A Delightful Day for a Tour of Greene Prairie and the Grady Tract


On a delightful, mid 70 F, mostly sunny afternoon with an 8-12 mph northwest wind clearing out the previous day’s rain and humidity, a tour group of fifteen set out to explore the Grady Tract. While some of the visitors were new to the UW Arboretum, several had been on previous tours, five were members of Friends of the Arboretum and one was a volunteer steward, who lived “next door” in Arbor Hills.

The emphasis of the tour was to understand plant communities and some of the dynamics that occur between different plants. Another topic of concern was the prevalence of invasive species frequently found in most of the Arboretum plant communities.

The first community viewed was the Evue Pines with their dominant, red, white and jack pines. We noticed the under story of bushes and herbs is not the typical under story of a northern pine community, but a collection of invasive plants and native plants not typical in a pine forest. Also, several of the pines have died or appear to be dying.

Next we came to the long, deep patch of Poke Weed on the right of the trail where research was done several years ago to try to determine what management techniques might slow the return of invasive species after they are cleared from the under story of a woods. The resulting dense stand of a new invasive, Poke Weed, exemplifies the old adage: where there is a vacuum something will fill it” or “nature abhors a vacuum.”

From the extensive Poke Weed area we proceeded to the kettle hole area where we discussed the origin and the impact of this glacier formed kettle hole.

Once along side the West Grady Knoll we observed the invasive sumac and aspen, as well as other numerous saplings. This lead to a discussion about fire as a management tool to try to set back woody invasives. While on West Grady Knoll we noted some St. John’s-Wort, a few daises, Tick Trefoil, Leadplant, Yellow Cinqfoil, some White Prairie-Clover and some Purple Prairie-Clover still in bloom.

Before setting out on the Green Prairie we briefly considered its history by thinking about its origins and the role Professor Henry Greene played in creating this unique prairie. Keeping in mind that he had watered each plant by hand from a single well, we setoff to find what prairie species were in bloom. Again we ran into several woody invasives, including willows, dogwoods, aspens, sumacs and perhaps the most pernicious invasive, Reed Canary-Grass.

We noticed the Prairie Indian Plantain near the entrance of Greene Prairie. We enjoyed Liatris, Tick-Trefoil, Black-eyed Susan, Brown-eyed Susan, Mountain Mint, Prairie Phlox, Cinquefoil, Purple Prairie-Clover, Ironweed, Compass Plant, Prairie Dock, Goldenrods (spp) and a few Asters. The overall impression was there were not very many plants in flower. Unlike past years when Greene Prairie has been a wash with abundant yellow, purple, white and other colored flowers, this year, at least on this mid-August day, there were large areas with no visible flowers and very few of most of the species we found in flower. Why that is we do not know. Our best guess is the drier than usual and appreciably warmer than usual weather in July might contribute to this paucity of flowers. We did observe the still expanding Reed Canary-Grass, the Quaking Aspen groves, the increasing Dogwood patches and the numerous other invasives, which are reducing the area left for prairie plants.

On our return stopping in the shade we read Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac chapter entitled Prairie Birthday and shared his sense of loss with the death of the last compass plant that he knew of between Madison and his Columbia County shack.

Although we left with concerns for the welfare of the Green Prairie, we all agreed it is still a very special place and we had enjoyed our visit. We hope to return to this prairie again during a different season and at different times of the day in hopes of finding more and different lovely prairie flowers. This special part of the Arboretum deserves visiting more often to fully enjoy its beauty.

Levi Wood
Arboretum Naturalist

Located between Lake Wingra and the West Beltline Highway at 1207 Seminole Highway, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum features the restored prairies, forests and wetlands of pre-settlement Wisconsin. This 1,260-acre arboretum also houses flowering trees, shrubs and a world-famous lilac collection. Educational tours for groups and the general public, science and nature-based classes for all ages and abilities, and a wide variety of volunteer opportunities for groups, families and individuals are available.