Prairie by the Numbers

“It was, at last, the time of the flowers.” — Paul Gruchow

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Oh, what a difference a little rain makes!

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Spring has arrived in the Chicago region—at last, at last! The savannas and prairies are awash in color and motion. Warblers and butterflies everywhere you look…

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…garter snakes sashaying out in the bright light to sun themselves…

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…and of course the wildflowers, in all their amazing complexity.

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My Tuesday morning prairie team is busy updating our plant inventory, a daunting task that has run into its second season. This spring, we are looking for a hundred or so plants out of the 500 from the inventory that we couldn’t find in 2017. The last complete prairie inventory was wrapped up in 2005, so we need a check-in on what’s still here, and what has disappeared or moved into the prairie. Knowing the plants we have will help us make better decisions on how to care for the site.

This is a high-quality planted 100-acre prairie, wetland, and savanna, which is almost in its sixth decade. Some call it the fourth oldest planted prairie in North America! So we feel the heavy weight of responsibility to get our numbers right.

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Its a prairie with some beautiful blooms—and some quirky ones as well. This week, our “oohs” and “ahhs” are for common valerian (Valeriana edulis var. ciliata), a high-quality—and despite its name—uncommon prairie plant. Flora of the Chicago Region gives it the highest possible plant score — a perfect “C” value of “10.”

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We’ve been hot on the trail of three more common but elusive plants that we’d missed in the spring of 2017: skunk cabbage, marsh marigold, and rue anemone.  Some adventurous members of the team discovered the skunk cabbage in April, poking through the muck in a deep gully. Now, two weeks later, it is much easier to see.

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The marsh marigold listed on our 2005 inventory, a beautiful spring native wildflower…

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…turned out to be a single plant, hiding among some fig buttercup (Ficaria verna) a pernicious, non-native invasive wetland species. We’ll remove the fig buttercup so it doesn’t spread across the waterway.

The missing rue anemone went from invisible to visible last week after storms moved through the area and greened up the savanna. Such a delicate wildflower!  Easy to miss unless you find a large colony.

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Looking for specific plants as we’re doing now results in some serendipity. Our plant inventory team found harbinger of spring for the first time in our site’s history while looking for the marsh marigold. A new species for our site —and so tiny! Who knows how long we’ve overlooked it here.

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In addition to the inventory, most of us are weeding garlic mustard, a persistent invasive plant that infests disturbed areas around the prairie. One of the perks of weeding is we make other discoveries, such as wild ginger blooms. You might flip hundreds of wild ginger plant leaves over before you find the first flower. Pretty good occupation for a warm and windy afternoon, isn’t it?

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The rains also prompted large-flowered trillium to open. These won’t last long.

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Look closely below behind the trillium and you’ll see the white trout lily gone to seed. All around, blooms are throwing themselves into bud, bloom, and seed production. Sometimes, seemingly overnight.

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Updating a plant inventory plus a little judicious garlic mustard weeding will teach you how little you know about what is happening in your little corner of the plant world. I see plants that look familiar, but their name eludes me. It takes numerous trips through my favorite plant ID guides to get reacquainted. I also look in vain for old favorites which seem to have disappeared. (Where, oh where, is our birdfoot violet?)

Spring keeps you on your toes. It reminds you to be amazed. It constantly astonishes you with its sleight of hand; prolifically giving new species and flagrantly taking them away. And as always, there are a few surprises.

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Ah. The “elusive, rare” red tulip! Where did that come from? Huh.

Just when you think you know a flower, it turns up a a little different color, or gives you a new perspective on its life cycle. To see the wood betony at this stage always throws those new to the prairie for a loop. Almost ferny, isn’t it?

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Barely a hint now of what it will be when it grows up. Same for the prairie dock, tiny fuzzy leaves lifting above the ashes of the burn.

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Or the hepatica, most of its petal-like sepals gone, but the green bracts now visible. Looks like a different plant than when it was in full bloom.

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Pasque flower is now past bloom. As stewards, we turn our thoughts toward the first seed collection of the season and propagation for the next year. If a species is gone, or seems to be dwindling, we’ll consider replanting to maintain the diversity of the prairie.

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We tally up the numbers, check off plant species. Update scientific names which have changed. But no matter how the spreadsheets read, we know one thing for certain.

What a glorious time of year it is! Spring on the prairie is worth the wait.

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The opening quote is from Journal of a Prairie Year by Minnesota writer Paul Gruchow (1947-2004). Worth re-reading every spring.

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Unless noted, all photos copyright Cindy Crosby, taken at the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (top to bottom): thunderhead moving in over the author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL;  red admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) sunning itself on the prairie; Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria); gravel two-track greening up in the rain; common valerian (Valeriana edulis var. ciliata); skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus); marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides); harbinger of spring (Erigenia bulbosa); wild ginger (Asarum canadense reflexum); large-flowered white trillium (Trillium grandiflora); prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum recurvatum); red tulip (Tulipa unknown species); wood betony (Pendicularis canadensus); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) emerging; hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba); pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens) fading.

4 responses to “Prairie by the Numbers

  1. What a botanical education!!!! Wish I lived closer to you to help out in your inventory. Aunt Micki

    Liked by 2 people

    • I wish you were here to help too, Aunt Micki! Come out anytime — we could use another set of eyes on our project. Thank you for taking time to read and write me a note. xox

      Like

  2. Powerful opening cloud image! Wow.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We’ve had some crazy weather this week, Mike — lots of hail, some torrential downpours, temps in the 80s, temps in the 40s… never a dull moment in Illinois! Thanks for reading, as always, and taking time to drop me a note.

      Like

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