Early Summer on Curtis Prairie

SUNDAY, JUNE 9, 2013

It was overcast, warm, and windy on today’s Curtis prairie tour—beautiful.

Perhaps you have already noticed the construction at the visitor center? The deck, which was in disrepair, has been removed. There is some orange plastic fencing around areas of the native plant garden, below the deck area, to protect the plantings. Be sure to peek over or through the fence – there’s large-flowered beardtongue (Penstemon grandiflorus) in bloom. We also admired some fenced-in lupine (Lupinus perennis). As we headed out into Curtis, walking from the visitor center toward A4, we were greeted by a bluebird flying out from, and then returning to, the bluebird box at the edge of the prairie.

The lupine got us started on a discussion of the characteristics of the bean family,


Fabaceae (formerly known as Leguminosae—Aside: there was a change in naming conventions several-ish decades ago, and all plant families were to end in –aceae. This resulted in the renaming of several families, including the Leguminosae and the Cruciferae, which is now Brassicaceae.) Back to peas: flowers of pea family plants are bilaterally symmetrical and have five petals. The bottom two petals form what is called the “keel.” Above the keel, on each side, are petals called “wings.”

Large flowered penstemon

The top petal is the “standard.” Pea family plants also have seedpods that look like—well, like pea pods. We observed these characteristics in other flowering pea-family plants, including white wild indigo (Baptisia alba), cream wild indigo (Baptisia bracteata), and veiny pea (Lathyrus venosus). (NOTE: when we saw the veiny pea, we said “oh, vetch!” but later it occurred to me that it was really too early for vetch and that it was almost certainly not vetch but rather veiny pea. They are easy to confuse.) I will refrain from listing everything we saw in bloom, but the prairie is barreling into summer and many species are in flower.

We had two opportunities for Public Service Announcements—one as we examined some thick patches of poison ivy along the edge of the fire lane near B3. Later, as we walked through the remnant prairie, from A6 to A7, I plucked a tick off of my pants and passed it around, atop a field guide. Here in the land of bubblers, we call this tick a “wood tick” although in other places it is known as a “dog tick.” In my understanding, these ticks (Dermacentor variabilis) are well-known to spread diseases (such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever), but are not disease vectors here in Wisconsin. It’s only been a few years now that we’ve seen wood ticks in the Arboretum. I have not heard reports (yet) of deer ticks (Ixodes scapularis) in the Arboretum, thankfully. These are the ones that carry Lyme disease.

Also on the remnant trail, we saw a large plant of the carrot family—Apiaceae (formerly known as Umbeliferae).

Cow parsnip

Plants of this family can be identified by their flowers, which are umbels. (Queen Anne’s lace is a non-native, but familiar, example of an umbel.) I wasn’t positive which member of the carrot family we were looking at but later confirmed that it was cow parsnip (Heracleum lanatum), a native plant. Like wild parsnip (Pastinaca sativa), which is an invasive non-native plant, cow parsnip causes phytophotodermatitis—a skin irritation that occurs after skin that has been exposed to the plant juices is then exposed to sunlight. We noted the similarities between the cow parsnip inflorescence and that of the golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), Angelica (Angelica atropurpurea)


and yellow pimpernel (Taenidia integerrima) that we had previously seen.

Yellow pimpernel

The rain started just minutes after we finished our walk at 2:30—perfect timing.

The prairie is spectacular and changes by the day. Come visit.

Sara Christopherson, UW Arboretum Naturalis

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.