Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Green, Green Grasses of This Horrible Drought Year

I'd like you to notice something about our native prairies: All summer long, despite this awful drought, they've stayed green, green, green!

Unlike our pastures and old fields, which are filled with cool-season grasses, our native prairies have grasses whose favorite growing season is the hottest part of summer. Really, instead of calling them "warm-season" grasses, we should call them "hot-season" grasses. Because that's what they truly are. Not only is this their peak growing season, but also, they have super-deep roots that allow them to survive horrible droughts. (Like this one.)

For proof, here are some pictures I took at Tucker Prairie on July 29. All the pastures we drove through to get there had turned golden and dry. But the prairie--though not having a fabulous year--was getting along okay.

Tucker Prairie, in case you didn't know, is owned by the University of Missouri and is used as an ecological research area. This is 146 acres of true, virgin prairie, folks. You can see it as you drive along I-70: It's just west of Kingdom City. Apparently somebody knocked the sign down that used to be visible from the interstate, but you can easily recognize the native prairie by its greenness and the uniquely textured look of its vegetation. (By the way, the little research station building has attracted a great deal of vandalism, too. Which is very sad to see!)

You might have noticed that I-70 has a prominent curve between Tucker Prairie and Kingdom City, and this is no coincidence. When the government was planning the new superhighway, conservationists had to fight to keep it from plowing through and destroying this tiny remnant of original, untouched, native landscape.

Among the green grasses and sedges are hundreds of "forbs," which are herbaceous plants that aren't grasslike--in other words, broad-leaved nonwoody plants. There are something like 260 species of plants living on this small, precious patch of earth.

Below is one of my favorite prairie plants: Rattlesnake master! It looks a lot like a spiny ol' yucca plant, but Eryngium yuccifolium is actually in the celery, carrot, or parsley family. It's more closely related to "harbinger of spring" and "Queen Anne's lace" than it is to "Spanish bayonet"!

This is one of six species of sunflowers that occur at Tucker Prairie (I think it's ashy sunflower, Helianthus mollis, but I didn't photograph enough of the vegetative parts for this amateur botanist to be certain). There are 48 members of the sunflower family on this one small prairie (statewide, there are about 400 different taxa in the sunflower family).

Below is one of my favorite pictures from our visit--it's an insect you don't want to play with, though it's awfully interesting to watch one. This is a female robber fly (Promachus vertebratis) depositing her eggs into the flowerhead of an ironweed (Vernonia missurica, I believe).

Yeah, she was big and made an ominous buzz when she flew--she looked and sounded "stingy"! Robber flies are insect "wolves" that often prey on creatures much bigger than themselves. And they have a venomous bite that every account says hurts very bad.

Like all other wild creatures during this drought, she seemed pretty frantic, trying to do what she needed to do before water, and life, ran out on her. The 100-degree temperature itself must have cranked her metabolism up about as high as it ought to go. The wild critters of Growing Season 2012 deserve medals of valor! These will be awarded in spring of 2013, upon the hatching of their progeny.

One more thing. Every Missourian should know about the Missouri Prairie Foundation. They have some upcoming events of interest:

Thurs. Aug. 30: Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, will speak at Lincoln University's Scruggs University Center. There will be a whole bunch of native plant stuff going on, too, with food, tours of Lincoln's Native Plant Outdoor Laboratory, and so on.

Sat. Sept. 8: Workshop on Prairie Planting from Seed, with Jon Wingo and Frank Oberle. Learn how to convert lawn or fescue fields to drought-tolerant, beautiful native prairie plants that provide habitat for pollinators and other wildlife. Morning presentations, lunch, and tours of Prairie Star Restoration Farm (between Belle and Bland, Mo.). You have to RSVP for this. Click on the link at the bottom of this post.

Sat. Sept. 15: Prairie Day at Shaw Nature Reserve, Gray Summit, Mo. This is fun event for the whole family!

Sat. Sept. 22: "In Touch with Nature Field Day," at the Alan Busby Farm on US 54 west out of Jefferson City. Exhibits, hands-on demos, tours; more family fun!

Sat. Sept. 29: Prairie Jubilee at Prairie State Park, near Nevada, Mo. Celebrate Prairie State Park's 30th anniversary! Another family-friendly event.



TSannie said...

I was amazed at the greenery of some of the fields. Good to know they're natural prairie fields. I was also horrified to see all the trees in the forests whose leaves were completely brown - not the brown of Fall, but the brown of dead. And how much help will Isaac's rains be? I'd say not much as the ground is so parched I would think most of the water will simply run off.
(Back to visit my parents in Columbia this past August from Connecticut where I now live. And we are WET here in CT! Wish we could share our rain!)

Julianna Schroeder said...

Howdy! I hope you had a good time in Missouri, despite our overly hot summer this year. There is hope for Missouri's trees, and several news outlets have had stories about which trees are most at risk and which are hardiest--and also, how to best care for them.

Here's a URL to a Conservation Dept. online news release about the trees:

. . . One nice thing, I have to say, about the drought is that we haven't had to mow the lawn since May! Bad news for landscaping companies means less time for me pushing the mower around!

Here in Central Missouri, we've had a few rains here and there, so maybe the rain won't just roll off the surface. Anyway--it's not something I can control, except by reducing my carbon footprint . . . !

TSannie said...

Good to know brown doesn't necessarily equal dead for the trees!

I swear the rain clouds part on the west borderline of Columbia, with half going south and half going north with nary a drop of rain falling on Columbia. As mom told me, they've had 2 12" rains since May. BTW, that's rain that has drops that fall 12" apart and lasts 12 minutes. Sure hope Isaac's rains help!

Julianna Schroeder said...

Well, that's a new way to measure rain! And it's about right. Here in Jeff City, I would swear the same thing happens to us: rain will head right toward us, then the clouds part right around Versailles or Cole Camp, so part of the rain veers north of us and part south. Yep. The sky's been very stingy this year, while last year it gave us "too much" plus wrecked a city. But this is what really worries me--when it becomes a trend, a pattern...a *change*:

Catherine and Dennis said...

May 6 2013, Just Passed "Tucker Prairie ResearCh Center"(Sign Is Back Up Btw) And Looked It Up On My Phone While Hubby Was Driving. Took Me To Your Blog Post. Thank You! I Had No Idea And I Love To Learn About New Plants And Species Etc...
Just Passing Through....

Julianna Schroeder said...

Hey, thanks for commenting, Catherine and Dennis!

Yes, they've put up a nice new sign for Tucker Prairie, visible from I-70, and they've also repainted the Kucera Research Station. (Thankfully!)

I'm thrilled that my post helped you learn about this sweet patch of native prairie!