West Curtis Prairie and Noe Woods Walk

SUNDAY, MAY 25, 2014

Our tour on Sunday afternoon was nearly as notable for the things we DIDN’T see as for those we did. The prairie is waking up slowly this year.

That said, we had a perfect sunny afternoon to be outdoors, and the company was fine. Turning our backs on the blooming lilacs and crabapples of Longenecker Gardens, we set off. Indigo buntings sang to us from the bur oaks of the McCaffrey Savanna; song sparrows trilled from the prairie, and common yellowthroats contributed their saucy “What’s it to ya, what’s it to ya” phrases. The occasional dry buzz of a grasshopper could be heard – a very recent addition to the prairie soundscape.

The wildflowers are sparse on the diagonal trail leading southwest from marker C-1, but they are there. Probably every day that goes by will bring more.

Look down, and carefully, to see bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata)’s small, 5-petaled, greenish-white blossoms. A few clusters of puccoon (Lithospermum sp) are glowing yellow-orangely amongst the early green, and here and there you can spy a yellow stargrass (Hypoxis hirsuta) or a blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium campestre). Neither of those is a true grass; they just have long, skinny, blade-like leaves. The lemon-colored spiraling heads and fernlike leaves of wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis) have begun to be evident.

I have not seen ANY of the usual wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides) near the old soil pit at C-6. Last year’s notes, from exactly this same weekend, called it “the princess of the prairie”. Is it just late? Could something have happened to it? Checking Cochrane’s Prairie Plants of the UW Arboretum, I see that Camassia has done a disappearing act in the past. At one point it was thought to have died out on the Curtis Prairie, only to reappear in the mid/late 1990s. Watch this space for more news.

Red-berried elder (Sambucus pubens) is in flower and/or early fruit along the Leopold Pines edge. Its close relative, common elderberry (S. canadensis), will come along a little later. Both manifest as shrubs or small trees. The plants in this genus have relatively soft, easily-removed pith, and thus their branches are useful for making whistles and flutes – a fact I, as a flute player, appreciate knowing.

Graceful sedge (Carex gracillima) lines the path starting at C4, and also along the Noe Woods loop east of E-5. A visitor commented that it looks a little like miniature prairie dropseed, with its attractive circular tufts. It’s in bloom right now – bend down and take a look. Some consider it a wetland plant; it also enjoys moist to mesic woods.

Wild ginger (Asarum canadense) still puts on a nice show as a ground cover, with its heart-shaped leaves. The flowers have faded, but you can still find them if you bend down and part the leaves. Three-petaled and brownish, they rest on the ground. The seeds are dispersed by ants.
I think everyone on the tour was proficient at identifying poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) before the afternoon was out. THAT, there is plenty of in the Leopold Pines and Noe Woods. Two rhymes will help you: “Leaflets three, let it be”, and “Hairy rope? Don’t be a dope!” (Many people don’t realize that PI has a vine form.) All parts of this plant are toxic, in all seasons. Be aware and beware!

There is one spot in the Leopold Pines where American starflower (Trientalis borealis) grows; normally by late May it’s festooned with flowers, each of them looking like a bright white star. Alas, as of Sunday, only the shiny dark-green leaves could be seen.

White, or large-flowered, trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) is still lovely, however. And blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) has not yet finished flowering. Come to think of it, those two species may represent the largest (trillium) and smallest (cohosh) flowers of this blooming period in the woods.

We also spotted baneberry (Actaea sp) in bloom. I will have to revisit those plants in a few weeks to determine if they are the red or the white variety – it’s the fruits that vary in color, not the flowers. White baneberry also goes by the name “doll’s-eyes”, since the white berries have a central dark spot and look like miniature eyeballs.

After crossing over into the Noe Woods “proper” loop – it makes an oxbow from E-8 to E-5 – we were greeted by a great many wild geraniums. Geranium maculatum, a native woodland wildflower, is of a very similar shade of lavender-pink as the invasive dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis), and grows in similar habitat. Count the petals, and look at the leaf shape, to know which is which. Wild geranium has lobed, coarsely toothed leaves, and 5-petaled flowers occurring singly; dame’s rocket grows from a basal rosette, with lanceolate leaves along its tall flower stem, and clustered flowers—each one having 4 petals, like all its mustard-family relatives.

Maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum) is quite lovely along this trail. Maidenhair’s stipe (stem) is fine and black; it forms a semicircle around which the bright-green, lacy fronds are arrayed, spreading out like delicate green fingers. I just learned that the genus name means “not wetting” in Greek, and refers to the fronds’ ability to shed water.

Emerging from the woods to view the Jackson Oak – still stately, though dead close to 15 years now – we hustled back to the Visitor Center. But before we left the vicinity of the prairie, we had a lively discussion about fire’s role in maintaining grassland ecosystems, and humans’ role in starting fires. The native people who occupied this part of Wisconsin for thousands of years before European explorers arrived used fire in very deliberate ways. Think about it: if you wanted to clear a wooded area for housing or hunting, and your choice was to chop down the big trees with stone hatchets, or set a fire and stand back, which would YOU do?

One visitor recommended Stephen Pyne’s book Fire: a Brief History. I think I will hie myself off to the library! For more about fire – wild and otherwise – try The Big Burn by Timothy Egan, who also wrote The Worst Hard Time, an account of the Dust Bowl years in America. The Arboretum was established during exactly those years; the severe drought was felt here too, and presented an enormous challenge to the young men of the CCC who were busily planting our prairies and woodlands.

Next weekend it will be my privilege to guide a tour of the Greene Prairie. I wonder what delights await me and my guests there?

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.