CURTIS PRAIRIESUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 22, 2013
Sunday’s tour focused on the John T. Curtis Prairie. September 20th marked the 100th anniversary of Curtis’s birth, and we chose to spend the weekend honoring his work and his legacy. One of the best ways to do that is to take a stroll in the prairie bearing his name.
I cannot tell a lie – the prairie is beautiful in all seasons. But it is especially gorgeous right now, with red and coppery shades predominating, and cobalt-blue bottle gentians peeking out from under the taller plants.
2013 is a good year for big bluestem.
Not so this year. Big blue towers overhead, and Indian grass comes in a close second. The latter’s feathery heads are a marvelous, rich shade of bronze.
Clusters of orangey-red rose hips are very visible along the prairie firelanes. At first they could be mistaken for berries.
You can easily see at least four species of goldenrod right now: Canada, showy, stiff, and grass-leaved. If you are lucky and
One more time, now: goldenrod does NOT cause hay fever allergies. Ragweed is the most common culprit there.
At least four species of aster are also readily identifiable. New England is the
Of the white asters, which I warn you can get confusing, calico is the one with the very small flowers and open, branching shape. Of somewhat similar growth habit but noticeably larger flowers is frost aster – so named because it takes a really hard killing-frost to knock it out for the season.
Heath aster has small flowers in a dense, often pyramidal head. It also has teeny-tiny leaves, reduced almost to needles, and it’s shorter in stature. You can see it in the remnant prairie.
No less an authority than Ted Cochrane, curator for many years of the UW-Madison Herbarium, said this about identifying asters: “ … the process is challenging, and much judgment is needed … ” He also states that many asters spontaneously hybridize, further muddying the identifying characteristics. For all of those reasons, I am going to stop at four species for right now.
Tan fuzzy heads of Joe-Pye-weed currently dominate the Arboretum’s savanna landscapes. Look at the whorled leaves of this tall plant to find evidence of leaf miners – tiny insect larvae which move around in between the layers of the leaf, eating chloroplasts as they go and leaving pale trails or blotches behind. White snakeroot, presently lighting up woodland edges throughout our area, is another very good host to leaf miners.
In prairie and savanna, gray dogwood is
Along the interior diagonal trail in the Curtis Prairie, a few late coneflowers can be found, pleasant pink surprises amongst the burnished grasses and yellowing leaves. And goldfinches are still flitting about between the dried stalks of sawtooth sunflower, sometimes giving their potato chip-potato chip calls. Soon the male goldfinches will molt away their yellow feathers and assume the “olive drab” color they wear all winter.
Goldfinches nest very late in the summer, using thistledown to line their nests.
Throughout Sunday’s tour we spotted vivid blue bottle gentians hiding beneath taller vegetation. Once you learn to look for that color, you find more and more of it. A visitor asked a gentian question I could not immediately answer: how do the seeds have time to mature, given that the plant flowers so late in the season? What’s their timetable? The guidebook in my pocket did not give the answer.
I have not found a definitive answer yet, but I strongly suspect that they simply develop very quickly (sort of like young goldfinches) and are ripe before winter arrives. I have learned that the seeds are very small; and if one chooses to plant gentians from seed, the advice is to do it in autumn or early spring. Mother Nature probably does the same thing, implying that the seeds are ready to “leave home” before the snow flies.
We had two notable bird encounters before our trek was over. A lone sandhill crane circled above us while we traversed the prairie; and as we wrapped up our tour at the steps of the Visitor Center, a red-tailed hawk swooped over the parking lot and lighted on a lamppost, flaring its orange-red tail feathers as it landed.
Orange, copper, cobalt: the colors of our day. Go out and find them!
Kathy Miner, UW Arboretum naturalist