Sunday, June 4, 2017

Prairie ID walk: summer blooms still cloaked for spring

A couple weeks ago I went on a prairie plant ID walk with Cindy Crosby at Morton Arboretum's Schulenberg Prairie. This was an Advanced class, I think because we were looking at summer blooms in the spring, identifying plants just by their leaves.

I was amazed by how much I somehow absorbed over the past two years of taking guided and unguided walks through prairie and woodland areas.

"Hey! That's gentian!" I said.

"Now how the heck did I know that?" I next said.

Admittedly, its leaf arrangement is distinctive, as is its color (more so later in the season when the nearby plants aren't in their baby stages).

For me, it's good enough at this point that I can figure out the genus (gentian). But it's probably time to start being a little more precise (cream gentian, Gentiana alba). In bloom there behind the gentian are a couple shooting stars, Dodecatheon meadia.

Another genus whose leaves are easy to spot is wild indigo, baptisia. Look at that steely color and the pea-leaf-like shape (baptisia are members of the pea family). You can see one or two buds just starting to open on this one, cream wild indigo, Baptisia brachteata.

This is starry false Solomon's seal, Maianthemum stellatum.

Or is it regular false Solomon's seal?

Anyway, it's just starting to bloom. The leaves of Solomon's seal (starry, false, and smooth) have parallel veins and so are pretty easy to spot.

I like how the leaves are splayed to echo the starry shape of the flower in this photo.

Note the prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) there in back. By the end of the year those sweet fuzzy leaves will be rough as extra-coarse sandpaper, and gigantic.

Speaking of gigantic, big bluestem is below—little bitty baby big bluestem. These little grass blades will grow to tower overhead by mid-late summer.


Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum), on the other hand, doesn't grow higher than a foot or eighteen inches. It's not a grass; it gets its common name from its thin, grasslike leaves. The "blue eye" is the dot at the base of the v formed by those...things the petals attach to. Now what are those called?

I find that observing its delicate, slightly fringed petals has a calming effect. You can see those petals a bit here.

Below is trout lily (Erythornum albidum), a spring ephemeral—you can see the flowers are gone by now. Cindy, who also writes beautifully about the prairie in her blog and has a new book out, explained that trout lilies mostly reproduce through rhizomes, connections underground. But occasionally a mature trout lily will produce that podlike thing you see below, which attracts ants, who then disperse the seeds within to farther-flung locations.


One treat of late spring/early summer at Schulenberg Prairie are the wild hyacinth. Deer love them so they can tend to have a hard time establishing themselves in preserves in the Chicago area. Unfortunately I only have a fairly cruddy picture from our May 13 walk (right, below), but here's a link to a better photo from a post from last year. On the left below is a wild hyacinth bud. I love examining the neat little patterns of stored energy evident in flower buds.

The prairie in the spring is a huge quilt of patterns created by plants growing up together. Here—enjoy the swirls and bends of coreopsis, golden alexander, and prairie dock intermingling.