Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Friendly Prairie and Paint Brush Prairie

Hi there! We had another nice little impromptu adventure Sunday, late afternoon. After Sue got home from a meeting in Columbia, we relaxed for a while in the backyard, enjoying ourselves, the birds, and some iced mint tea, but soon decided on a little road trip. Cameras included!

We headed west, young man! We drove to one of our favorite Central Missouri destinations, for when we want to get away from it all: Sedalia. Specifically, the prairies south of it.

It’s about an hour’s drive on Highway 50 from Jeff to Sedalia (or “Sedville,” as we like to call it, which apparently was the town’s first name, before they landed on the more euphonious “-alia” ending, so trendy in the middle 1800s).

The two prairies we usually visit are both about nine miles south of Sedalia on Highway 65. Both are off of Manila Road—look at my links for maps, or you can just rely on the brown Conservation Area signs right before the turn-off onto this gravel road.

The smaller of the two prairies is about 1.5 miles to the west: Friendly Prairie Conservation Area. It’s forty acres of genuine unplowed remnant prairie, owned by the Missouri Prairie Foundation (MPF), and jointly managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC).

Get this! Botanists have identified more than 260 species of plants on this forty acres. This is biodiversity in action; think of the zillions of interactions of plants, insects, herbivores, insectivores, fungi, saprophytes, parasites, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals!

Compare that to forty acres of a crop plant, say, corn. Monoculture. The entire, vibrant, diverse community is gone; all that’s left are bugs that care about corn, and the specific birds and mammals that care about those bugs and/or corn, and which can survive despite the annual plowings and the pesticides humans apply.


Okay, and the second prairie we visited was Paint Brush Prairie Conservation Area, right off the east side of Highway 65. It’s got 314 acres, more than two hundred plant species, and is owned by the MDC. It’s notable for being a home to some federally endangered species, such as Mead’s milkweed.

Greater prairie-chickens live there, too, and if you want to see them, you better hurry, because there probably won’t be any of them left in our state after another twenty years or so.

There was a sign at the parking area telling hunters not to shoot them. The sign said something like, “Learn how to tell a bobwhite from a prairie-chicken. Prairie-chickens are BIG.” (Sometimes I think that if people are that oafish and dumb, maybe we don’t deserve to live in a world blessed by prairie-chickens.)

While we were there, we didn’t see any prairie-chickens. But we did see some Henslow’s sparrows. They, too, are declining—like the prairie-chickens, they are literally losing ground.

Other birds we saw on this trip, seen on fenceposts and nearby farms, included a loggerhead shrike (a nifty-cool-gee-whiz kind of bird—look it up) and several scissor-tailed flycatchers (which simply take my breath away).

Honestly, for a natural history geek like me, the prairie is a place to make discoveries! I only need to walk a few steps, and boom! Another cool plant to crouch down and inspect.

This time of year, the prairie is just starting to green up beneath last season’s layer of golden stalks. The wildflowers are getting started. Right now is the time for all the shortest of plants to bloom and have their heyday, because the tallgrass prairie species like big bluestem, which easily reaches six or seven feet tall, quickly outpace things like . . . little violets.

Indeed, we spied violets out there on the prairie! Arrow-leaved violets, Viola sagittata, to be precise, though the diagnostic leaves were hard to see on account of last year’s dried grasses the plants have to poke through.

Other low-growing plants in bloom included wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana), pussy toes (an Antennaria species), and even small bluets (Houstonia pusilla). There was lots of false garlic (Nothoscordum bivalve) blooming, too, and those tiny lilies are short and delicate—you don’t see those from the road!

Yellow star grass (Hypoxis hirsuta) was spreading its six bright yellow tepals, but it didn’t seem very abundant. Maybe it’s just getting started.

Another plant that seemed to be just getting warmed up was the iconic prairie plant Indian paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea).

It is remarkable how you can look clear out across an early spring prairie, and it seems all dry and tan, but when you start wandering through it, out pop these incredibly bright specimens.

By the way, remember when I told you how, in about 2000, the botanists had “blown up” the family Scrophulariaceae? Well, Indian paintbrush is one of the species that was affected by this change. Most of your plant guidebooks published before 2000 will tell you that it’s in the scrophs family, along with penstemons, figworts, and snapdragons, but now Indian paintbrush has been placed in the Orobanchaceae (orro-ban-KAY-see-ee). (See, I’m trying to help you make sense of these terms.)

The Orobanchaceae is often referred to as the “broomrape” family, which sounds pretty horrible, until you understand the etymology: Rape, or rapum, is an ancient word for a turnip or some other tuber, and broom’s “other” meaning refers to a shrubby plant in the pea family. So broomrape actually means “broom tuber” and refers to the way these plants grow swollen underground structures connected to a host plant’s roots.

See, a common highlight to many plants in the broomrape family is that most are at least partially parasitic to other plants. Their roots connect with the roots of other plants—such as a big, vigorous sunflower or birch tree nearby—and steal nutrients from that host.

And lo and behold, we found several specimens of another member of this same family, wood betony, sometimes called “lousewort” for the now-laughable belief that this plant could give cattle lice. Its official name is Pedicularis canadensis.

(If you’re reading this and you’re in the Rockies, Cascades, High Sierra, Canada, and parts north, you might be familiar with a noteworthy relative, P. groenlandica, “elephant’s head,” whose flowers look like tiny pink elephant heads. Google it if you don’t believe me. I kid you not.)

Anyway, wood betony is one of those plants that intrigues even folks who are really more interested in animals. The foliage is remarkably fernlike and dissected. Attractive.

The inflorescences (flower stalks) are marvels of symmetry and detail. Each conical flowerhead grows in a compact swirl. It’s all so orderly yet chaotic in a way. It looks more like something you might find stuck to a coral reef than growing out in the middle of some sunny grassland.

Finally, I want to leave you with a picture of another plant that’s currently blooming well on both prairies: Hoary puccoon, Lithospermum canescens. It’s in the borage family, and if you look beyond the pretty petals at the stalk they’re growing on, you can kinda see the “fiddlehead” growth pattern of the flowers (this is technically called a “scorpioid cyme”) that is characteristic of this family.

So the wildflower season is just getting started down there, south of “Sedville,” and I’m encouraging you, too, to wander through the grasses and see what kind of botanizing you can do. Bring a wildflower guidebook. And bring your camera!

By the way, there’s a patch of trout lilies, or dogtooth “violets,” on one of these prairies that will probably be blooming within this next week. But I’m not telling you where. You’ll have go to discover them yourself. Heh-heh-heh!

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