As I work to re-establish a reasonably functional prairie on our Back 5, one of my constant inner questions is, "What was here originally?" It's hard to know, since years of use as a pasture, including significant overgrazing for at least the last few years, had removed most of the tastier plants from the existing plant palette and substituted weedier ones by the time we purchased the property. In a region where tallgrass prairie is just beginning to morph into midgrass prairie, there were essentially no clumps of prairie grass at all in that Back 5 acres. The primary forbs were green antelopehorn, western ragweed, Baldwin's ironweed, yarrow, and white sage - all plants that cattle don't care for, which tend to grow more strongly as their competition is munched away.
So, to see what we're missing in our palette, I watch the ditches for vegetative clues (but our ditches have been denuded of perennials by the County road crews who, I am convinced, consider them to be their personal lawn spaces). I look in pastures as we drive by. And occasionally I'm lucky enough to be invited to walk through and explore nearby pastures. That's when I get my best clues.
A fellow Sedgwick County Extension Master Gardener, Sid, extended one of those lucky invitations to me for last Friday morning. So, of course, I went. I explored his pasture last June, too, about 2 weeks earlier in the growing season than this year. What would I see again? Would I see anything new?
Sid and his wife live on land that was homesteaded by his ancestress - a legendary matriarch, a recent widow at the time she homesteaded, who built a house in the middle of a section of land so that each of her 4 sons would have a quarter section for themselves when they reached adulthood. With the land being in the same family for generations now, there is a sense of continuity of ownership, an understanding of how the land has been utilized over the years, that is often lacking in land that has changed ownership many times.
Next we went out into the pasture. Many of the plants were ones I'd seen last year: Junegrass, blue wild indigo (with all the leaves eaten off this summer), cream wild indigo, a single bloom of catclaw sensitive briar, purple poppy mallow, yarrow, spiderwort, leadplant.....
I also saw a little, annual, yellow flax (Linum sulcatum), that I've seen in our Back 5 once or twice over the years, and prairie petunia, a.k.a. fringe-leaf ruellia, (Ruellia humilis). The latter has become one of my favorites as I've watched it bloom over and over again, rather hidden down in the grass, not complaining despite extreme heat and crushing drought. I'd love to get some prairie petunia started in my flower beds, but I haven't been able to collect seed pods or to transplant successfully so far.
I mentioned that I loved plains coreopsis, but that I didn't have much of it growing on our property. Sid was surprised by that, since it is so common in "wild areas" around here, but actually I wasn't surprised at all. Plains coreopsis is an annual or very short-lived perennial and, as such, is basically an early successional plant. We don't have much bare ground on our property where it might take root.
As I started to talk about plant succession, it occurred to me that many gardeners aren't very familiar with the concept of succession, and it's a concept that I find VERY useful in understanding plant behavior in the garden. This post is long enough...but succession sounds like a great topic for a post in the near future! I doubt you'll ever look at weeds the same way, once you learn about this interesting concept.