A Prairie Birthday

Lead-plant in bloom

Lead-plant in bloom

Aldo Leopold’s essay “A Prairie Birthday,” which gave the July 2 tour its name, is the latter of the two July pieces in A Sand County Almanac (the first one being “Great Possessions” and mostly concerned with birdsong—an enchanting subject for another time).

In fact, in “A Prairie Birthday” Leopold gets very specific about just how quickly phenological changes happen in summertime, stating that “in June as many as a dozen species may burst their buds on a single day.” Walking the same prairie trails a fortnight later gave me a great opportunity to see what was the same, and what was new, since June 18, the last time I led a Curtis Prairie tour.

“Tell me of what plant-birthday a man takes note,” wrote Leopold, “and I shall tell you a good deal about his vocation, his hobbies, his hay fever, and the general level of his ecological education.” Hold that thought.

On the 18th, I wrote about the blue-and-white phase of the prairie. White flowers are still present in great numbers—prairie clover (Dalea candida), wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), even the patch of pale beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis) still bore some blossoms. As for new bloomers in this color, I noticed one flowering spurge plant (Euphobia corollata), surely the first of many. Another species not in flower two weeks ago, but now open, is glade mallow (Napea dioica)—tall, five-petaled, and rather coarse-looking. The Canada anemone (Anemone canadensis), however, has mostly started forming its thimble-shaped seedheads.

An interesting aside about white wild indigo (Baptisia alba): two weeks ago I would have said its flowers were beginning to fade, and yes, some of them did, and now plump green seed pods appear on those stems.  But we saw some indigo plants that were still in bloom, or even just getting started. This variability in bloom phase suggests that Mother Nature is hedging her bets against pests, climate, and other forces that might undermine a given plant’s ability to reproduce and survive. Smart lady.

We are moving steadily toward the yellow-and-pink/purple manifestations that characterize “mature summer” in the prairie. Coreopsis, heliopsis, black-eyed Susan, and St. John’s-wort (Coreopsis palmata, Heliopsis helianthoides, Rudbeckia hirta, and Hypericum perforatum, in that order) currently furnish most of the bright yellows; the silphiums are getting started, notably compass plant (S. laciniatum). Since that’s the species Leopold wrote extensively about in “A Prairie Birthday,” this was especially appropriate to observe on Sunday.

Eventually—say by August 1—goldenrod (Solidago spp.) will take over supplying yellow color to the prairie. But for now, it is just bearing green leaves. A few new stem galls can be found, if you look carefully. This is the work of a small fly, Eurosta solidaginis, whose story has been told many times in these notes.

As for the pinks and violets—oh, there are so many. Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) and common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) were already in evidence and are now more numerous. Swamp milkweed (A. incarnata) is starting to assert itself as well. Hoary vervain (Verbena stricta) is vivid, as are the “firecracker” flower spikes of leadplant (Amorpha canescens). Seriously, take a close look—tiny purple flowers with bright orange-yellow pollen on every stamen! Worthy of the 4th of July!

Tick-trefoil (Desmodium spp.) has begun to bloom, and field thistle (Cirsium discolor) can’t be far behind. And perhaps the showpiece of the prairie, blazing-star or gayfeather (Liatris pycnostachya), will be unfurling its large fuchsia flower spikes . . . soon. But not yet.

One more pink, this one closer to the ground: wild or “pasture” roses (Rosa carolina) continue to bloom along the prairie trails. Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) hasn’t given up yet, and still offers a note of violet-blue, especially in the morning. This plant has a very long blooming season.

A flower that doesn’t fit the general color scheme, and seems to be absent this year, is Turk’s-cap lily (Lilium michiganense) and/or its close relative wood lily (L. philadelphicum). Seems to me it was just last year that there were an unusual number of these deep red-orange delights splashing the western portion of Curtis Prairie. They literally stopped traffic—more than once I saw a car pulled over to the side of the drive while its driver photographed the lilies’ brilliance. I see that they are listed as blooming from “June through August.” Maybe they’ll come along, or maybe they’re taking a summer off.

And as long as I’ve mentioned orange . . . this week as well as last, butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) added flares of that shade to the prairie palette. It would be boring if nature followed ALL the rules.

Dark clouds built in the west as we took our hike, and thundershowers were in the forecast for later in the afternoon. Sure enough, as I paused the group at 2:25 in Margaret’s Council Ring for a final installment from Leopold, there came a great CLAP!! from the sky. Heavenly punctuation!

Luckily that council ring is located just a few steps from the parking lot, for by the time I reached the Visitor Center door, raindrops were splashing. I couldn’t have asked for a more dramatic or definite ending to our pleasant July jaunt.

—Kathy Miner