Dedicating The Kathy Krezek Larson Tallgrass Prairie

By Alan Miles

tallgrass prairie

Kathy with the sign for the newly-dedicated prairie.

The Frontier prairie located at our headquarters in Norway, Iowa, was dedicated as The Kathy Krezek Larson Tallgrass Prairie upon the retirement of Vice President of Sustainability Kathy Larson this spring.

tallgrass prairie

Kathy with Frontier CEO Tony Bedard at the surprise dedication ceremony, where she saw the sign and dedication plaque for the first time.

Kathy had a profound influence on Frontier in her three decades of work here. Her knowledge of herbs and aromatherapy was key to establishing Frontier’s expertise in those areas, she established our uncompromising product standards as quality assurance manager, and she was central to the development of Frontier’s social responsibility programs. Continue reading

Tallgrass Prairie Update

by Kathy Larson

In celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Frontier tallgrass prairie, we’ve planned several enhancements to the prairie and its surroundings.

First, we’re planting an additional six acres into prairie.  The prairie was originally planted to include these six acres but was used a few years later to grow herb crops.  It’s been in grass for the last dozen years; we’re excited to bring it back into tallgrass prairie.  We’re ready to plant as soon as it is dry enough, with an eight prairie grass mix: big bluestem, sideoats grama, Indiangrass, Virginia wild rye, little bluestem, Canada wild rye, rough dropseed and sanddropseed, and two legumes — Illinois bundleflower and partridge pea. Early next spring, we’ll plant wildflowers into the area.  We hope to add flowers that aren’t in our current prairie so we can increase the diversity of blooms.

Continue reading

Fire on the Tallgrass Prairie

by Kathy Larson

photos by Kathy Larson and Joe Coffey

On March 16, I watched the eastern half of the Frontier prairie go up in flames.  This part of the prairie hadn’t been burned for seven or eight years and the plant litter was thick, so the fire burned hot and fast.

Fire has been important to maintaining the prairie that covers the Midwest since before the arrival of settlers.  Native prairie grasses and flowering plants carry the buds for next year’s growth underground where they are protected from fire.  The buds of trees are above ground where they’re easily damaged or killed by fire.  Young trees and seedlings are killed by fire.

Fire also helps rid the prairie of the build-up of heavy plant litter which can smother or shade other plants.  Burning opens up the land to sun and rains and returns nutrients back to the soil.

Our local fire department volunteers are our prairie burn heroes.  They take the opportunity to practice handling grass fires by conducting a controlled burn of our prairie.  For us, it’s assurance that the fire won’t get out of control.

The day was perfect for the burn: sunny, warm and breezy.  While we didn’t want a strong wind, the 10-mph wind out of the south was perfect to help hurry the flames along.

The burn began with a water truck driving around parts of the perimeter and wetting down trees and bushes that were close to the prairie.

The firefighters then started a back fire on the north side of the prairie using a small drip torch.

The back fire burned more slowly because it was burning into the wind.  It created a burned area that would corral the main fire.

The firefighters left an opening in the backburn to provide exits for wildlife. We saw pheasants, rabbits, snakes, mice and many red-winged blackbirds moving to the unburned section of prairie.  We always burn our prairie in alternate years to leave nesting sites for the prairie wildlife.

As the backburn started to die out, another was started on the lower east and west sides of the prairie.  The east burn came up over a small hill, and catching the wind, began to turn hot and strong with flames shooting up into the air.  It was our first sight of the strength and ferocity of a prairie fire.

The final phase of the burn came when the rest of the east side and the south sides were set on fire.

If all went well, the fire would burn the rest of the way across the prairie and end at the small pond.  I walked to the pond to watch the approach of the fire.  As it came over the ridge the sound was loud and a bit frightening.  Flames were 20 feet high and the fire was advancing very fast.  I looked up from my camera and it suddenly seemed that it would overwhelm me and my small pond area refuge.

Not to worry, though. Minutes later it was all but over and lingering smoke and the ashes of the dead foliage puffed across the blackened prairie.

Five days after the burn, the blackened prairie is already turning green.  Helped along by rain and warm temperatures, the benefits of fire can quickly be seen as newly exposed soil hastens the emergence of plants.

Next month we’ll look at what’s coming up — in both the burned and unburned portions of the prairie –and we’ll see how they compare.

Our Tallgrass Prairie in Winter

by Kathy Larson

Iowa winter has been warmer and drier than normal. In fact, it wasn’t until nearly mid-January that we had our first real snowfall.

With a fluffy blanket of four inches of fresh snow covering the prairie, I grabbed tall boots and camera and headed out to take a look.

I expected to see a lot of tracks, but the winds were still blowing the light snow around, keeping the surface smooth except for a few small snow tunnels.

The tall grasses lean over, and, with the other prairie plants, form small caves that are havens for rabbits and rodents.

The abundance of seeds produced by the prairie’s grasses and forbs have mostly been harvested and stored as winter food. Viburnum berries still cling to the bushes edging part of the prairie.

Other than the biting wind, all was still. I could almost imagine myself wandering, lost on a winter prairie of the 1800s, when it was not uncommon for settlers to be caught in a snowstorm and not be able to make their way home.

As I made my way along the path, I played a little game to see how many of the plants I could still identify. Their dark shapes against the snowy whiteness was striking.

Winter Approaches on the Prairie

by Kathy Larson

It’s sunny and the winds are finally down the day after our first major frost here in Eastern Iowa – a perfect day to visit the prairie. So much has changed over the last few weeks. The eastern half of our prairie still has some purple aster and yellow goldenrod flowers scattered about while the western half has no flowers left of any kind.

Most of the butterflies that were so numerous just a few weeks ago are gone now. Those that remain are clustered around the areas where there are still some flower blossoms.

In a protected corner, a nice stand of Maximillan sunflowers still hold their own — with numerous sunny yellow flowers climbing the tall thick stems. It’s the only stand left, with just a few scattered stragglers elsewhere to remind us of the flowers that dominated most of the prairie for nearly a month.

Grasshoppers are prevalent on the mowed paths where they graze on the grass.

Prairie paths are mowed monthly to make it easy to see all parts of the prairie without having to hike through thick, tangled vegetation.

Even though most of the prairie flowers are gone, replaced by the seeds that will drop to the ground or drift to new areas in hopes of finding a suitable place to put down roots, the walk is as enjoyable as ever.

No open soil is available on our soon-to-be 20-year-old prairie, so most of the seeds that don’t manage to migrate elsewhere will feed migrating and over-wintering birds, mice, shrews, quail and pheasants.

The prairie floor seems to be a solid mass of vegetation, but a closer look shows small tunnels everywhere through the grasses – places for creatures to nest, run and hide. And as I walk, I hear little rustlings here and there.

I notice something unusual in a section dense with goldenrods — numerous swellings on the stems of many of the goldenrods. The swellings are called galls, and are made by a parasitic insect called a goldenrod gall fly.

The female lays her eggs inside the stem. The larva, when it hatches, eats stem tissue, causing the stem to grow abnormally and produce a gall. The larva stays inside the gall, eating and growing until winter when it creates an anti-freeze like substance that keeps it alive during the winter. In the spring, it will exit the stem as an adult fly.

While the prairie is ending its abundance of colorful blooms, the many interesting textures and shapes of the foliage and seed heads keep the prairie beautiful and interesting.

And animal life goes on — the prairie will provide food and shelter even through our long, cold Iowa winters.

We’ll check back to see how that wildlife is faring as the days turn cold and snowy.

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.

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

A July Walk Through Our Tallgrass Prairie

Kathy Larson, Frontier’s VP of Sustainability, took another walk through the tallgrass prairie at our Norway, Iowa, headquarters with her camera, and shares her experience and photos with us here. She’ll return again soon to chronicle the prairie’s changes throughout the year.

With parades, flags, and fireworks over, it’s a good time to head out to the prairie for a relaxing look at nature’s more lasting glory.

A lot has changed since a month ago — everything is taller and more lush. The red-winged blackbirds are as noisy as ever, flying over my head then perching on last year’s sturdy compass plant flower stalks, keeping an eye on me as they guard their hidden nests. A prairie is prime nesting and feeding habitat for these birds, whose diet is about 75% small seeds and grains and 25% small insects — both of which are plentiful here.

Both of the species of echinacea in our prairie are starting to bloom. Echinacea pallida has slender pale purple-pink, drooping petals with a conical seed head rising above them.

Echinacea purpurea’s light purple flowers are wider and form more of a disc.

Another purple flower is horsemint (Monarda fistulosa). The plants are widespread through the upper parts of the prairie and covered with flower buds. The whole plant has a minty-spicy aroma and flavor. Teas made from horseweed were commonly used as remedies among Midwest native peoples.

Two milkweeds adorn our prairie. First is the orange-flowered butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa).

Next is the common milkweed (Asclepias syrica), which has pink and white flower balls at the tops of the plants. Although the milkweeds are much loved by butterflies, none would come and pose for a picture this day.

The color yellow is not to be outdone by the pinks and purple on this walk. Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia serotina) are found here and there in the drier parts of the prairie — their brown center discs like dark eyes looking out from among the sunny petals.

And yellow coneflowers (Ratidibida pinnata) are just starting to send out their yellow petals from their gray/brown central cones.

The flowers of the golden Alexanders, so prevalent in last month’s prairie, are all but gone, and seeds are starting to ripen and turn brown.

The spotted St. John’s (Hypericum punctatum) is just starting to open its half-inch yellow flowers with their numerous stamens that give the flower’s center a whimsical, fairyland look.

Canadian milk vetch (Astragalus canadensis), a legume that helps add nitrogen to prairie soil, grows here and there in small dense colonies, its white flowered spikes easily hidden by surrounding plants.

Another plant with spikes of white flowers is prairie false indigo (Baptisia leucantha). The inch-long, pea-like flowers open first at the bottom of the foot-long stalk.

Along the prairie edges, I find a few yarrow plants (Achillea millefolium) with their white clusters of flowers atop finely divided foliage. While not planted as part of the prairie, yarrow grows wild in old pastures and waste areas and has found its way along the prairie edge where there is plenty of sun.

A stroll over to the small wildlife pond at the edge of the prairie reveals that the recent hot weather lowered the water level several feet.

The track-covered muddy banks now exposed are proof of the pond’s value to the wildlife living in and near the prairie.

When the sun goes down later, the night will be filled with the singing of the frogs that make their home there.

Enjoy Kathy’s previous prairie visit.

And here’s our food feature on Cobblers, Crisps & Pies as Summer Fruit Treats.

A Walk Through Our Tallgrass Prairie

Kathy Larson, Frontier’s VP of Sustainability, took a walk through the tallgrass prairie at our Norway, Iowa headquarters with her camera in hand recently, and shares her experience and photos with us here. She’s agreed to return regularly (it’s a tough job, but someone has to do it) to chronicle the prairie’s changes throughout the year.

With both a strong warm breeze out of the southeast and gathering clouds foreshadowing rain, I stroll out to the Frontier tallgrass prairie to see which plants are growing and which are blooming.

I notice many remnants of last year’s foliage, including tall stalks of compass plant and ironweed, which are the favorites of the redwing blackbirds. The birds perch atop the stalks to survey their territory and noisily warn away competitors — and they obviously consider me one.

Bunches of dried grasses, still standing tall throughout the landscape, hide much of the new plant growth, but it’s there. Many plants, like gentian and mondarda, are just starting to poke their heads out from the soil. Others, like the Maximillan sunflowers, are already nearly a foot tall, with last year’s flowering stalks rising from the center of the new green leaves.

The only prairie plant I can find that is flowering this early is Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), a member of the carrot family. The plants are just starting to bloom. When fully opened, their bright yellow clusters of flowers will provide a source of nectar for many types of bees, wasps and small butterflies. Golden Alexanders grows in moist prairies and abandoned fields and is scattered throughout the lower and wetter parts of our prairie.

Along the walking trail that circles the prairie, the dandelions are blooming with plenty of sunny yellow flowers — and almost as many fluffy seed heads, ready to be spread afar on the spring breezes.

I see that Frontier employees are not the only ones to walk the prairie trail. Tracks from pheasants and deer crisscross it too.

It’s a pleasure to walk across this vibrant and diverse prairie.

I’ll try to return often and share what I find there with you.