Nature Notes Summer 2014

Greg Armstrong Care for the Earth, Nature Notes, Volunteers Leave a Comment

prairie dock

Prairie dock growing at Holy Wisdom Monastery

We had a spring with lots of moisture. The good news is that all the plants are growing vigorously, providing cover and lots of food for all the critters that live at Holy Wisdom Monastery. The bad news is that the weeds, those non-native invaders of the prairie, savanna and woods, are also growing vigorously. So Paul Boutwell, many volunteers and I have been busy trying to rid the natural lands of these weeds. Garlic mustard in the shady places and reed canary grass in the open areas, are a couple of examples. Wow, they do keep you busy since they are very aggressive.

Speaking of volunteers; there is a newly formed Friends of Wisdom Prairie which hopefully will provide an additional group of volunteers to help care for the prairies, savanna and woodlands at the monastery. This support group will have opportunities to learn about the ecological communities at Holy Wisdom Monastery, attend interesting lectures and go on outings to other natural areas. If you have not joined the Friends of Wisdom Prairie yet, we invite you to become a member at We would love to have you join us on this new adventure to help the sisters care for the earth.

Summer is the time when most of the plants in the prairie flower. One wonderful way to experience these plants is to take a walk in the prairie every couple of weeks. You will be amazed at the diversity of beautiful and interesting plants that come into flower on each walk. In my opinion, knowing what kind of plants they all are adds to the enjoyment. So you might want to take a wildflower book with you. The Friends of Wisdom Prairie has a series of tours on the natural lands at the monastery where you can learn about some of the plants that you see on these walks. The next Walk and Talk is Saturday, July 19, 2014 from 1:00-2:30 pm. Contact me at or 608-836-1631, x123 if you wish to attend.

One of the more complex groups of plants to tell apart from one another are all of the yellow flowered composites, found in the prairie during the summer and fall. The sunflower family; sunflowers, daisies, dandelions and many more all have a characteristic composite flower cluster or inflorescence, in botanist jargon. Each of the little petals around the ‘flower’ is actually a whole flower as well as the little things in the disc in the center. So what looks like a flower is actually a composite of lots of flowers. Many of them look very similar and there must be some evolutionary advantage to having yellow flowers in the prairie in summer as there are so many of them. I have a big thick book on my book shelf called The Sunflower Family of the Upper Midwest just full of pictures and description of all these beautiful plants. I guess my favorite yellow composite of the prairie is the prairie dock with its big elephant ear leaves and a 6 foot slender stem with yellow composite flower at the top. Silphium terebinthenaceum is its Latin name. Come on one of the Friends of Wisdom Prairie Walk and Talk tours and I will introduce you to prairie dock.

When the government surveyor John Millette surveyed section 32 of what is now called the Town of Westport (where Holy Wisdom Monastery is located today) in 1832, he recorded in his notebook that he found prairie and savanna. Savanna was the most common vegetation type of what is now called Dane County Wisconsin. Savanna is a grass land similar in many ways to prairie but with a few widely spaced trees growing in it. In the case of our area they were mostly bur oak and white oak. The early settles called these areas oak openings. Those early settlers wrote of how beautiful these oak openings were—sort-of a park like setting of these broad, open grown trees, with flowers and grasses between. We intend to restore savanna at Holy Wisdom Monastery as well as prairie and woodlands. I am very enthusiastic about the prospect of working on this long term project to restore savanna at the monastery. I hope some of you might come and be enthused with me. It should be great fun and a wonderful opportunity to care for the earth.

Enjoy the summer at Holy Wisdom Monastery and visit often.

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