Grady Tract and Greene Prairie Tour – Naturalists’ Notes

FRIDAY, JUNE 6, 2014

The stars of Sunday’s tour were lupines and lady’s slippers. The West Grady Knoll is currently carpeted with the former – empurpled, you might say. (I wish I could say I invented that word; I merely borrowed it from Anne of Green Gables. Thank you, Lucy Maud Montgomery.)

Lupinus perennis, like other legumes, responds especially well after a fire. The knoll was burned by our land-care crew this past April 9th, so we have them to thank for the splendid color we presently see.

The lady’s slippers are of the small white variety – really, that’s their name as well as an apt description – Cypripedium candidum. Since they are a rare and threatened plant species in Wisconsin, we’re always thrilled to find them in the Greene Prairie. We spotted nearly a dozen on Sunday – more than I can remember counting any previous year. Is that an accident of timing, or are they thriving in their prairie home? Either way, it worked to our great good fortune.

Cypripedium means “Aphrodite’s slipper”. It does not take any imagination at all to see the flower as a delicate, feminine shoe, suitable for dancing. Other cultures have noted the same thing; the Ojibwe call lady’s slippers “the moccasin flower”.

En route to the knoll and the prairie, we noted that the Pokeweed Plantation is off to a slow start this year. Phytolacca Americana is a Southern species not native in Wisconsin, but has been moving steadily northward in recent years. Small wonder that the severity of this winter has made it a late riser!

There also seems to be somewhat less poison ivy along the edges of the Kettle Hole Forest trail. (Note that I did not say it is ABSENT …) I seized a teachable moment and showed the visitors how to identify this toxic plant.

On the West Knoll trail, we found many pleasures, notably blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium campestre), large-flowered beardtongue (Penstemon grandiflorus), puccoon (Lithospermum sp), blooming sedges, and sand cress (Arabis lyrata). The beardtongue had popped into bloom since my scouting hike on Friday, when I’d only seen leaves and buds. The baby red oaks there are lovely, with their pinkish new leaves. Unfortunately we also saw a bit of leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula) – an invasive and unwanted species.

The goat’s rue (Tephrosia virginiana) can be found in leaf, if you know what to look for – fine, pinnately-compound leaflets. Come back in a week if you want to see its pretty two-toned flowers. At the very top of the knoll, orange-yellow puccoon and purplish-blue lupine combine in an especially striking way.

Right at the entrance to the Greene Prairie, on the ground at trailside, I spotted something I had looked for in vain on my scouting expedition – an oak apple gall. From previous experience I know to expect them at this time of year. At a glance they look just like small green apples; inside, the immature form of a particular wasp is developing, surrounded by fibrous cushioning material.

Swamp saxifrage (Saxifraga pensylvanica) is showy on the Greene Prairie. Look for very downy stems and leaves, with clusters of small greenish flowers held high above a basal rosette. You may see bright-orange pollen on the flower stamens. This plant has an alternative common name of “wild beet”, but I have been unable to find out just why. Perhaps it’s because the European species have small tubers on their roots – like baby beets? – which were used medicinally to dissolve kidney stones. (I cannot speak for the efficacy of this remedy.) Saxifraga comes from words for “rock” and “fracture”. I have read two possible explanations for this: as above about kidney stones, or alternatively, because the plant can grow in a small amount of moist soil between rocks, giving the appearance that it broke the stone apart.

More than one sedge is in bloom in the wetter areas of Greene. I’m fairly sure we saw at least marsh straw sedge (Carex tenera), and common stiff sedge (C. tetanica). The latter has flowering heads that are green on the bottom and brown on top. Other nearby notables included downy phlox (Phlox pilosa), wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana), Robin’s plantain (Erigeron pulchellus), wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), cream wild indigo (Baptisia bracteata), and Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans). Quite a few shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia) persist, especially the farther east you get.

Two of the visitors were straining to identify a yellow dandelion-like flower. It is ragwort (Packera_sp), though to distinguish between the Northern and Western Golden species, you’d have to get a good look at the shape of the basal leaves. In his _Prairie Plants of the Arboretum book, Ted Cochrane described Western as being present in “upper Greene Prairie”, and Northern in simply “Greene Prairie”. Make of that what you will.

We also noted two tiny, low-growing favorites – bastard (a/k/a “false” or “star” toadflax), and Seneca snakeroot. Comandra umbellata and Polygala senegala, respectively. And if you see two things that remind you of your vegetable garden – a bluish asparagus-like stalk, and what look like mini-cabbages on a stem – they are likely the early phases of white wild indigo (Baptisia alba) and rough blazing-star (Liatris aspera).

After turning back toward the savanna, we saw that the bluets or Quaker ladies (Houstonia caerulea), noted a couple of weeks ago, are still in bloom. Most of them are white rather than pale blue now – were they always, or have they faded? You can distinguish bluets from blue-eyed grass by the number of petals: bluets have four, while blue-eyed grass has six. (As soon as I can think of a suitable mnemonic for remembering that, I’ll let you know.) Our bluets have expanded from one small trailside patch to being widely scattered amongst the greenery. Lucky us!

A visitor was surprised by the “bluet” name and asked if it means the same here as it does in France, or in French-speaking Canada. It turns out that the word, sometimes spelled bleuet (note extra E), can refer to any number of plants. In Canada it may be applied to the blueberry.

The bleuet de France is a cornflower – Centaurea cyanus – notably grown on soldiers’ graves and associated with memory, solidarity, veterans, and widows/orphans of war. You may be more familiar with red poppies in this context, since that is the English and American linkage. “In Flanders fields the poppies grow/Between the crosses, row on row,” etc. Both references date to World War I, but somehow it seems particularly appropriate to have learned this floral fact as we approach the 70th anniversary of WW II’s D-Day. My fervent hope: may there be less and less reason to need “memory flowers” for war-related losses.

A final plant ID: old-field cinquefoil (Potentilla simplex) is in bloom in the northeastern area of the Greene Prairie formerly dominated by young aspen trees. Running a bit late, we traipsed back up the hill and around the western edge of the West Knoll (admiring the profusion of lupines there), past the old Grady home site and back to the parking lot.

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.