12 feet deep. It’s often planted for erosion control and as a windbreak, but it also makes excellent livestock forage.

Indiangrass resembles big bluestem in spring and early summer. It grows to a height of seven feet and, as it flowers, it develops attractive plumes with a yellowish-bronze appearance Indiangrass is valued for its showy appearance in wildflower gardens.

I end my walk at the wildlife pond on the edge of the prairie. It’s been very dry in this part of Iowa in the last few months and the pond is very low and most of the surface is covered with algae. But the trees and plants around the pond are filled with birds and insects, and there are fresh tracks all around the edge of the pond. This small haven is still important to the wildlife living in and near the prairie.

Thanks for coming along on my walk! See you again next month.

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