Prairies and Savannas of the Grady Tract

Butterfly-weed

Butterfly-weed

Something happened on the Grady Tract tour on Sunday which was an absolute first for me, in all the tours I have given, anywhere. We found a four-leaf clover!

I use the royal we. A visitor found it, but we all got to see it.

We had stopped at the X-2 trail intersection, where I was pointing out the rock honoring the late Virginia M. Kline, longtime Arboretum ecologist and educator par excellence. I noticed one of the visitors using her smartphone to photograph something on the ground. I asked what she’d found, frankly expecting it to be some interesting insect.

There it was! A true four-leaf clover! We all took a good look before moving on.

If you go there . . . it was roughly in the center of that T-shaped intersection. Adhering to the “take only photographs” guideline, we did not pick it. Dare I say . . . good luck?

We’d begun our tour with a short tribute to elderberries, and musical instruments made from wood, and my hero Henry David Thoreau. This took place just inside the parking lot gate, where a common elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) shrub is presently in bloom.

I have taken to doing the Grady Tract/Greene Prairie route in the opposite direction from the way I used to. Instead of taking the first available left at U-1, I stick with the fire lane that parallels Seminole Highway just a fraction longer, until V-1. This means that my first official talking point stop is the site of the Frank Matthew Grady homestead, where Mr. and Mrs. Grady raised 8 children in a farmhouse now long gone. Though we know that many other families owned land in the tract from the 1860s on, by the time it was acquired by the university in 1940, Grady’s heirs held title to its 200 acres. See Frank Court’s excellent history of the UW–Madison Arboretum—Pioneers of Ecological Restoration, published in 2012 by UW Press—for details.

I have a new word for fire lanes! I learned it recently from Tess Mulrooney of the Ice Age Trail Alliance. Because they are a combination of trail and roadtroad.  Follow that troad. . . .

We continued to travel toward the Greene Prairie, skirting the western edge of the West Knoll. Plants admired along the way included common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), St. John’s-wort (Hypericum perforatum), spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia sp, probably hirta), and the delicate Deptford pink (Dianthus armeria). We saw lupine (Lupinus perennis) and large-flowered penstemon (aka beard-tongue, or Penstemon grandiflorum) in their past-bloom stage, both now working on seed production.

I will give butterfly-weed (A. tuberosa) its own paragraph. It is spectacular all over the Grady Tract right now, especially on the West Knoll. It’s our only orange-flowered milkweed, and in fact the only orange-flowered anything currently in bloom. Just gorgeous. And as you might expect, butterflies love it—particularly hairstreaks.

As for Henry Greene’s prairie, the dominant flower at present is prairie/downy phlox, Phlox pilosa. Its dramatic fuchsia-colored inflorescences dot the verdant landscape. Among other forbs in bloom right now are hedge nettle (Stachys palustris), Kalm’s St. John’s-wort (Hypericum kalmiana), water hemlock (Cicuta maculata), pale spike lobelia (Lobelia spicata), northern bedstraw (Galium boreale), and prairie alumroot (Heuchera richardsonii). Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum) is just getting started—although the leaves, when crushed in the fingers, are minty fresh at all stages of growth.

Interestingly enough, we saw one wild white indigo (Baptisia alba) plant already past bloom and making its distinctive seed pods, and others just beginning to flower. Wonder what’s up with that?

In the prairie, lead-plant (Amorpha canescens) has not yet begun to bloom, but on the higher and drier land of the West Knoll, it is quite colorful. One veteran naturalist has nicknamed lead-plant the fireworks flower, since it usually opens right around the 4th of July and its flower spikes are so dramatic—vivid purple with bright-orange stamens.

I’d had an eye-opening experience a few days before the tour, as I scouted the route. As I was leaving Greene Prairie, I heard a common yellowthroat begin to sound its alarm call. This tiny bird is abundant on Arboretum prairie lands, building its nest somewhere in the tall grass. Its standard song is a jaunty “wichety, wichety” or “what’s-it-to-ya, what’s-it-to-ya.” This was different—a chip or warning call. (Think of an itty-bitty smoke detector.)

I stood still to see what would happen. Presently the little bird—a male, with yellow throat and black “mask” across its face—popped up and perched on a nearby aspen seedling. It moved around to several different perches, keeping an eye on me and never stopping its alarm. I could see that in its beak, it held some kind of green insect.

Since the bird did not eat its prey, I infer that I had interrupted a family meal—that he was carrying food to the nest. And from that, I now understand that male common yellowthroats participate in feeding young.

In some bird species, the parents share feeding duties. Robins are a familiar example. In others, the female is mainly responsible. Regarding the habits of yellowthroats, I could have looked this up online or in a guidebook, but instead, I learned it in the best possible way: through direct and pleasurable observation.

A few delicate yellow narrow-leaved loosestrife (Lysimachia quadriflora) plants are in bloom between Z-6 and Z-3, and a few black raspberries are darkening up there too. Summer bloomers as one gets into the shadier areas include enchanter’s nightshade (Circaea lutetiana), white avens (Geum canadense), and woodland tick trefoil (Desmodium glutinosum).

Scaling the West Knoll and traversing its summit, we spotted the aforementioned lead-plant, white prairie-clover (Dalea candida), sand cress (Arabis lyrata), a bit of flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata), and one blooming puccoon, probably hairy (Lithospermum caroliniense). The goat’s-rue (Tephrosia virginiana), glorious there a couple of weeks ago, has finished up and now sports seed pods.

Final observations along the U-2 to U-1 troad included the Grady kettle hole, a geologic feature owed to glaciation; poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans); and pokeweed (Phytolacca americana). Poke is bearing buds, which will open into white flowers, which will give way to wine-colored berries that can make ink, among other things. All parts of this plant are toxic for humans to eat unless thoroughly cooked. Not that anyone is allowed to harvest plants in the Arboretum anyway!

It’s always challenging to end a Grady Tract tour on time. We came close on Sunday, arriving back at the parking lot at 3:08. A lovely day for a hike, but then, aren’t they all?

—Kathy Miner

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