Prairie Beauty is More Than Meets the Eye

By Greg Lecker

Prairie beauty is more than meets the eye.  Yes, prairie flowers and grasses offer a visual delight.  Subtle reddish accents highlight the tan seed heads of Side Oats Grama (Bouteloua curtipendula) that shimmy and shake like fringe of a dancer.   Beyond such visual delights, there are opportunities to experience the prairie by touch, sound, and smell as well.

Bottlebrush Grass

Prairie plants present a variety of textures.  Bottlebrush Grass (Hystrix patula) is softer than its bristles appear to the eye.  Several Liatris species hold aloft soft flower heads that tickle butterflies as well as humans:  Spike Gayfeather (Liatris spicata) and Prairie Blazingstar (Liatris pycnostachya).   In bud but not yet in bloom, is Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida) with its soft, smooth leaves.  In marked contrast are a number of sunflowers and other forbs that rely on leaf hairs that help to resist water loss as dry winds blow across the leaves.  One of the more pervasive flowers blooming now is Rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium).  Wild Quinine (Parthenium integrifolium) and Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum) offer rough leaves and interesting flower buds.   The scientific name of Cup Plant, perfoliatum, means “through the leaf,” referring to the stem that appears to pierce the leaves.  An additional feature of Cup Plant foliage is that the leaves form a folded diamond receptacle to collect rainwater that insects and birds may consume.

Within the Capen Prairie display garden, moving water comes in two sound flavors.  Gurgling water bubbles up and spills within the central feature, curving around its spiral.  In contrast, the waterfall rushes over the metal lip opening atop the stone wall.  Raindrops lightly drum on the umbrella that shields the notebook in which I write these words.  Rain falls more softly in the adjacent woodland.  Thunderclaps are fading as rain clouds pass onward.  Glossy wet rocks are slick to the touch.

The wet musky odor of wood softened by lichens mixes with the smell of moisture evaporating from wet plants.  Petals of Gray Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) droop in the humidity.  The lavender to pale pink flower heads of Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) waft an aromatic fragrance reminiscent of Earl Grey tea.   The fading, sticky flower heads of Common Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) exude sweet perfume.

But all of this is just the appetizer that the Capen Demonstration Garden offers.  To immerse oneself in the main course, cross Three Mile Drive and enter the Bennett-Johnson Prairie.  I encourage the reader to take a short fifteen minutes to explore the mown paths that tease one to venture further and deeper into the grassland.

As I enter the prairie, a Common Yellowthroat call greets me with its high pitched “witchity, witchity, witchity, witchity”.   White Wild Indigo (Baptisia alba) seed pods have formed but have not yet matured and dried into music makers.

Culvers Root

Like branched candelabra, plumes of Culvers Root (Veronicastrum virginicum) brighten the muted light of the rain drenched landscape, while Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) flower heads stretch for the sky.   Atop stout erect stems bloom purplish, 3-part flower clusters that resemble a turkey’s foot.  Other grasses represented in this savanna include Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium or Andropogon scoparius), and Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum).

At the Arboretum’s Bennett Johnson Prairie, grasses grow in what could be categorized as a savanna.   The Northern Savanna serves as a transition between Eastern Forests and Western Prairies.  Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) is the picturesque, signature tree in Oak Savannas – its corky bark offered protection against fire.  Ancient trees bow their lower limbs to touch the prairie.   Oaks represent beauty, strength and longevity.  In fact, the genus name Quercus is thought to be derived from the Celtic words quer and cuez, meaning respectively “beautiful tree”.

Coarsely divided Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum)leaves reach

Rosinweed and Three Mile Drive

out of the ground like farmers’ hands reaching for the sun.   In swirling patterns, wind waves a hand through the cattails and ushers me to return.  With the morning brightening, I turn and walk towards a roadway I cannot see because of the arcing landscape, grasses and trees.  An overview of the prairie is possible by driving slowly along Three Mile Drive; and a taste of some of the prairie plants is possible even for those casual visitors as they enter the Arboretum entry drive between Highway 5 and the entry gate house.

Greg Lecker is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer

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