West Curtis Prairie, Leopold Pines and Noe Woods Walk


A little sprinkling of rain didn’t spoil our tour on Sunday to the western reaches of the Curtis Prairie, the Leopold Pines, and a bit of Noe Woods. I had a contingent of some 40 people with me as we set off.

We paused at the Glenn Wolff metal sculpture for a bit of background about the Arboretum and its flagship restored prairie – and also a lesson in toxic plants. Wild parsnip (Pastinaca sativa) leaves are much in evidence at that corner. A plant not to trifle with, its juice will cause chemical burns of the skin when activated by sunlight. Learn it and beware.

As we passed through the McCaffrey Savanna on the firelane trail that parallels the Arboretum drive, we noted that common milkweed plants are approaching knee-height. This usually means that Monarch butterflies will be arriving soon. You heard it here first!

An interesting vining plant showing green leaves, curly tendrils, and tiny, tight, round bud clusters turned out to be Smilax herbacea, carrion-flower. But as we approached the C-1 trail intersection, the real show began.

The prairie is waking up. Many, many shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia) can be seen, in shades of pink and white; also in flower and visible from the firelane are cream indigo (Baptisia leucantha) and the lovely purplish lupine (Lupinus perennis).

Turning into the interior of the prairie at C-1, we lingered a moment at the rock dedicating it to the memory of John T. Curtis, UW professor of botany. He died in 1961 at 47; this September will mark the 100th anniversary of his birth.

The short diagonal trail to C-6 is loaded with flowers! Wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), which I persist in inaccurately calling ‘lousewort’, shows its intriguing spiral flowerheads; lower to the ground you will find bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata). Still shorter are the bright-yellow single blossoms of yellow star grass (Hypoxis hirsuta). We also saw at least one specimen of blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium campestre). Neither of these latter two plants is a true grass; the common names simply refer to their slender leaves.

Puccoon has begun to bloom as well – look for bright fiery orange-yellow patches hidden amongst the greenery. But the princess of the prairie right now is wild hyacinth, Camassia scilloides! Rare to the point of ‘endangered’ status in Wisconsin, wild hyacinth’s delicate, pale-lavender racemes rise on slim, leafless stems. We found three of them on Sunday; the plant also occurs in the East Curtis, or remnant, prairie.

We skimmed the southern edge of the prairie, noting that red-berried elder (Sambucus pubens) is forming fruits already. Its larger relative, S. canadensis or common elderberry, has not yet come into flower. If you want to know more about the ‘elders’, read the June 2013 issue of NewsLeaf – the newsletter of our Friends of the Arboretum organization.

Entering the Leopold Pine woods at marker C-4 and continuing to E-8, we noted baneberry in flower; wild ginger (Asarum canadense); and white trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) just fading to pink.

We also saw copious amounts of poison ivy – a ‘teachable moment’ if ever there was one. I think everyone on that tour learned to identify it, in understory form as well as vine. Another plant to avoid. Toxicodendron radicans is spreading in the Arboretum’s woods and elsewhere; the warming climate is one factor which favors it.

As we approached E-8, a light and intermittent rain began to fall. I therefore decided not to take my planned loop through Noe Woods, which would have added about another third of a mile to our walk. I had wanted to show the visitors the glorious blooming wild geraniums which line most of the loop trail from E-8 back around to E-5. But all was not lost – we did hike a short distance in that direction to see one or two nice patches, then doubled back.

Wild geranium (Geranium maculatum) marks the end of the spring-flowering phase in our area’s woodlands. It thrives along trail edges and in sunnier spots. In fact, so many are in bloom right now that they are visible from the Arboretum road. It’s also known as ‘cranesbill’, for its long, slender seed pods – which, or so I am told, explode when ripe and catapult the plant’s seeds up, up, and away!

Stepping softly on the pine needle carpet of the Leopold Pines trails, we came around once more to the Curtis Prairie and its iconic sentinel, the Jackson Oak. The tree was designated in ‘Bud’ Jackson’s honor precisely 50 years ago – May 18, 1963. Arrayed around the outer reaches of this now-dead giant are several small white oaks, presumably offspring. I will argue here for a rededication of the area – Jackson Memorial Oak Grove has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?

Standing beneath the old oak’s still-majestic but now crumbling branches, I read a short passage from Siftings by Jens Jensen that could have been written right there: The old tree down the lane, the old oak touched by the storms and fires of many ages, with roots deep in native soil, has a message to tell … He is now old, but beautiful in mature age. He speaks of the past, and he speaks of the tomorrow because his offspring will carry his memory into the distant future … Like a landmark he looms over the edge of the prairie, casting a radiant light on his environment.

Just so. A quick retracing back toward the Visitor Center, a pass by Margaret’s Council Ring, and our Sunday journey was completed, with only the slightest of dampenings. Be happy! Spring has come to the prairie!

Kathy Miner, UW 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.