Spring Wildflowers on the Grady Tract



The theme of our Sunday tour was spring wildflowers, our destination the Grady Tract. Eighteen of us found ten different kinds of flowers in bloom while enjoying the dreamy sunny 60-degree day.

We gathered at the Grady Tract parking lot near Seminole Highway. After a brief introduction, we walked past the tall pines (their planting had been an attempt to create a dry northern pine forest). Soon we approached the savanna near U2 and U3. There we were pleasantly surprised to see a large area with no shrubs, just tall (mostly) oak trees scattered throughout an undulating landscape. We paused there to talk about the history of the Arboretum and the efforts to restore and manage some of the Wisconsin native plant communities that existed prior to European settlement in the 1850s. Savannas (oak openings) covered about 40 percent of Wisconsin at the time of settlement and now are very rare.

The work being done on the Grady Tract savannas is one of the largest restoration projects in the history of the Arboretum! Thanks to the land care staff and volunteers, and to Dane County Partners for Recreation and Conservation for grants. Michael Hansen, our land care manager, tells us, “During the last two years, 4 acres of pines have been removed and 60 acres of exotic trees and shrubs have been mowed on a third of the 203-acre Grady Tract. There have been eight prescribed burns, seeds have been planted, and garlic mustard removed.” For more information about savannas refer to The Vegetation of Wisconsin: An Ordination of Plant Communities, a book written by botanist and plant ecologist John T. Curtis.

We continued our walk and stopped to look at patches of field pussy-toes (Antennaria neglecta) between U3 and Y2. Each perennial clone has either male or female white flowers that look like furry cat paws. Incidentally, the larvae of the American lady butterfly (Vanessa virginiensis) lay their eggs on the silvery-green leaves. Look for the beautiful caterpillars. They have green and yellow bands and red and white spots on the black bands. Each one lives in a little nest made of silk. The chrysalis is brown or green with gold markings.

Part of the sandy West Grady Knoll was not burned this year and was covered with dry tan grasses. Nestled among the grasses were quite a few lovely “bouquets” of pale blue bird’s-foot violets (Viola pedata). The flowers are flat and all five petals are beardless. There are 20 species of native Wisconsin violets and many of them have bearded petals. We saw one prairie violet (Viola pedatifida). We also found the tiny white flowers of bastard-toadflax or false-toadflax (Comandra umbellata). These plants form patches and are hemiparasitic (they live on the roots of other plants).

Scattered throughout the Knoll were large areas of sand cress or lyrate rock-cress (Arabis lyrata). I have hiked the area many, many times over the years and have never seen such an explosion of those delicate “snowflake-like” flowers in bloom. It was on the Knoll that we heard the sweet, soft “ping-pong”-like whistle of the field sparrow (Spizella pusilla) and the “chewink” of the eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus).

The trail through the Greene Prairie was closed due to wet conditions, but we were able to walk on the boardwalk for a short distance. At the entrance (Z-1) we saw wood-betony or lousewort (Pedicularis canadensis). The yellow flowers are on a dense spike-like raceme. This is another hemiparasitic plant. It is time to look for caterpillars with black spines and narrow black bands between orange segments. In fall the Baltimore or checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas phaeton) lays her eggs often on turtlehead (Chelone glabra). The partly grown caterpillars overwinter and in spring feed on wood-betony. Other plants in bloom in that area were golden Alexander (Zizia sp.), swamp saxifrage (Saxifraga Pennsylvania), Jacob’s-ladder (Polemonium reptans), and wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana).

Visit this amazing place often. Many different wildflowers will bloom throughout the growing season.

Bluebird update: Five babies have hatched as of May 5. In two of the boxes, females are incubating their five eggs. The nest box with three eggs was destroyed. Suspect . . . a house wren? Tree swallows occupy most of the boxes.

“Restoring the land demonstrates the love and respect that enriches it, and us, through the diversity and beauty of the native landscape.”—Richard Nelson, The Island Within

—Sylvia Marek