Curtis Prairie

Wisconsin Native Plant Garden in bloom

Wisconsin Native Plant Garden in bloom

Myriad splashes of bright yellow and purple flowers filled the humid air with intoxicating fragrances this sunny 77-degree afternoon. Only a few mosquitoes annoyed the nine visitors who gathered for our 1 p.m. Curtis Prairie tour.

The visitors were very interested not only in seeing flowers but also learning how to identify them. A knowledgeable couple from Colorado asked and answered several good questions. Why identify native wildflowers? I agree with Ted Cochrane, author of the very informative book Prairie Plants of the University of Wisconsin–Madison Arboretum. He said “We hope it [learning plant identification] will increase your awareness and respect for our last remaining remnants, motivate you to work for their preservation, and encourage you to grow native plants in your yards and gardens.” (p. 2)

Gazing out at the distant 73-acre Curtis Prairie we saw a very green landscape with some shrubs and a few scattered patches of color.

For identification purposes, as well as breathtaking beauty and fewer mosquitoes, the Wisconsin Native Plant Garden surrounding the Visitor Center was an excellent place to get a close-up view of those hundreds of colorful blooms and learn about plant adaptations. The same kinds of flowers can be found on the larger prairies and can be very showy especially after a fire. However, often they are off-trail and scattered among prairie grasses.

The tour began on the north side of the Visitor Center at the water continuum garden and continued on to the dry mesic, mesic prairie, rain, the limestone prairie, and circle gardens. The gardens demonstrate how to landscape with native plants in a small area. The beautiful gardens are planted, weeded, and mulched by Susan Carpenter and her volunteers.

The last part of the tour included information about the history, restoration, and management of Curtis Prairie. Our hike started at the parking lot, then on to trail markers A3 to A5 to A4, and back to the parking lot. We saw three prairies of differing ages. Curtis Prairie was planted in a pasture in 1935. It is the oldest restored prairie (82 years) in the world. East of the north-south fire land we saw a partly wet, never-plowed remnant prairie that is perhaps a thousand years old. And, south of the Visitor Center, the 31-year-old 5-acre prairie was planted in l986 in an area that had been a nursery. It was an experiment to see how plants spread once seeds are established in a tall grass prairie.

We saw 48 different kinds of flowers in bloom. Some were very showy, others not so showy. Many of the species belong to the following families: composite or daisy (flower heads made up of ray and disk flowers); mints with fragrant tubular flowers, square stem, and opposite leaves; legume or pea (flowers with unequal petals—1 upright, 2 lateral, and 2 inner joined—bean-like leaves) and parsley or carrot family (flowers in compound umbels).

We found 17 purple species in bloom. Incidentally, the dictionary defines purple as “any of the various colors that fall between red and blue in hue.” How many shades of purple have you noticed? Following are some that we identified.

Blooming profusely was pinkish-lavender bergamot or bee balm (Monarda fistulosa).

Some of the others in bloom included:

  • magenta: thick-spike gay-feather (Liatris pycnostachya);
  • red-purple: purple prairie-clover (Dalea purpurea) and ironweed (Veronica fasciculata);
  • rose-purple: spotted Joe-Pye-weed (Eutrochium maculatum);
  • pale purple: purple Joe-Pye-weed (Eutrochium purpureum) and hairy wild petunia (Ruellia humilis);
  • rose-pink: swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata);
  • bright blue-violet: hoary vervain (Verbena stricta)
  • red-violet: Canadian tick-trefoil (Desmodium canadense)

Yellow flowering plants included 12 species. Most showy were ox-eye (Heliopolis helianthoides), rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium), yellow coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), sweet coneflower (Rudbeckia subtomentosa), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), and prairie tickseed (Coreopsis palmata).

The white blooms numbered 16. Among them were wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), rattlesnake-master (Eryngium yuccifolium), pale Indian-plantain (Arnolglossum atriplicifolium), sweet Indian-plantain (Hasteola suaveolens), mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), white prairie-clover (Dalea candida), flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata), Culver’s-root (Veronicastrum virginicum), and white meadowsweet (Spiraea alba).

There were two very beautiful orange species in bloom. Butterfly-weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is orange-red. It has alternate leaves and lacks milky sap. Other Wisconsin milkweeds have opposite leaves and milky sap. The other gorgeous orange flower we found on the remnant prairie was the Michigan lily (Lilium michiganense). We saw two very tall plants each with a single stem and several vivid orange flowers. The petals are recurved and spotted with maroon.

Now is a great time to visit our prairies often. Every week the flowers and grasses put on a spectacular show.

I checked the bluebird boxes today and have the following to report: Bluebirds laid 42 eggs and 14 babies fledged so far. This has not been a good season for bluebirds. Ten babies died and 16 eggs were destroyed by sparrows and wrens (their nests were built on top of the bluebird eggs). Five baby bluebirds remain and I hope will fledge soon.

“There can be no purpose more inspiring than to begin the age of restoration, reweaving the wondrous diversity of life that still surrounds us.”—E.O. Wilson

—Sylvia Marek