By Mary Beth Pottratz
Stepping into the Prairie Garden, I am surrounded by walls of grasses and flowers that reach up to a patchwork sky of deep blue and cotton-ball clouds. This convenient garden is level with the parking lot and paved trail, allowing wheelchair and stroller access to tiers of tall prairie grasses swaying with the breeze and hundreds of bobbing flowers.
Cicadas drone their skill-saw song high in the trees above. Lavender monarda, purple coneflower, and white bouquets of flowering spurge poke up between prairie grasses and shrubs. And the yellows! Bright tiers of cup plant, several species of sunflowers, grey coneflower, sneezeweed, hawkweed and black-eyed Susans make me smile back at their cheerful faces.
Labels help me recall their names as well as learn new plants. The Prairie Garden is a quick way to view, smell and touch established plantings and to learn about grasses and forbs. But for the true prairie experience, I cross Three-Mile Drive onto the mowed trail and sense an immediate change.
I automatically relax as the flowers and grasses change from garden-bed clumps to a jumbled mix throughout the rolling prairie. Grasshoppers skip ahead of me. A swallowtail hangs from wild quinine’s white flower head, where a white spider with copycat red markings camouflages itself among the florets. White sage flowers match the silver-green of its leaves. Single stalks of rough blazing star show off bright purple pom-poms.
The cicadas seem to melt into the background as the high-pitched whirr of American toads grows louder with each step on the grassy trail. Grasses and flowers now reach shoulder height. Red and white clovers poke their heads up along the path, sending me into a hopscotch gait as I save them for the bees. The trail curves slightly downhill. The temperature cools. The whirr grows louder. Huge leaves of prairie dock–some 2 ½ feet tall–gather round even taller, leafless stalks each topped with several yellow ray flowers that reach above all other plants in the prairie. Here the plants are so tall that I can’t see into the small wetland, where the toads are happily whirring away their afternoon.
Although some flowers have bloomed and withered, a special treat this time of year are seed pods, and this prairie is ripe with them. Great St. John’s wort displays its pyramidal green pods at eye level. Common milkweed pods are still green and growing. Some coneflowers have lost their petals, but their center disks show off geometric rows of seed pods. Golden Alexanders’ foliage has turned a royal crimson, and the seed heads of summer gold are starbursts tinged with crimson. Goldfinches gather in groups and party in the bounty.
Many grasses are in flower or seed right now, too. Small tasseled seed heads emerge from beneath Indian grass’ telltale top blade, some still dripping tiny red flowers. Big bluestem sports brick-colored florets from its turkey-shaped toes. Prairie dropseed clumps are bright lime green, topped with misty stalks of clay-colored seed. A phoebe calls itself “fee-bee,” as it feasts on summer seeds.
Some of the goldenrods, most of which are not yet blooming, sport interesting green balls on their stems. These are galls, formed when a midge fly deposits its egg inside a growing stem. The stem senses the egg as a foreign object, and grows a substance around the egg to protect itself. This substance protects and incubates the egg, and when it hatches, the newborn grub actually eats the material as it tunnels out of the gall, where it goes on to become an adult. And this is performed without any harm to the host plant. It’s an amazing journey and life cycle story, all inside an inch-wide ball!
Even the woods lining the prairie edge sport their seeds. Staghorm sumacs are topped with bright, furry red stalks. Purple berries rest within the layers of pagoda dogwood. And… surprise! I flush a fawn, its spots already gone, from beneath a lone oak tree. Unsure, it clumsily darts towards the woods, where even the red pines are sporting new green cones.
The oaks grow more closely together as the prairie gives way to savannah, and I continue following its edge along the woods. From within the shady forest, a barred owl hoots its endless question: “Who, who, who cooks for you all?” I smile.
Around the next bend, I happen on a rafter of wild turkeys. They graciously allow me to photograph them up close, but don’t lift their heads to stop pecking and pose, so I move on. I pause at a bench under an oak tree dedicated to John and Evelyn Moyle, authors of my favorite wildflower field guide. The plaque reads:
We see them walking slowly
What a fitting honor for this couple, who have inspired me and so many others to learn about wildflowers and botany. And what a beautiful prairie to experience it in.
Mary Beth Pottratz is a Minnesota Master Naturalist volunteer.