Nature Notes Summer 2013

Greg Armstrong Nature Notes Leave a Comment


“Summer time, and the livin’ is easy,” says George Gershwin. Well, at the beginning of summer this year I do believe the livin’ is easy for the plants and animals at Holy Wisdom Monastery. In comparison to last summer’s drought, the differences are dramatic. We have received lots of rain, it has been cool and as far as the prairie plants are concerned, the drought never happened. They are just plain exuberant. There are not that many species of prairie plants that flower before the beginning of summer, although there are a few, pasque flower, shooting star, and prairie smoke to name a few. But summer is high season for flowering in the prairie. Right now at the summer solstice there is a spectacular show of sand coreopsis or coreopsis lanceolata in the parking lot prairie planting in front of the monastery. Wow, lots of yellow! And in contrast is the spiderwort, tradescantia ohiensis with its deep blue flowers. If you haven’t had a close look at a spiderwort flower, please treat yourself, by looking for the very fine hairs at the base of the stamens. It looks like blue cotton candy. These new world plants in the genus tradescantia are named for John Tradescant the elder (1570-1638), an English naturalist and gardener who assembled collections of plants from many places at his home in Lambeth, a London borough. If you visit England, there is a Museum of Garden History at the church yard of St-Mary-at-Lambeth where he is buried.

As the summer progresses there is a flood of species flowering. If you come to the monastery and walk the trails every week, you will see a whole new suite of flowers to look at each time. Along with the spiderworts the baptisias flower in early summer. Baptisia alba the white wild indigo, sends up its five foot tall stalks of white pea-like flowers. They look like paschal candles to me—stately. On dryer soils you might find the cream wild indigo or baptisia bracteata which holds it flower stalk horizontally and is covered with rich cream-colored pea-like flowers. I thought early on that it must be named after John the Baptist, but actually it is a Latinized version of a Greek word that means to dye, referring to the dye that can be derived from these plants.

As the season goes on the plants get taller, and the flowers are held higher, so the pollinating insects can see them and they don’t get hidden by the tall grasses and other forbs. By fall in the tall grass prairie, the flowers have to be about shoulder height in order to be seen.

In mid-summer, there are many, many yellow flowered composites. These are the flowers in the daisy family which look like flowers, but are actually a “composite” of many small flowers. Daisies, asters, cone flowers, dandelions and black eyed Susans are in this group. The sand coreopsis I mentioned earlier are also composites. Pull one of the “flowers” apart some time and you will see that each of the petals is actually a whole flower and each of those little tufts in the center is also a whole flower. Seems to me they are just showing off for the insects!

I guess my favorite summer prairie plants are in the genus silphium. The prairie dock, silphium terebinthenaceum (wow that’s a mouth full) have huge leaves in a rosette at the base with six or seven foot stalks topped with yellow sunflowers. Very dramatic. And the compass plant, silphium laciniatum, which is similar but with divided leaves, was made famous by Aldo Leopold when he lamented the loss of these handsome prairie plants by saying “what a thousand acres of silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo is a question never again to be answered, and perhaps not even asked.” The cup plant, silphium perfoliatum is even larger growing up to eight feet tall. There is a huge stand of this plant just at the entrance to the monastery off of County Road M by the sign. It has very interesting leaves on opposites sides of the stem that have fused at their bases forming a cup around the stem. After a rain this cup fills with water. These clever plants create their own little reservoirs.

The tall grass prairie has a variety of—you guessed it—tall grasses. One of the most common is big blue stem grass, andropogon gerardii. The leaves are now just getting up a head of steam and are maybe knee height, but by the end of the growing season, with their flower stalk sticking out the top, they can reach over 10 feet tall. The early settlers, while crossing the tall grass prairie, were afraid to let their children wander away from the wagon for fear they would be lost in this seemingly endless and immensely dense mass of vegetation. Turkey foot is another name, used because of the shape of the flower head, which is shaped like a big bird’s foot. Indian Grass or Sorghastrum nutans is another of the very tall prairie grasses. One of the wonderful things about Indian grass is that its stems are this shiny gold color in winter and are just stunning on a sunny day in winter sticking out of the snow. Oh yes, these are the Summer Nature Notes, sorry.

Gee, I love this stuff. I guess I could go on and on. As it is, I have just skimmed a few of the highlights of the marvels of the prairie in summer. Hey, I guess we have next summer. In the meantime, I hope you will have a chance to come out to Holy Wisdom Monastery and enjoy the prairies. It looks like a very good season coming on. We would love to have you come and visit.

For more information contact Greg at, 608-836-1631, x123.

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