Grady Tract

Fringed gentian

Fringed gentian

Late summer flowers were in full splendor in Greene Prairie for this Sunday’s Grady Tract tour. A group of 10 with a strong love for flowers joined me on this beautiful blue and sunny September afternoon. We started out, admiring white snakeroot and pokeweed and shrieking blue jays on our way through the Evjue Pines.

At West Knoll we discussed the prevalence of knee-high sumac and the ongoing battle to beat back brushy plants from all Arboretum ecosystems, including prairie, savanna, and forests. We talked briefly about fire, and the challenges of re-creating a natural fire regime in small prairies and savannas surrounded by an urban environment and regulated by tight windows of possibility. Then we saw big bluestem, Indian grass, and a profusion of blazing yellow from stiff, common, and showy goldenrod as we transitioned up onto the Knoll.

Sky-blue aster
Sky-blue aster

Heading across the Knoll, we admired the purples, blues, and whites of smooth, sky blue, and frost asters. An excited gang of cedar waxwings whistled as many of them retreated from our large group. One, however, remained perched atop the nearest oak, giving us a good long look at its crested head. Many waxwings flock up in September, gorge on berries for a month or so, and migrate south from Madison, but a few groups will stay for winter and can still be seen in the Arboretum in January feasting on buckthorn and other berries. White sage, prairie-clover seed heads, and lead-plants led the way of our descent off of West Knoll to the prairie.

Greene Prairie was a riot of beautiful flowers, dominated by woodland sunflowers in and across the near horizon. A few solitary deptford pink flowers were still in bloom, and we noticed Great Plains lady’s-tresses along the narrow path into Greene Prairie. The show then truly began with the first bottle gentians appearing on our left. We pointed out bigger and bigger pockets of them, and then started seeing downy, stiff, and absolutely gorgeous clusters of fringed gentian along the way. Turtleheads, a plant from the figwort family posing as a gentian, were also present, although much rarer. Other species punctuating the grasses and sunflowers were calico aster, rough blazing-star (Liatris aspera), prairie phlox, and the occasional wild quinine.

Goldfinches flitted and buzzed around us as we soaked up the sheer beauty of all of those gentians, goldenrods, and asters. The clear blue skies and warm sun made me believe in the eternal summer, if only for a moment. We did notice a few signs of the coming transition: elderberry and sumac leaves tinged red, flocking green darner dragonflies thinking about their journey south, and the tall prairie grasses gently dropping their seeds onto the wind. For now though, the prairie shines brightly in the spotlight for a few more weeks. Be sure to see it.

—Tom Pearce

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