It was a warm 75 degree, sunny Sunday, September 7, when we headed out to Curtis Prairie connecting to trail A3 from the parking lot. I told the group that we have the claim to fame of saying that Curtis Prairie is the world’s oldest ecologically-restored prairie! Planting started in Curtis Prairie in 1935 and at first it was difficult because botanists were not sure how to successfully transplant prairie plants. They figured out that transplanting prairie plants was difficult since prairie plants have such deep roots, that a small cut of sod did not have enough root material to allow all the plants to survive. Over time it was discovered that seeding the prairie after periodically burning it to get rid of weeds worked best. John T. Curtis, the professor whom the prairie is named after, used the UW Arboretum as a laboratory for his students and studied the effects of fire use on prairie establishment.
As we walked we noticed a lot of Canada goldenrod blooming along with New England asters. I pointed out how asters are a wonderful genus of flowers since they bloom so late in the season; just when you think all the flowers have finished blooming, an Aster plant is in full bloom! The big bluestem grasses were towering over our heads and turning the prettiest shade of burgundy. We saw several dogwood shrubs as we walked along towards trail B1. I pointed out the small white berries on the plants,’ which will soon disappear since the birds desperately gobble them up before they leave for fall migration. Dogwood berries fat content is about 39%, which makes it one of the fattiest berries birds can eat and they need all the calories they can get before migration!
Once we got into the area that the oaks were growing (near B1) we saw some plants that like to grow in shadier areas like Joe pye weed and white snakeroot. We continued to trail B3 and headed towards Curtis Pond. At Curtis Pond we saw 4 Midland painted turtles basking in the sun. It is amazing that turtles can bury themselves in the mud in the pond and survive the winter by lowering their body temperature, lowering their metabolism and breathing oxygen in the mud through specials membranes located near their mouths and tail.
We continued towards trail A9. There was not much of a breeze, so when we stopped at Coyote Pond to look at Glade Mallow leaves, everyone started getting bitten by mosquitoes. We often see Sandhill Cranes at Coyote Pond, but unfortunately they were not there when we walked by. Once we got to trail A4, we turned and headed towards A7 so we could see the remnant part of Curtis Prairie that was too wet to get plowed when the area was farmland-unique wildflowers grow there as a result. On our way to A7 we saw heath asters and frost asters blooming. As we headed down the trail on the remnant part of the prairie I warned everyone that the mosquitoes would be thick, but it was worth it because bottle gentians were in full bloom! We also saw cream gentian. Everyone said it was worth hiking through the mosquitoes to see those beautiful flowers. Since it was warm and the mosquitoes were biting, we ended our hike a few minutes early. I told everyone to come back and visit often to see the fall colors not only in the prairie, but in Wingra Woods and other woodlands in the Arboretum.