Prairie Masterpiece

By Mary Beth Pottratz

Stunning purple and gold formal plantings adorn the entrance of the Arboretum today. Tall white spires of Culver’s root stand like guards at attention lining Alkmire Drive, footed by masses of white prairie clover. But I hurry past. I know the prairie will be stunning today.

I am not disappointed.

Billows of tiny white florets of Flowering spurge lay against a green-leaf background. Each tiny five-petaled bloom is only a fourth of an inch across. Together, green understory and clouds of white comprise the background of an amazing living painting.

Stately spikes of Blue vervain rise above the prairie, glowing against the white Flowering spurge. Tallest are the Cup plants. Topped with a spray of bright yellow sunflowers, its leaves encircle the stem, forming pools of water where each leaf pair meets. Next in height are the yellow daisy-like Jerusalem artichokes. A song sparrow straddles the stem. Its beak is stuffed with larvae – dinner for its brood.

St. John's Wort

St. John’s Wort

Clusters of clear yellow blooms of Great St. John’s wort share the upper prairie layer. Dozens of long yellow stamens with orange tips dance around a bulbous green ovary crowned with five red tips. As the petals fall, the ovary will swell and turn deep purple before splitting open to release its seeds. The remaining seed pods will be beige and black. Their interesting form will last through winter.

A Gray hairstreak butterfly flaps daintily among the next layer: stately Indian grass, its single petal accentuating the seed head bursting from its tip; tall turkey-feet of Big bluestem; Switch grass topped with panicles of reddish seedheads; graceful lacy seedheads of Prairie dropseed, and more. A common yellowthroat calls “wickety, wickety, wickety”, leading me up the prairie path.

The first blossoms of Sweet Joe pye weed are bursting from their lavender ball-shaped buds. The air is scented with the last few blooms of Common and Swamp milkweeds, which are already forming pods from spent flowerheads. The graceful white blossoms on Whorled milkweed are just now opening. Together with Butterflyweed, these milkweeds look respectable and are well-behaved in the garden while still supporting our important pollinator, the monarch butterfly.

Wild Rose Collage

Wild Rose Collage

Purple prairie clovers, gold-yellow sunflowers, white flowering spurge and green grasses form the  backdrop for a Wild rose collage. A Blue-eyed darner damselfly flits onto spiky balls of silvery-white Rattle snake master. Golden yellow Few-leaf sunflowers and Black-eyed Susans punctuate the canvas. Yellow evening primrose and the first few goldenrods are blooming.

I am surprised to hear the cheeky warble of a bluebird and head towards it, only to be distracted by more blooms. Lavender Alliums and spires of Showy tick trefoil along with silvery Prairie sage glow against green leaves. Resembling tropical orchids, clumps of Spotted horsemint are just as showy.

Spotted Horsemint

Spotted Horsemint

Banks of lavender Monarda, also called Wild bergamot or Bee balm, are abuzz with honeybees. Hummingbirds and butterflies nectar on its blooms. Its fragrant leaves are often used in teas. Wild quinine’s tiny cauliflower-like florets are now in full bloom, which means only five tiny rays on each bud within a head of dozens of buds.

An orange Meadowhawk dragonfly with sheer wings tipped in black rests on a leaf of our native Purple coneflower. Together with Grey-headed coneflower and the southern U.S. native Pale purple coneflower, the landscape is dotted in purple, yellow and lavender brushstrokes.

At the Prairie Garden, Starry campion and American bellflower are in full bloom. I test a leaf of wonderfully fragrant Anise hyssop. A molting goldfinch splashes in the water. Nearby, a Chipping sparrow sings its staccato call from a treetop before flitting down waterside. It hops up and down delightedly before jumping all-in to the stream like a child playing cannonball.

I remember my own child, and tear myself away from this living artwork. But its memories remain.

Mary Beth Pottratz is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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