Curtis Prairie Walk – Naturalists’ Notes


85 degrees,
August on the prairie is the month of myriad yellow, purple and white floral displays, butterflies fluttering, bees buzzing, dragonflies darting and insects chirping and trilling.

A few drops of rain, then mostly sunny with some clouds and a gentle breeze made for a pleasant afternoon to tour part of our 79 year old, 60 acre, restored Curtis Prairie. Thirty-five visitors interested in wildflower identification and history attended. I was thrilled to see so many prairie enthusiasts! Because the diagonal trail (A6-B2) is very narrow, it is difficult for a large group to see and hear. Therefore I decided to visit the Wisconsin Native Plant Garden before venturing onto the prairie.

Our first stop was the Water Continuum Garden just north of the Visitor Center. The prairie flowers were breathtakingly beautiful thanks to Susan Carpenter and her volunteer gardeners. There was ample room for everyone to see and hear as I identified Dotted Horsemint, New Jersey Tea, Gay-Feather, Sweet Black-eyed Susan, Black-eyed Susan, Yellow Coneflower, Purple Prairie-clover, Rattlesnake Master, Swamp Milkweed and Spotted Joe-pye-weed (Eutrochium maculatum).

Next stop was the stone overlook near the mesic prairie garden. We had a great view of a very green Curtis Prairie. One must walk the trails through the prairie to see the colorful treasures amidst the green landscape.

Our third stop was the children’s garden which features a rain garden. What a delightful experience to see so many pretty flowers. In addition to the flowers we identified earlier, we saw Ironweed, Rosinweed, Mountain Mint, Culver’s-root, and Purple Joe-pye-weed (Eutrochium purpureum). And then it was time to visit Curtis Prairie (A4-A5-A6-B2-B1-B3). First a brief history was given before entering the trail the CCC used to plant and water in the 1930’s. Prairies must be burned periodically or the richness and diversity will be lost. It has been several years since this part of Curtis was burned. As we headed west on the narrow trail, we noticed that on the south or left side there were large areas of Common Goldenrod, Willow, and reed Canary Grass. The north or right side provided quite a contrast in certain shrub-less areas. We marveled at a very large area of white flowers which included an explosion of Flowering Spurge, Rattlesnake Master and Mountain Mint. Scattered among the green grasses and sedges were a few Purple Gayfeather and Canadian Tick-trefoil. Far from the trail there were quite a few yellow composites.

Finally we entered a grove of open-grown Oak trees called a savanna. We identified several native savanna species including Purple Joe-pye-weed, Pale Indian-plantain, Tall Bellflower, Woodland Sunflower and Giant Hyssop (Agastache scrophulariaefolia).

I ended the tour at Margaret’s Council Ring. It provided the opportunity to sit down and answer questions. It is always a pleasure to have curious people attend our tours.

Our list of native wildflower species in bloom totaled over 35. Butterflies included 1 Monarch, a Red-spotted Purple, Yellow Swallowtail, and Giant Swallowtail. The following birds were heard or seen: Sedge Wren, Common Yellowthroat, Chipping and Song Sparrow, Goldfinch, Barn Swallow and Bluebird.

Prairies are spectacular places. They are filled with a progression of colorful native wildflowers, waving grasses and interesting insects from early spring to late fall. They are worth going to and in. Every day, every week, every month and every year they will offer you their ever-changing complexity. No two prairies are alike and no prairie will offer you the same display of flowers the following year. By identifying plants and their flowers, my hope is that it will increase your awareness, curiosity, understanding and love of the land. Visit our prairies often to observe and enjoy their changes and beauty.

After the tour I checked our 26 year old Arboretum Bluebird Trail. We have 15nest boxes. I am thrilled to report 38 nestlings have fledged. One box has a second brood of 3 just- hatched nestlings. Happy!

Flowers in bloom – Native gardens, Savanna and Curtis Prairie:
Sawtooth Sunflower

*Flowering Spurge – very showy

*Rattlesnake Master – very showy

*Mountain Mint – very showy
Swamp Milkweed
Evening Primrose
Blue Vervain
Hairy Vervain
White Vervain
Canadian Tick-trefoil
Giant Hyssop
Spotted Joe-pye-weed
Purple Joe-pye-weed
Pale Indian Plantain
Water Hemlock
St. John’s Wort
Black-eyed Susan
Sweet Black-eyed Susan
Spiderwort (1)
Smartweed sp.?
Woodland Sunflower
Dotted Horsemint
New Jersey Tea
Butterfly Weed
Tall Bellflower
Purple Prairie-clover
Yellow Coneflower
Wild Petunia
Blazing-Star (L. Cylindracea)
Wild Onion
Tall Cincfoil
Flat Top Aster
Spiraea alba

Tour lead by Sylvia Marek

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.