Prairie Dock in Winter

by Carl Strang

One of the larger prairie plants is prairie dock, a member of the diverse genus Silphium.

When blooming, its flower stalks tower above nearly all the other prairie plants.

When blooming, its flower stalks tower above nearly all the other prairie plants.

In winter the fruiting stalks remain strong and tall.

A prairie dock stem at Mayslake Forest Preserve

A prairie dock stem at Mayslake Forest Preserve

Curiously, the leaves abscise, though they remain close to the base of the stalk.

The broad, large, sandpapery textured leaves become gray with white speckles.

The broad, large, sandpapery textured leaves become gray with white speckles.

Cutting off the leaves is not universal in this genus. The leaves remain attached in compass plant.

The tangle of leaves around the base of the stalk is evident in this example.

The tangle of leaves around the base of the stalk is evident in this example.

I wonder if the broad leaves might catch the wind and tip the stalk, limiting seed dispersal, if the prairie dock held onto them. The cut leaves of compass plant would not pose this problem.

The most surprising and beautiful feature of prairie dock in winter, to my eye, is the core of the fruiting structure.

It has a trumpet shape, with a whorl of curled strands around the base. Varying numbers of the oval bracts (called phyllaries in the composite family) remain tenuously connected.

It has a trumpet shape, with a whorl of curled strands around the base. Varying numbers of the oval bracts (called phyllaries in the composite family) remain tenuously connected.

Winter Arrives at Mayslake

by Carl Strang

It took until the middle of January, but at last we got a snowstorm worthy of the name. The 4-6 inches of windblown white stuff provided the conditions needed for a crew to begin burning the year’s worth of accumulated brush piles from the restoration program.

The sterilized circles create little spots for invasion or seeding. Hm, I should consider mapping these and documenting the succession that occurs on them.

The white backdrop also allows me to resume collecting photos of plants in winter. On Friday I made a start with white vervain.

Overall, white vervain has a thin and spindly look.

Up close, the tiny bumps where flowers were located give the plant a grainy texture.

A peek back at the plant when it was blooming makes sense of its winter form.

Here you can see where those little bumps come from. Some of the nettle-like leaves remain attached in winter, but they are dark brown and so curled up that their shape is difficult to discern.

I had taken photos of the compass plant flowering stalk, but needed one of the leaves.

Compass plant leaves are large, and stiff enough to hold their shape for easy identification in winter.

Plenty of plants remain at Mayslake to be so documented.

Two Tall Prairie Composites

by Carl Strang

Though the tall grass prairie is so named for its grasses, these are not the only, nor the tallest, plants growing there. Today I will feature two members of the sunflower family whose flower stalks tower high above the grass tops.

The first of these is tall coreopsis. In a single season it sends up flowering stalks that reach 6-8 feet in height, bearing a number of small flower heads as shown above. It has a more delicate appearance than the yellow coneflower featured earlier in the winter, but the dead stalks are strong enough to resist winter’s driving snows.

A more robust flower stalk is that of the compass plant.

Its flowers are larger, fewer, and on a relatively unbranched stem.

Prairie plant perennial roots wait until later in the spring to begin growing their annual shoots. This renders them less vulnerable to spring prairie fires. It also makes all the more remarkable the ability of some, including those featured today, to grow so tall in a single season.

Summer Prairie Wildflowers

by Carl Strang

My groundwork for future phenology studies continues at Mayslake Forest Preserve as I record first flowering dates for summer blooming plants, with the greatest number now occurring in prairies and meadows. The first, wild bergamot, has a broad enough ecological range sometimes to grow in open woodlands, too.

Bergamot b

More confined to proper prairies is the yellow (also known as gray) coneflower.

Yellow coneflower b

One of my favorites is the plant from Mars, or so I think of its odd appearance, more commonly known as rattlesnake master.

Rattlesnake master 2b

Butterflies like it, too. Drier prairies are good places to find hoary vervain,

Hoary vervain b

while wetter prairies are home to its congener, blue vervain.

Blue vervain b

Those plants will be much more spectacular looking when they hit their flowering peak, but here I am focused on first blooms of the season. Whorled milkweed, with its linear leaves, has an unconventional look for a milkweed.

Whorled milkweed 1b

Butterfly weed, a milkweed lacking the milky looking sap, arrests the eye.

Butterfly weed 1b

It is protected by internal poisons. Another eye-catcher, the purple prairie clover, is less fortunate. Rabbits love it.

Purple prairie clover b

Towering above nearly all the other prairie species is the compass plant.

Compass plant 2b

Now for some more mints (bergamot was one): the slender mountain mint,

NL mountain mint 2b

the common mountain mint,

Virginia mountain mint b

and germander.

Germander b

The earliest sawtooth sunflower heads always seem to have these odd bits of green popping out of them.

Sawtooth sunflower b

We are late enough in the season that the blazing stars are beginning to bloom. First of these at Mayslake is the marsh blazing star.

Blazing star b

The season’s but half done. There’s much more to come.

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