Curtis Prairie 4th September, 2011


The first neat discovery we made on Sunday’s public tour didn’t have anything to do with Curtis Prairie. It was not one, but TWO, Monarch caterpillars on the swamp milkweed plant just outside the main door of the Visitor Center!

I had brought my guests over to the plant intending to show them the masses of oleander aphids on the seed pods. Suddenly someone said, “Look! There’s a caterpillar!” and indeed, there was one on the sidewalk just below the plant. I coaxed it onto a leaf and returned it to the milkweed, during which time the sharp-eyed visitor spotted a second caterpillar!

Neither of them was very large – perhaps the thickness of a standard pencil, and no more than an inch and a half long. They didn’t seem big enough to be ready to make a chrysalis and pupate, but who knows?

Incidentally, the aphids known as “oleander” are also called “milkweed aphids”. And I think here in the Arboretum, where we have a distinct lack of oleander bushes, we should probably use that name.

After that excitement, we proceeded to hike to Curtis Prairie, our stated destination. The Curtis is, as regular readers and Arboretum aficionados know, the world’s first restored prairie. Right here in Madison, for the first time ever, people took an old, worn-out farm field and worked to re-establish it as native prairie.

The idea caught on, and ecological restoration is now a recognized science and a popular practice. But it all started right here, in the middle 1930s.

I decided to learn a little more about John T. Curtis for this tour. I knew that he was a botany professor at the UW; that in 1959 he published The Vegetation of Wisconsin; that he’d had a supervisory role in the planting of the prairie; and that he’d died young. Pretty sketchy stuff, so I set about to find more information.

John Thomas Curtis was Wisconsin through and through. Born in Waukesha and educated at Carroll College (now Carroll University) and the UW-Madison, his first love was orchids, but the work of his professional lifetime was to catalog and describe the flora of Wisconsin’s native plant communities. More than fifty years after its publication, The Vegetation of Wisconsin is still in use and still recognized as the authoritative work on the native plant communities of our state.

Curtis came to Madison in the fall of 1934 as a graduate student in botany. Astute readers will realize that this was just months after the dedication of the Arboretum. Five years later, now with his Ph.D. well earned, he was appointed to the Arboretum Committee, upon which he served until his death.

World War II interrupted John Curtis’s plans, as it did for so many. He left Madison from 1942-1945 to serve as research director at an agricultural research facility in Haiti. Upon his return to the UW-Madison he was appointed an associate professor in botany, and the Arboretum’s Research Coordinator. Approximately five years later he was named a full professor.

Unfortunately his career was to be a short one. Curtis died at 47 in June of 1961, of cancer. His colleague Henry Greene wrote in the June 1961 Arboretum News that Curtis had remained active “almost to the end”, and went on to say that all associated with the Arboretum felt the loss keenly. Greene remarked on his friend’s versatility, persuasiveness, far-sightedness, and productivity.

A little more than a year later – on October 14, 1962 – the Arboretum’s original prairie restoration was dedicated as the John T. Curtis Prairie. A boulder marking that ceremony can be seen at trail intersection C1.

The two main speakers at the dedication were Prof. Grant Cottam, another colleague, and Prof. Robert McIntosh, a former student of Curtis’s and by then well-established at Notre Dame University. Both spoke glowingly of Curtis’s abilities, skills, and work. McIntosh particularly pointed out that Curtis “was a many-sided man. Being in the field with him was not solely a guided tour of plant ecology or botany. Many things attracted his attention, and comments on geological phenomena, birds, tobacco growing, local ethnic groups, architectural styles, archaeology, places and persons of historical interest, and the color or grace of a plant peppered his conversation, testifying to an alert, sensitive human being.”

Well, our tour on Sunday was rather like that! Many things attracted our attention. Upon emerging from the McCaffrey Savanna, moving west along the firelane, I noticed a bit of white fluff caught on a plant stem (I think it was sawtooth sunflower). “Hmm,” I said, “that looks like a feather, not like plant fluff” – whereupon one of the visitors said, “Look up there!”

And a red-tailed hawk sat on a bare oak branch, between us and the road, keeping its good eye on everything that was going on. The bird’s feathers seemed a bit scruffy or ruffled. I have read that they undergo a molt just before migration season, so that might be the explanation. Or, it could just have been the windy day!

After spending several minutes admiring the hawk, we paused at the boulder naming this prairie for John T. Curtis, and I read short excerpts from the dedication speeches. Then we set about to explore the prairie itself – the best of all possible memorials.

Wisconsin prairies are in their bright-yellow phase right now – various species of goldenrod and sawtooth sunflower are in full bloom. Somehow, the fact that it was overcast on Sunday seemed to make the flowers glow with special brilliance.

We also noted sumac just beginning to change color; Joe-Pye-weed through blooming and now gone to fuzz; and pale Indian plantain standing tall, with leaf-miner trails decorating its leaves. A few purple coneflowers can still be seen along the interior trail in Curtis between C1 and B4. We touched the scratchy leaves of prairie dock and searched for flower stalks, but found only one. It has bloomed very, very sparsely in the Arboretum this year for some reason.

Two kinds of galls are much in evidence in the prairie: bunch galls and ball galls. The names tell the story: the former shows as bunchy, abnormally dense leafy growth at the top of a flower stem, often replacing the flowerhead; the latter is a round, hard ball found along the stem of Canada goldenrod. Both are caused by insect eggs laid within the plant which distort the growth as the larva hatches and develops. Bunch galls are caused by midges, and ball galls by a small fly.

A few asters are beginning to bloom. New England aster is the taller, purpler species whose leaves almost wrap around the stem; if you see a paler, bluish aster it is probably smooth. Sky-blue is another possibility.

But the piece de resistance of our tour was the gentians in the remnant prairie (also known as East Curtis)! There are cream-colored ones and blue ones; I believe they are both forms of the bottle gentian, Gentiana andrewsii, but I am ready to be corrected on this. Just enjoy them!
Kathy Miner, 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.