Sunday, June 22, 2014

Visiting Nearby Grasslands - A Peek Into Other Places and Times

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.

One of the things Sid wanted to show me were the patches of black-eyed Susan he'd successfully created in his lawn simply by waiting last summer until the black-eyed Susan had set seed, then mowing in a pattern that concentrated the seed into the areas where he wanted it.

The patches were beautiful - and filled with pollinators when we examined the flowers up close.

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.....

This year I noticed a few more plants blooming, too, that I hadn't noticed last year.  For example, the plant pictured above is woolly verbena (Verbena stricta) growing along the trail that the cattle use most frequently.  Woolly verbena has deep roots and is very drought tolerant, but it's bitter tasting, so the cattle don't eat it and it tends to increase in pastures.

I also noticed both white and purple prairie clovers, Dalea candida and Dalea purpurea.

Sid pointed out narrow-leafed milkweed (Asclepias stenophylla), ...

where I was lucky enough to catch a milkweed longhorn (Tetraopes sp.) and a longhorned grasshopper nymph hanging out together.  Do you see the grasshopper nymph almost mirroring the position of the milkweed beetle, a few inches up and to the left?

Another blossom that caught my eye on Friday was the tall, pink spike of tickclover (Desmodium sp.).  Not realizing that there were 4 possible species to be found in our area of Kansas, I didn't look at either the blooms or the leaves very closely.  I'll have to return to identify this species more accurately, although I strongly suspect it's Illinois tickclover (Desmodium illinoense).

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.

Most fun of all, this year the sand plums (Prunus angustifolia) were sporting a bumper crop of fruit, which was well into ripening.   Sid picked a couple handfuls and we enjoyed a delicious taste of the prairie to go along with our visual feast.

On the way back to the cool of the lawn chairs sitting in the breezy shade, I glimpsed a carpet of golden yellow shining through the trees.  When I asked about it, Sid responded that it was "just that weed", from which description I recognized plains coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria), a pretty annual that grows primarily in ditches and crop fields around here.  As we walked, I noticed a single, straggly plant of it along the path we were following.

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.


Gardener on Sherlock Street said...

What a great place. Nice to see them recognizing the great plants they have and encouraging them. Thanks for sharing. We have a couple of relatively new prairie nature trails in town that are starting to get a good stand of some of the wildflowers. I tried to photograph some Saturday morning, but the mosquitoes drove me away. We've been dry so long, I'd forgotten about packing the repellent! Eeek. Glad for the rain. Next time I'll be more prepared.

Gaia Gardener: said...

Great to know of a community encouraging trails and native plants! What sorts of flowers are blooming?

The mosquitoes have been fierce, haven't they?! We've got biting flies, too, which are almost worse. The combo is enough to drive both me and the dogs out of the garden sometimes.

sid n sandy wise said...

What a wonderful posting! I thoroughly enjoyed our visit and the great pictures and commentary capture it even better than I remember it. Sid

Gaia Gardener: said...

Thank you, Sid. Kind comments. And even kinder of you to invite me on walkabouts!